Imagine you’ve got a wonderful idea for a novel—a story you’ve had in the back of your mind for years, one that is rooted in your own heritage and beliefs, one you’ve come to feel so passionate about, you can no longer fathom not putting the words to the page. In order to tell it, though, you’ll need to travel to the other side of the world, visit remote areas where few outsiders have gone before, dig into the past in search of history that has been either forgotten or deliberately hidden away. You’ll need to stockpile detailed research materials in order to be historically accurate—and you’ll need a system for capturing it all, bringing it to life through characters, themes and plot threads that readers will come to care about as deeply as you do.
Does that seem intimidating? What if everyone you talked to seemed to be telling you that no one would be interested in the story—that you were wasting your time?
If you faced all that, and wrote the story anyway—and had the time of your life doing it, so much so that the book’s mind-blowing success was just an unexpected bonus—you’d have a lot in common with Lisa See.
Having come from a literary family (her grandfather was a writer, and her mother is Carolyn See, the novelist, literature professor and book reviewer), See’s path was a natural one—but that doesn’t mean success came easily. Growing up in Los Angeles, she spent a great deal of time with her father’s family in Chinatown, and went on to work as a journalist before writing 1995’s On Gold Mountain, about her Chinese-American family. Three well-received mysteries followed, but it wasn’t until she wrote that novel that had been calling her—Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a tale of lifelong friendship and a secret written language among women in 19th-century China—that she found breakout success. Her next two novels, Peony in Love (based on a true story of “lovesick maidens” who published work in 17th-century China) and Shanghai Girls (following immigrants from 1930s Shanghai to California) were instant bestsellers, and her most recent, Dreams of Joy (set during the deadly famine resulting from Communist leader Mao Zedong’s 1958 Great Leap Forward), debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times list.
Still, See is just as grounded about her success as she is encouraging about what the rest of us might achieve. In an exclusive interview in the May/June 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, See shares her secrets for crafting rich stories that re-imagine forgotten moments from our collective history. In this bonus online-only Q&A, she talks more about her in-depth research process, her friendship with fellow bestseller Amy Tan, and more.
Many of your stories center around aspects of what’s referred to as “forgotten history.” Is educating readers about the lesser-known aspects of Chinese history and culture something you set out to do?
Well, On Gold Mountain was about my family—I was trying to tell the history of the Chinese in America through the eyes of one family. And that was a lot of history I didn’t know. I knew the Chinese had worked on the railroad but I didn’t know about the Exclusion Act [restricting immigration from China]. I lived in California my whole life, I’d never heard of Angel Island [where Chinese immigrants were interrogated and detained in San Francisco Bay]. I’m not the only one.
So I guess because with that first book I was finding things that were part of our common American history and yet it wasn’t in the history books, I sort of went down that path. I’m not thinking about the reader, necessarily—those are things that I’m really curious about: history that’s been lost, forgotten, deliberately covered up. And that happened with my own family, it happened with the history of the Chinese in America, and once I started going into that, it just kind of blew me away, and it makes that adventure process of trying to find things so fascinating to me. These are things that I guess I do think we should know more [about], but that wasn’t why I started.
It’s like with Dreams of Joy, I hadn’t intended to write a sequel [to Shanghai Girls], but everybody wanted a sequel. When I looked at what would happen next—if I followed Joy into China, [where she goes at the conclusion of Shanghai Girls,] what would happen next? I came home and I started doing that research, and when I saw the Great Leap Forward [and the resulting famine that became the subject matter of Dreams of Joy], and how that truly is a moment that has been lost, forgotten and truly deliberately covered up, I just thought, This is so perfect for me. Because it’s what I’m interested in. And I can’t tell you how many people actually from China, who lived in China in those years, but in big cities, said, “Well, we thought maybe some of this was happening but we never learned about it.”
Do you have any indication of how the book has been received in China? Do you know how the Chinese government feels about your books?
Well, all [of my other] books have been published in China, but Dreams of Joy hasn’t yet.
Is it going to be?
I don’t know—I should look into that.
Would it be a worry that it could endanger any future research trips if they took issue with the book?
The thing is, the government of China a couple years ago released these new documents about the famine, and so you never know what the government will think or do, but I think since they themselves released some of these documents, I think there might be more of an openness to discuss it—maybe. But I won’t know until I go the next time.
You’ve said that you write 1,000 words a day. Is that something you do even in the heavy researching stages?
No. Often when I’m writing, I’ll write in the morning and then continue doing research in the afternoon, but it’s not the other way around if I’m doing eight-hour days of research or I’m traveling, I’m just so focused on soaking up everything. [But, for example,] if I’m in China, I’ll be taking notes and doing stuff all day, but sometimes you’re just in such a hurry that you write one or two words, so when I get back to the hotel room I’ll spend the rest of the night just typing up everything so that I can flesh out those simple notes. And when I’m doing that sometimes I’ll write a bit about how this could apply to a character or to the plot.
In your acknowledgments of Dreams of Joy, you thank Amy Tan. How did the two of you meet and come to support one another’s writing?
Actually, my mom [Washington Post book reviewer Carolyn See] wrote [what] may have been the very first review of The Joy Luck Club. And Amy and I also have the same agent. So we would run into each another periodically—she lives in the Bay Area and I live in Los Angeles, but we would see each other here and there. I think our relationship kind of just grew naturally. It’s a hard thing to become friends once you’re an adult. … As adults it’s like a long dating process. She has insomnia, I have insomnia, so over the years we’ve written to each other a lot in the middle of the night, emails.
We don’t see each other very often, but I—and she’s said the same thing—I kind of consider her my [version of] that idea that I wrote about in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which was these friends for life but really the only way they can communicate is through writing.
With Dreams of Joy I was actually looking for a village to go to to do research. I wanted to be in Anhui Province for a lot of reasons … and she sent an email saying, “I have to do some research in China, and I’ve been invited to stay in a 17th-century villa in Anhui Province. Do you want to come?” Of course! So we went off together, and Dreams of Joy has come out before her [resulting] book, but I think it will be really interesting to see how she uses the villa, and if she does. There were moments on that trip when I’d say things like, “Do you want the name of this little village, or can I have it?” [Laughs.] And of course I always let her have it, ’cause she’d invited me! …
There’s something really so incredible to know that there’s someone who is as obsessed as I am about the same subject. And I just can’t tell you how generous Amy has been. Where, you know, I was in New York and she was in New York, and she was having a private tour of Ming Dynasty paintings in the Met, and she said, “Do you want to come?” There were about eight people, friends of Amy’s who went to this thing, and Amy and I are both furiously scribbling notes. (I used a lot of what the curator said in Dreams of Joy. I don’t know how Amy’s going to use that material, but I know that we interpret things and use things very very differently.) But the fact is, of the people on that tour, the two of us were absolutely, like, This is so exciting! I think the other people were like, Well, yeah, this is interesting, whatever. But we do have a passion for something. It’s like if you had a passion for growing a special type of marigold and nobody else cared about it but the two of you care about it. Not everybody cares about this part of history in the way that we do, and how to create stories. Here’s someone who shares my passion and who loves to talk about it. And there aren’t a lot of people I can do that with!
Do you ever read one another’s works in progress?
No, but I have read everything she’s written.