A Writer’s Flashback: My 2005 Interview with Author Lisa See

Lisa’s colorful family history in part inspired her writing.

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“You have to make the time and sacrifice.” — Lisa See

I interviewed author Lisa See, daughter of the late author Carolyn See, along with nearly 75 other creatives for a motivational non-fiction book, How to Survive a Day Job. My intent with the book was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.

The original introduction to Lisa’s 2005 interview follows …

Lisa See worked as a freelance journalist and then for thirteen years as the West Coast correspondent for Publisher’s Weekly. During her last five years there, she wrote On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. The year after that, she began her first novel. Since that time, she has written and published three other novels — Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones. Her newest novel is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Visit www.lisasee.com for information on Lisa’s present and future projects.

Lisa:

My great-grandfather came over here from China after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. In the 1890s, in Sacramento, he got his start in the crotchless underwear business. He married a Caucasian woman — which was against the law in California at that time — and they came down to Los Angeles in the late 1890s. He gradually got out of the underwear business, went into curios, and finally into antiques. He was the patriarch of Los Angeles. He died when he was a hundred years old. Twelve children, four wives, the first Chinese in America to own an automobile. Pretty extraordinary.

In my family, there were so many wonderful stories that were told, and so many more that were never told. I had never known until the very first day I started On Gold Mountain that my great-grandfather had four wives and not two, as I had always heard. Even though we had all heard these wonderful stories, my family had said no to many people for over a hundred years who had wanted to write a magazine article or book or film script … and I think there were a couple of reasons for that.

On the one hand there was this attitude like, Why should we participate in their project? And on the other side, since they had a lot of shame and embarrassment about a lot of the things that had happened. Things lasted like that for about a hundred years.

And then, through a series of circumstances, my great aunt said, “Why don’t you come over, and I’ll tell you some stories?”

I have to say I didn’t think at that point — even though that first day I heard things I never heard before — that it would be a book. I thought maybe it would be like one of those long Christmas letters you get that I’d send to the family; I would get down the dates and some of the facts that we didn’t know all that well. But then I just kept going.

My great-aunt died very suddenly about three months later, and at her funeral — which was a big, traditional Chinese funeral — people started coming up and saying, “Why don’t you come over, and we’ll tell you some stories, too.”

But I have to say, it was maybe two years before I thought this could be a book. I mean, it took me a long time to get to that, because I was interested in it solely on a personal level. I could see, well, this is longer than a Christmas card. And it’s longer than a magazine article … Pretty soon it was, Well, I have all this stuff

I can tell you when I knew it would be a book. I had jury duty, and by that time I had a lot of unanswered questions. Why did they leave Sacramento in the year that they did? Why did they travel back to China in the year that they did? Just these sort of odd questions that no one seemed to know the answers to.

I went to UCLA, and I found that at that time there wasn’t very much out on Chinese American history, and what was out was very academic and very dry. I picked out a couple of books, mostly people’s published dissertations, took them with me to jury duty, and was very fortunate because for two weeks I never was called out of the jury pool.

That very first day I got the answer to one of my questions, and I realized that for so long we were learning history in the way that those academics were writing about it. Sort of very dry — all about wars and dates — but I really think history is about people, and how history affects the individual. And that’s when I knew that maybe I could tell the story of the Chinese in America by looking through the eyes of my family.

Flower Net, my first novel, was the start of a trilogy. I didn’t know what the three stories would be about, but I always had a trilogy in mind.

Writing was not my first professional goal. My first goal back when I was in high school was to be a costume designer. I didn’t even apply for college; I just wanted to be a costume designer. Right out of high school I got a really great job with a costumer, and it lasted about a week.

It was such hard work — eighteen hours a day — and I was only eighteen; I wasn’t ready for that at all. The first job I got was working and making headdresses for the grand opening of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. And I didn’t realize it was going to be such hard physical labor. I thought it was going to be a lot of sketching. “I like that fabric. I like that trim.” I wasn’t quite ready for the reality.

I was and wasn’t inspired by my mother, Carolyn See. My mother’s father was also a writer; my mother is a writer. I would have to say that for the longest time, both of them held to the philosophy that writing is suffering. And I thought that’s the last thing I want to do. My mother gave all that up years ago, but not before I lived through an awful lot of it.

I was living in Europe, bumming around on five dollars a day, and I had ended up in Greece. I kept thinking, I know what I don’t want. I know I don’t want to get married, I don’t want to have children, I don’t ever want to live in one place, and I just want to live out of a suitcase and go wherever I want to go, when I want to go. I had that in my mind, but couldn’t figure out how I could do it.

And then one morning I woke up, and it truly was like a light bulb went off. I woke up in the morning, and I saw the light. Oh, I could be a writer …

When I returned to Los Angeles I got two magazine assignments within about forty-eight hours. Somebody had called my mother to do a piece. She didn’t want to do it, so she suggested me. That was a really nice thing. And then she had some students who had just started up a magazine. She wasn’t going to write for it but asked, “Why don’t you give them a call?” That’s how I started writing.

It’s funny. I ended up getting married, I ended up having kids, I ended up staying in Los Angeles for the most part, but at the same time I think I’m very lucky that my writing has allowed me to have that free spirit thing that I wanted. And that has to do not just with the day-to-day — I mean, I’m sitting in my office now, but I don’t have to go to my office; I don’t have to be there from nine to five. If I don’t want to work for a week I don’t have to. But if I wanted to work for three weeks solid, I could.

There probably aren’t that many writers or artists who have been able to pursue their interests as much as I have. And go to these ends-of-the-earth places. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to do that.

Success is an odd word. I just got a royalty statement yesterday that would imply I’m a total failure. So I question: Is success being on the bestseller lists? Is it having your name up in lights? Is it having a great show someplace … What is it? I think on any given day that you could be a success or failure.

One of the things that to me was a real high point — and I really felt like now I’m a success — is something I can guarantee you probably no one else would feel or care about. That is, I got to be a judge for the Miss Chinatown Pageant. That had personal meaning to me, but no one else would care.

So I worry about that word success, because there’s so many different ways you can look at it. Is it that you made a million dollars, or your movie was a hit? There are just so many different ways — so many standard ways — that are more personal. I think that everyone on any given day is succeeding and failing at the same time. And I actually think that that is — while probably true for all people — especially true for artists.

One of my favorite shows about writing is Inside the Actors Studio. Okay, it’s not really about writing, but it is about the creative life. If you take away the particulars, you’re still getting to that same core. How do you live a creative life? How do you express your creativity? How do you get to that point? You can argue that’s the only success that matters. How well are you able to tap into it?

All of On Gold Mountain was written when I was working at Publisher’s Weekly. And I wrote the book on the weekends or at night. There are a lot of people who, if that’s what they really want, will get up at five in the morning and write for two hours. You can do a lot of writing in two hours.

I guess my suggestions would be, then, to give up free time, give up your friends for a while, be organized, don’t let that inner voice tell you why you can’t do it, and just do it. Even if you only write five hundred words a day — two pages — at the end of the week you’ll have ten pages. At the end of a month you’ll have forty. It adds up.

But it’s easy to have all of those other things that you do, or that you choose to do, in place of writing. I think if it really means a lot to you, you have to make the time and sacrifice other things.

I sometimes think I’m a very bad friend. I mean, I like to think I’m a very good person, but sometimes I’m a very bad friend. I just disappear for weeks, sometimes months at a time.

I’m a writer first, but I do other projects. When I’d done other jobs, I try to have them relate to writing in some way. For example, I wrote a libretto based on On Gold Mountain. I was still writing, but it in a different form, and I was playing with language in a way I never had before. I think I’m a much better writer because of that. In operas, how do you get to the emotion of the story through music and in as few words as possible? I think I’ve been able to tap into that in a way I wasn’t able to before.

I’ve also been an exhibition curator, and it’s the same thing because now you’re telling the story in a purely visual way. I feel that’s also really helped me — not only to think of things in a visual way, but to visualize how you set up a story. That includes walking around the gallery, walking around the museum. I do think it’s harder if, say, you work at IBM; and then you have to go home and write something very romantic.

But on the other hand, in our daily lives we’re living stories. If you can remember that — how you approach life — just think of it in kind of a creative way. What’s your voice? What’s your vision of life?

I don’t know what I aspire to now. I’ve sold the next two novels. My next five years are mapped out for me. I have a five-year plan, and I’m in it. But I haven’t thought of the following five. I just want to keep trying …

When I’m writing, I try to start from the position of a reader first. What I love about books is when you step through that window — those covers — to a story, and you connect to characters, whether real or imagined, and by extension to the human condition, and by extension also to the world … and when I turn around and become a writer or an exhibition curator or whatever, that’s what I’m trying to get to.

How do you make people connect through the characters — again, whether they’re real or imagined — to these larger issues of what it means to be human and what it means to be here on earth?

This is true for most artists, including writers. Getting to the truth of what it means to be human, to open others’ eyes and let them look through your eyes to see the world in a different way.

Lisa was open about her family and her experiences, and I hope you found her interview as motivating as I had.

Thank you for reading.

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Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

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