Best-selling author Lisa See spoke to a full house Wednesday at the Tattered Cover, an independent bookstore and a beloved fixture for Denver booklovers. On tour for her newest book, Dreams of Joy, See entertained the crowd with stories of her life, tidbits of history and background to Dreams of Joy, and a teaser about the next book she is writing.
Lisa See’s Hard Road to Success with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
See began by describing how, at age 50, she did not feel she had hit her peak. She was a “critically-acclaimed author” of four books.
“You know what a ‘critically-acclaimed author’ is,” she said to the crowd, giving the first hint of her dry wit. “It means your books get great reviews, but no one buys them.”
After toiling for several years, See wrote her breakout book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. She reports that everyone she knew — agent, editor, friends — advised her not to write the book. “No one is going to read that book,” they said.
Nevertheless, she felt drawn to write it. It was a freeing experience.
“If no one was going to read it,” See said, “I felt I could write whatever I wanted.”
Of course, a good many people did read it and passed it on to others, and it became an international bestseller.
Lisa See’s Encouragement from Readers
See took a moment to thank readers, saying that they gave her the courage and persistence to go even deeper into her stories. She said that she receives quite a bit of email from fans and makes it a point to answer personally.
Lisa See Discusses Sayings at the Heart of Dreams of Joy
See related her interest in collecting aphorisms, many of them Chinese, which get at the heart of things. She kept several in mind while writing Dreams of Joy, which is a sequel to her book Shanghai Girls. Among them were
— The dead can claim the living.
A theme of Shanghai Girls. See mentioned that Dreams of Joy starts with a 3-page synopsis that will get readers up to speed if they haven’t read Shanghai Girls, or it has been a while since they have read it.
— Suffering will overcome attachment by wearing it out.
— Mothers suffer; children do what they want.
In Dreams of Joy, we will see the themes of sacrifice, courage, and loyalty play out. See mentioned that her own mother often said, “Even if you become an ax murderer, I will still love you.”
“I’m not an ax murderer,” See quipped, “but I still have time.”
Historical Context Of Dreams of Joy
See set the bulk of the novel in 1957 China, a time which Westerners remember as a closed and mysterious time for the Middle Kingdom. But See points out that it was more open than we would think. Many Chinese living in different countries went back to China after the revolution to help rebuild the country.
And so one of her main characters, Joy, travels back to China, but it turns out to be an ill-fated time, the time of the Great Leap Forward. (See says that when her mother found out the time period, she said, “That’s the shortest book you’ll ever write. Pearl and Joy go to China. They are taken out back and shot. The end.”)
China’s Great Leap Forward
In 1958, Chairman Mao came up with two ideas that led to disaster for China:
1. To surpass the United States in steel production. See described how people all over the country melted down all their metal objects in order to reach this goal. People melted down pots and pans and farm implements and consequently were left with no tools for the coming years.
2. To greatly increase agricultural production. See described how farmers tried to plant 10 times as many seeds in the same space in order to increase production. The increased crowding led to decreased production.
They also tried to rid the country of perceived agricultural pests, including sparrows, which they were told took too much seed. People would bang pots and pans and harass the sparrows until they fell from the sky, dead from exhaustion. Ironically, the farmers lost more of their plants to insects, which would have normally been eaten by the sparrows.
As a result of these ill-conceived policies, China experienced a great famine. See says that new research coming out suggests that around 45 million people died from hunger during this time.
These events provided plenty of background for the personal drama between mother and daughter, the kind of relationship that is at the forefront of See’s stories.
Will Dreams of Joy Make You Cry?
Lisa See knows that her stories often make people cry. She says she receives letters from people who tell her that they are crying so much while they’re reading her books that their husbands make them put the book down.
“Yet, I didn’t cry myself,” she says, “until this book.” But she promises her readers that this book will have a happy ending.
“Three quarters of the way through, you’re going to think ‘There is no way this can have a happy ending.'” See told the audience, “But I promise you it will.”
Lisa See’s First Book Turned into a Movie
Someone in the audience asked See if she thought the movie was true to the book. She replied that she believed it was.
She had been sent every version of the script so that she could make comments. “I think they listened to about 20% of what I suggested,” she said, but she emphasized, “They have done nothing to change the book. It is still the same as it was written.” She pointed out that movies are a different art form and, as such, are sometimes written differently.
Lisa See’s Next Project
An audience member asked See if she was planning a sequel to Dreams of Joy. “It could become a trilogy,” she allowed, “but it’s not what I’m working on now.”
See’s next project will be book set in the 1930’s and 40’s about Chinese entertainers who performed in nightclubs and restaurants for predominantly Caucasian audiences. The phenomenon was dubbed “the Chop Suey Circuit.”
“It should be a lot of fun,” See said. “Of course you know me. There will be plenty of tragedy.”
Lisa See’s Family
See ended the evening by talking a bit about her family. Both her mother and grandfather were writers, and she learned much about being a writer through them. “It’s a good thing they weren’t plumbers,” she said.
Someone asked if it was possible to go by her family’s antique shop. She replied it was a public business, but that we had to realize it has some “strange See business practices. They aren’t open very often, and they don’t like to sell things.”
Lisa See Calls for Support of Independent Bookstores
See said that her first book event at the Tattered Cover was attended by “maybe four people.” She appreciated how they still invited her back when her next book was published. She urged the crowd to support independent bookstores.
“It’s not enough to show up, you have to buy something.” See emphasized. “It’s the only way you can have events like this.”