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 who look like me.
All writers are told to write what they know. My family is what I know. And what I don’t know—the women’s secret language, 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.
It seems that close friendships between women is one of the recurrent themes in your books. You wrote about the lao tong relationship in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; you wrote about sister-wives in Peony in Love. In Shanghai Girls, you wrote about sisters. In China Dolls, you have three friends. Why do you think close friendships between women are very important?
Each of these relationships—friends for life, sister-wives, and actual sisters—is very different. At the same time, they are uniquely female. A woman will tell her best friend things she won’t tell her mother, husband, or children. That particular intimacy is wonderful and a true blessing, but it can also leave you open to betrayal and hurt. Women being married to the same man—whether in China or with Mormons or with whatever group anywhere in the world—is also unique and rife with jealousy and rivalries, but this relationship can also be the basis for great friendship and comfort. As for sisters, well, the sibling relationship is typically the longest we’ll have in our lifetimes. Our parents will die before we do, our children will outlive us, and often women outlive their husbands, right? A sister can be your closest friend, someone who is almost a stranger, or even an enemy. What’s the difference between sisters and women who say they are “closer than sisters”? A sister is for life. I write about these relationships because I’m a woman, because I want to connect to women, and because women’s stories still need to be told.
What defines “women’s fiction” in your mind?
I don’t think I write “women’s fiction.” My stories happen to focus on women, but that’s because I feel that women’s stories—as those women have moved through history—haven’t been told very much or very well. I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it here. I’m interested in stories about women that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. And here’s something that I didn’t invent, but I think it bears repeating: they call is history—his story. I’d like to hear more of her story, since women have been living in history for every step of the human journey.
But none of this answers your question. I have to be honest and say that when I think of “women’s fiction,” I think of chick-lit, which right there is a derogatory and dismissive term. If I try to take a higher approach, then women’s fiction could be defined as stories that concern women’s friendships, motherhood, falling in love, but why should that be categorized as women’s fiction? We don’t call a novel about men’s friendships, fatherhood, or falling in love “men’s fiction,” do we?
Some would argue that men have less importance in your novels because most of your main characters have been women. How would you respond to that assumption?
We tend to learn history in terms of wars, dates, and the generals, kings and presidents who made the “big” decisions. But if you take one step away from the front line of history, you see women, children, and the elderly. All of those people are participating in history too, only their stories are often ignored as “unimportant.” I feel very honored and privileged that I get to tell those stories. They are important to me as a woman, wife, mother, and now grandmother.
All that said, I actually think men are extraordinarily important in my stories. They often set the plot into action as men so often do in real life. I have to be true to the time period in which China Dolls takes place, right? In the 1930s and 1940s, men were very much in control. In China Dolls, the character of Joe is central to the love triangle, Charlie Low runs the Forbidden City nightclub and hires the girls, Eddie is a male dancer who has a secret. I couldn’t have written China Dolls without them. But instead of the novel revolving around them, as stories usually do, China Dolls revolves around the three young women and what happens to them.
The Chinese side of your family has had a great impact on your work. Do you feel more Chinese or American?
This kind of question is very hard for me to answer. What makes you Chinese? Is it how you look, how you feel inside, how you raise your children? Most people don’t have to answer this type of question, but because I don’t look Chinese, I do. (Although I have to tell you that if you saw me with my full-blood Chinese relatives, you’d see that I look very similar to them. We are the same height, the same build, the same proportions from ankle to knee, hip to shoulder. I have the same jaw and the same eyes as my great-grandfather. Only my coloring is different.)
Anyway, to answer your question, my Chinese background influences everything in my life. It’s in how I raise my children, in what I eat, in how I remember the people in my family who’ve died. It’s in what I plant in my garden and how I decorate my house. I have a western doctor, but my main doctor is from China and practices traditional Chinese medicine.
But because of how I look I will always be “outside.” In Los Angeles Chinatown, people know me, but when I go to other Chinese communities or to China, people see me as an outsider. When I go into the larger white community here in the U.S., people look at me and talk to me as though I belong, but inside I often feel very foreign. I don’t like their bigotry and racism. In both worlds, I’m a bit outside. I think this has made me a better— and certainly more interesting—writer, because it really makes me look and feel.
Tell us about your literary journey. How easy (or difficult) was it to get your first book in print?
In one way, I was extremely fortunate with my first book. In another way, I’d already worked a very long time as a writer. To backtrack… I had worked as a journalist for many years and had been the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly for about eight years when I started On Gold Mountain. Like I said, I’d already been working a long time as a professional writer, so people in publishing knew me and my work. (They may not have known me personally, but they read me almost every week and knew, among other things, that I could meet a deadline.) I also benefited from the success of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Publishers were actively looking for more Chinese-American stories. Amy’s agent was Sandy Dijkstra. Sandy has a great American art collection, and she helped me with some of the art sources for On Gold Mountain. After two years of work—doing interviews, traveling back to the home village, searching out what I could find in archives, and then writing the proposal—I thought that Sandy would be the perfect person to sell the idea. There was an auction—a miracle as far as I was concerned. So, hard work, timing, and good luck.
Is there a character you feel closest to?
Yes! There’s a character that has appeared in almost all my books. In Dreams of Joy, she was Madame Hu; in Shanghai Girls, she was Pearl’s mother-in-law; in Peony in Love, she was the grandmother; in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, she was the matchmaker; in my three mysteries, she was the Neighborhood Committee Director; and in On Gold Mountain, the book about my family, she was my actual grandmother. Writing about my grandmother, who’s been gone many years now, allows me to be with her every day.
Who has inspired you and influenced your work?
As you can see, I adored my paternal grandmother. She probably was the greatest influence on my life. She loved to travel. She wasn’t very conventional. (She married a Chinese man when it was still against the law.) My mom, Carolyn See, who is a writer, has also been a huge influence on my life as a woman and a writer. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be the writer I am if not for her. Bob Dylan has also been an influence, not that I know him or anything. (Hey, Bob, if you’re reading this, give a call!) Lastly, I’d have to say Wallace Stegner. I used a line from Angle of Repose as the epigraph for On Gold Mountain: “Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t comprehend. I’d like to live in their clothes a while.” I didn’t realize when I used those lines that the sentiment would continue to influence me and my writing to this day.
Please describe what the pen name “Monica Highland” means to you.
Monica Highland was the pen name that my mother, Carolyn See, our friend, John Espey, and I used to write a series of books. It comes from the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland Boulevards. We had so much fun writing those books, so to me Monica Highland brings back memories of drinking champagne, family love, and laughing our heads off.
Which books have you been reading lately, and are there any you would recommend in particular? Which books do you think should be read by more readers?
When I’m writing, I’m very careful about what I read. I read very few novels, because I don’t want someone else’s voice to creep into my head even inadvertently. The only fiction I’ll read when I’m writing will be things like short stories, poetry, plays, operas, or the rare novel written in the time period that I’m writing about. It helps me with the images and ways that people spoke in those times and places. Otherwise, I read a lot of obscure non-fiction about the subject that I’m writing about. By obscure, I mean published and unpublished dissertations that even the writers’ mothers didn’t read. Right now I have some books out from the UCLA library. I’m the first person to check out some of those books in ten or twenty years!
When I’m done writing a novel, I take about three months to treat myself to all the books I’ve missed or longed to read. I loved Astrid and Veronika¸ and I’ve recommended it to a lot of book clubs. But there are other books that I absolutely love: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr, and The Handyman, by my mom, Carolyn See.
Personal Facts about Lisa
What’s a fun fact that we don’t know about you?
I type with only three fingers. Nine books with three fingers!
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 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 my books.
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.
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 negativity in the publishing business, and to have fun. If you can’t have fun writing, then what’s the point?
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 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’s your favorite city in the world?
A favorite food?
I eat everything, and I love every kind of food. I love Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean. I love Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadorean. I love Spanish cuisine, but we don’t have many restaurants in Los Angeles that serve it. I love a really good, well-made hamburger on occasion. I love ice cream, peaches, and figs. Truly, I love everything! And I’ve eaten just about everything. Maybe a better question is what foods don’t I like? I don’t like brains, lima beans, and kidneys.
What types of music do you like?
I listen to all types of music—hip hop, Indian tabla, South African township, movie 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. 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 Bob 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 lyrics.
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.
Have you had any other jobs besides writing?
I had some odd jobs back in the day. I worked for an artist. I worked in a company where I was a receptionist. Actually that experience was one of the things that told me I didn’t want to be in the kind of situation where I was in an office. I mean, I was in a room without a window! Also, when you’re working for somebody else, you’re always at their mercy. I really just wanted to be on my own—totally independent. All those other jobs made me realize what I didn’t want.
If you could choose, who would be your favorite hero/heroine of fiction?
Oh, that’s easy, but none of them are from books. In film, Ripley in Alien and Trinity in The Matrix. On television, I loved Starbuck in Battlestar Gallactica, and now I’m crazy about Carol in The Walking Dead. (I just can’t get over how Carol has evolved. I love it!) I really love those kick-ass women!
How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?
I go for walks and play tennis. I love movies, and I used to 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. These days, I have to say no more than I’d like so I can write.
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 support myself. 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 also got married and had children. I still spend an awful lot of time living out of a suitcase though!
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. (Spoiler alert! 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. 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. I didn’t need to add a single word. 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 a day, five days a week, before you do anything else. At the end of a week, you’ll have twenty pages—a chapter. 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.
How long does it take you to write a book?
I never know how to answer this question. I think about books for a long time before I sit down to write them. So, is it the two years from the day I decide this is the one until I deliver it to my publisher? Is it the five to eight years that I’ve been thinking about the idea and maybe collecting little bits and pieces of research? Or is it my entire life, because I feel like I put everything I know—about life and relationships up to this point—in a book?
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 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.
Have you ever had writer’s block?
No, thank god!!! That doesn’t mean that some days I don’t feel like writing or that I think what I’m writing sucks and will eventually be cut. Even when it’s going badly, I feel it’s really important to just keep writing that 1,000 words a day.
Typewriter, laptop, or pen & paper?
I use a desktop computer when I’m at home and a laptop when I’m traveling.
How do you feel about your books after you’re done writing them?
I’m happy to say there isn’t one that I would want to rewrite. I did the best I could at the time, and they are each snapshots of a particular moment. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Far from it. But I wouldn’t change them.
Which comes first, the story or the character?
I don’t think one comes before the other. They’re both entwined. Let’s use Snow Flower as an example. I knew I wanted to write something about the secret language. I went to a very remote part of China to see what I could see. As I was going there, I had an incredible meal where they brought in a live chicken, killed it, and then we cooked it in a hot pot. They made taro and caramelized sugar for dessert. This meal became the favorite special meal for Lily and Snow Flower.
I didn’t know that Snow Flower was going to marry a butcher until I sat on the porch of a house in a tiny village and learned that this was the home of a butcher. There was a big wok embedded in the porch where the butcher slaughtered the pig and then boiled the body to remove the skin—right outside the front door!
I didn’t know the overall form of the novel until I was leaving China. I had one night in a nice hotel room. I had my first hot shower in a long time and a meal that didn’t involve pig penis or pig’s blood. This voice came to me that was a bit of my grandmother, a bit of my great-aunt, and a bit of the 96-year-old woman I’d met in one of the villages. I got in bed and wrote the opening chapter. It involved an old woman filled with regrets looking back on her life. So the novel was written from her point of view as a kind of autobiography. The point I’m making is that these things could have happened in any order. One thing just builds upon another. You have to be open and receptive to what the universe brings you.
On Gold Mountain
What inspired you to write On Gold Mountain?
As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles in our family’s Chinese antiques store in Los Angeles Chinatown, where I heard stories about my great-grandfather, Fong See, who lived to be 100 years old and became the godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I loved those stories and so did many other people, who often approached my family to write a book, a magazine article, or even a film script about my family. But my family never wanted to participate in those projects. I think there were two reasons. First, they had incredible arrogance. (Why should we participate in someone else’s project?) Second, they had a lot of embarrassment and shame, because so much of what the family had done was either borderline illegal or full on out there illegal. (After all, bigamy is against the law in this country. So is smuggling!) The situation remained like that for about 100 years when my aunt asked me to write the book. The first day I interviewed her, she told me things I’d never heard before. My great-grandfather didn’t have two wives. He had four! She told me that it was actually my great-great-grandfather who had first come here. And in passing, she mentioned a kidnapping. I’d never heard of the kidnapping, and it took another two years, lots of interviews, and a trip back to the home village to hear the full story.
Anyway, in the beginning, I didn’t think I would write a book. I thought I would write up some details with dates and things like that and send it to everyone in the family at Christmas. One thing led to another, and then I thought, well, okay, I’ll write a magazine article, which I did. But then I kept asking questions and interviewing my relatives. The more questions I asked, the more questions I had. I lot of those questions were things like: why did the family go back to China in 1901, 1912, 1921, and 1937, why did they move from Sacramento to Los Angeles in the year they did, why did my family members keep going to Mexico to get married, and why didn’t my great-grandfather ever buy a house?
At that time there was very, very little written about Chinese-American history. I went to the UCLA research library and checked out all five books they had on Chinese-American history. Not very many books! But right away I found an answer to one of my questions. That’s when I realized that the answers to so many of the questions I had about my family were as a result of the history that was happening around them—whether locally, in the state, nationally, or in the world. History, I finally understood, was not about dates and wars. It was about how those dates and wars affect real people. Do we succeed or fail? Do we find happiness or despair? That’s when I knew I could write a book. I would use my family to tell the story of the Chinese in America.
How did you confirm the history behind On Gold Mountain?
I found about 500 pages of interrogations, photographs, health certificates, telegrams, and boarding passes about my family in the National Archive. These documents helped to confirm the oral history stories. They also served as dialogue in many scenes. For other dialogue, I talked to as many people as I could who were in the room during a conversation. I had the help of librarians, archivists, and other fact checkers to make sure I got everything right. There are only a couple of places in the book where I say this is how something could have happened, or I offer different scenarios about what happened. I wanted those few places to be very distinct from the stories that are completely verifiable.
Has On Gold Mountain—a history of your family’s journey from China to America—changed your own history?
Yes, and the 20th anniversary is next year. Three years ago, my cousin found some letters written to my great-grandmother, Ticie, from her family. We had always thought that the Pruett family had cut Ticie off entirely when she married a Chinese man, and I wrote On Gold Mountain as though that had happened. After the book came out, I actually met Ticie’s family, who were mostly still living in Oregon, and it turned out they had been in contact with her. But still, those letters that my cousin found really changed everything I thought I knew. I called my editor and said that the 20th anniversary was coming and that maybe I could do an update at that time. She said she thought that was a good idea, but we didn’t have to worry about the update for a while. About six weeks later, she called me back. She decided we should do the update right away, which I did. So in the 17th-year, Vintage put out a new edition—with a new jacket and a new chapter at the end (with all the new things I had learned and how the book had changed my life). You’ll have to read it to find the answers! And guess what! After 17 years, On Gold Mountain went onto the New York Times bestseller list! How crazy is that?
The Red Princess Mysteries
What inspired you to write 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, and 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!
Are you ever going to write another mystery novel?
Right now I don’t have any plans to continue with them, but that doesn’t mean I won’t one of these days. Poor David and Hulan have been through so much. I like to think that they’re on vacation somewhere, sitting by the ocean, under a palm tree, sipping drinks with those little umbrellas in them. Those two deserve a break! But one day they’ll be called back to work.
Is it more difficult to write mysteries or fiction?
Writing straight fiction is much easier than writing mysteries or thrillers. Writing the mysteries helped me tremendously with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. With mysteries, you have to keep focused on the plot. You can’t overlook a single detail. It’s a very tight form, and the 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 plotline 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.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
How did you first hear about nu shu?
I first heard about nu shu 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? Then I thought, how could this exist and we all didn’t know about it? Because so often we hear that in the past, there were no women writers, artists, historians, chefs, and the list goes on and on. Of course women did these things, but that work has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Nu shu, on the other hand, was an example of something that women had invented, used, and kept a secret for a thousand years. That amazed me, and I have to say I became totally obsessed.
What was the purpose behind foot binding?
The first form of foot binding was said to have begun in China in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when an emperor became entranced with a concubine who danced with silken ribbons on her feet. The other concubines, jealous of the attention she got from their august lord, started binding their feet with ribbons too.
During the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911), this practice was taken to the extreme. Feet wrapped in silk were no longer enough to draw attention or praise. To be marriageable, a girl was expected to have tiny feet. The ideal was the Golden Lotus, feet that are only 3-inches long.
This still doesn’t explain why it lasted so long—more than a thousand years! There are several reasons. First, it was a terrific economic status symbol for men. A man could say, “I’m so wealthy that, look, I have a wife with bound feet,” meaning she didn’t have to work. Or, “I’m so extraordinarily wealthy that even my servants have bound feet.” Now that was an extremely wealthy man. Second, men are men, so there was a whole sexual component to bound feet. Anything you could imagine they did with those bound feet, they did, and more. But that still doesn’t explain why it lasted so long. This was something that a mother did to her daughter. It was passed down generation to generation through the centuries. I think this is the hardest thing to understand—how a mother could inflict such terrible pain on her daughter. She did it because it was the one thing she could do to possibly give her daughter a better chance at life. If she could give her daughter a pair of perfectly bound feet, then maybe her daughter would marry into a better family and have a better life. If that was the only way you could help your daughter, wouldn’t you do it too?
What is the nature of the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower? Did you intend for their relationship to have erotic undertones?
To me, Lily and Snow Flower are very innocent. They’ve never been outside, so they haven’t even seen animals together. To me, the scene where they’re writing on their bodies is about becoming more intimate through writing, so I don’t see it as being homosexual at all. That said, I think Lily has an almost male possessiveness when it comes to Snow Flower.
Interestingly, at the exact same time in the U.S. and England, women—who also spent their lives pretty much confined by their corsets and in their marriages to men they barely knew or saw—also wrote letters to their women friends. Many scholars believe that the confinement and lack of any chance to actually be loved or give love resulted in a heightened emotional writing style that had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the longing for love and emotion. But it’s also true that there’s small number of scholars who believe that these women writers—whether in China, the U.S., or England in the 1800s—did have homosexual relationships.
Peony in Love
How did you come across The Three Wives’ Commentary?
I first heard about the lovesick maidens when I was researching a piece for Vogue on the 2001 Lincoln Center production of the Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion.” Back in the mid-17th century, women and girls in China weren’t allowed to see the opera, but they could read it. When they read it, young girls caught cases of lovesickness, wasted away, and died, just like the main character in the opera. As they were dying, they wrote poems and stories, which were then published after their deaths. I came to find out that the lovesick maidens were part of a much larger phenomenon. In the mid-17th century in China, there were more women writers who were being published than altogether in the rest of the world at that time! I thought, How could there have been that many women writers and I didn’t know about them…and why don’t we all know? But I was still very interested in the lovesick maidens and the three wives, in particular. I loved that they wrote the first book of its kind to have been written and published by women anywhere in the world. I love even more that what they wrote is still so meaningful and powerful today. In Peony in Love, every time the three wives are writing in the margins of “The Peony Pavilion,” those are their actual words.
Why did you choose the mixed format of history and fiction for Peony in Love?
I thought about writing about the three wives for years. I even wanted to do it as an opera and talked to the director and composer of the “On Gold Mountain” opera to see if they’d be interested in working on it with me, but they were busy with other projects. I continued to think about how to tell the three wives’ story. I didn’t think there was enough for a non-fiction book. But when I thought about telling their story as fiction, I wasn’t interested in telling one wife’s story, followed by the second wife’s story, and then the third wife’s story. I wanted one strong voice to carry me and readers through. On the last day and on the very last page of writing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I figured out how to do it. On the last page, Lily, who’s been writing her story as an autobiography, says that she hopes her writings will be burned at her death so that the words will travel to the afterworld where they’ll introduce her to others who already reside there, keep her company in years to come, but most of all be an apology to Snow Flower. In that moment, I wondered, how would Snow Flower have told this story differently? I didn’t want to retell Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I did realize that I could tell the story of the three wives from the perspective of the first wife by letting her be in the Chinese afterworld. Obviously, if you’re writing from the perspective of the Chinese ghost world, it has to be fiction!
As a person with some Chinese heritage, do you believe in the “ghosts” of China that were portrayed in Peony in Love?
I don’t particularly believe in the Chinese version of the afterlife anymore than I believe in the western version of the afterlife. But I do love the idea that in the Chinese version you go to the afterworld—whether as an ancestor or as a ghost—with all the same needs, wants, and desires that we have in this life. People in the afterworld still need clothes, food, a place to live. These days they need to have I-Pods, flat-screen TVs, cars, and cell phones. These items are made out of paper and burned by relatives on earth so they will travel to the afterworld for ancestors to use. But these are just material objects, and I’m not that interested in those. What I love about the Chinese afterworld is that you also go there with all your emotions. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I finished writing the book. Most of us have lost someone in our lives. We’re left with feelings of love, despair, anguish, grief, and sometimes anger and resentment. What if the person who dies is experiencing a kind of mirror image of that? We live by our emotions, so why should or would they disappear when we die? I think it’s rather intriguing to think that our emotions would continue. I also really like the Chinese idea that even after you die, you continue to learn and evolve.
Why did you choose for Shanghai Girls to begin in the 1930’s?
There were several factors that contributed to when I set the novel. I wanted to write about the Confession Program, which happened in the late 1950s. I also wanted to write about what causes people to leave their homes to go to a new country, how people make 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 in Los Angeles. 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. But I don’t know if I chose the time to begin the story. Rather, 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 1956.
Shanghai Girls is one of the few novels to tackle the Confession Program. Even today some old Chinese immigrants are still afraid to talk about it. What was it, how did you get people to talk about it, and what did you learn?
The Confession Program, which ran from 1956 to 1965, was a U.S. government program that targeted those Chinese who had come to America illegally as “paper sons.” First, let me go back and explain what a paper son is. The Exclusion Act of 1882 barred the immigration of all Chinese immigrants, except for those who were students, diplomats, ministers, or merchants. You could also come if you were the son of an American citizen. After the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, all birth records for California were destroyed. Suddenly those Chinese who were already here could claim that they’d been born here—therefore American citizens. No one could prove them right, but no one could prove them wrong either. Now a man could go back to China to visit his wife and claim she had given birth to a son. He would receive a certificate saying that he had a son, which he could then use for a family member or sell to a total stranger, who would then come to the U.S. as a paper son—the dubious son of a dubious American citizen.
With the Confession Program, the U.S. government asked Chinese to “confess” their paper-son status. They were encouraged to reveal the people they knew in their own families—fathers, sons, brothers, wives—who had come in using false status. But it didn’t stop there. People were also asked to name neighbors, business associates, and anyone else they suspected might be a Communist. In exchange, they would be given their legitimate U.S. citizenship.
There is still a lot of shame and embarrassment about what happened during the program. People don’t like to admit that they were targeted; others don’t want to admit that they confessed; still others don’t want to say that they were the ones who ratted out someone. And this can happen in the same family! It was hard to find people who’d either participated in the program voluntarily or had been targeted by it. But finally I got some people to talk to me about what happened to them during those days. The stories were sad and very hard to hear. One man said to me, “There were a lot of suicides, a lot of suicides. It’s hard to remember these things because of the pain.” Another person said, “I don’t know that we’ve ever mentioned any of this to our children or our grandchildren.” He then added, “We aren’t dead yet, so we aren’t safe yet.” That’s how afraid some people are still today. Interestingly, a whole other way to look at the Confession Program was as an amnesty program. When you change “confession” to “amnesty,” the connotations are very different, aren’t they?
Do you have a favorite part of Shanghai Girls?
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. 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, could never 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.
Dreams of Joy
What made you decide to revisit the characters of Shanghai Girls?
I didn’t plan to write a sequel. I thought the end of Shanghai Girls was a new beginning. Readers thought otherwise. Absolutely everyone, including my publisher, asked for a sequel. I loved spending more time with Pearl, Joy, and May. I thought and wrote about them for six years, so I know them really, really well. It was interesting to go even deeper emotionally with all of them.
What kinds of research did you do for Dreams of Joy?
Research is my absolute favorite part of the writing process. I LOVE it! I go everywhere my characters go. I eat everything they eat. Actually, that’s not quite true. Until this book, I ate everything my characters ate, but I had to draw the line with some of the things the characters had to eat in Dreams of Joy. I try to find out everything I can about the time and place where my characters live. For Dreams of Joy, I visited a 17th-century villa in a small village called Huangcun in China’s Anhui province. Going to a small village in the interior of China is like stepping back in time many decades and in some respects many centuries. I also interview as many people as I can find. With this book, I was looking for people who either went back to China when it was “closed,” or people who left China legally or illegally during those same years. I heard some incredible stories, which I was able to incorporate into the novel. And, of course, I do standard academic research, looking at archival material, searching for first-person accounts, and doing everything I can do so that in writing my books it feels like I’m in the room with my characters.
Will there be a sequel to Dreams of Joy?
I’m not working on a sequel to Dreams of Joy, although I did plant some things in that novel in case I ever decide to write a third book in the series.
How did the idea for China Dolls come about?
I started with the idea that I wanted to write about three friends. That triangle is so complicated—for men and women! I recently learned that NASA even did a study on the subject and learned that they should always send two, not three, astronauts into space, because otherwise the two-against-one scenario always arises.
But I’d also been thinking about writing about the Chinese-American nightclub scene of the 1930s and 1940s for years. I have fans who have sent me photos of their mothers, aunts, fathers, and uncles who performed. There were so many great stories. I also felt that if I didn’t do this now, then I might not have a chance to interview some of the earliest performers. I interviewed Dorothy Toy and Mary Ong Tom when they were 93; I interviewed Mai Tai Sing and Trudi Long when they were 88. I count myself very fortunate to have captured their stories and had a chance to experience their humor, courage, and persistence firsthand. Those four women were my greatest inspiration for China Dolls.
What do you want people to take away from reading China Dolls?
Every reader is different, and every reader takes away something different. If I do say so myself—and I guess I am saying so, ha!—there’s a little something for everyone in China Dolls. So… If you like dancing, there’s dancing. If you like backstage stories, there’s that. If you like stories about friendship, I think you’ll find that this is a very different take on the dark shadow side of friendship. The novel is set during one of the most transformative periods in our history—the end of the Depression, World War II, and the adoption of television into our homes in a big way. In the decade from 1938 to 1948, we, as Americans, changed how we looked at each other and at the world, what we ate, how we dressed, how we spent time with our families, and how we spent our leisure time. So there’s lots of stuff to learn and discover in these pages. Lastly, if you like to have a good cry when you’re reading a book, then China Dolls is the book for you!
What are some films from that time period that you can recommend that might be of interest, both in positive and negative lights to the Chinese experience in early Hollywood?
Anything starring Anna May Wong is worth a look, and I think some of the World War II films where Chinese are playing Japanese (because Japanese actors were interned) are interesting just for the sad history of the time. Beyond those, I’d also want people to see some of the other performers who danced and sang. Here’s a link to a YouTube clip from a film called “With Best Dishes.” (Yes, that’s the correct whimsical title.) In it, you see Paul Wing and Dorothy Toy, the “Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” They’re amazing!
And here’s another with a singer named Anna Chang, and yes that’s Cary Grant with her:
There are so many negative roles that it’s almost hard to know where to begin, but the one that immediately pops into my mind is Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese, Mr. Yunioshi, in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
What are you working on now?
I’ve finished most of the research for the next novel, and I can tell you a few things even though I don’t know exactly yet how it will all fit together. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (working title) has three main elements: the mother/daughter relationship, the history of tea, and the Akha ethnic minority of China. For the mother/daughter story, I want to write about a woman who gives up her baby for adoption in China, the woman in California who adopts her, and the girl herself. Tea will provide the historical backdrop. Tea is the second most popular drink in the world after water. The people in China that I’ll be writing about are Akha, but they’re labeled as Hani. They have truly unique customs. I recently returned from the birthplace of tea in the mountains of Yunnan. I’m so excited about this new novel. I think it’s going to be great!