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

First Review for Dreams of Joy!

Publishers Weekly
See revisits Shanghai Girls sisters Pearl and May in this surefire story of life in Communist China. Joy, the daughter Pearl has raised as her own in L.A., learns the truth about her parentage and flees to China to seek out her father and throw herself into the Communist cause, giving See ample opportunity to explore the People’s Republic from an unlikely perspective as Joy reconnects with her artist father, Z.G. Li, and the two leave sophisticated Shanghai to go to the countryside, where Z.G., whose ironic view of politics is lost on naïve Joy, has been sent to teach art to the peasants. Joy, full of political vigor, is slow to pick up on the harsh realities of communal life in late 1950s China, but the truth sinks in as Mao’s drive to turn China into a major agriculture and manufacturing power backfires. Pearl, meanwhile, leaves L.A. on a perhaps perilous quest to find Joy. As always, See creates an immersive atmosphere–her rural China is far from postcard pretty–but Joy’s education is a stellar example of finding new life in a familiar setup, and See’s many readers will be pleased to see the continued development of Pearl and May’s relationship. Looks like another hit. (May)

Dreams of Joy TIME Magazine’s Pick for the Summer

Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy was chosen for TIME’s best of the summer:

See’s 2009 novel, Shanghai Girls, introduced us to Pearl and May, sisters who traveled from the turbulent China of the 1930s to the strange and scarcely less turbulent city of Los Angeles. This sequel adds to the mix Pearl’s 19-year-old daughter Joy, who makes the trip the other way — back to communist China in search of her father. 5/31

Flower Net

In Flower Net, Lisa See rips the veil away from modern China- its venerable culture, its teeming economy, its institutional cruelty- and highlights the inextricable link between China’s fortunes and America’s.

The Interior

Lisa See’s gripping follow-up to her best-selling novel Flower Net, follows Liu Hulan and David Stark into China’s remote countryside on a heart-pounding journey that begins as a favor to an old friend- and ends with a shocking revelation of murder, betrayal, and greed.

Win a Copy of Lisa's New Book, Shanghai Girls

Want to read more of Shanghai Girls? Send an E-mail to [email protected] and enter for the chance to win a special advance copy of Shanghai Girls, available in stores on 5/26/09. While supplies last.

In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, full of great wealth and glamour, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives, thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business. Though both wave off authority and traditions, they couldn’t be more different. Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and living the carefree life … until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth, and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. READ MORE.

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.