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Interview with Lisa See

What do you look for in a historical fiction novel? For me, it’s all about the research. I want to know that the text I’m reading is grounded in fact and infused with the lives of forgotten and famous men and women. I live for author’s notes that verify that the majority of the content really happened, that these incredible, heartwarming, heartbreaking, moving, adventurous, tragic stories can be expanded upon and revisited in archives, in letters, in oral histories, in diaries, in faded photographs. Plus, who doesn’t want to feel like they’ve learned something while they’ve been thoroughly entertained? A good historical fiction book is like sneaking broccoli into your child’s macaroni and cheese. A good historical fiction book is like watching Reign (if the show even attempted to be accurate) or Downton Abbey or Poldark or Victoria. A great historical fiction book should make you want to dive into research yourself.

Lisa See is one of the greatest historical fiction authors that I have read because she is the greatest researcher I have met. Seriously, I have spoken with academics, professors, and nerds of all subjects, and I have never met someone who is as excited about and thorough in their craft. Lisa is also an expert at seamlessly weaving her months of research into an emotionally compelling text. The thousands of details she has collected are inserted discreetly and naturally so as not to distract from the characterization and plot. If you’ve been following my reviews, you know that world building is one of my top priorities in a fiction book, and Lisa fully and completely immerses her readers in the not-so-fictional world of the past.

I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Lisa a few weeks ago at the July meeting of the Living a Life Through Books book club. Shahnaz had asked us to read The Island of Sea Women, and the group unanimously expressed their love for the morally and emotionally complex text. The strong female relationships warmed and broke our hearts (as is typical of Lisa’s writing), and just as we were finishing our discussion, we were completely surprised to have Lisa join us for an hour of Q&A. If you’d like to hear our full discussion, you can click on the links to the Living a Life Through Books podcast here and here.

Lisa is a prolific writer who specializes in chronicling the experiences of Chinese and Chinese-American women. Her latest novel, The Island of Sea Women, captures a period of Korean history that is often overlooked in history classes, has a uniquely feminist focus, and explores powerful themes of love, friendship, forgiveness, grief, and loss. Lisa is hard at work on her next novel, and I am grateful for the hour we shared discussing her literary friendships, her latest reads, the profound impact her writing has had on her family, and her best writing advice.

If you were to describe yourself as any ice cream flavor, what would it be and why?

I really love vanilla ice cream, which is about the most boring flavor of ice cream, but you can put anything on it and it’s delicious. I guess I have to go with vanilla ice cream with some nice, fresh fruit on top.

What are some books that have inspired you as a reader and a writer? What are you reading right now?

I would say that the book that’s had a huge influence on me is Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I actually used a couple of lines from that book as the epigraph for my first book. I don’t have it completely memorized, but it goes something like this: “Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t comprehend. I’d like to live in their clothes a while.”

When I used those lines for On Gold Mountain, I didn’t realize that that idea was going to stick with me all the way to today in my own writing. I just try to “live in their clothes a while.”

My mother was a writer, Carolyn See, and she was also a huge influence on me in every way possible. My two favorite books of hers are Golden Days and The Handyman. Golden Days is about the end of the world with a happy ending, which right now with the pandemic has a lot of resonance with me. The Handyman is about a young man who’s a handyman is Los Angeles, and he goes from house to house doing little projects, but really what he’s doing is becoming an artist. I think you can include writers in that. To me, this book has always been inspirational in the sense of how you become an artist, how you find your subject, how you find inspiration for creativity.

I’m actually reading a few books right now. I don’t ordinarily do that, but I feel like it’s a result of the circumstances of our lives; it’s been hard for me to concentrate. I’m listening to the audiobook of A Burning. At night, my husband and I get into bed, and he sets the timer for the length of the reading. Audiobooks take me back to my own childhood, of being read to. We turn out the lights and snuggle up. I’m also most of the way through a book that was written in the 90s about plagues, which seems very appropriate to the times we’re living in but it also makes me anxious. My grandson is staying with us. He’s eight, and he loves the Percy Jackson books. I’m reading the first one. I got sick a week ago, and it was the only book I could concentrate on. I’m also reading Mill Town for research for the book I’m working on now. Oh, and Kevin Kwan just sent me his new book. That’s next.

How do you make connections and friendships with other authors?

It happens in a lot of different ways. My mother was a writer, so of course there were a lot of different authors around me when I was growing up. These days, it often happens when someone asks for a blurb. Kevin Kwan asked for a blurb for his first book. I wouldn’t say that we’re bosom buddies, but we’ve had lunch a couple of times. He lives a very different lifestyle than I do—the jet-setting life versus mom and grandma—but I think he was grateful for my blurb. I gave Jamie Ford a blurb for his first book, On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. We’ve stayed in contact ever since. The same thing happened to me, only in reverse. Amy Tan gave me a blurb for my first book, which was the beginning of our friendship. Sue Monk Kidd and Kristen Hannah gave me blurbs for The Island of Sea Women, and we’re now becoming more friendly.

The other way writers connect with other writers is when we’re out on tour or doing events. For example, let’s say I’m doing an event with four authors or I go to a book festival and there’s a room with three hundred authors. It’s sort of like going to the Academy Awards. We don’t have the red carpet, but we do get a room where we can have lunch and chat. I’ve met some really incredible people that way.

What’s the most interesting or rewarding part of being an author?

I have to say that for me, it’s hearing from readers. As a writer, I spend most of my days in a room alone. I write for myself first. I’m not thinking about an audience, but when one of my books touches someone, or they can see their own experience in that book, or it gives them some insight, or it gives them a voice that they hadn’t seen before, it makes me feel happy, honored, and humbled.

In The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, a woman gives birth to a baby in China and that baby is adopted by a couple in the United States. As a result, I’ve heard from many adoptees here. There are other books that look at adoption from China and maybe those authors get wonderful letters too, but these letters have been especially important to me. When somebody writes, and says, “That’s exactly how I feel, and I haven’t seen it in a book before,” it’s huge. Also, since I’ve written so much about the Chinese-American experience, I hear from a lot of readers whose families lived that history. Just this morning I had an email from a woman whose family had been affected by the so-called Confession Program that I wrote about in Shanghai Girls. There’s a lot of history that isn’t written or has been neglected or covered up, and so I often get letters from people saying things like, “I was never able to ask my parents or grandparents about our history, but by reading what you’ve written, I can kind of piece together our family history.” Again, it’s truly humbling when that happens.

What inspired you to write about your family’s experience?

For over a hundred years, my family had been approached by people who wanted to write a book, a film, or an article about them. Always the family said no. Partly they were embarrassed and partly they were ashamed, because a lot of what my family had done was either borderline illegal or full on out there illegal. There was also a bit of arrogance: “Why should we participate in their project?” I came to write On Gold Mountain through a series of small events that finally led my great aunt to say, “Why don’t you come over? I have some stories I want to tell you.” And that’s how it started. One person would say. “Oh, you should go talk to so and so.” It took a long time before I knew it could be a book.

When On Gold Mountain came out, we had a special book signing for the family. Everyone was sweet and dutiful. They bought a book and came through the line so I could sign it. And then—it was the most amazing thing—you could see little groups in the corners of the bookstore looking through the book together. I had found all these photos at the National Archives that no one had seen. My family was very poor, so they didn’t have cameras. At the book event, I could hear people saying, “That’s the only photo I’ve ever seen of my mother,” or “That’s a photo of me as a baby. I don’t have a photo of myself until I went into the Army.” And all that’s because the National Archives kept everything and has all the immigration records. So, my family came through the line again, only with big stacks of books. The bookstore actually ran out of books that night! As far as overall family reaction, only two people got upset. One of my great aunts was upset about the things I had written about her mother. But guess where I got that information? From Aunt Margie! So, I didn’t feel too badly about it.

My family was not extraordinary. It was an ordinary family, but they went through a lot. In the book, I shared how hard it was for them, but I did it in a way that didn’t make them look “less than.” I remember when my uncle died that he asked to be buried with a copy of the book. What more could you ask for, really?

What did your research process look like for your other books?

For On Gold Mountain, I went to all these different archives and into people’s closets and attics and garages, and I went to every place the family had been. All that research—the combination of oral history, the things that can be done in libraries and archives, and then going places—is what I still do today. Research is my favorite part of the writing process; I love it. To me it’s like a big treasure hunt. I never know what I’m going to find. In my most recent book, The Island of Sea Women, when I found that one of the main ways women died in the past, and still die today, was by harvesting abalone, I thought, I gotta have death by abalone. But then, for me, it becomes a question of where does it go? Does it go at the beginning, is it in the middle, is it at the end? Why is it where it is, what’s the ripple effect, and what are the emotional consequences? I found death by abalone in passing, and then my imagination went wild.

What does your writing process look like?

I start with three things: the historic background, what emotion I want to write about (love, jealousy, forgiveness), and then what’s the main relationship. If we take The Island of Sea Women as an example, I knew I wanted to write about the female divers called haenyeo, and I also knew I wanted to write about forgiveness. I feel like forgiveness is something I’ve tiptoed around in several of my books. This time I wanted to look at it straight on. On Jeju Island, where The Island of Sea Women takes place, you have Japanese colonialism, World War II, what’s called the 4.3 Massacre, and the Korean War. Today the island is recognized internationally as the Island of Peace. It’s recognized internationally as a model of forgiveness. I now had the historic backdrop of the female divers, the timeframe, and forgiveness. The last piece was the relationship. I write about women: mothers and daughters, sisters, best friends. Well, the divers follow a kind of buddy system, so to me it made sense for the main characters to be friends. Not only are Young-sook and Mi-ja friends, but every time they enter the sea, they’re literally putting their lives in each other’s hands. I think that took that idea of friendship to a whole new level.

Those are the things I start with, and let’s say a seven-page outline. Then I start doing the research. Each book takes me about two years. The research takes me the longest amount of time, the writing is the shortest, and the editing is somewhere in the middle. I usually research for nine months to a year before I start writing. By that point I think I’m done with research, but I end up looking up things all the way to the end. Even during editing, I still do research, and even that continues all the way through copyediting.

Tell me about your editing process.

I have four people who read my manuscript at the same time: my husband, my sister, my agent, and my editor. (My mom used to be the fifth reader.) I try to divide editing into thirds. A third of the time the person is completely wrong, and I should be able to convince him or her of why. A third of the time he or she is completely right. To me, the final third is where things get interesting. Something is off. Your stomach tells you when something’s not quite right, and other people do notice. It’s like if you have a bruise that’s under your shirt and someone comes along and taps it. This is when a really great editor comes in. He or she helps you find what you’re really trying to say. For me the third, a third, a third gives me great peace of mind. I can segment it and not feel like I’m a total failure.

Tell me about your publishing journey.

I had a very unique experience. I worked for thirteen years for Publishers Weekly as the West Coast correspondent; I covered everything west of the Mississippi. First, I had my own column, then I just got integrated through all the different parts of the magazine. People in publishing houses read my work almost every week over a long period of time. That also meant I interviewed or met a lot of agents, publishers, editors, and booksellers. One of the agents, Sandy Dijkstra, was southern California, and she had, and still has, a deep interest in art. A part of On Gold Mountain had to do with my grandfather’s gallery, which was the first gallery or museum, to mount an exhibition of Asian-American artists. Sandy was interested in all that. When I was doing my research, I asked her things like, do you know any of these artists and are they still alive? She put me in contact with some of them. When it came time to sell the book, I asked Sandy if she would represent me.

What was funny was that right at that time, she had a new writer whose book had just taken off: Amy Tan. What happens when something like that happens is publishers will go to that agent and say, “Well, you sold Amy Tan to Putnam. We’d like a writer like her for our publishing program.” Sandy ended up representing many Asian-American women writers thanks to Amy’s success.

What advice do you have for new and struggling writers?

The best piece of advice I have is just what my mother told me and what my mother’s father said to her: write a thousand words a day five days a week. When I was working on On Gold Mountain, I found a letter from my grandfather to my mother in which he wrote, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write a thousand words a day.” I had heard that my whole life but hadn’t known it had come from him first. A thousand words is four typed pages. That’s not that much. By the end of the week, that means you have a chapter. By the end of two weeks, that means you have two chapters. But if you can’t do a thousand words, then do five hundred. Make a number for yourself and stick to it for five days a week. What that means is you have to sit in the chair every day and do the work. That’s it. It’s not magic. You just have to sit in the chair and do the work. Sometimes I can do my thousand words in two hours and sometimes it takes me eight hours. Sometimes I know what I’ve written is really good, but if it takes eight hours, it’s probably really bad. I just want to add that even I don’t do this every day, because I spend so much time doing research.

The last thing I would say is don’t get discouraged. There are plenty of times when I don’t want to work or I can’t figure out a solution to a problem in the plot or with a character, but I’m not going to get past the roadblock if I don’t sit in my darned chair and stare at my computer screen. The other thing I would say is you need to be passionate about what you’re working on. A lot of people think of writing as a get rich quick scheme, but I think you have to write from a place of passion. For me, this isn’t a one-night stand. This is like a marriage. I think about books for a long time before I decide that this is the one. Whatever project I take on is going to be with me for the rest of my life.

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