Conversations

Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Photo of Lisa See Lisa See

WaterBridge Review: In your latest novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you’ve written about little known nu shu, a phonetic code used between women in Hunan Province in China. How did you become aware of it?

Lisa See: I first heard about nu shu when I reviewed a book for the Los Angeles Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short three- or four- page mention, but I thought, how could this exist and I didn’t know about it? Then I thought, how could this exist and we all didn’t know about it? Because so often we hear that in the past there were no women writers, artists, historians, chefs, and the list goes on and on. Of course women did these things, but that work has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Nu shu, on the other hand, was an example of something that women had invented, used, and kept a secret themselves for a thousand years. That amazed me, and I became totally obsessed.

WBR: You’ve written three mysteries taking place in China before your latest novel. What is it about China that brings you back book after book?

LS: I’m part Chinese. My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather was the patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I have about four hundred relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are about a dozen who look like me. All writers are told to write what they know, and this is what I know. And when I don’t know something—nu shu, for example—I love to find out whatever I can about it and then bring my sensibility to the subject. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways I straddle two cultures. I try to bring what I know from both cultures into my work. I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, but perhaps the American side of me is able to open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I’m writing is true to the Chinese culture without making it seem too “exotic” or “foreign.” In other words, what I really want people to get from my books is that all people on the planet share common life experiences—falling in love, getting married, having children, dying—and share common emotions—love, hate, greed, jealousy. These are the universals; the differences are in the particulars of customs and culture.

WBR: Was it a difficult transition to move from the mystery genre to a straight fictional story?

LS: Straight fiction is much easier than mysteries or thrillers. Writing the mysteries really helped me with Snow Flower. With mysteries, you have to keep focused on the plot. You can’t overlook a single detail. It’s a very tight form and pacing is extremely important. Today, straight fiction, especially women’s fiction, has very little plot. It’s just a slice of life with an emotional change. I personally prefer novels that have enough plot that I will continue to turn the pages. For Snow Flower, the plotline was, why does Lily feel such regret and what happened between her and Snow Flower to create their rift? You see, it’s still a tiny bit of a mystery. Writing the mysteries really helped me as I thought about the pacing, characters, and emotional arc of this new novel.

WBR: What are you working on right now?

LS: I liken what I’m working on now to a reverse mirror image of Snow Flower. Unfortunately, there’s no short way to say this—no quick sound bite, as it were—so I hope you’ll bear with me. Snow Flower takes place in the nineteenth century and has to do with poor, uneducated (illiterate in standard Chinese) women, who used secret code writing to communicate. The new novel is set in the seventeenth century in the Yangzi Delta. The women there were from the elite class, highly educated, but they also lived in almost utter seclusion. More women writers in that small area were being published than anywhere else in the world at that time.

There was a subcategory of these women writers called the “lovesick maidens of Hangzhou”: sixteen-year-old girls who were obsessed with the opera, The Peony Pavilion, caught cases of lovesickness like the heroine in the opera, and wrote beautiful poetry as they wasted away and died. The new novel is based on a true story of three of those lovesick maidens who were married to the same man, who together wrote the first piece of literary criticism written by women ever to be published in the world. I’m writing it as a ghost story within a ghost story.

I’m also working on a young adult book on the history of the Chinese in America. This is a completely different kind of project and lets me look at photographs, archival materials, and other types of ephemera to help tell the history in a way that will be captivating to kids. Even today, there’s still very little out there for adults or kids on Chinese-American history. I hope this book will help fill that void and still be entertaining.

WBR: How do you find peace of mind in your every day life?

LS: What peace of mind?  My son is in the room and I asked him and he answered, “You think about your wonderful children, you go to violent movies with lots of sex in them, you try not to think about our government, you watch The Daily Show, and you listen to The Walk on the Moon soundtrack.” Yep, I think that about sums it up. The only other thing I would say is that I try to approach life like a recovering alcoholic: I just do one thing at a time and cross the bridge when I come to it. 

WBR: What are some of these books waiting for you on your bedstand?

LS: Actually, I’ve just been on vacation and I’m caught up. I usually don’t read fiction when I’m working on a novel, because I don’t want that author’s voice seeping into my work. When I’m working, I try to immerse myself in the subject and that world. So shortly I’ll be going back to reading about women in seventeenth-century China, the fall of the Ming Dynasty and rise of the Qing Dynasty, pieces on The Peony Pavilion, and, of course, what the lovesick maidens themselves wrote.

WBR: If you could choose, who would be your favorite hero or heroine of fiction?

LS: Oh, that’s easy, but none of them are from books. Ripley in the Alien movies, Starbuck in the new Battlestar Gallactica TV series, Trinity in The Matrix, and Sydney Bristow in Alias, also on TV. I really love those kick-ass women!

WBR: And what character in a book most resembles your own personality?

LS: This is an easy one too, but no one will have ever heard of the book or the character. I had a favorite book as a little girl called Ameliaranne and the Magic Ring. My grandmother had picked up a very used and old copy at a garage sale. My little sister lost it and what can I say? I held a grudge about that for about 35 years. (At least my sister thinks I held a grudge. I thought I was just teasing her about it.)

I just turned fifty—horrifying, I know—and my sister gave me a copy of the book. It turns out it was part of a British series of children’s books, but that only two thousand copies had been distributed of this particular title. What was amazing to me as I read it again these many years later was how close my personality was to Ameliaranne. Had I identified with her as a girl because I was already like her in some way, or had I emulated her as I grew older? What was really odd was that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was just about to come out, and I hope you can see how I’d used the feel of the title of that book in the title for my book.

WBR: While under the spell of so many different characters, is there a specific talent you would most like to have?

LS: ESP, an awesome serve for tennis, to be able to TIVO in real life, and to know where the commas go at all time.

WBR: Is there a particular author, past or present, who has influenced your writing?

LS: Again, I’m sorry to say he isn’t a writer of books. Bob Dylan has been a huge influence on my writing. He knows how to tell a whole story in just a few minutes and he has a wonderful way with words. Of course, the guy can’t sing, but you can’t have everything.

WBR: Other than traveling the world through books, is there anywhere you would like to travel to?

LS: Mongolia. I used to have terrible insomnia and so did my grandmother. I remember one night watching a documentary on Mongolia. The emptiness of the landscape completely entranced me. A few days later I was with my grandmother and she had seen the same documentary and felt the same way. We used to talk all the time about going there, but we never had a chance. I’d also love to go to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. And I’d love to see Australia and New Zealand one of these days. Actually, I love to travel more than just about anything, so I’m always up to go anywhere anytime. Later this week I’m off to The Netherlands, Germany, and Poland for a book tour.

WBR: What’s the last movie you saw?

LS: Okay, so this has been a very bad year for movies, so no one should read anything into these movies. I went to a screening of Pride and Prejudice on Friday night. (It was nothing to write home about.) On Saturday we saw You, Me and Everyone We Know, which was a quirky little film with an outstanding performance by a little boy that really made me laugh. And yesterday we saw The 40-year-old Virgin, which was surprisingly poignant in a totally juvenile way.

WBR:  If you weren't a writer, what would you be?

LS: A landscape architect.

WBR: How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?

LS: I go for walks and play tennis. I love movies and see about a hundred a year. But frankly, I don’t have much free time. I’m a L.A. city commissioner. I also curate the occasional museum exhibition and do tons of speaking events each year. I’m also a freak when it comes to letter writing. I write lots of letters. My days are extraordinarily full with all sorts of things, and I have to say no a lot so I can write. 

WBR: And lastly, what is the bravest thing you've ever done?

LS: This is a funny question, because I’m torn about how to answer it. For me the scariest things I’ve done are the times that I’ve had to take care of my kids when they’ve been hurt or sick. I’ve really had to be very brave through some of those.

The more obvious answer would be some of the travel I’ve done. Going to Jiangyong County to research nu shu required a certain amount of bravery, I suppose. I was told I was only the second foreigner to go there. The bright side of a trip like that is that everything is completely new. The down sides are no hot water and eating things like pig penis. But I don’t consider that to require much in the way of bravery. They’re just minor inconveniences so that I can explore a deep passion.

And if I look at your question in a whole other way, I would say that writing is the bravest thing I’ve done. Like all artists, writers have to be willing to go to the bone, reveal themselves, and then be willing for people to hate what they have to say. But I don’t know if you would call that bravery or insanity.