ED: Your much anticipated work, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, is set to release on March 21st; what inspired you to write this story?
LS: There were a few things, actually. I was walking to the movies with my husband in Santa Monica. I saw an older white couple with their teenaged adopted Chinese daughter. She had a ponytail that was swinging back and forth, and I thought she was like a fox spirit in that family. Fox spirits can be mischievous, but they can also bring great blessings. As I watched that particular threesome, I thought she was like a gift that had turned two people into a family. That’s when I knew I wanted to write about the One Child Policy and transnational adoption.
But as you know, I use a lot of history and culture in my books, so my next question was what would be the historical and cultural backdrop? A month or so later, I gave a talk at a library down by San Diego. The events person had arranged for a man to give a presentation about Pu’er tea as part of the overall entertainment. The history of the tea was so fascinating—and it tasted so remarkable—that I knew I needed to write about it. This would lead me eventually on my trip to Yunnan, the birthplace of tea and the home of Pu’er. Finally, the “who.” Yunnan is home to 26 ethnic minorities. When I went to Yunnan, I was pretty sure that I’d be writing about the Dai people. Then I spent a couple of days with an Akha family. The daughter loved to collect stories from her elders. She recounted many of those stories, but she also talked a lot of about her own life. Not only did I decide to write about the Akha, but Ah-bu became the inspiration for Li-yan.
ED: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was made into a movie. How did you feel about the translation on screen and would you want to do it again with any of your other novels?
LS: The part of the film that is true to the book is absolutely true to the book. One of the scenes I love most in the film is based on the chapter called “The Letter of Vituperation.” Women who used nu shu often gathered at weddings and other celebrations to share stories, letters, and songs in the secret language. In the novel, I could only write that they sang. In the film, Wayne Wang, the director, hired nu shu experts, so there is a scene where you can actually hear what nu shu sounded like when it was sung. It’s beautiful.
Wayne Wang also added a contemporary story of friendship in Shanghai today. That part has nothing to do with the book. Some people like this part of the film, but a lot of people hate it, especially those who read the novel first. And I’ve had a lot of people ask me, “How could you let them do that to your book?” I always answer, “They did nothing to the book. See, it’s right there on the shelf.”
I’ve had other books optioned, but only Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was made. Right now my agent is negotiating the rights for China Dolls to be made into a television series. I love all the people who are involved, so I hope it happens.
ED: All of your books are rich with history and tradition. What tradition would you say you value you the most (or like) and which do least value (or dislike)?
LS: I assume that you’re talking about Chinese traditions. There are a lot of traditions around holidays, births, marriage, and death that I love. At funerals, for example, every guest is given money to go out and spend to show that life goes on and a piece of candy to wash away the bitter taste of death. For me, the top of the list would be filial piety. I believe in the wisdom of our elders and that they should be treated with respect. My least favorite is also related to filial piety. It can be summed up in the aphorism that says, When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; and when a widow, obey your son.
ED: What do you think that women in general could learn from Chinese culture that would benefit them in life?
LS: I’ll quote the Yao ethnic-minority aphorism that I used in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.
ED: When working on a novel about how much time would you say goes into it from start to finish?
LS: I’d say somewhere between two and three years. In many ways, the writing is the least time-consuming part of the task. I do so much research, but I also feel that a book is truly formed during the editing process.
ED: What is the thing you love the most about writing?
LS: The research. For sure! I do all kinds of research. I spend time in archives and museums, I look on the Internet, I hang out in research libraries, and I talk to people. The best part is that I go to every place that I write about. For The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, that meant a trip to the tea mountains of Yunnan. I visited small villages, learned every step of processing tea (I even got to “kill the green”), spent time with a tea master, drank tea that was worth about $1,000 for an ounce (I didn’t have to pay for it, thank heavens), and interviewed tea farmers from various ethnic minorities. I also eat everything my characters eat, which is great fun. For The Tea Girl, everything was delicious and fresh. I have to admit that I didn’t eat everything that was in Dreams of Joy, which takes place during the worst man-made famine in world history. . .
ED: Okay, now I have a few just for fun questions…
Did you ever have a nickname growing up that you absolutely hated, and what was it?
LS: No nicknames, but my great-uncle Bennie, who was pretty hard of hearing, used to shout at me, “I’m gonna put you in trashcan.” That really scared me even though I knew he didn’t really mean it. But maybe he did. . .
ED: (Let’s say) You have a sweet-tooth, what do is your go to snack?
Do I have a sweet tooth? It’s funny, but I don’t think of myself as having much of one. I certainly don’t snack on sweets. I guess if I have one it’s Halloween candy corn. But a cup of those will last me months. I know that, because I had a jar of candy corn on my desk that seemed to last forever. I’d treat myself with one or two a day.
ED: If you could change just one thing about yourself, what would it be?
LS: My saggy butt. Certain parts of my body are being pulled by gravity no matter how much exercise I do.
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**ALL pictures are copyright of the author and not my own. Picture of Lisa See photo credit to Patricia Williams.