Q+A with Lisa Lee | PRO­FILE

Upscale Living Magazine - - Contents - By Yvonne Yorke

The Mi­ami Book Fair, founded in 1984, has evolved into the one of the top lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals in the coun­try. I at­tended this eight-day event this past Novem­ber where more than 500 notable au­thors from around the world – speak­ing English, Span­ish, French and Haitian Cre­ole, read and dis­cussed their lat­est work. The Mi­ami Book Fair, founded in 1984, has evolved into the one of the top lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals in the coun­try. I at­tended this eight­day event this past Novem­ber where more than 500 notable au­thors from around the world – speak­ing English, Span­ish, French and Haitian Cre­ole, read and dis­cussed their lat­est work.

One of those au­thors is New York Times best-sell­ing nov­el­ist, Lisa See who writes poignantly of China and the lives of Chi­ne­seAmer­i­cans in such ac­claimed nov­els as Shang­hai Girls, Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Se­cret Fan, which was made into a film. Her lat­est en­deavor, The Tea Girl of Hum­ming­bird Lane, is a sweep­ing tea-in­fused chart­ing the en­dur­ing con­nec­tion be­tween a Chi­nese mother and her daugh­ter, and the his­tory and of tea which has shaped their fam­ily’s destiny for gen­er­a­tions.

I sat down with Lisa to dis­cuss her work, her writ­ing process, and her views on crit­i­cal ver­sus com­mer­cial suc­cess for au­thors:

I’ve long en­joyed your sto­ries with their de­pic­tions women’s lives China and in Amer­ica, and ob­vi­ously the metic­u­lous re­search that goes into each novel. Is it more im­por­tant for you to write a crit­i­cally-ac­claimed book, which per­haps not many peo­ple read, or to write a book that is a huge com­mer­cial suc­cess?

I think that if you’re a writer and you start with the mind­set of com­mer­cial suc­cess and dol­lars, you are on the wrong path. I ab­so­lutely be­lieve that.

If you go down that path and you’re writ­ing only be­cause you’re think­ing about what peo­ple like, I think you do your­self a dis­ser­vice as a writer, and you do the story that you want to tell a dis­ser­vice.

That’s right.

So now that you have suc­cess, isn’t there al­ways in the back of your mind that yes, you want to tell a story but you also want to write some­thing that peo­ple will en­joy? I mean, there is the en­ter­tain­ment aspect to your work, right?

There are things in my books where I ac­tu­ally thought peo­ple would put the book down and not read be­yond that point. I can think of two books of the top of my head. In Snow Flower and the Se­cret Fan, when a lot of peo­ple got to the foot bind­ing scene, thank­fully they picked the book up again but a lot of peo­ple had to put it down.

In Peony in Love, when the main char­ac­ter dies on page 99, a lot of peo­ple put the book down and never picked it up again. They didn’t re­al­ize that he was go­ing to con­tinue on. In this book, The Tea Girl of Hum­ming­bird Lane, there’s a scene which has to do with the killing of twins – a prac­tice from the Akha eth­nic mi­nor­ity group.

I knew that I wanted to use it but I was also think­ing, “How can use this and still have peo­ple read the book”? It was cen­tral to the story but some­times I’m think­ing about the au­di­ence.

If you start out as a writer, and you think, I want to be on a New York Times list, or I want to be a com­mer­cial au­thor with a best­seller, there are cer­tain gen­res you can do that in like mys­ter­ies or thrillers. But once you get out of that cat­e­gory, it’s re­ally hard to write to a for­mula. Not that all of those books are but the ones that are best sellers are not ter­ri­bly for­mu­laic but peo­ple will go to those writ­ers and say, oh yes, I love Michael Connelly and you know what you are go­ing to get but it’s also unique to that au­thor.

You mean the com­mer­cial writer.

Yes, the su­per com­mer­cial writer. You know, it’s one in a mil­lion. But for the ma­jor­ity of writ­ers, and the ma­jor­ity of writ­ers here (Mi­ami Book Fair) it’s re­ally writ­ing about the things you’re pas­sion­ate about. That you care about, that’s go­ing to keep you go­ing back, day af­ter day for two years or 20 years but also you have to have that pas­sion be­cause there are a lot of things that hap­pen along the way that aren’t very nice, like you can get stuck or you can get that first draft that’s pretty bad, or the New York Times doesn’t like it or peo­ple don’t buy it. Those things are re­ally hard to deal with day by day so you have to have within you the pas­sion to make you feel that you are ded­i­cated to this.

I think of it some­times as the dif­fer­ence be­tween a one-night stand and a mar­riage. With a mar­riage, you’re in it for the long haul. There are go­ing to be some good parts and there are go­ing to be some bad parts. Some­times it’s for richer or poorer, right? So it’s be­ing able to ride the good times and the bad times, and at the heart of that there has to be the pas­sion and deep love you have for the story, for the char­ac­ters and for the work it­self. Even though you were only one-eight Chi­nese, you ob­vi­ously res­onated very strongly with your Chi­nese her­itage and that’s where you draw in­spi­ra­tion for your books. When I was a kid, I lived with my mother but I spent a lot of time with my fa­ther’s fam­ily. What I saw around me were Chi­nese faces, Chi­nese cul­ture, Chi­nese tra­di­tion, Chi­nese food. They were my mir­ror. They were telling me who I was.

When you were do­ing re­search for this book, how do you come up with the sub­ject mat­ter? Is tea a sub­ject that you were par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in?

I’ve been drink­ing Pu-Erh and Bo-Lai tea my en­tire life. It’s so pop­u­lar in Hong Kong and Guangzhou be­cause peo­ple drink it dur­ing dim sum. Restau­rants would buy large quan­ti­ties of the tea and put it in the base­ment. Peo­ple would go to the restau­rants not nec­es­sar­ily for the qual­ity of the dim sum but for the qual­ity of the tea be­cause each base­ment was dif­fer­ent so as the tea was ag­ing down there, bring­ing in dif­fer­ent fla­vors and aro­mas that was unique to that base­ment.

Re­gard­ing your writ­ing process, you said you would write 1000 words a day.

I write the last line of the book first be­cause I want to know where I end up emo­tion­ally. From the time I was a lit­tle girl, I would read the first chap­ter and then the last chap­ter of a book. And then the sec­ond chap­ter and then the penul­ti­mate (sec­ond to last) chap­ter. Back and forth un­til I met in the mid­dle. And then I would go ahead and still fin­ish the book. I still read books that way.

Is it con­fus­ing?

No. I think when I was a kid, I couldn’t deal with not know­ing how it was go­ing to work out. I would be so wor­ried that I

would stay up all night so that was how I did it – I would look at the end and see how the peo­ple end up. I still do that.

I have an out­line that was usu­ally about 7 pages and it would have the ba­sic stuff – the time pe­riod, who the char­ac­ters are, what the emo­tion is, what the his­toric back­drop is go­ing to be, and then when I start do­ing the re­search, I start to find things and go “Oh, I have got to use that”.

I did re­search on five eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups and I thought one of them would be the one. But then when I was there in China, I met this in­cred­i­ble fam­ily and that went out the win­dow and I just switched. When I came back was when I did more of the re­search, and as I was do­ing that re­search, I was think­ing, “I have to use this about the twins.” As I do my re­search I find things that I can use or it trig­gers my imag­i­na­tion. So if this is some­thing that hap­pens, I think how it would af­fect my char­ac­ter in the time and place that they are?

Then you would write the whole first draft.

Yes. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. Janet Fitch (White Ole­an­der) says she re­vises what she wrote the day be­fore be­fore she starts writ­ing. I could try do­ing that. But there’s the only thing: you could lose the mo­men­tum. And I do think that there are cer­tain things that hap­pen along the way that are un­ex­pected. That hap­pens with every book that some­thing hap­pens that’s to­tally un­ex­pected.

In The Tea Girl of Hum­ming­bird Lane, there’s a char­ac­ter who’s ban­ished in the sec­ond chap­ter, and I thought that I’m never go­ing to see her again. Many years later, these two char­ac­ters they’re walk­ing over land and they’re in this lit­tle vil­lage, and who do they run into? My char­ac­ter! It was a to­tal sur­prise to me. It wasn’t some­thing I planned.

But it made sense.

But it made sense and I was re­ally thrilled to see her. I just re­ally like that char­ac­ter. The main char­ac­ter in the book said some­thing like, “The fact that you keep meet­ing me like this, means that we’re sup­posed to be to­gether.” So then she takes the child with her, and then she’s in the rest of the book but that was not planned. So even though I have an out­line, there are things that hap­pen along the way.

Shang­hai Girls would be the clos­est I have to a novel based on true events. I don’t have any fam­ily in Shang­hai. They were just poor peas­ants but in the 30s, my great-un­cle took all his 9 sons to China. Let’s get all the boys wives. Those wives were my aun­ties and they came over to Los An­ge­les.

That was the only book I’ve writ­ten that I didn’t need to leave my house. I had all the ma­te­rial was there. I mean I did go to Shang­hai to see what was cool but I didn’t re­ally need to go. Those aun­ties, the last one only die a cou­ple of years ago. They were here for 70 years and only spoke a few words of English. They had re­ally hard lives, some had very happy mar­riages, and some didn’t. I was at a ban­quet and sat at a ta­ble with my un­cle and I asked him why he was so happy and he told me that his wife had fi­nally left him. They died within two months of each other and for those two months, they were fi­nally done with each other, but they had stayed mar­ried all that time.

There’s a hand­ful of re­ally great Chi­nese-Amer­i­can writ­ers. Do you get to­gether and sup­port each other’s work?

I think we pretty much all know each other. Make that broader to AsianAmer­i­can writ­ers. We cer­tainly meet each other, and try to be sup­port­ive of each other. We’re of­ten are put on pan­els to­gether. Re­mem­ber when Amy Tan’s book came out? She was the first big Asian-Amer­i­can writer. There is also Max­ine Hong. But “Joy Luck Club” changed ev­ery­thing. Now all of a sud­den there were a lot of pub­lish­ers who wanted to have their own Amy Tan.

Hope­fully there will be many more fan­tas­tic Asian-Amer­i­can au­thors. Thank you for tak­ing the time to share what in­spires your writ­ing and your in­sights into the writ­ing process.

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