Fiction enables readers to experience other worlds, says author Lisa See, and, in so doing, it can help people realize how much they have in common.
“You open a book jacket and step into another world; maybe it’s another culture, another time maybe it’s not even on this planet,” says See, a New York Timesbestselling author in a recent interview. “As you turn the page to find out if the guy gets the girl, wins the war, or catches the killer, along the way you experience so much. You connect to the characters, whether real or imagined, and think, what would I do in that situation? In that instant you connect to the larger human condition, the larger humanity we are all a part of.”
See’s books include On Gold Mountain, Flower Net, The Interior, Dragon Bones, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony In Love, Shanghai Girls, and China Dolls. Although her novels may take readers to unfamiliar worlds, they often focus on a familiar theme: how women relate to each other, in both positive and negative ways.
Her newest book, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores the bond between a mother and the daughter she surrendered for adoption, while See’s 2014 book, China Dolls follows the relationship between three Asian-American entertainers, detailing their friendship and rivalry. See’s 2005 book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan introduces readers to an ancient Chinese friendship contract between women and the secret writing system they used to communicate.
Why do See’s novels focus so much on female characters? Being a woman, See says, it’s easiest to identify with female relationships, but there’s more to her choices.
“I am often interested in stories that are lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up,” she says. “History books made it seem like there were no women in the past, no historians, writers, architects or chefs. There were women but supposedly they didn’t do anything or what they did was lost, forgotten or covered up. I wanted to share the moments in history when women were driving it. One forgotten story was the secret writing system described in Snow Flower and The Secret Fan. It was the only writing system used exclusively by women and it was used for 1,000 years. Finding these kinds of stories is really important to me because these stories are about women.”
Most of See’s fictional characters are Asian or Asian-American. See, who is the daughter of novelist Carolyn See, grew up as part of a large Chinese-American family in Los Angeles, which led her to examine and celebrate this part of her heritage.
“When I went to my great-aunt’s house for Christmas dinner and looked around, what I saw was Chinese faces, Chinese food, Chinese art and Chinese culture. I grew up with certain traditions and there came a point in my life when I wanted to learn more and know what they meant.”
Although much of the subject matter of See’s novels draws inspiration from her heritage, each book still requires extensive research.
“For me, research drives the plot,” she says.
Gathering sufficient research can take up to three years and See travels to the places she writes about. For her latest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, See visited the Hunan Province of China, tagging along with tea exporters and collecting stories. She traveled to tea plantations and drank some rare infusions, including one cup of tea that cost $1,000.
Inspiration for her novels may result from a chance encounter and take a while to crystalize. The idea for The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane came to See when she walked past an older white couple and a teenaged Chinese girl. That encounter inspired curiosity about adoption and China’s former One Child Policy, which before 2016 limited couples to one child. After deciding to write about adoption, See realized tea growing would be part of her novel after attending a tea ceremony.
“The last piece of the puzzle was the decision to set the story in Hunan Province, the birthplace of tea,” says See. “It’s considered a biodiversity hotspot. There’s more plant life, more species of plants in that one province than there are altogether in the rest of the northern hemisphere.”
In an effort to pursue stories that are lost, forgotten or deliberately covered up, See often explores controversial aspects of history. For example, the Asian-American characters in China Dolls face discrimination and the trivialization of their culture, which they must endure to survive. Japanese-American characters are forcibly removed to the internment camps created during World War II.
“During the war my grandparents took care of one Japanese family’s home,” she said. “This family was lucky to get out and have a home and possessions to come back to. Most people did not. That story has always been on my mind.”
See hopes the story told in China Dolls will serve as a reminder not to repeat history.
“When you write something like that, you don’t know how people are going to respond. But then think about the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of people learned about the Holocaust by reading one book: The Diary of Anne Frank. The book made a Holocaust victim a real girl and not just a number.”
Despite her success as a novelist, See finds that writing is easier some days than others. She sets herself a goal of writing 1,000 words a day.
“Sometimes that only takes two hours and sometimes it’s dinner time and I only have 997 words,” she says. “Those are the days I know it’s all going to be thrown out.”
Setting a goal is something See recommends to all aspiring writers.
“Do a 1000 words a day and if you can’t, do 500. Even if you write 500 words a day, you have two pages at the end of the day. At the end of the week you have 10 pages, at the end of the month you have a chapter and eventually you have a novel. It’s not intimidating to write only two pages. Next, don’t wait for that moment of inspiration. Keep moving forward. Last thing is you better really love what you’re writing about. Writing a novel is not a one night stand, it’s a marriage with real ups and downs, real disappointments, so you’d better be prepared to love it forever.”
See is currently in research mode, working on a new book that focuses on the haenyeo, the women divers of South Korea’s Jeju island. For untold centuries the haenyeo harvested the ocean without breathing equipment. In 2016 See visited the volcanic island to interview the women, gathering stories that will become vignettes in her next book.
All of See’s published books are available via Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and in most bookstores. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane will be published on March 21 but early copies will be available during the festival.
Besides being a bestselling author, See was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001 and was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award in Fall 2003. She also serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority.
— by Joan Vos MacDonald
Find Lisa See at the Tucson Festival of Books: Premiere Fiction and Lisa See,Sunday, March 12. She will be available in the corresponding signing areas after each of these events, and books will be made available for purchase. Find out more about her on her website. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
This story was originally published by the Tucson Festival of Books.