There's a tradition at my high school where every year my whole school reads a book and after three weeks of school we have a school assembly and the author of the book gives a talk. There have been different books read and different authors who have come to my school, ranging from Know Your Power by Nancy Pelosi to American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and to the most recent one Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I was able to talk to Ms. See and I asked her if I could email her to get an interview for my blog and she gladly accepted. So, here's what she had to say:
(Q): Did any one event or person in your life inspire you to write Shanghai Girls?
(A): I wanted to write about three main things: arranged marriages as they played out in an American Chinatown, China City, and sisters. We had a lot of arranged marriages on the Chinese side of my family, so I know a lot about them and how hard they were for the women. China City was one of four Chinatowns in Los Angeles at the time. It opened in 1938 as a kind of theme park. It was supposed to be an “authentic Chinese city.” It was surrounded by a miniature Great Wall and inside it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of “The Good Earth,” so it wasn’t too authentic. It had a lot of charm though, and many of my relatives, who worked there, remember it fondly. Finally, I wanted to write about sisters. I’m a sister myself and I know how sisterhood can be both loving and fraught. I consider Shanghai Girls to be the closest to my heart and experience of all my books.
(Q): If you could go back and rewrite it what would you change?
(A): Perhaps this is the ultimate puzzle. In Shanghai Girls, Pearl says, “I wonder if there was anything I would have done differently. I hope I would have done everything differently, except I know everything would have turned out the same. That's the meaning of fate.” Could that be my answer to your question?
(Q): What was the hardest part about writing Shanghai Girls?
(A): To me, it’s the editing. I know I’m not perfect, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy criticism or people saying, “I don’t get it.” 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 really look at something, because there’s something a little off.
(Q): What is your favorite part of the book?
(A): My favorite part of the book is actually a very dark scene. It’s when Father Louie is trying to get Sam to pull a rickshaw in China City, and Sam refuses. Then Sam has to confess his past to Pearl. But in that same scene he also confesses his love for Pearl and his desire to give Joy the future that he, as a lowly rickshaw puller, never could hope for. He says, “I never expected happiness, but shouldn’t we try to look for it?” In turn, Pearl confesses a bit about her past. It’s in this scene that Pearl finally sees Sam for the good man he is and falls in love with him.
(Q): What has been the funniest, strangest, or most amazing thing that has happened to you since becoming an author?
(A): Two things pop out in my mind. The first was seeing giant posters of the French version Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in the Paris Metro. The other was getting to be the Grand Marshal of the Chinatown New Year’s Parade.
(Q): Why did you choose to write Shanghai Girls in the time of frame that you did?
(A): There were several factors that contributed to when I set the novel. I wanted to write about the Confession Program, which happened in the 1950s. I also wanted to write about what causes people to leave their homes to go to a new country, how people make new homes in new countries, and what are the things we keep and what are the things we leave behind. I was also curious about the nature of place. Pearl and May come from one of the most sophisticated cities on earth, and they move to the fake China City. So which is more real, more Chinese, more authentic, and when and how do the sisters find their own “Chineseness”? To be able to tell that story, I had to start in the 1930s, specifically 1937, which was the beginning of the end of Shanghai as the “Paris of Asia.” So I don’t know if I chose the time to begin the story or if it chose me, since to tell the story I wanted to tell I was constrained on both ends: the invasion of Shanghai by the Japanese in 1937 and the Confession Program which began in 1957.
(Q): Which character is your favorite out of all of the characters in Shanghai Girls?
(A): The story is told through Pearl’s eyes, so in many ways she’s my favorite. She endures so much and she has her failings, but I think she’s a good person with a good moral character. But maybe I love May more. Many people tell me that they don’t like May—that she’s spoiled, selfish, needy, and self-deluded. All that’s true, I suppose. But she’s also a lot of fun. She likes to dance. She likes to dress up. She works in Hollywood on movie sets, so she has all kinds of fun stories. Of the two sisters, she’s supposedly the “dumb” one. But I actually think that she’s much smarter than Pearl. She has street smarts. She’s a true survivor. She grabs at every opportunity and runs with it, whereas Pearl is quick to give up. Pearl and May’s mother may be the most heroic charcter I’ve ever written. The daughter, Joy... Well, she’s still young. We don’t know a lot about her yet.
(Q): Was it harder to write Shanghai Girls or Dreams of Joy? And Why?
(A): Dreams of Joy was definitely harder! Without question! I spent two years “living” through one of the worst famines in history. It was very hard to know in advance that the terrible tragedies of the Great Leap Forward were coming. It was harder still to write those scenes when they arrived. I was so worried about the different characters. Would they live? Would they starve to death? And Swap Child; Make Food was just about the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write about. Of course, all I had to do was think and write about those years. In real life, 45 million people starved to death and many more suffered.
(Q): When and where is your favorite time and place to write?
(A): You’re asking specifically about writing, right? And not researching or editing? When I’m writing, I get up around 7:00, make a cup of English breakfast tea, and toddle down the hall to my office. My husband exercises to really loud music right next to where I write, so I answer e-mail until he’s done. I’d say I begin to write in earnest around 9:00. I have a bowl of Rice Crispies with blueberries at 11:00. Then I get dressed. At some point I try to get some exercise. I’m a big walker, but I also play tennis and do Pilates. By the end of the day I have to write a minimum of a 1,000 words. Sometimes I can get that done in two hours; sometimes it takes all day.
(Q): If you could describe your book with three words what would they be?
(A): Sisters, love, Los Angeles. (Oops, that’s four, but can’t Los Angeles count as one?)
(Q): What is the best review or comment you have received for your book?
(A): I don’t know if I have a favorite, since I read book reviews with a grain of salt. The great ones? Well, they’re perfect! The bad ones? That guy doesn’t know his ass from shinola! All kidding aside, I always try to remind myself that book reviewers are writing to promote controversy, to help sell newspapers (good luck with that one), and for a pay check. Even the best reviews have a purpose beyond whether or not a book is good or not, so I try not to pay too much attention to them.
But I listen to readers all the time. It amazes me how differently readers interpret things. Even countries interpret books differently. The first time I went on a foreign book tour was for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. In The Netherlands, they asked if this was my novel of Christian redemption. In Germany, they asked if this was my feminist manifesto. And in Poland, they asked how I knew so much about Poland, because they thought it was an allegory for their country.
Twizzlers or Red Vines? Red vines!
Favorite ice cream flavor? Vanilla with just about anything on top. Strawberries. Hot fudge. Caramel.
Best childhood memory? Spending time with my grandparents.
Favorite television show? Dexter.
White, dark, or milk chocolate? As dark as I can get it. 70% or more.
Favorite book? Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.
If you could trade places with any character in any book which character would it be and why?
He isn’t a book character, but Fred Astaire. Well, maybe not Fred Astaire in real life, but the Fred Astaire in the movies. I don’t know anything about his personal life—if he was happy, sad, stingy, mean, or miserly—but he had such grace and elegance on film. I’d love to be able to move like that. I’d love to have his subtle humor. I’d love to sing like him too—agreeably but by no means perfectly. He looked kind of goofy and often acted kind of dorky, but I wouldn’t mind that too much. That just made him human and approachable.
Thank you Lisa See for the wonderful interview and for taking the time out of your day for the interview! Oh and Los Angeles can definitely count as one word, hahaha.