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INTERVIEW: Lisa See

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

 

Today I welcome Lisa See, author of many books, including Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely. I don’t know how a writer could not be a daydreamer. We’re daydreaming all the time.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I knew three things about myself when I was growing up. I never wanted to get married, I didn’t want to have children, and I always wanted to live out of a suitcase. I took two years off from college to travel in Europe. The whole time I was wondering how I was going to make my life work the way I envisioned it and how I would be able to support myself. One morning, when I was living in Greece, I woke up and it was like a cartoon lightbulb had gone off in my head. I thought, Oh, I could be a writer! But clearly I didn’t know myself very well, because I also got married and had children. I still spend an awful lot of time living out of a suitcase though!

In one way, I was extremely fortunate with my first book. In another way, I’d already worked a very long time as a writer. To backtrack… I had worked as a journalist for many years and had been the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly for about eight years when I started On Gold Mountain. Like I said, I’d already been working a long time as a professional writer, so people in publishing knew me and my work. (They may not have known me personally, but they read me almost every week and knew, among other things, that I could meet a deadline.) I also benefited from the success of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Publishers were actively looking for more Chinese-American stories. Amy’s agent was Sandy Dijkstra. Sandy has a great American art collection, and she helped me with some of the art sources for On Gold Mountain. After two years of work—doing interviews, traveling back to the home village, searching out what I could find in archives, and then writing the proposal—I thought that Sandy would be the perfect person to sell the idea. There was an auction—a miracle as far as I was concerned. So, hard work, timing, and good luck.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in Paris, but I consider myself to be a fifth generation Angeleno and sixth generation Californian. My parents were traveling when I was born. I spent my first six weeks sleeping in a dresser drawer. I live in Los Angeles. I love to hike, go to movies, eat fabulous food. I love being in nature. I love to travel. Most of all, I love to spend time with my family.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I first heard about nu shu – the women’s secret writing that was invented, used by, and kept a secret by women in one small county in Hunan province for a thousand years – when I reviewed a book for the Los Angeles Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short three- or four-page mention, but I thought, how could the secret writing exist – the only writing system to have been found anywhere in the world used exclusively by women – exist and I didn’t know about it? Then I thought, how could this exist and we all didn’t know about it? Because so often we hear that in the past, there were no women writers, artists, historians, chefs, and the list goes on and on. Of course, women did these things, but that work has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Nu shu, on the other hand, was an example of something that women had invented, used, and kept a secret for a thousand years. That amazed me, and I have to say I became totally obsessed. That obsession is what led me to write Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I usually start with a seven-page outline. It has the main characters, the relationship I want to explore, the historical background, and a bit of a sense of the beginning, middle, and end. Then I start to do research. Without question, research is my favorite part of the process. I never know what I’m going to find. There are days when I’m hidden in the UCLA Research Library and I’ll come across something and think, Oh, I’ve got to use that! What this means is that the research helps build the plot. These things start to become signposts along the way. The outline begins to grow to sometimes as long as fifty or sixty pages. As I write, I’m slowly moving from major signpost to the next major signpost. In the day-to-day writing, my imagination takes over as I think about my characters moving toward that next signpost.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Rarely. But sometimes when I’m stuck I’ll task my sleep time with trying to figure out what should happen next or how to solve a plot problem. Sometimes it takes a few nights of sleep, but then one morning I’ll wake up and I’ll think, Aha! Problem solved!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Not so much with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but it certainly happened with my most-recent novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. That book has a character named Deh-ja, who’s banished very early in the novel. After she was banished, I thought that was the end of her character. But things don’t always turn out as I plan. Years (and many chapters) later, when Li-yan, the main character, is walking to Thailand, who does she bump into? Deh-ja! That totally surprised me, but it made me very happy to see her again. Then, many years after that, when Li-yan is on the steps of the Social Welfare Institute in Menghai, who’s there? Deh-ja! Again! I was even more surprised. She wasn’t in my plot outline, and yet she kept elbowing her way into the story. As Li-yan says to her, the fact that they kept bumping into each other in the most unlikely places had to mean something. For Li-yan, that meant taking Deh-ja home with her. For me, it meant Deh-ja needed to be in the story. And for Deh-ja, it meant that her persistence had won.

Where do you write, and when?

I have an office at home. We have a beautiful garden, but my desk faces the wall because I don’t want to be distracted by the beauty outside my window. I get up early and work on my e-mail for an hour or two. Then I write 1,000 words a day. That’s only four pages. Some days I write more, but I try never to write less. I write from beginning to end without stopping to edit. Some writers won’t move forward until they get the first sentence, then the first paragraph, then the first page absolutely perfect, but I think you can spend a lot of time questioning yourself doing that. Also, if you write straight through, you allow magic – those unexpected things that pop up – to happen.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The research! I’ve gotten to travel to some really interesting places. But more than that, I just love the discovery of new things.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I’ve never had writer’s block. (And please don’t jinx me now!) That doesn’t mean that some days I don’t feel like writing or that I think what I’m writing sucks and will eventually be cut. Even when it’s going badly, I feel it’s really important to just keep writing that 1,000 words a day. This is not to say that sometimes I don’t get stuck: how am I going to physically get a character from here to there, what is the importance of an object and how does it play out in the story, why is a character behaving so badly? When these things come up, I don’t panic. I allow myself to daydream. (I find I have the best daydreaming when I walk, am stuck in traffic, or am in the shower. In other words, placed where no one can interrupt my imagining mind.) And I tell myself to let my sleeping mind figure it out.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
This is a great question, because it applies to every part of our lives. To me, the answer all boils down to keeping your heart and mind open. That means literally being open to new ideas, new artists, new art, new emotions, new—and different—everything.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Not really. I make myself a great cup of tea. I try to close out the rest of the world. (My desk facing the wall instead of the garden, as I wrote earlier). I only type with three fingers. (That’s right. Eleven books with only three fingers!) I play music as long as there are no words in it or I can’t understand the language. Geez! I guess I have rituals after all!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I’m going to put these in alphabetical order so no one has their feelings hurt (assuming they’re still alive): Bob Dylan, E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, John Lennon, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nina Revoyr, Carolyn See (my mom), Wallace Stegner, Amy Tan. For my tenth favorite, I’m going to say all the other wonderful writers out there.

What do you consider to be good writing?
I love books that when you open them you step into another world, another culture, another time. A truly good writer is able to take me to those places. Great writing allows me to connect to a character who’s real or imagined. What are we doing as readers when we’re making those connections? I believe we’re thinking about what we would do in that situation. Would we rise to the occasion or fail? Would we be loyal or betray someone? What I believe we’re doing in those moments is connecting to what it means to be human. We’re connecting to this greater thing we call humanity. That to me is good writing, and it’s what I strive for in my own work.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write a thousand words a day, five days a week. That’s only four pages a day. At the end of a week, you’ll have a chapter. Write what you really care about. You need to be passionate, because it takes a long time to write a book and a lot of bumps happen along the road to publication. Love, love, love what you do.

What are you working on now?
The next novel, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN, takes place on the island of Jeju in South Korea. Jeju is home to the haenyeo—women who free dive for up to two minutes on a single breath. The island has a matrifocal society, meaning that the culture is centered around women. It’s the women who earn money and provide for their families, while the men take care of the children, cook, and do the housework. It used to be that haenyeo retired at age fifty. Now the youngest ones are fifty! This is extremely dangerous work. The women go down sixty feet (again on a single breath) to harvest sea urchin, octopus, and abalone. When I was on Jeju, I got to interview several haenyeo who were in their eighties and nineties. The novel explores the bonds of friendship and how historic events affect people and those they love.


You can read my review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan here.
Comments
Sandy Toth Anderson commented on 16-Jul-2018 05:41 AM
I enjoyed your interview. 😊
Kate Forsyth commented on 21-Jul-2018 10:06 AM
Thank you!

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