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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.
One of those authors is New York Times best-selling author, Lisa See who writes poignantly of China and the lives of Chinese-Americans 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:
Yvonne Yorke: 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?
Lisa See: 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.
Yvonne Yorke: 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.
Lisa See: That’s right.
Yvonne Yorke: 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?
Lisa See: 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.
Yvonne Yorke: You mean the commercial writer.
Lisa See: 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.
Yvonne Yorke: 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.
Lisa See: 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.
Yvonne Yorke: 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?
Lisa See: 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.
Yvonne Yorke: Regarding your writing process, you said you would write 1000 words a day.
Lisa See: 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.
Yvonne Yorke: Is it confusing?
Lisa See: 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?
Yvonne Yorke: Then you would write the whole first draft.
Lisa See: 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.
Yvonne Yorke: But it made sense.
Lisa See: 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.
Yvonne Yorke: There’s a handful of really great Chinese-American writers. Do you get together and support each other’s work?
Lisa See: I think we pretty much all know each other. Make that broader to Asian-American 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.
Yvonne Yorke: 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.