Bustle Talks to Lisa See about her New Book China Dolls

BUSTLE: In this book, you depict a time in American history when Asian women endured huge obstacles, especially in the entertainment industry. Could you have set this book in the present day?

LISA SEE: Oh, I think so. How many Asian-American women can you name in the entertainment industry today? Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, and Margaret Cho are the only ones that pop immediately into my mind. If you’re looking for big Asian women stars, they usually are from China, Taiwan, or Hong Hong. So yes, I think there are still many obstacles for Chinese-American women — and men — in the entertainment industry, whether before or behind the camera.

In writing this era, you include some great details about the reality of the business of entertainment. What research did you do to flesh this out?

I did all kinds of research. I was able to access the collections at the Museum of the Chinese in America in New York and the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. They had costumes, photographs, videos, and all kinds of ephemera — from nightclub menus to scrapbooks kept by individual performers. I also was able to use oral histories of performers (all of whom are gone now) done by MoCA and Eddie Wang back in the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition, I interviewed what I would call pioneer performers who started in the 1930s, as well as those who came up in the nightclub scene in the ’50s and ’60s. Many of the characteristics for the fictional characters of Grace, Ruby, and Helen come from actual Chinese-American performers. Dorothy Toy, for example, was considered to be the Chinese Ginger Rogers, yet she was actually Japanese. Her experiences in Hollywood during World War II inspired some of what happens to Ruby in China Dolls.  READ THE FULL INTERVIEW

Another Essay for Reading Group Guides

Here’s a second essay I wrote for ReadingGroupGuides.com.  I really love this site for all the fun ideas they have for book clubs.  Check it out!

These days, every writer—and publisher too, for that matter—will tell you that it’s important to reach out to book clubs.  But few people talk about how important book clubs are to writers.  I don’t mean that a book’s success or failure can hinge on whether or not book clubs buy our books.  (Don’t get me wrong.  This is a wonderful thing and very important, and I’m grateful to all the book clubs who have bought my books.)  I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about the inspiration and courage book clubs give writers to sit down, be vulnerable to emotions (and possible criticism), and write from the heart.

Let’s go back in time about five years.  I think I had a pretty good reputation as a writer.  I was “critically-acclaimed,” meaning I got good reviews but not many people read my books.  When I sat down to write Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, people—friends, other writers, folks in publishing—told me, “No one’s going to read that book.”  They had all sorts of reasons: it took place in the past.  It took place in China.  It was about women. Worse, it was about women’s friendship.  It was sometimes heartbreakingly sad. And that footbinding stuff! Yuck!  No one’s going to read it.

All that doom and gloom was actually quite freeing.  If you think no one’s going to read your book, then you can write whatever you want, and I did. Well, to my great surprise, everyone was wrong.  Now I can look back and say with absolute certainty that the success of Snow Flower was due 100% to book clubs.  Over these past four years, I’ve visited or talked by speaker phone to something like 200 book clubs.  It’s been in these conversations—which are sometimes about the book but more often about life—that readers in book clubs have inspired me.  They’ve encouraged me to go deeper, to feel deeper, and to write deeper.

This was a great help as I started writing Peony in Love, which is a historical novel based on the true story of three lovesick maidens in 17th-century China who together wrote the first book of its kind to have been written and published by women anywhere in the world.  I suppose you could say this was another one of those subjects that “no one was going to read,” and in many ways I was going out much farther on a limb.  Peony in Love has many of the same elements as Snow Flower—footbinding, women, China, the past—but I also chose to write the novel as a Chinese ghost story, which is about as different from a western ghost story as you can get.  But more than anything, I wanted Peony in Love to be an exploration of the different aspects of love: pity love, gratitude love, respectful love, erotic love, mother love.

In my conversations with book clubs about Snow Flower, we often talked about the different aspects of love.  What I learned from women in book clubs is that nearly all our actions and relationships connect to the various aspects of love and their offshoots—hate, jealousy, envy, boredom, desire, anger, etc.  Again, these weren’t conversations about plot or characters, but about our lives: how we felt about our children, our husbands or boyfriends, friends, work, responsibilities to parents, loss, failure, birth, marriage, and death.  But it’s one thing to talk about and be inspired to write about these things and quite another to actually sit down and write about them.

A few centuries ago, a Chinese woman writer said that writers have to “cut to the bone” for their writing to be good and meaningful.  I believe that’s true.  At the same time, it’s difficult, challenging, and often grueling to do it. After all, who wants to wake up in the morning and say, “Ah, today I get to cut to the bone and go to some very dark and sad places just like I did yesterday and just like I’ll do tomorrow”?  I don’t mean to sound like a big baby, but this is hard, hard, hard, and it takes an emotional toll.  Because, you see, writers live these experiences as we write them.  They aren’t something separate from us; they are us. But again, it’s women in book clubs who’ve inspired me to do just that.  They push me.  They cajole me.  They tease me.  They make me laugh and sometimes they make me cry.  They give me inspiration and encouragement, and for that I’m forever grateful, honored, and deeply indebted.  As one of my characters might say, Ten-thousand thank yous.

A Post for Bookreporter.com

I wrote this piece about book clubs for Bookreporter.com and they have kindly allowed me to post it here too.  I highly recommend this website for information on books, book clubs, writers, and amusing publishing news.  Check it out!  And in the meantime, enjoy my trip down memory lane.

When I was a kid – oh, about forty years ago, and how scary is that? – my mom and step-father used to drag me along to their monthly “discussion group.” It was a book club made up of couples – all graduate students.  My step-father would complain all the way to whoever’s house we were going and all the way back about how so-and-so was a jackass or how the book selection was “moronic.”  My mom complained she never was as sleepy as she was at those meetings, digging her nails into her palms to stay awake when everyone was trying to prove that he or she was the smartest person in the room. I lingered on the edges, listening, and watching as everyone – as my mother has put it – “tried to fake their way into the adult community.”  This was the Sixties, so people had things like giant looms in the living room and homemade macramé for curtains.  We’d eat a potluck of tuna casseroles, hotdogs and beans, and other dishes that graduate students could afford to make. As the decade wore on, the members of the group became far less interested in discussing books like than smoking pot, drinking too much tequila, and committing adultery.  Fun for all!

Jump ahead to 1995 when my first book, On Gold Mountain, came out.  I was invited to talk to my first book club, which was comprised of parents from my son’s elementary school class.  (Let me say right here then I hadn’t known this book club existed, because my husband and I hadn’t been invited.  Not that I hold a grudge or anything.)  The women wanted to talk about the book, the characters, and the underlying themes.  But the men had something else on their minds altogether:  “How much money do you make?”  “How did you get an agent?”  “How does your husband feel about you shilling yourself?” “Did your editor help you write the book?” “Who takes care of Alexander when you’re writing?”  Yikes!

All I can say is thank God for Oprah.  She single handedly changed the dynamic of the book club.  Overnight men decided – for the most part – to stay home.  I can’t say how many book clubs I’ve visited in person in the last thirteen years, but it has to be in the hundreds.  These last three years, I’ve limited myself to visiting two book clubs a week by speaker phone.  By now, I think I’ve spoken to book clubs in nearly every state, as well as in several countries. Boy oh boy, have they changed!

I’ve visited book clubs made up of women who were either pregnant or had children under the age of two, who only wanted to talk about the pregnancies and births in Peony in Love.  I’ve talked to numerous book clubs with just mothers and daughters, and a few with granddaughters too.

I’ve seen a growth in book clubs with specialized membership: hospice-care worker, church, country club, retirement, Jewish, Mormon, lesbian, and sailing – all of them women-only book clubs.  Even the one that started in my son’s class sent the men home.  When I visited for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the ambiance had changed completely: better food, better wine, better discussion, more tears, and far more laughs.

This isn’t to say that women in book clubs these days don’t still drink or do some of that other stuff that I remember from my childhood.  Alcohol seems to play a major role in a lot of book clubs.  I spoke to one book club that called itself The Winos.  Another had an ongoing contest to see who could make the best margaritas.  And of course how can women gather together and not eat?  On the down side, there are still those occasional know-it-alls who try to monopolize the discussion.

The single biggest change I’ve seen and the one I love most – and maybe this will sound funny coming from a writer – is that the book is usually secondary to the experience of women talking to each other.  Often women tell me that they spend about twenty minutes talking about the book and the rest of the meeting talking about life.  I understand that.  We’re all so busy, yet we all desire companionship and a place to let down our hair.  When and where else do we get to be with other women to boast, complain, commiserate, and laugh at silly stuff?  I may be popping in to talk about my books, but what we’re really talking about is life.  I feel very privileged to get to be a part of those conversations.