What is your educational background?
I went to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. I started out as an art history major, but I graduated with a B.A. in the Humanities. I ended up creating my own major, which was Modern Greek Studies. On the surface it would seem like that wouldn’t have helped me much as a writer, but actually it did. I learned the pleasures and surprises of research, which are at the heart of all of my books.
Where do you live? Do you have a family?
I live in Brentwood, California. (Yep, that’s right, of O.J. Simpson fame.) I’m married. My husband is an attorney. I have two sons. Alexander is working in Boston. Christopher is a student at Stanford. These three men are the greatest joys of my life.
Did you have a favorite teacher?
I had two. The first was Mrs. Bruinslot, my fifth grade teacher at Topanga Canyon Elementary School. She was a wild and fiery old dame. She loved history and she made it come alive by talking about the quirkiness of each individual person instead of the usual recitation of dates, wars, presidents, and kings. She taught me that history is something that happens to individual people. I used that idea with On Gold Mountain, the mysteries, and now Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
The other great teacher in my life is my mom, Carolyn See, who’s a wonderful and much beloved writer. She is the most incredible person, truly! She taught me to write a thousand words a day, stay focused, not get dragged down by the negativity in the publishing business, and to have fun. If you can’t have fun writing, then what’s the point?
How and when did you decide to become a writer?
I knew three things about myself when I was growing up. I never wanted to get married, I didn’t want to have children, and I always wanted to live out of a suitcase. I took two years off from college to travel in Europe. The whole time I was wondering how I was going to make my life work the way I envisioned it and how I would be able to afford it. One morning, when I was living in Greece, I woke up and it was like a cartoon light bulb had gone off in my head. I thought, Oh, I could be a writer! But clearly I didn’t know myself very well, because I got married and had children. I still spend an awful lot of time living out of a suitcase though!
Why do you write about China?
I’m part Chinese. My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather was the godfather/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 hundreds of relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are only about a dozen that look like me.
All writers are told to write what they know. My family is what I know. And what I don’t know – nu shu, for example – I love to find out whatever I can 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. The American side of me tries 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.” What I 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.
What’s your writing process?
I get up early and work on my e-mail for an hour or two. Then I write 1,000 words a day. That’s only four pages. Some days I write more, but I try never to write less. I usually have an outline and I write from beginning to end without stopping to edit. Some writers won’t move forward until they get one page absolutely perfect, but I think you can spend a lot of time questioning yourself and making things perfect before going on. Also, if you write straight through, you allow magic to happen.
A good example of that was when I was working on The Interior. (If you’re about to read that book, don’t read the rest of this paragraph.) It’s a mystery, so a body was discovered up around page three and the identity of the killer and the conspiracy were going to be revealed around page 400. I was working one day—typing and minding my own business—when all of a sudden it turned out the killer was someone completely different than who I’d planned. But I loved the scene. I knew I’d have to go back and add some clues and bits and pieces so that readers wouldn’t be upset that the killer had just popped out of nowhere. So I went back to the beginning and there he was in the first scene! In fact, he’d done everything he’d needed to do. That, to me, is the magic of writing and it was something I never could have planned.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Write 1,000 words each day before you do anything else. That’s only four pages, but at the end of a week you’ll have twenty pages. If you do it first thing in the morning, then you won’t get distracted by all the things that tempt you not to write.
So much of writing happens, I think, in the editing process. I tell aspiring writers that they should listen to criticism – whether it’s from a teacher or an editor – and then look at it three ways. About a third of all editing suggestions are right, a third are absolutely wrong, and a third are things you have to look at, consider, and play around with.
What’s your favorite all-time book?
Ameliaranne and the Magic Ring, by Eleanor Farjeon. My grandmother picked up this children’s book at a thrift store many, many years ago, so it was old and very used when she gave it to me. It’s about a little girl who longs to own a special doll from the local toy store but can’t possibly afford it. Ameliaranne wins a toy ruby ring from a grab bag run by gypsies. Then she finds out that the old woman who runs the toyshop mistakenly gave her life savings to the gypsies, who also deal in rags. Ameliaranne finds the daughter of the gypsy grab bag/rag dealer and trades her ruby ring for the lost sock with the money. In the end, the old woman gives Ameliaranne the doll as a reward. I loved this story! Then my little sister lost the book. Spring forward about thirty-five years. My sister did an international search, found a copy on the Internet, and gave it to me for my birthday in 2005. It turns out that while there is an entire series of Ameliaranne books, only 2,000 copies were printed of Ameliaranne and the Magic Ring. It’s amazing how clearly I had remembered the story and even whole sections of text, but what really struck me was that in many ways I had modeled my life on Ameliaranne. Not only that, the title of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan bears a striking resemblance to Ameliaranne and the Magic Ring. The subconscious works in mysterious ways. What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing? I listen to all types of music—hip hop, Indian tabla, South African township, soundtracks, Mexican jarocho, norteno, and mariachi, everything really. I love the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, and the Stones—lots of stuff from the sixties; on the other side of the spectrum, I think 50 Cent, OutKast, and Eminem really know how to tell stories and they’re funny too. I also love opera. I’ve learned a lot about storytelling, specifically how to tell a story through the pure emotion of music, through opera. The language is gorgeous too. And I can’t help it, but I love Dylan. I realize his voice isn’t as melodious as it could be, but I still think the guy’s a genius. He can tell an entire story in just a few minutes. He uses beautiful and interesting words, and I love the cadence and rhythm of his writing.
Words are distracting when I’m writing, so my favorite CDs to work to are “Puccini without Words,” which has—obviously—Puccini’s opera scores minus the words, the soundtrack to “Monsoon Wedding,” and Midori playing Mozart’s sonatas.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you’re writing?
I don’t have any special rituals other than starting early so I don’t get distracted by the day and drinking lots and lots of decaffeinated tea. On my desk I have photos of my sons, Chinese wind-up toys, a pencil holder my youngest son made for me, a photo of a dim sum lunch I made that was really gorgeous (if I do say so myself), a dictionary of Chinese street language, and the research notebooks I’ve used for each book so I can refer back to them.What are you working on now? When I first heard about nu shu, 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? So often we hear that in the past there were no women writers, no women artists, no women historians. There were women, but supposedly they didn’t do anything. But of course they did things. It’s just so often what they did was lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. In all of my books, I’ve tried to find and bring back lost stories. More and more, I find I’m increasingly drawn to the lost stories of women.My new book is like a mirror image of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which was about 19 th-century uneducated women who found solace and friendship through their secret writing. In the 17 th-century, in the Hangzhou area of China, the women were extremely well educated, came from wealthy families, but still had bound feet. There were more women writers in this area who were being published than altogether in the rest of the world at that time. My new novel focuses on a sub-category of these women called the lovesick maidens.
This story is based on fact and focuses on three young women. The first was a sixteen-year-old girl, Chen Tong, who was engaged to be married. She loved an opera called The Peony Pavilion, which is about a girl who catches a case of lovesickness, dies, comes back to earth as a ghost, and is eventually resurrected through true love. Chen Tong used to stay up late at night to read the opera, and then write her thoughts about the characters and the nature of love in the margins of the story. Unfortunately, like the main character in the opera, she became lovesick, wasted away, and died. The poet she was engaged to married another sixteen-year-old girl, who also loved The Peony Pavilion. She added her thoughts to the same volume as her predecessor. She lent the volume to a friend, who showed it around Hangzhou. Everyone kept asking, “Who could have written such wonderful thoughts about love?” To which the second wife responded, “My husband.” He became quite famous for this, but she caught a case of lovesickness, wasted away, and died. The poet married a third time to yet another sixteen-year-old girl. She added her thoughts in the margins, but she was made of different stuff than her two predecessors. She pawned her wedding jewelry, and used the money to have the volume published. “The Three Wives Commentary” became the first book of literary criticism written by women to be published in the world. I’m writing the novel as a ghost story within a ghost story. It’s about love, how women find their purpose in life, and those emotions which are so strong that they transcend time, place, and perhaps even death.
Is there a specific talent you would most like to have?
I’d love to have ESP, an awesome serve for tennis, to be able to TIVO in real life, and to know where the commas go at all times.
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
A landscape architect.
How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?
I go for walks and play tennis. I love movies and see about 100 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, and I think I’m pretty good at answering my e-mail in a timely way. (So write to me!) My days are extraordinarily full with all sorts of things and I have to say no more than I’d like so I can write.
In Snow Flower, you often refer to cash. What is that?
Cash was a type of money used in China. It was round and usually had a square cutout in the middle.