I am so pleased to welcome Lisa See, the author of Shanghai Girls, to Peeking Between the Pages today. I reviewed Shanghai Girls yesterday for her tour with TLC Book Tours and really enjoyed the novel (see my review here). It’s a story with characters that I feel will stay with me for a long while and that’s what makes a great book in my world! So, sit back and relax with a cup of your chosen beverage and let’s see what Lisa has to share with us today…
People often wonder where writers get ideas for books. At least this is one of the main questions I get. For many writers, there’s a single idea or an emotion that they want to explore. For me, I think about several things: time, place, an historic element or two (or more!), a relationship, and an emotion. This has been true for all of my books – whether fiction, non-fiction, or mystery—and it’s very obvious and clear in Shanghai Girls.
With Shanghai Girls, I wanted to write about the idea of home. In this story, two sisters leave Shanghai in 1937 and come to the United States. What causes people to leave their homes and go to a new country? What do they leave behind? What do they miss? In a sense, Shanghai Girls is bookended by two big events: the invasion of China by the Japanese in 1937 and the so-called Confession program in the United States of 1957. And of course, there’s plenty of history in between those two big events. Pearl and May come from one of the most sophisticated cities on earth. Shanghai was considered the Paris of Asia – one of the most glamorous, decadent, sinful, beautiful, and fun cities on earth. Pearl and May live a very cosmopolitan life. They were what were called “beautiful girls” – models of Shanghai advertising. They’re modern women in a modern city. From Shanghai, Pearl and May go to Angel Island (the Ellis Island of the West Coast) and end up living in China City—a tourist attraction in Los Angeles built from the leftover sets from the filming of The Good Earth. Even thought they are in America, in many ways they’ve been thrown back in time to become proper Chinese wives and mothers. I was interested in which place was more real, more Chinese, or more authentic? Most important, I was interested in that point when they would view themselves as American. After everything, the immigrant story is about all of us in America. We all had someone in our families who was brave enough, scared enough, or crazy enough to leave their home counties to come here.
I knew I wanted to write about sisters. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I wrote about best friends for life. In Peony in Love, I wrote about the sister-wives but also about the relationship between Peony, her mother, and her grandmother. Now sisters. The sibling relationship is the longest that we’ll have in our lifetimes. A sister knows you your entire life. She should stand by you, support you, and love you, no matter what, but it’s also your sister who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most. I’m a sister myself, so I know a lot about sisters, but I also asked everyone and anyone I could find about their relationships with their sisters.
In addition to all the stuff about sisters, there was an even deeper emotional heart to the story. I grew up spending a lot of time with my grandparents and great aunts and uncles in Los Angeles Chinatown. These were people who loved me unconditionally, who supported me, and who literally gave me their stories. Today, most of the places are gone. China City, for example, has literally been wiped off the map of the city. I wanted to interview people who had been children in China City—some of them in their seventies or eighties—to get their stories before China City disappeared from the map of memory. But I also have been feeling this tremendous sense of loss for all the people who are gone now. Writing about them allowed me to be with them every day. I think this has, for me, has become the greatest blessing about writing. I can’t actually be with my grandmother anymore, but I’ve now written a character that either is exactly like her or is very much like her in every single book I’ve written. Through writing, I get to visit with her, laugh with her, eat her favorite foods, watch her brush her hair, and see her put on her favorite clothes, as well as experience her grumpy, ornery side too. I’m finding that more and more I’m going back to my childhood and to those people who made such a difference in my life. I miss them and I’m lonely for them. Writing about them in a fictional way let’s me honor them at a very deep level.
I don’t have a lot of special routines for writing. I try to write first thing in the morning, when I’m fresh and before I can get sucked into too many chores or treats. I write a thousand words a day, when I’m writing a book. When I’m editing, I work until I drop. Sometimes that can take only an hour or two; sometimes I can work ten hours straight. My desk is in a very pretty room and I have a nice view of the garden, except that I have bamboo shades on the windows next to my desk so that I don’t get distracted by what’s outside. (The outside is my reward for a good day’s work.) I love music, but I’m very picky about what I listen to when I’m writing. It usually can’t be in English or a language that I understand. I listen to music from the Dominican Republic and South African townships in the 1950s. Lately one of my favorite CDs to work to traces music from Mali to Memphis. But my absolute favorite CD to write to is Puccini without Words, which I love and will play over and over again when I’m writing. The title sums it up: it’s Puccini’s opera music minus the human voices. What is opera, after all? It’s trying to tell a story through the pure emotion of music. I’m also trying to tell the most emotionally true story I can tell. The music sends me right to that place of deep-heart emotion.
Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful post with us today Lisa! It’s been great having you here and having the opportunity to read your novel. Be sure to visit Lisa See’s website for more information on all of her novels.
I have 2 copies of Shanghai Girls by Lisa See courtesy of the publisher Random House. To enter…
- For 1 entry leave me a comment with a way to contact you.
- For 2 entries follow my blog. If you do, let me know in your comment.
- For 3 entries blog(sidebar is fine) or tweet this giveaway.
This giveaway is open to US & Canadian residents only and I will draw for the winners on Sunday, January 31, 2010. Good luck everyone!
Be sure to check both my sidebars for other great giveaways!