Lisa See obviously loves her craft, a truth that can be seen on the pages of two of her most popular novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love. Over the last thirty years she has developed a successful niche for her writing. She works as a full time writer and has written mysteries, non fiction and literary fiction, seven of which have been published. Lisa resides in Los Angeles, California with her husband and two children. Please enjoy getting to know more about Lisa See and her upcoming release Shanghai Girls.
Moe: What inspires you?
Lisa See: I want my husband and sons to be proud of me. It’s been very important to me for my sons to see a happy, healthy, creative, and ambitious woman who can also be a mom and wife. Beyond that, I’m inspired by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. I become totally obsessed with something–like the secret language used by women in China. Finally, I’m really inspired by the relationships we have in our lives–mother and child, husband and wife, sisters–and the emotions that come out of them.
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Lisa See: When I’m writing, I get up around 7:00, make a cup of English breakfast tea, and toddle down the hall to my office. My husband exercises to really loud music right next to where I write, so I answer e-mail until he’s done. I begin to write in earnest around 9:00. I have a bowl of Rice Crispies with blueberries at 11:00. Then I get dressed. At some point I try to get some exercise. I’m a big walker, but I also play tennis, and do Pilates. By the end of the day I have to write a minimum of a 1,000 words. Sometimes I can get that done in two hours; sometimes it takes all day.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read?
Lisa See: About two years. It may take five drafts (and for some chapters a lot more drafts) before I show the manuscript to my husband, mother, sister, editor, and agent. Then it’s back to page one. I write straight through and don’t look back until I’ve finished the first draft.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Lisa See: None whatsoever. I write what I’m interested in the moment. Sometimes it’s something I’ve thought about for years. Other times it’s something that’s just come to me. I write about the things I care about. All I can do is hope that other people will connect to the story too.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Lisa See: A little of both. I know the beginning and I know the end. I may have some ideas of scenes or emotional moments I want to have in the middle, but I don’t know exactly how those are going to play out when I first sit down to write. So, I have an outline that usually covers the first third of the book and then some ideas for the middle, and maybe a page or two on the end. As I’m writing the first third, I add my thoughts at the bottom on the document. When I get done, I move those thoughts to my original outline and work on the plot for the middle.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Lisa See: I’m an absolute nut for research. In some ways it’s my favorite part of writing a book. I go to all the places I write about. I spend a lot of time in libraries and archives. Some writers hire people to do research. I could never do that, because I never know what I’m going to find that will completely change the course of a book. I live close to UCLA and I love to spend time in the Research Library stacks. But the real excitement comes from going to places–I go to every place I write about–and from talking to people.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Lisa See: There are elements of my own experience and of people I know in the characters in my books. In Shanghai Girls, which is about two sisters, I used a lot of incidents –fictionalized, of course — that happened between me and my sisters. How could I not use those stories? But I’ll tell you, when I was working on Peony in Love, I realized that a version of my grandmother has appeared in every single book I’ve written. She was my actual grandmother in On Gold Mountain; she was the neighborhood committee director in my three mysteries; she’s Madame Wang, the matchmaker, in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; she’s Peony’s grandmother in Peony in Love; and she’s Pearl’s mother-in-law in Shanghai Girls. Writing this fictional character allows me to be with my grandmother who’s been dead now for many years.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Lisa See: Not really. (Knock on wood.) Sometimes I get stuck though. When I do, I try to remain calm. I give myself a couple of days. I walk. I drive. I stare at the wall or out the window. But most important, I give myself a question just before I go to bed. I usually wake up in the morning with a solution. The subconscious is an amazing thing.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Lisa See: 1) People will tell you no, but never give up. 2) Write what matters to you. All you can do is please yourself. 3) Be prepared to write a lot of answers to questions that have been e-mailed to you.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Lisa See: Shanghai Girls opens in 1937 in Shanghai–the Paris of Asia, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, artists and warlords, patriots and revolutionaries, ands the Chin sisters. Pearl and May are “beautiful girls”–models for advertising and calendar posters–but when their father loses not only the family money but also the girls’ savings, he sets them up in arranged marriages to a pair of Chinese brothers who’ve come from America to find brides.
That gets you started on the plot, and suffice it to say that the sisters go through all kinds of adventures, traumas, tragedies, and triumphs before they get to the last page. I wanted to write about three main things: arranged marriages as they played out in an American Chinatown, China City, and sisters. We had a lot of arranged marriages on the Chinese side of my family, so I know a lot about them and how hard they were for the women. China City was one of four Chinatowns in Los Angeles at the time. It opened in 1938 as a kind of theme park. It was supposed to be an “authentic Chinese city.” It was surrounded by a miniature Great Wall and inside it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of “The Good Earth,” so it wasn’t too authentic. It had a lot of charm though, and many of my relatives, who worked there, remember it fondly. Finally, I wanted to write about sisters. I’m a sister myself and I know how sisterhood can be both loving and fraught. I consider Shanghai Girls to be the closest to my heart and experience of all my books.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Lisa See: I love to walk. I’ve done a six mile walk along the Santa Monica Palisades with a friend every Tuesday for about fifteen years. Every Sunday I walk from my house straight up our hill for an hour. This walk I do by myself and I use it to think about plot or a problem a character is giving me. I play tennis and I do Pilates too. All this might be making me sound like an exercise fanatic, but I’m far from it. I hate exercise, but I love to be outside and I’ve been trying to get stronger because book tours are killers. What else? I love to go to the movies. I see everything and anything. And I guess a writer shouldn’t admit this, but I love television too. I was a huge Battlestar Gallactica fan. I’m still in boo-hoo mode since the series ended.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Lisa See: Write a thousand words a day. That’s only four typed pages. At the end of the week, you’ll have a chapter. At the end of the month, you’ll have four chapters. You have to do the writing before anything else. There are so many distractions. I mean, sometimes it’s more tempting to wash dishes than it is to sit down in front of the computer. But if you do the writing first, then the rest of the day awaits you.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Lisa See: A gardener.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Lisa See: I don’t know that I have a favorite word. But today it would have to be “moribund.” President Obama used it in a press conference today and I was blown away. Imagine having a president who uses interesting words and knows what they mean.
Photo credit: Patricia Williams
My interview with Lisa See was first posted on 5/27/2009 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.