S o thrilled that bestselling author Lisa See took time out of her busy schedule to do this interview. She discusses what led to her writing the first thriller in her Red Princess mystery series, Flower Net, which I reviewed recently. Great insights and some great advice for writers too!
JC: What’s keeping you busy right now?
LS: I’m SUPER busy right now. I’m just finishing up my next novel, China Dolls. It’s set in Chinese nightclubs that were popular in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. They were a bit like the Cotton Club in that they had Chinese performers but mostly Caucasian customers. The performers traveled all around the country in what was called the “chop suey circuit.”
They were billed as the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the Chinese Sophie Tucker, the Chinese Frank Sinatra, the Chinese Houdini, etc. I’ve been interviewing performers and visiting archives to see their costumes, old scrapbooks, and photographs. I’m having so much fun with it.
But I do a lot of other things as well. I’m the president of a Los Angeles City Commission: the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority. We oversee the city’s birthplace. I’m also on a couple of boards. I think that it’s important for writers to be a part of their community. (Otherwise, we’re inside all day, staring at our computer screens!) Your next question is about writing what you love, but you also need to write what you know, so writers need to be out in the world. (Otherwise, how would we know anything?)
But like everyone else, I have real life too. So this week we’re starting two big house projects that will be messy and loud. At the same time, I have a bunch of garden tasks that need to get done this week. I’m also visiting two book clubs on Skype, I have my step-sister coming to visit for a week, and I’m taking my mom to the doctor. Today I went with my son to look at open houses. Looking ahead over the few weeks, I’m going out of town to give talks in Mexico, Arizona, and Alabama. I need to exercise and make dinner every night too. Life! Man, oh, man! And no matter what, I’ve still got that big book deadline.
JC: Write what you love, they say. Are thrillers your first love? Or did you see Flower Net as a way to write about China?
LS: I really like thrillers. I love that there’s a murder somewhere up toward page one and that you keep turning the pages to find out who the killer is and what the conspiracy is. I particularly those thrillers that are set in a different country or time period because, as you’re turning the pages to find out who the killer is, you’re also learning a lot about a time, a place, a culture.
Thrillers and mysteries provide some of the most vibrant writing out there. I love that feeling when you have to turn the page, have to read the next chapter, and have to stay up until three in the morning to finish a book.
It takes real skill and finesse to accomplish those things as a writer. But none of that is why I wrote Flower Net. My husband is an attorney and he represented China back in the day. He had a case that resulted in our spending an evening in a very swanky karaoke bar in Beijing in the middle of winter.
This was back in something like 1994, so China was very, very different than it is today. Anyway, we were with all these agents from the Ministry of Public Security -- China’s version of the FBI.
Now there’s one thing you can say about people in law enforcement: they basically all look alike, no matter where you go in the world. They have a particular build, they carry weapons, they wear black leather jackets, they have their tough-guy attitudes. But these guys also had something else. They were covered in gold: big gold Rolexes, big gold rings, big gold necklaces and bracelets, because they were corrupt but they were up front about it. They were getting up to sing sappy love songs in these gorgeous tenor voices, with the tears streaming down their faces.
If you’re a writer and you get to experience something like that, there’s only one thing you can think: This is the best material and I’ve got it!JC: The information writers turn up during research often make their way into the story as details or even plot elements. Was there anything during your Flower Net research that changed your approach to the story? Or some detail you just knew had to be included?
LS: I’d say that the visit to the karaoke bar was huge. Finding the house that become the model for “the house across the lake,” where those very high up, very secret men meet, was a happy moment. Again, I was going to China—usually in the dead of winter—when China was still very quiet.
For example, we were in Beijing the winter after the Tiananmen Square incident. During that stay, we saw only one other foreign couple. My favorite thing to do during those winter visits was to go to the lake behind the Forbidden City, where families ice skate. There was no Zamboni to make the ice perfect. Rather, families would throw down some water to create a smooth path about fifteen feet long and two feet wide on which to skate. Chinese music played from speakers that were hung in the willow trees. Coal smoke hung heavy in the air. I was glimpsing the lives of real people, so of course I had to use all that! The opening scene of Flower Net takes place on the lake, where families have gathered to ice skate. A little girl falls and comes face to face with a body frozen in the ice.
JC: Your third Red Princess thriller, Dragon Bones, came out in 2003 and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in 2005; that was a complete shift in genre, style, and voice. What triggered the story idea that made you write about a totally different time and situation?
LS: Writing straight fiction is much easier than writing mysteries or thrillers. Writing the mysteries helped me tremendously 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’m anxious to turn the pages.
For Snow Flower, the plot line 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 mystery. I had to place clues about Snow Flower’s upbringing, about the hardships of her life, and what the secret message on the fan actually meant throughout the novel for it to work. Writing the mysteries has helped me with the pacing, characters, and emotional arcs of all the novels that have come since. Really, if you look at all my novels, you’ll find secrets that need to be revealed.
To answer your second question, I first heard about nu shu—the women’s secret writing—in 1999 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? I looked nu shu up on the Internet. At the time there wasn’t much about nu shu out there. (Now there’s quite a bit.) It took me a long time before I realized I would write a novel based on nu shu. I read all this academic stuff written by scholars and I went to southwestern Hunan province to learn what I could. What I discovered was that the scholars—as brilliant as they are—always seemed to leave out the emotions inherent in the secret language. It was something used by real women who had real emotions. I thought a novel would be the best way to explore that.
JC: Is there some piece of advice about writing or the writing life that you wish someone had given you when you first started out?
LS: Writing is a business and you have to approach it as a business. People always ask, “How do you have the discipline to sit down and write every day?” It’s easy! I have a deadline and this is what I do—it’s my business. I’ve never missed a deadline and I don’t plan on missing one in the future either. That means you can’t wait until the last minute to write a book (this isn’t like writing an essay for school or cramming for finals), and you can’t wait for inspiration to strike (because you could wait a long time). Writing is an art, and art—painting, playing the violin, being a world-class dancer or even tennis player—requires daily practice. You’re not going to be great every day. You may not even be good every day. But you have to keep writing every day to get to the good stuff.
I have five people read my manuscripts. I divide their criticism into three categories. A third of the time they’re right. A third of the time they’re completely wrong. And a third of the time I need to look at something, because it isn’t working. A third, a third, a third keeps me sane through the editing process.
I always tell aspiring writers that they should try to do one thing each week that makes them so nervous and scared that they feel sick to their stomachs. Why would I recommend that? Because writing is scary. Being edited is scary. Getting published is scary. Going out there and having people read your books is scariest of all. We need to learn to be brave. Sometimes we have to learn to be brave in little steps. Doing one thing a week that scares you and makes you feel sick to your stomach could be as simple or as small as writing a fan letter to another writer, visiting a neighborhood you’ve never gone to before, volunteering to speak publically, or venturing into a restaurant that serves food you’ve never tried before. (Cambodian food? Himalayan food?) We take baby steps to build our confidence and courage, so that later we can do readings in front of crowds, withstand criticism, or travel to someplace truly extreme to do research.
Lastly, I’d say that you need to be passionate about what you’re writing. Writing a book isn’t like a one-night stand. It’s more like a marriage. You’re in it for the long haul. Again, there are going to be disappointments along the way. You’re going to get bad reviews. You’re going to get stuck sometimes. (I was just stuck for three days, and today I figured out how to fix the chapter. Even though I was stuck, I used the time to edit another part of the book so I’d still be moving forward.) Fabulous things will also happen. You just don’t know going in, just as you don’t know what will happen after you say “I do.” It’s your passion and your love that keeps you from stabbing your husband when he leaves his socks on the floor one too many times. And it’s your passion and your love that keeps you writing—and positive about your talent and your story—even in the darkest moments.
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