Q&A with Lisa See

Lisa See, the Chinese-American author of such titles as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (which has been adapted for the screen) and Shanghai Girls and its heartbreaking sequel Dreams of Joy, is our first international Q&A writer. Her work focuses on what it's like to be a Chinese woman, both in China in centuries past and as an immigrant to the USA in the 1930s. She kindly agreed to answer some of our questions, and this is what she said.

PB: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an extraordinary book which introduced Nu Shu [secret women's writing] to many people who didn't previously know about it. It also covers the painful process of footbinding in excruciating detail. How long did it take you to do the research for this novel and how much of what you discovered had to be left out of the final draft?

LS: The book took me about two years to research and write. I was lucky in a way. I got a bad concussion and couldn’t drive for six months. That forced me stay home and only work.

In the first draft, I put in everything that I’ve researched. I found those things. I need to use them! Then, in the editing, I start to put things out. Do you know the game Jenga? I think of it a bit like that. You pull out the wooden blocks but you want the tower to keep standing. I pull out the research, leaving enough details that the book can still stand on its own. This balance is very tricky but also extremely important. I’ve always hated historical novels where the action comes to a dead stop so there can be pages of historical detail.

PB: Before you start writing, do you have a plan you try to stick to, or do you have only a vague idea in mind, simply a story you want to tell?

LS: I most definitely have a plan. That said, characters have a way of doing what they want. On an emotional level, I always write the last sentence first and then work toward that.

PB: Has a reader or a critic ever made a remark about your work that has made you look at it or think about it in a different way?

LS: I read book reviews with a grain of salt. The great ones? Well, they’re perfect! The bad ones? That guy doesn’t know his ass from shinola! All kidding aside, I always try to remind myself that book reviewers are writing to promote controversy, to help sell newspapers (good luck with that one), and for a pay check. Even the best reviews have a purpose beyond whether [...] a book is good or not, so I try not to pay too much attention to them.

But I listen to readers all the time. It amazes me how differently readers interpret things. Even countries interpret books differently. The first time I went on a foreign book tour was for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. In The Netherlands, they asked if this was my novel of Christian redemption. In Germany, they asked if this was my feminist manifesto. And in Poland, they asked how I knew so much about Poland, because they thought it was an allegory for their country.

PB: How long can you go without writing? Do you find yourself compelled to write daily?

LS: When I’m writing a novel, I write every day. But I also do a lot of research and also book tours. I can’t write when I’m doing those other things. I know I get depressed if I go too long without writing though.

PB: While you were writing Peony In Love, did you find yourself haunted by Peony, in a strange way? [A large chunk of this novel focuses on Chinese beliefs about the afterlife.]

LS: No, but you’d be amazed at how many people tell me that when they’re reading the novel [...] strange things happen to them - like books flying off shelves that have secret messages left in them by dead husbands. I kid you not.

PB: What is your take on the concept of 'genre' and do you bear it in mind when writing, or do you just ignore it and write from the heart?

LS: I’ve been told that I’m a genre writer, but what genre is that exactly? Women’s fiction? Chic lit? Historical fiction? Ugh! These labels are meaningless and often insulting. Is there a category called men’s fiction? Or hunk bunk? Or any book that doesn’t take place in some moment of history - even if it’s science fiction?

PB: When you reach the end of a book, do you generally already have something else in mind to write? (And when you reached the end of Shanghai Girls, did you know Joy was going to get tangled up in the Great Leap Forward when she left America, or was that a surprise to you?)

LS: I always have a few things in mind. I don’t focus on any one in particular. I figure all these ideas are percolating. I collect things and save them for all these ideas.

As for the second part of your question: First, I didn’t know I was going to write a sequel, let alone that Joy would get caught up in the Great Leap Forward. I thought the end of Shanghai Girls was a new beginning. Readers thought otherwise. Absolutely everyone, including my publisher, asked for a sequel. I loved spending more time with Pearl, Joy, and May. I thought about them and wrote about them for four years, so I know them really, really well. It was interesting to go even deeper emotionally with all of them. And if Joy was going to run away to China, which she did at the end of Shanghai Girls, then there really wasn’t a choice for me or her. She was arriving on the eve of the Great Leap Forward. History dictated what happened to her.

PB: Have you ever been part of a writers' group? If so, did you get anything out of it?

LS: Not in the way you’re suggesting. My mother, Carolyn See, and our friend, John Espey, and I wrote three books together under the pseudonym of Monica Highland. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to being in a writers’ group. Everything I learned as a writer, I learned from them.

PB: What is your opinion of writing manuals? Do you think they can help hone one's craft or are they more of a hindrance?

LS: My mother wrote one. It’s called Making a Literary Life. And it’s great!!! But it’s less about the actual writing than it is about how to become a writer. I don’t know if I could get useful writing advice about plot or character from a manual, but I do think you can learn a lot [about] what it takes to be a writer, publishing, and editing.

PB: Sometimes when we read someone else's writing, we think, 'Wow, I wish I could write like that!' and it makes us reassess our own skills (I thought this about Snow Flower!). Are there any writers you feel this way about and what was the last book you read that blew your socks off?

LS: The last books I read that I really loved were Room and Buddha in the Attic.

PB: Is there anything – a word, a line, a page, a chapter... a whole book – that you now wish you could rewrite?

LS: Perhaps this is the ultimate puzzle. In Shanghai Girls, Pearl says, “I wonder if there was anything I would have done differently. I hope I would have done everything differently, except I know everything would have turned out the same. That's the meaning of fate.” Can that be my answer to your question?

PB: Are there any classics that are heralded as masterpieces, that you think are actually not very good? Conversely, are there any you particularly love?

LS: I have to tell you that I wasn’t an English major and I haven’t read a lot of the classics. And liking something depends so much on where you are in life at the moment. For example, I think I read Joyce’s Ulysses when I was too young. I might read it very differently now. The books that I feel have had an impact on me as a woman and a writer are: Howard’s End, The Jungle Book II, and Angle of Repose.

PB: As your most recent novels have focused on the relationships between women, what has been the overall reaction to these books from men?

LS: Eighty percent of all books are bought by women. The other twenty percent - men - read my books too. I’ve found them to be some of the most loyal readers I have. Larry Sells in Oklahoma City is probably my number one fan. Yesterday I did an event where the best and most thoughtful questions came from men wanting to know more about the Great Leap Forward. I think even more men would read my books if they had different jackets, but I understand the publisher wanting to focus on the 80%.

PB: We set monthly writing challenges to get our brains working hard and to expand our writing skills. Do you have a challenge to set us for an upcoming meeting? (Feel free to make it as awkward as possible!)

LS: I don’t have any one thing to suggest that would work in a meeting. What I always tell writers though is that you should try to do one thing each week that makes you so nervous and scared that you feel sick to your stomach. Why would I recommend that? Because writing is scary. Being edited is scary. Getting published is scary. Going out there and having people read your books is scariest of all. We need to learn to be brave. Sometimes we have to do that in little steps. So doing that one thing a week that scares you and makes you feel sick to your stomach could be as simple and small as writing a fan letter to another writer, visiting a neighbourhood you’ve never gone into before, volunteering to speak publicly at something, or venturing into a restaurant that serves food you’ve never tried until now. (Cambodian food? Himalayan food?) We take baby steps to build our confidence and courage, so that later we can do readings in front of crowds, withstand criticism, or travel to someplace truly extreme to do research.

PB: We'd like to invite you to become an honorary Plot Bunny. Do you accept?

LS: Most happily!

Our thanks once again to Lisa for her time. For more information about her work, visit her website and if you want to thank her in a practical way, you could buy one of her books.