Interview With Lisa See, Author of Shanghai Girls

My review of Shanghai Girls is slated for Jan. 19, 2010, and I had arranged a D.C. Literature Examiner interview with author Lisa See.

However, due to crazy changes going on at my part-time gig, I will be unable to post the interview with Lisa over there.  I thought it was only fitting to share what she had to say with my blog readers.  I think this is a good deal, don’t you?

Please welcome Lisa See.

Forgotten history plays a large role in your novels.  How do you come upon these forgotten stories?  And what about them inspires you to write novels based on those stories?

I think my interest in forgotten history and stories goes back to my own family. I come from a large Chinese American family. We had lots and lots of secrets, and most of them were tied to the larger history of the Chinese in America that no one wanted to talk about or write about.  What has struck me is that so much women’s history and stories have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up.  We’re taught that in the past there were no women writers, no women artists, no women chefs . . . . I could go on and on.  But of course women did these things! 

It’s been a great honor and privilege for me to look for those stories, find them, and then use them in my novels.  How do I find them?  All kinds of ways.  I discovered nu shu – the women’s secret writing – when I was reviewing a book on footbinding for the Los Angeles Times.  Sometimes I find things when I’m doing research for something else. 

That happened with Peony in Love.  I was doing research on death rituals in 17th century China and came upon ghost brides and ghost marriages.  I thought:  Oh, I’ve got to use this.  It’s been happening a lot now as I’m writing the sequel to Shanghai Girls.  I can be looking up something about the weather or shipping schedules when all of a sudden I come across some truly surprising detail.  I know a lot of writers hire researchers.  I could never do that.  They wouldn’t know what to look for.  And I want to experience wow! cool! moments myself.

Shanghai Girls is about two sisters who go to America for arranged marriages.  Do you find sisterly relationships more complex than other relationships and why?

Oh my gosh, yes! The sibling relationship is typically the longest relationship we’ll have in our lives. Typically, your parents will die before you do, you won’t meet your mate until you’re an adult, and your children won’t come along until after that.

A sister, on the other hand, has known you from birth and will know you until one of you dies—hopefully not for a very, very long time. A sister should stand by you, support, you, and love you no matter what. Yet she is also the person who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most. (And you know where to drive the knife to hurt her the most too.)

I have a lot of personal experience with sisters. I’m one of four sisters: I have a former step-sister that I’ve known since we were three and four, a half sister who’s my mom’s daughter, and a half-sister who’s my father’s daughter. But it wasn’t enough to rely on my own experience when I was writing Shanghai Girls. For two years, I asked everyone I knew and everyone I met about their relationships with their sisters. I had women tell me they hadn’t spoken to their sisters in two, five, ten, forty years!

I asked the one who hadn’t spoken to her sister in forty years if she even felt like she had a sister anymore. She answered, “Yes, because sisters are for life.” I think this is true—for good or bad. And it’s this sense that sisters are for life that distinguishes the relationship and makes it different from all others. We may have friends “who are just like sisters,” but they aren’t necessarily for life.

Please share a few of your obsessions.(i.e. a love of chocolate, animals, crosswords)?

Your examples made me laugh. I love chocolate, but I can’t eat it because I have migraines. I love animals, but I can’t have them either. When I was young, I had twenty cats, ducks, chickens, a goat, and a coyote mix, but I haven’t had any animals in years because my son Alexander has terrible allergies. (We tried fish and iguanas, but they aren’t great for cuddling or petting.)

I’m mad for crossword puzzles, and this is something I get to do! I start every Sunday morning by doing the crossword puzzle. Then my mom and I talk on the phone to help each other with our one or two missing letters. Of course, I have other obsessions, thankfully. I love going to movies. I love Dexter. (Last season was the best television I think I’ve ever seen.) I love gardens. I love to walk. And I might as well admit it, since I’ve been thinking about it since I first read your question. My husband and I are going to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary this year, and I am still utterly and happily obsessed with him.

(All I have to add is congrats on 30 years to Lisa and her husband!)

When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I really like the way you asked this question, because usually people only ask what I listen to when I’m writing my novels.  You’re so right to know – or guess – that people would listen to different types of music for different types of writing.

Right now as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Bob Dylan. I’m a huge Dylan fan, but I could never ever listen to him when I’m writing a novel. So when I’m doing this kind of writing – e-mail, interviews, essays – I listen to Dylan, Mary J. Blige, music from the Theme Time Radio Hour.

For writing novels, my playlist is very small: I listen to Puccini without Words, Mali to Memphis, Township Jazz ‘n’ Jive, Mozart Sonatas played by Mitsuko Uchida, and a collection of Yo-yo Ma’s cello concertos.

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. 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.  That puts me in the Yangtze delta in 17th century China or in Shanghai in 1937. 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 with 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.

I want to thank Lisa See for graciously agreeing to an interview. 

Don’t forget to check back on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, for my review of Shanghai Girls and a giveaway.

Please visit today’s tour host, The Book Faery Reviews, and click on TLC Book Tour logo for other tour information.

FTC Disclosure:  Clicking on the title and image links will bring you to an Amazon Affiliate page; No purchase required, though appreciated.


  1. I started reading this book just to see how it was and I couldnt put it down I loved it so much. I had just gotten married in egypt and my husband non stop told me for 3 days put it down ur just married but i am sorry u had me hooked. but when i finshed the book it didnt feel complete with the end. i cant wait to read the seguel of this book because i know i would love it too. thanks again for writing it and it is the prefect relationship between sister and i have 5 sisters myself we would be just like this.

  2. 12 Gauge Speaker Cable says

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  3. I love to see books written from forgotten stories. This sounds wonderful!!

  4. GREAT interview!! I had not yet heard that Shanghai Girls was going to have a sequel! I really need to get my hands on it before the next one comes out!!

    tiftalksbooks at gmail dot com

  5. I think it's interesting that the author is so careful about what she reads while she's writing a novel so as to prevent her writing from being influenced by her leisure-reading.

    saemmerson at yahoo dot com

    Sarah E

  6. avisannschild says

    I didn't realize she's Caroline See's daughter (whom I'd actually heard of but never read). Great interview, Serena!

  7. Scrappy Cat says

    What a great interview. My son is a writer (not published – yet) so I love reading interviews of writers I like. I loved reading about how she finds forgotten stories.

    I've also blogged about your giveaway here:


    If I win one of the books that you are giving away, my email is:
    csgebhart at gmail dot com. Thanks!

  8. I applaud Lisa See for doing her own research; finding interesting tidbits to savor, remember, and find a use for later on. I'm sure this benefits us, her reading audience. Great interview.

  9. amanda18228 says

    Great interview! I have only read one of her books, but it made me want to read more!
    amandarwest at gmaildotcom

  10. What a wonderful interview! Congrats to Lisa and her husband on 30 years of marriage!

    How sad that she can't have chocolate or pets. I love crosswords too, but I'm not that good at them (many unfinished crosswords sitting around our house).

    I love classical music, especially YoYo Ma's cello concertos. Unfortunately I find that I can't focus on writing when I have music on, even if it's just writing a review. I get too wrapped up in the music.

  11. Great interview! I can't wait for a sequel to Shanghai Girls! I'm also looking forward to delving into Lisa's other books this year.

  12. Wonderful interview! Its been intersting getting to know more about Lisa See.
    Snowflower and the Secret Fan is one of my favorites.
    It is so true, sisters are for life.
    Shanghai Girls is in my TBR. I've heard such great things about it.

  13. stacybuckeye says

    How sweet that she's still obsessed with her husband 🙂

  14. Susan Helene Gottfried says

    What's with the Examiner???

    Anyway. It's Saturday. I'm bored. You know what that means: I've posted about this at Win a Book for you.

    (btw, if you ever need to post anything at my Rocks 'n Reads blog, holler. That's a large part of my mission with it. That it become a group blog.)

  15. I so adore Lisa See!! Great post!!

  16. Great interview. I just love Ms. See. I finished reading SHANGHAI GIRLS a few days ago and it did not disappoint!

  17. Great interview!! I'm very happy to hear a sequel is in the works. I just love Lisa See's writing.

    Thanks for doing this, Serena, and I'm sorry the interview with the Examiner didn't work out! But all your efforts are very much appreciated.

  18. bermudaonion says

    I love that she's still obsessed with her husband after 30 years. Talk about true love!

  19. ANovelMenagerie says

    I absolutely adore Lisa See's books! I put this one on my best of 2009 list.

  20. I had no idea her mom was a writer either! I thought you would like to hear there is a sequel.

  21. Great interview! I had no idea her mom was a writer, and you have no idea how much I'm looking forward to the sequel of Shanghai Girls!!!

    The changes at Examiner are pretty sad, actually. But we've already talked this one to death, haven't we? LOL Look for more of this kind of content to end up on my blog, too!

    Diary of an Eccentric


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