Author Lisa See on Dreams of Joy and rooming in the Chinese countryside with Amy Tan
Best-selling Chinese-American author Lisa See, who will read from her new book Dreams of Joy tomorrow evening at the Tattered Cover, is an extraordinary researcher: Her fierce desire to get the details right has taken her around the world, to museums and libraries, and even into the small worlds of individuals who might hold the key that unlocks a new character in one of her lengthening series of historical novels. See wrote Dreams of Joy as a sequel to her last novel, Shanghai Girls; we chatted with her about the research behind this painful reminder of a time in Chinese history that we know little about as Americans.
Westword: Did you know when you wrote Shanghai Girls that you would want to continue the story in a sequel? Or did that come later?
Lisa See: Yes and no. When I first plotted Shanghai Girls, I planned for it to go from 1937 to 2007. But by the time I was a third of the way through the book, it had progressed so slowly that I had to rethink everything. To me, the end was a new beginning, and I was done. When it was time to meet with my publisher about the next book, I had a few ideas. Then the publisher came in and said we want you to write those stories, but one of these days you have to write the sequel to Shanghai Girls. And I'm nothing if not an obedient Chinese daughter, so I went home and started to do the research.
When Shanghai Girls came out, the first question I got was from someone who had advance copy and wanted to know, 'Are you going to write a sequel?' That was the first question at every book event I went to until two weeks ago.
WW: How does the dynamic between the sisters change or continue in Dreams of Joy?
L.S.: At the end of Shanghai Girls, there are a lot of revelations: that Pearl is not actually Joy's mother and Sam's not her father, and that the person she grew up knowing as her aunt was her real mother. The new book starts with those revelations. And then, with her kind of stubborn nature and grief and sorrow and idealism, Joy runs away to China and Pearl follows after her. The only way you see May is through the letters between the sisters. A lot of the relationship gets solved through those letters, but the heart of the story is not about the sisters. It's about the mother and daughter, and the daughter and her birth father, the artist Z.G. Li.
WW: The Great Leap Forward is kind of a new theme for you. What inspired you to place your characters in that era?
L.S.: The Great Leap Forward is a period not written about very much. We hear about the Cultural Revolution in so many memoirs and films, and one reason why is that the people targeted were intellectuals. When it was all over, they were the very people who could write the books or poems or plays or make the movies. During the Great Leap Forward, the people most affected were poor peasants in the countryside who were isolated, uneducated and, in many cases, illiterate. Those who survived were not the ones who were going to write novels or essays or movies. As far as I know, there are no novels in English that take place in that period.
When I sat down to plot out the sequel, I had originally plotted it out to 2007. Since the first book covered about twenty years, maybe the second should cover enough history to also include the Cultural Revolution. But this novel ends up being about four years. I haven't made much of a dent. I like to write about historical moments that have been lost or forgotten or covered up. The Cult Revolution was horrible, but it did not result in millions of deaths.
WW: How did you research the novel?
L.S.: I go to China to research every book I write. For this one, I first did spend time in Shanghai. But I also wanted to set part of the book in a small village, and wanted it to be in Anhui Province, which certainly has historical significance in terms of poverty, floods and famine. It's where Pearl Buck set The Good Earth. It just happened that Amy Tan sent me an e-mail saying she had to do research in China, and she invited me to stay with her in a village, Huangcun Village, in a seventeenth-century villa -- they call it a villa, though it has no windows or heat or indoor plumbing. We went off together to this small village and spent several days meeting people in their houses and gardens and fields. We met people who made baskets or cured meat. We went during spring festival, and there was a man in the next village who made paper offerings for grave sites. He was making a special house and clothes and all of these things to be burned at one woman's grave, and the family invited us to go out to where their grandmother was buried. They burned it all, and it was fantastic.
I took all the research I had done and placed it in this fictional Green Dragon Village. I've changed the geography of it a little bit, but the villa is based on that house where we stayed. In Shanghai, I was trying to find the places where people in my book will live, cafes where people can meet. I was looking for something set in 2009 but has the feeling of 1957, but even more than that, going back to 1937, when Pearl left -- that kind of decaying art deco environment. There's an architect I met who specializes in restoring art deco buildings in Shanghai, and I spent a day with him walking through streets as he pointed out things on the buildings. I looked at these details and was able to incorporate them into my novel.
Pearl goes back and lives in her old house where she grew up in the book. One person asked me if that was realistic for Pearl to go back to her house after twenty years and the room would still be absolutely the same. My family is from a small village in the south of China, and they really preserved their house as it was. And I hear time and time again from people that they would go back to their home village after forty years, and, yes, there were squatters -- my house had ten families living there -- but you could still go in and see a room preserved exactly as it was. They have an aphorism in China: 'The fallen leaf returns to the roots.' There is a great belief that people will always come back to China.
In the days of the railroad, they would even dig up the bones of the workers who died here and send them back to China. There are whole villages in the south where people have walked out of the house, crossed the border, left everything just as it was, and when they return years later it's all still there. It does seem unbelievable, but just because there are squatters in your house, just because the original owners are not there, why would they change the rug or the wallpaper or the lamp? There wasn't anything to buy -- anything you could was buy made in Russia, so why not have a pretty art deco vase? I used that idea of how things were preserved and kept even to this day, where people living in one since 1949 haven't changed anything inside. It's filthy after years of wear and tear, and the things don't belong to them, but it's still there.
WW: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Dreams of Joy?
L.S.: There are a couple of things I'm learning about history: One is the misconception about how China in those days was supposed to be completely closed to the Western world. And then Nixon opened China. But it wasn't as closed as we all grew up hearing.
Also, to me, my books, which always include historical components, are really about relationships and emotions -- not just mothers and daughters, but fathers and daughters. What is the depth of "mother love" to me? That means sacrifice, courage...you will do anything for your child. No matter what you do, you're going to be loyal. But it's not only the mother's perspective I look at. As the daughter grows up, Z.G. isn't the father who knows best. He's new to fatherhood; he didn't even know he had a daughter. He's an artist; he's a little cryptic. Five people read my manuscript, including my mother and my sister. After reading it, my mother said to my sister, "I don't know about him. Where did Lisa get that?" And my sister said, "Do you remember who you married?" I wouldn't say Z.G. is exactly like my father, but I also don't think I'm the only person in the world who has a father who doesn't play golf or call me pumpkin or coach soccer. How Joy and Z.G. learn about each other and how she can come to see him as a father and vice versa is a story of sacrifice, courage and loyalty.
WW: What's next?
L.S.: I've just begun my research for the next book. I haven't settled on the years yet, but it will be set in the U.S., and it's about something called the Chop Suey Circuit.
WW: You really seem to enjoy doing the research.
L.S: Research is my favorite part of writing a book. You never know what you're going to find. When you go out and talk to people, you never know what you're going to hear. I like talking to people and hearing about their lives, because truth really is stranger than fiction. You take the real stories, and you make them seem more believable.
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