Lisa See interview with David Alan Binder
Post date: Apr 7, 2017 2:36:30 PM
Lisa See interview with David Alan Binder
Bio from her website: In her beloved New York Times bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and, most recently, China Dolls, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the strong bonds between women. These books have been celebrated for their authentic, deeply researched, lyrical stories about Chinese characters and cultures. Now, in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Scribner, March 2017), See incorporates impressive research on international adoption, the history of the Akha people in China, and Pu’er tea farming and customs to tell a powerful story about a family separated by circumstances, culture, and distance. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little-known region and its people and celebrates the unbreakable connection between mothers and daughters. Booklist has called the novel “an extraordinary homage to unconditional love.”
Ms. See has always been intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or happening right now in the world today. For Snow Flower, she traveled to a remote area of China—where she was told she was only the second foreigner ever to visit—to research the secret writing invented, used, and kept a secret by women for over a thousand years. Amy Tan called the novel “achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination.” Others agreed, and foreign-language rights for Snow Flower were sold to 39 countries. The novel also became a New York Times bestseller, a Booksense Number One Pick, has won numerous awards domestically and internationally, and was made into a feature film produced by Fox Searchlight.
Ms. See was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, but spent a lot of time with her father’s family in Chinatown. Her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), was a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. The book traces the journey of Lisa’s great-grandfather, Fong See, who overcame obstacles at every step to become the 100-year-old godfather of Los Angeles’s Chinatown and the patriarch of a sprawling family.
While collecting the details for On Gold Mountain, she developed the idea for her first novel, Flower Net (1997), which was a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and on the Los Angeles Times Best Books List for 1997. Flower Net was also nominated for an Edgar award for best first novel. This was followed by two more mystery-thrillers, The Interior (2000) and Dragon Bones (2003), which once again featured the characters of Liu Hulan and David Stark. This series inspired critics to compare Ms. See to Upton Sinclair, Dashiell Hammett, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Ms. See has led an active and varied career. She was the Publishers Weekly West Coast Correspondent for thirteen years. As a freelance journalist, her articles have appeared in Vogue, Self, and More, as well as in numerous book reviews around the country. She wrote the libretto for Los Angeles Opera based on On Gold Mountain, which premiered in June 2000 at the Japan American Theatre. She also served as guest curator for an exhibit on the Chinese-American experience at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, which then traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 2001. Ms. See then helped develop and curate the Family Discovery Gallery at the Autry Museum, an interactive space for children and their families that focused on Lisa’s bi-racial, bi-cultural family as seen through the eyes of her father as a seven-year-old boy living in 1930s Los Angeles. She has designed a walking tour of Los Angeles Chinatown and wrote the companion guidebook for Angels Walk L.A. to celebrate the opening of the MTA’s Chinatown metro station. She also curated the inaugural exhibition—a retrospective of artist Tyrus Wong—for the grand opening of the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles.
Ms. See was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001, was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award in 2003, and will receive the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California in 2017. She sits on the board of Los Angeles Opera and is a member of The Trusteeship, an organization comprised of preeminent women of achievement and influence in diverse fields.
1. Where are you currently living?
I live in Los Angeles, CA.
2. What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?
To not be afraid of opening my heart and sharing it with people.
3. What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?
I always write the last sentence first. When I was a kid, I always read the first chapter, then the last chapter, then the second chapter, then the penultimate chapter. I couldn’t stand not knowing how a story ended, but this also taught me to see how the author was plotting the book and what he or she was doing with the characters and their emotions. (By the way, I still read books this way.) When I write the last sentence first, I’m really saying to myself that this is where I want the sorry and the characters to end up emotionally. It allows me to write toward that final emotional place.
4. Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?
a. Who is the name of your publisher and in what city are they located?
I’ve had many publishers over the years: St. Martin’s, Harper Collins, Random House, and now Scribner. All of them are based in New York City.
5. Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
What I’m finding is that readers seem to be swinging back to print books. People seem to perceive the value in having a real book to hold in their hands and display on their shelves. The data seems to support what I’m seeing as sales for e-book readers and e-books in general have leveled off. I have a Kindle, but I only use it for travel. I’d much rather curl up in bed with a real book.
6. Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?
My secret tip isn’t very secret. It’s pretty key to get an agent. But how to do that? I have two suggestions for that. First, look in the acknowledgements in books written by writers that you think your work is similar to or who you admire. Who did that writer thank as his or her agent? Often agents have a genre or type of writing that they like and respond to. This is a way to help narrow down who to approach. Second and I realize not everyone can afford to do this, go to a writers’ conference where they have agents in attendance. Look for those conferences where you can sign up for a half hour private meeting with an agent. You’re looking for representation, but remember that they’re looking for writers to represent.
7. How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent? Any tips for new writers on getting one?
You could move my answer above to here, if you’d like.
8. Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers (please be specific and informational as possible)?
Write a 1,000 words a day. That’s only four pages. At the end of a week, you’ll have a chapter. If you can’t write a 1,000 words, then write 500 words a day. That’s only two pages, but at the end of two weeks, you’ll have a chapter. Consistency is very important. You can’t wait around for the muse to visit. She’s too busy for us! So just do your work: a day, a day, a day. It’s very powerful to see what happens.
9. What was one of the most surprising things you learned with your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?
The most surprising thing is that you can’t guess or plan for what will be successful. That’s obvious, right? But you’d be surprised how many people ask me how to write a bestseller. If I knew the answer, I would write a bestseller every single time! All we can do as writers, it seems to me, is write as close to the bone as possible and then hope that readers will find it. My feeling is that even if a particular books doesn’t have a gigantic readership that the right people those who are supposed to read the book will find it.
10. How many books have you written?
Ten. I’ve also had pieces in various anthologies.
11. Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?
Read everything out loud. First, you will catch lots of mistakes even basic typos because reading out loud forces your eyes to slow down and really look. Second, you will hear if the dialogue sounds like actual human beings speaking. Third, those parts that are superfluous, overreaching, melodramatic, or emotionally false will really jump out at you. Cut them!
12. What are some ways in which you promote your work?
I do a little of everything. I have a web site. People can write to me through it, and I answer every single email. I’m also on Twitter and Facebook. I visit book clubs on Skype. I do events at all sorts of venues. When I was first starting out, I did any and all events. Sometimes only four people showed up. That’s OK, because what you’re doing is practicing how to speak in public and you’re building an audience. Remember, it’s extremely rare to have overnight success. (It’s like one in a million, right?) But if you plug along a day at a time by being patient, kind, and persistent you’ll find and build you readership.
13. What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating) and why?
14. What saying or mantra do you live by?
Work hard and don’t get depressed. When I was a kid, my parents bought a house from an eccentric German composer. This line was written on a piece of paper above his worktable. A friend then embroidered the saying on a sampler. After my mother died, that sampler came to me.
15. Anything else you would like to say?
These were terrific questions. Very thoughtful and fun.