Hometown: Los Angeles
Based In: Los Angeles
Education: BA in Modern Greek Studies
Favorite Read: Angel of Repose.
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…A landscape designer
Author Crush: I have to choose one? Not possible! Here are a few I’ve been reading lately that I like: Ruth Ozeki, Willa Cather, Jess Walter, Adam Johnson
Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book I’d Recommend: My mother, Carolyn See, wrote one. It’s called Making a Literary Life. And it’s great!!! But it’s less about the actual writing than it is about how to become a writer. I don’t know if you can get useful writing advice about plot or character from a manual, but I do think you can learn a lot about what it takes to be a writer, publishing, and editing.
Up Next: I’ve just finished China Dolls. It takes place during the nightclub era in this country during the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, there were Chinese American nightclubs, in San Francisco mostly, that featured performers who billed themselves as the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the Chinese Frank Sinatra, the Chinese Houdini, the Chinese Fill-in-the blank. Sometimes they would go out on the road to perform on what was called the Chop-suey Circuit. I’ve spent the last three years interviewing many of the perfromers, including the Chinese Ginger Rogers, who is now 96. Oh, and she’s actually Japanese not Chinese! So, China Dolls is about three girls who start out as chorus girls at a nightclub (based on the real life San Francisco nightclub, the Forbidden City) and what happens to them. Of course, they each have secrets. It wouldn’t be one of my books if the girls didn’t have secrets!
Where do you prefer doing most of your writing?
In my office, which is in my house and looks out into our garden.
Some would say you have a fascination with China.
I’m part Chinese. When I was growing up, I heard many stories about the family. But I also loved Chinatown. My parents were divorced when I was three and I moved around a lot, so Chinatown and my grandparents’ house were the constants in my life. Other things could change around me, but these two places stayed the same. After I wrote On Gold Mountain, I wrote three mysteries that took place in contemporary China. These allowed me to explore modern China and also think about how the past has influenced and continues to influence U.S.-China relations. With Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, I went back to the deep past, where I was able to look at things that my family still does today but that I really hadn’t understood. In a sense, writing books allows me to research things I haven’t always understood in my family: why candy is given at funerals, why there’s such an emphasis on sons, or why lettuce leaves are given to dragons during Chinese New Year.
Did you expect Dreams of Joy to top the New York Times bestseller’s list? And it actually debuted there too!
It debuted at Number One! How crazy is that? I never imagined something like that could happen in a million years. It’s not even something I fantasized about. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it, actually.
During your early years, you were really taken by theater. Was the first thing you ever wrote a dramatic play?
Ummm… I don’t know if I’d characterize myself as really being taken by theater then any more than I am now. I see a lot of theater and I love opera. I’ve never written a dramatic play, though. Not only that, I’ve never wanted to write a dramatic play. They’re very difficult to do well and they take a lifetime of study and absorbing and thinking. I did write the libretto for On Gold Mountain, which was based on my first book. I worked with a fantastic team of people – a great director, composer, producing company, conductor, and singers. I was just a tiny cog. It was one of the best experiences of my life and it’s helped me become a better fiction writer in the sense that I try to tell stories – as best I can through the written word – through the pure emotion of music. I know that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense when you read that, but it makes a lot of sense in my head.
Were you involved at all, or are you involved with the screen adaptations of your novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
I have a web site where people can write to me. I’m the only person who sees those e-mails and the only person who writes back. One day I received an e-mail from a woman, Florence Sloan, who asked if she could buy the rights to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to make her first film. I met with her and she was not only a lovely woman, but she was also passionate about the novel. I read every version of the script. I made comments on every version that I saw. Some things they incorporated into the film; others they didn’t. Readers of the novel are always surprised to see a modern story in the film that weaves through my original story. The part that is true to the book is absolutely true to the book. The modern story is obviously completely new, but thematically it’s appropriate to the theme of female friendship.
Do you think that critique groups are a big help on helping aspiring authors?
I have five people read my manuscripts. I divide their criticism into three categories. A third of the time, they’re right. A third of the time they’re completely wrong. And a third of the time I need to really look at something, because there’s something a little off. So, yes! I’d say it’s very important to have people whose taste, judgment, eye, spirit, and morals are in line with yours. At the same time, it can be argued that you can benefit from a reader who shares none of those qualities with you, but are you really writing for someone like that?
Are there certain things you wished you had known before you made your debut in the literary world?
Unlike most writers, I grew up surrounded by them. My mom’s a writer and my mother’s father was a writer. I feel like I’ve been in a lifelong apprenticeship. I learned a lot about writing from my mother that most people take years and years to learn or may never learn. Writing was literally in my blood. (I always say it was a good thing they weren’t plumbers!) Nevertheless, I would say that the one thing that has really changed is all the stuff that goes into marketing now. In the past, if you were lucky, your publisher sent you on a book tour, they advertised your book in book reviews in newspapers around the country, and they arranged for journalists to interview you. Now you have to be extremely lucky to go on a book tour; advertising is minimal (partly because there are no book sections left in newspapers); and instead of being interviewed and someone else writes the article, there are all sorts of blogs like yours and social media outlets where the writer does the work. Are these bad things? No. Just different. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg of how publishing has changed and what flux it’s in. So I guess what I’d wish I’d known was that the publishing business – which had remained basically the same for centuries – was going to change so much and that all writers would have to be more open, flexible, adaptive, and creative in this new and constantly world.
How can a writer master the craft of writing?
I always look at writing as a job. That means, you get up and you go to work. I don’t wait for that moment of inspiration. By now, I do a lot of things—I write, I do a lot of speaking, and I do other fun—what I consider to be fun—projects. But the first thing’s writing, so that always comes first. When I get up, the first thing I do is write. My rule is 1000 words a day—just four pages—that isn’t very much. At the end of the week, you’ll have a chapter. Write what you really care about. You need to be passionate, because it takes a long time to write a book and a lot of bumps happen along the road to publication. Love, love, love what you do. You just have to keep at it day by day, word by word.
As an author who has been traditionally published from the beginning, what are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I don’t know if you know this, but I worked for Publishers Weekly for thirteen years as the West Coast correspondent. Those years really saw self-publishing take off, so I’ve really seen a lot of it and, again, how it’s changed, with e-books, social media, etc. I actually think there are more opportunities for people who want to self-publish today that there was ten, twenty, thirty years ago. For every writer who catches the gold ring and sells a million copies of her self-published book, there are countless others who sell only a dozen copies. (Let me stop here to ask what the goal is for self-publishing? Sometimes people just want to get there story out there; sometimes people are hoping to sell enough copies that the book will be picked up by a traditional publisher; sometimes people think of self-publishing as a get rich quick scheme. All of these are valid reasons, but they are very different goals and can have very different results. What might be truly satisfying for the person who just wanted to get his or her story out there might be a huge disappointment to the person who wanted to get rich quick.) I have a friend who has self-published a self-help book and has sold maybe thirty copies; I have another friend who self-published a cookbook which is now in its fourth printing. But can’t the same be true for people who go with big publishers? Even though tens of thousands of books are published every year, only a handful make it onto the NY Times bestseller list. Look at me! I was a “mid-list literary novelist” – which is just high falutin’ talk for someone who doesn’t sell any books at all – for years and years. Then I had a breakout book. But, you know, I think all of this is off the point. We write because we have a need to write. The other stuff is just noise.