Today’s author spotlight with bestselling novelist Lisa See provides insight into her creative process, research and more. Plus, I have a surprise for you today. Our author spotlight is by video.
Lisa has written over 10 novels.
Masterful at historical fiction, the same storytelling and research skills employed in that genre make the 100 year history of Lisa See’s family (between China and the US) an epic and fulfilling reading journey. Her family’s struggles with racism, immigration and maintaining cultural identity are especially timely.
I’m especially in love with her newest novel: The Island of Sea Women, an extraordinary novel about friendship and forgiveness that takes place on the South Korean Island of Jeju during several pivotal points in history. Lisa See’s deep historical research, multi-level themes and exquisite writing and characterizations make this my favorite novel of the year.
In today’s author spotlight, we discuss:
- The role research plays in Lisa’s books and how the research inspires characters and plot,
- Lisa’s creative process and how the themes evolve over time.
- How Lisa weaves multiple themes into a book for a deep reading journey
- Some of the remarkable details of the matrilineal culture of Jeju Island and the island’s global historical significance in the past century
- The themes of forgiveness and friendship and their place in her most recent book
- Lisa See’s creative influences, including her mother, writer and author Carolyn See, and her grandfather.
- The role of her multi-racial roots and ancestry in shaping her writing.
I hope you enjoy this interview of one of America’s best novelists as much as I did!
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF VIDEO INTERVIEW
Note: Lisa See mentions “haenyeo” early in the interview; these are the women free divers of the South Korean island of Jeju who figure as the heroines in her latest book.
Lisa Tener: Hi, this is Lisa Tener and I am so honored and thrilled to have with me Lisa See, author of so many amazing novels and a beautiful family history and memoir of On Gold Mountain. Today we’re going to talk about The Island of Sea Women, which is probably the most extraordinary book I’ve read this year. I couldn’t believe when Lisa said “yes” to my request for an interview.
As those of you who are used to our interviews, they’re usually just a written interview so I’m excited to be doing this by video with Lisa today. Lisa, thank you so much for being here.
Lisa See: Thank you so much for having me.
Lisa Tener: I’ve enjoyed every single book of yours that I’ve read and each has offered insights into a culture and time that’s different from the time we live now, yet with universal similarities as well. I found these cultures incredibly interesting. I’d like to start with your most recent book, The Island of Sea Women, which takes place on Jeju Island.
Research for Historical Fiction Tweet This
Lisa Tener: It’s historical fiction about a matrilineal culture where women often control the purse strings and men often took care of the children during the day, while many of the wives and older daughters dived in the sea for sea creatures to eat and sell.
I want to start with some of the research for that book. Was it hard to understand the people and get to the nuances of how they experienced life—What they think and their attitudes and values? Because you seem to capture this in such depth and I wondered how much research you did and how challenging it was.
Lisa See: I do research in all kinds of ways. I live ordinarily in Los Angeles, very close to UCLA. I spend a lot of time in the research library there. I try to talk to academics and scholars and scientists, whoever I think can help me, who actually has some knowledge about what I’m writing about.
Usually, these are people who have devoted their lives to a particular subject. They’re going to know more than I will ever, ever, ever know on even just one tiny piece of something. Then I always go to the places that I write about.
When I was on Jeju I got to meet the head shaman for the island, and interview him. I interviewed the top woman shaman whose job it is to go around to all the seaside villages and do rituals and traditions to keep them safe in the sea.
I talked to scholars and researchers and scientists there who have devoted their lives to researching these women and the culture of these women. For example, I interviewed a woman who, for the last 40 years, has collected the haenyeo songs. She is the world’s expert on haenyeo songs.
But the most important thing is, I got to interview the women themselves. Some of these interviews were just kind of catch-as-catch-can. I would go to where women were going into the sea in the morning, where they were coming out in the afternoon. These are working women. Sometimes I’d say, “Can I talk to you for a bit?” They’d say, “No, go away, we’re busy. We’re working.” Sometimes they’d say, “Sure. Sit down.”
Those interviews were anywhere from five minutes to a half an hour. But I also had interviews set up with some women that were really in depth. These were in their homes. You leave your shoes outside, you come in, you sit on the floor. Very little, if any, furniture. Drink tea. They would bring out these special oranges from Jeju. Then we would talk anywhere from two to eight hours. Those were very, very in depth.
Then the third category of women that I interviewed were the women who are retired, semi-retired or getting over an injury who sit on the shore and gather and sort the seaweed and algae that’s washed ashore overnight.
Again, it was just kind of, “May I sit down and talk to you for a bit?” Sometimes they’d say, “Sure” and sometimes they’d say, “No.”
I loved those women so much that, although I had not planned to have a part of the book that was set in contemporary times, as you know the book actually opens with an old woman sitting on the shore and gathering and sorting seaweed that’s washed ashore.
Lisa Tener: Which was such a beautiful opening. It does speak to the magic of how a book unfolds and the surprises that are in store for the writers as you write it.
Writing Authentic Dialogue for Historical Fiction
Did a lot of the dialogue come out of some of those conversations?
Lisa See: Absolutely. One of the things I loved about those short interviews, whether it was the women going into the sea or the women sitting on the shore, is you can get such great material that way.
For example, I remember this one woman, it was a short interview, maybe only five minutes. She was bragging and these women love to brag. She was, “I was the best haenyeo. I was so good under the sea, I could cook a meal under there.” Then I am writing that down. I did use that line because it was so great.
Lisa Tener: Yeah.
Lisa See: Then the other wonderful thing about the short interview is it is a way to build consensus. For example, very early on during my trip I interviewed a woman who was talking about how much she loved—when she was eight or nine months pregnant, really big—to dive and work during that time period because the water gave her such buoyancy. Then she said this thing, she had had nine children. She said, “What I really loved most of all when I was really pregnant was to be diving in Vladivostok in winter.”
These women would go off for itinerant work and one of the places they went was Vladivostok. That water in winter, the only thing that’s keeping it from freezing is the level of salt in the water. It’s really cold. These women dive, back in the past, in a little simple, homemade cotton suit. Nothing to keep them warm.
Anyway, she said, “I loved to be in the water when I was eight or nine months pregnant, in that freezing cold water because not only did it give me the buoyancy but also that cold water took away all my aches and pains.”
I have to tell you, when she told me that I just thought, “Hm. I think she might be pulling my leg.” Then I would ask over and over again in these short interviews, “Tell me about when you were pregnant. Where did you love to dive? What was your favorite place? Things like that until I learned this was actually a thing—that women really loved to dive in that cold, cold water when they were really pregnant.
Lisa Tener: Wow. That is such a striking part of the book, the intensity of that lifestyle when they go into Russia and do that diving. It was a surprise too, I guess, when you discovered it. To clarify for our listeners, if they haven’t read the book, Haenyeo are the women sea divers. They dive both for feeding their families but also, the money from the food that they get from the sea helps to support their families in other ways.
Inspiration for a Novel
Lisa Tener: You were initially inspired, I think, by an article that described these sea divers. What about the article intrigued you?
Lisa See: First I just have to say that this wasn’t really even an article. It was one small paragraph, one small photo. I was in a doctor’s office waiting to be called in, doing what we all do when we’re waiting, flipping through magazines. Then I just saw this little tiny thing, ripped it right out of the magazine and took it home.
I think what inspired me at the very beginning was just their physical courage. What these women do is they take deep breaths, they dive down about 60 feet, that’s deep enough to get the bends. They stay underwater two to four minutes on a single breath, harvesting sea food. They’re the breadwinners in their families and their husbands are the ones who take care of the babies, do the cooking, take care of the elders, take care of the house.
I can’t even imagine doing that work. To hold your breath that long and to be down so deep and all the dangers involved with it. I think for me at the beginning, what really inspired me was just their physical courage and endurance and persistence.
Over time, the more I learned about them and the more I learned about the history that they have lived through, the ones that are alive today, that I became more and more inspired by their psychological courage and bravery and endurance and persistence. We’re so lucky to live where and when we do. I mean, if you were born here in the United States, none of us have lived through a war happening right outside our doors.
We have to go back to the Civil War to find that. None of us have that experience of what that’s like.
We tend to learn history in terms of what I think of as the front line, the wars, the battles, the generals, the presidents, the prime ministers. But if you take one step back, who is there? It’s women, it’s children, it’s families. They’re living that same history but they’re living it from a different position.
I actually think this has a lot of resonance today during the pandemic because it is kind of like a weird war. We are living in this weird situation and yet for most households, the people who go out to do the grocery shopping, for example, are the women. The people who are staying home and having to watch their kids or pay attention to a class on the computer, it’s mostly women. Women are keeping society and culture going as war or, in this case, a pandemic is happening around us.
When I thought about those women and especially the older ones who had lived through Japanese colonial period, World War II, something called the 4/3 Incident—a massacre that happened on that island—and then later the Korean war. These women, in addition to the work they do and how brave and strong they have to be in doing that physical labor, they also have to have that bravery and courage to keep their families going in really difficult, almost unimaginable circumstances.
Lisa Tener: Yes, the atrocities were shocking to read about. Also, even to see our part in that as Americans, which we’ll get to later because I want to ask you about that.
Clarifying Theme or Themes in a Work of Fiction Tweet This
It sounds like as you did your research, and particularly by interviewing the women, that you had what inspired you at first and then the themes of exploration got clearer as you did more research.
Lisa See: Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, I think you find something that interests you, but as you get into it the themes start to emerge. I’m working on a new book right now and I’m doing a big revision.
I can see [the poster board] behind you; you were telling me before we got on that this is part of the scenes for your next book, that sometimes you write the whole thing before all the themes are really clear.
With The Island of Sea Women, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write about forgiveness. It’s part of why I set the book in the time period that I did because this island is now known as the Island of Peace. It’s ranked with Rwanda and South Africa internationally as models for forgiveness.
Even though I started out knowing that I wanted to write about forgiveness, there are other themes that pass through. Once you’re revising, they start to emerge. Sometimes in the editing you need to elevate them so you can carry them through in a clearer way. In this case, friendship would be one of those, or mothers and daughters and the ties between mothers and daughters.
Lisa Tener: It’s interesting because I have a colleague who says, “Your book can only be about one thing.” Every editor and writing coach has their own orientation, but I think your books prove so powerfully otherwise that some of the best writing does have more than one theme.
The Theme of Forgiveness
While we’re talking about forgiveness, because it really did strike me, as an American, to read where these Japanese occupiers were causing such atrocities and oppression, that the US came in and—instead of freeing the people—it was the same islanders who had been working with the Japanese to oppress their own countrymen who then were working with the US. Some of the worst atrocities happened during US occupation.
Lisa See: Right.
Lisa Tener: Has the US ever apologized for that?
Lisa See: No and that is an issue that has implications all the way to today. Our government has said, “Yes, we were complicit.” They have admitted that. But the one thing we won’t do is apologize.
What can I say? Our government takes a long time to apologize. Think how long it took for Congress to issue an apology about Japanese internment during World War II.
We don’t have a great track record in apologizing but this does have implications all the way to today. At the end of World War II, our navy, the US Navy, wanted to build a major naval base in one of the coves or bays on Jeju. The people of Jeju have always said no. This is something that comes up periodically. It came up last year once again. The people of Jeju said no.
What they have said is, “We don’t want reparations. We want just an official apology.” The US government won’t give it. The thing is, this island historically was strategically important. It’s still strategically important. It’s about 100 miles from China, 100 miles from Japan, 100 miles from mainland South Korea. But that also means it’s very close to North Korea and it’s also very close to Russia. It has this unbelievable strategic importance for us.
But, again, we won’t issue an apology. That plan for this naval base just keeps rolling over year after year after year, all the way since 1945.
Lisa Tener: Wow. Well, I hope one of the effects of The Island of Sea Women is that an apology is finally issued.
Lisa See: I think we’d better not hold our breath on that one.
Lisa Tener: Yeah. Although I think we’re living in an extraordinary time where truth is surfacing in more ways and that people are starting to take more responsibility to some extent. I hope that will be an area where we do that. Not only does it help with global healing, but I think it helps us as a culture when we acknowledge—not just acknowledge but apologize—which acknowledges the full harm that our country did. Anyway, it did seem particularly timely to be reading this now.
Lisa See: Can I say one thing about that?
Lisa Tener: You can say as many things as you want.
The Backstory Discovered in Researching a Historical Novel
Lisa See: I had already started writing the book when Trump was elected. If you remember, especially in that first year, there was a lot of chest beating between the United States and North Korea. North Korea was saying, “Now we’re going to have a nuclear weapon that can reach the Pacific Coast of the United States.”
That’s where I live. I had this sense, just myself, of, “If I’m going to be obliterated in a nuclear war, I’d like to know why. I’d like to know the backstory.”
I think for many of us, we really don’t know that backstory. At least, when I was a kid, I feel like in elementary school, by the time my teachers got to the Korean War, everybody was tired. It was like, “It’s June already. We only have another week of school. We’ll just sort of skip it.” I’ve actually said that and a lot of teachers have said, “Yep, that’s exactly right.”
Then when I was in high school and college we kind of jumped over the Korean War to get to the Vietnam War because we were all living in it. That was so much more current and pertinent. But there is a history there. It goes back a long way. There are these grudges and I think it’s important for us, as Americans, especially when the rhetoric and threats escalate with North Korea, that we really, as Americans, should know more about that and the history behind it.
Lisa Tener: Thank you for shedding light on it for all of us. I agree.
Writing Fiction: How to Find Your Characters Tweet This
Lisa Tener: I’d like to go back a little and talk about some of your characters. How far into the research process did you discover the characters in this book and how did they reveal themselves to you?
Lisa See: I knew that I wanted to write about friendship because I felt that was the ideal and right relationship. The divers themselves, they follow a kind of buddy system. To me, this could be not just normal friendship, but every time you went into the water, you’re putting your life in this person’s hands. She’s putting her life in your hands.
To me, right there, that elevated typical friendship. I knew I wanted to have friends but who were they? What were their personalities going to be like? Then I found an aphorism from that island that says, “If you plant red beans, you’ll raise red beans.” This really is this idea of who you are as a child and how you’re raised is going to have this impact on your life. It’s like as a child you get a little stamp on your forehead of who you’re going to be.
I do think that’s true in life, that sometimes you see a little kid, “He is going to grow up to be a nuclear physicist or a doctor.” Or “She’s going to grow up to be a ballerina or a nuclear physicist or a doctor.” You know, you see certain traits in kids and you sort of expect what they’re going to become.
I thought about these opposites, not even really opposites, but just really differences. With Young-sook, she’s the daughter of the Chief of the Diving Collective. It’s kind of expected that she’s going to grow up and take her mother’s place. Then with Mi-ja, she’s the daughter of Japanese collaborators, also an orphan, but the daughter of Japanese collaborators. That puts a very different kind of stamp on her forehead as someone who can’t be trusted. That whoever she was as a child and who her parents were, that’s going to have an effect on her life’s journey. That’s how I started thinking about the two of them.
Lisa Tener: That relationship was so powerfully written that I found myself very much experiencing the emotions of Young-sook. Then that forgiveness becomes all the more powerful because I felt like I was experiencing that myself as I went through this blame and this judgment.
Lisa See: I hope that readers put themselves in the clothes of the characters. That’s what I do when I read. I’m trying to connect to these characters, whether they’re real or imagined. Then I think about, “Well, what would I do in that situation? Would I be brave? Would I be a coward? Would I be loyal? Would I betray someone?” I think that’s part of the whole process of reading and why we love to read.
The Subconscious and the Writing Process
Lisa Tener: It’s true and yet it seemed to me more intense than usual. I felt so angry. Maybe it struck a certain chord. It was powerful. Do you ever dream about your characters?
Lisa See: I don’t dream very much actually. I think that when I’m writing, I’m already kind of in a dream state. By the time I actually get to sleep I’m really asleep. What does happen is, I’m happily dreaming when I finish a book. Then there comes a point where I start to have terrible nightmares. That’s when my husband says, “It’s time for you to start on another book.”
Lisa Tener: Wow.
Lisa See: I think my subconscious and my unconscious is so much in the writing that I don’t really dream about them, no.
Lisa Tener: That’s so interesting about the nightmares.
Discovering a Character’s Secrets
Lisa Tener: As you started to be clearer who the characters were, did you know their secrets from the beginning or was that a process of discovery, too?
Lisa See: I think it’s a little of both. Some things you know, obviously you know about Mi-ja the first time you see her that she’s the daughter of collaborators and that she’s an orphan. That’s in that very first scene when she’s introduced.
I think there are other kinds of secrets that need to be revealed throughout a story because that’s part of what carries things along. I can remember an editor I had for many, many years until he retired. He would write, “What’s the secret? What are the secrets? What are they hiding?” I think that’s true about us in real life and I think it’s true for fiction as well.
History and Culture of Matrilineal Jeju Society
Lisa Tener: I want to talk a little bit about history and culture. I found it interesting, which I think you did too and probably all your readers do, that in Jeju, while the women traditionally had more power because they were the ones who brought in the money from diving, they still weren’t valued the way men were.
Lisa See: Right.
Lisa Tener: Why do you think that is? Here are the women doing the work that brings in the money and yet it’s still better to have a male child.
Lisa See: This really goes to deeper issues of, let’s just call it, religion. But you see this almost throughout Asia, whether it’s Buddhism or Confucianism or Taoism. One of the things that all of these countries have in common is the same view of the afterlife. When you die, you’re just going to a parallel world where you have all the same needs, wants and desires as you have here. Over there you need to have a house to live in, a car, food, clothes, all the things we need and want here, you need and want there.
There are different times throughout the year, but the main one is the lunar new year. I’m just going to say Chinese New Year because that’s what most people are familiar with. In Vietnam, it’s Tết, but they all have different names. At the lunar new year, one of the things that happens is that people make or buy all these things that their family needs. In China I’ve seen this so many times. You’ll see somebody on a moped and they’re driving along with a big, flat screen TV made out of paper mache. You can buy cell phones, you can buy food, you can buy clothes. Sometimes people, I’ve seen this, will build a three story house out of cardboard and tissue paper and things like that.
All of these are burned on New Years’ so they can travel to the afterworld to take care of all your family there. As a reward, your family looks after you throughout the year. They make sure you have a good job, they make sure you have prosperity, that you’re in love, that you stay healthy. It’s a very reciprocal relationship.
The key thing is, only one person can make those offerings and that’s the eldest son. There also is this tradition, it’s pretty widespread throughout Asia: if I have five sons and my sister only has daughters, she might adopt one of my sons. Even though I might raise him and take care of him, he’s still my son, that family will adopt and be more than godparents. The idea is that, when they die, he will take care of them in the afterworld. This is why it’s so important to have a son and was on Jeju.
The Traumas of Writing
Lisa Tener: I want to ask you a bit about self care because your writing often takes place in these times of historical turmoil and social upheaval where people are being systematically tortured and traumatized and killed. Examples include the Japanese occupations in Korea and China, or the American occupation in South Korea that we talked about.
I’m wondering during your process of writing about this brutality, do you ever feel overwhelmed when you’re doing your research and reading about atrocities or hearing stories from survivors?
Lisa See: Yes. Definitely. There are things, there is some pretty rough stuff in this book but believe me when I tell you I didn’t use the worst of it. Let’s just say I went to a [crosstalk 00:30:45] level. But I found it. That means I have that in here [pointing to her heart]. I wish I could have a bottle brush to go in and scrub it out. But I don’t.
Whenever a question like this comes up, I remember those things that I learned. I have little flashes of them. It’s very hard. It’s very, very hard. In the actual writing of the scenes it’s not so bad for me. I’m just sort of in it. For me, it’s starting about two months out because I know what’s coming and they [the characters] don’t.
Lisa Tener: Yeah.
Lisa See: That’s very hard for me. Not this book, because I was stuck with the historical events, but I can remember with Shanghai Girls, there was a character that I just loved, Sam. I loved him. I loved him.
He commits suicide. Starting about two months out, I tried everything I could to change his destiny. But characters do have a life of their own that’s sort of outside of me. As much as I tried to save him, I actually pinned him in more and more to what was going to happen.
Lisa Tener: Wow.
Lisa See: I find that the anticipation of what’s going to happen is worse for me than writing the actual scene because I think by the time I get there, I’m there.
Lisa Tener: In a way maybe there’s some relief when you write it. There is some letting go when you write it. Is that accurate?
Lisa See: No, it’s just more of an acceptance, I think.
Self-care for Authors
Lisa Tener: Is there any self care practice you do or anything you do to help support yourself through this challenging aspect of your writing?
Lisa See: I do go for walks.
Lisa Tener: Yes, some nature.
Lisa See: Yes, nature.
Uncovering a Secret Language
Lisa Tener: I want to talk a little bit about Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. That explores practices like foot binding and the secret writing women used to communicate to a sworn sister. Does the idea of a book usually start with a desire to explore a particular culture or a phenomenon like those two?
Lisa See: Absolutely. With that book, I had reviewed a book on the history of foot binding for the LA Times and in that book was just a three or four page mention of the secret language. I still remember it so clearly. Like how could this exist, the only written language found anywhere in the world used exclusively by women? It’s so amazing. How could I not know that?
Then I had this other feeling of, how come we all don’t know that? So often we hear about women in the past—there were no women artists, no women inventors, no women architects, no women fill-in-the- blank. Of course there were women doing things! It’s just so often that what they did was lost, forgotten, deliberately covered up. This was something…
Lisa Tener: Or stolen by men, taking credit for…
Lisa See: Stolen by men. But this was an example of something that women had invented and kept secret for 1,000 years. I just thought that was amazing. That’s what started me down the path for the book that became Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Lisa Tener: I was going to ask you to describe your creative process but it seems like you’ve already really described that, the research and how things come to you. Is there anything you want to add to that?
The 3 Things to Start with in Writing a Novel
Lisa See: Not really. I think we have touched on it. I do start with three things, all three of them work together.
- One is, what’s the historic backdrop? With this book it’s the haenyeo and the time period.
- Then the second part was, what’s the emotion? I had started wanting to write about forgiveness. That really also dictated what time period I would use because of how this island is now a model for forgiveness.
- Then the third piece is friendship, or the relationship.
All three of those work together. Once I have those three things set in my mind, then I can move forward.
Lisa See’s Writing Rituals
Lisa Tener: Do you have a writing ritual for when you actually sit down and write?
Lisa See: I like to work in the morning, I’m freshest in the morning. I have really good tea that I drink. When I’m writing I try to write about 1,000 words a day, which is just four pages but my books take about two years, maybe a little longer.
The majority of time is spent on the research. The writing is actually the least amount of time and the editing is somewhere in the middle.
Lisa Tener: I’m not surprised, given the depth of research that’s so clear from the books. It just feels like you really immersed yourself in that culture. Each book almost seems like a lifetime’s worth of work.
I just finished On Gold Mountain which is the 100 year history of your family mostly in America, a little bit in China too. Each book I’ve read of yours seems like an opus. It’s clear that research is such a big part of that.
Lisa See: I was just going to add one thing, which is writers are always told to write what they know. I do so much research that then I do know it. That’s the goal, to really know it enough so that I can “live in their clothes.” That’s really important to me, to be there not as an outside person looking in, but to just try to be in the room.
Lisa Tener: I wonder, too, if your experience in your family, in the See family, prepared you for that. Being able to be in this sea of relatives that are similar to you and different culturally, and then to be able to take on those aspects that maybe some other family members are more … Some are 100% Chinese. You said you’re 1/8 but you’re able to sink into that and experience theirs, almost.
Lisa See: Maybe. I would say this, that in Los Angeles I have about 400 relatives. There are about a dozen that look like me, the majority still full Chinese and then a spectrum in between. When I was a little kid and I looked around me, what I saw was Chinese faces, what I experienced was Chinese culture, Chinese tradition, Chinese language, Chinese food. Of course, that’s why I write the kinds of books that I do.
But I did look different, I still do look different. I think for me, it’s been more about a self exploration: who am I, where do I fit in, what do I know, what do I not know? It is kind of bouncing off those mirrors.
Lisa See’s Creative Influences and Family
Lisa Tener: Mm-hmm. I’d like to ask a little about creative influences. Your mother, Carolyn See, was an accomplished writer. How did she influence your writing and your career?
Lisa See: My mother was a writer but her father, my grandfather, was also. Three generations. I feel like I had a lifelong apprenticeship. Actually, my mother’s papers have been collected at UCLA’s special collections… When I was working on On Gold Mountain her stuff was already there.
I found this letter that her father had written to her when she was in college saying, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write 1,000 words a day.” He did that, my mom did that, I do that. I do feel like there’s been this carry-through.
Also, I would say, especially with my mom, less so with my grandfather, but that sense of your relationship to readers, the relationship to booksellers, relationship to publishing. To see how she did it and then I could either accept that or expand on it or do it in a completely different way, but I had a model which so many writers don’t have. I was very, very fortunate for that.
For me, I would say it was a combination of work habits, but also how to interact within this whole larger world of readers, booksellers and publishers.
Lisa Tener: Did they cultivate a love of books in you where you were very young?
Lisa See: Absolutely.
Lisa Tener: Did you talk much about books? Was that a family conversation?
Lisa See: All the time.
Lisa Tener: I’m not surprised. It seems like the air you breathe.
Lisa See: Also my mom had all of her books from when she was a child. Those are now my books. I have her copies of Heidi and Little Women and different, other books that you wouldn’t know the name of but that really meant a lot to her that she kept all that time. Then they became mine.
Lisa See’s Writing Preferences
Lisa Tener: When you’re writing, do you read fiction? Or do you avoid it when you write?
Lisa See: I completely avoid it.
Lisa Tener: I read a quote from you somewhere, that was, “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 of foreign.” Do you see yourself as a bridge between cultures?
Lisa See: … like I’m on this little edge on the hill and here’s this side and here’s another side. I’m always sort of like this. Trying to find balance and, like you said, trying to understand this side but also explain who I am outwardly but also to myself.
Lisa Tener: Do you have a favorite place to write?
Lisa See: At home at my desk.
Lisa Tener: Typing or longhand?
Lisa See: Typing.
Lisa Tener: It makes it a lot easier, doesn’t it? You don’t have to-
Lisa See: For editing of course it makes it easier.
Lisa Tener: Did it take a while to make that transition to be creative at the computer?
Lisa See: It’s hard at the beginning but that was already a long time ago. Now I look back and think, “Gosh, all that time wasted writing long hand and then typing it up.”
Lisa Tener: Anything else you want to add?
Lisa See: No, this was really wonderful. Thank you so much for having me.
Lisa Tener: Thank you. It was such a pleasure. I look forward to going back now and reading whatever of your books I haven’t read because I’ve so enjoyed all the ones I’ve read. We’ll include the link, obviously, for The Island of Sea Women and some of the other books we talked about. Thank you so much. We’ll let you go back to your writing.
Lisa See: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, again. Everybody stay safe, stay well.
Lisa See is an American writer and novelist. Her books include On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), a detailed account of See’s family history, and the novels Flower Net (1997), The Interior (1999), Dragon Bones (2003), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Peony in Love (2007) and Shanghai Girls (2009), which made it to the 2010 New York Times bestseller list.
See’s most recent novel, The Island of Sea Women, is a story about female friendship and family secrets on Jeju Island before, during and in the aftermath of the Korean War. It was released on March 5, 2019.