'Lost' stories about Chinese women inspire writer

LOS ANGELES — Lisa See begins her day by writing at least a thousand words. Meticulous, the author keeps a chart of her daily output in a notebook filled with dates and numbers.

"I think there are so many ways you can get distracted as a writer — sometimes it's even better to wash the dishes than it is to sit down and write," See says. "But if I can do my thousand words, if I do four thousand a week, then I'll know I'll meet my deadline. I can sleep at night."

It's the type of discipline that explains how See has managed to publish five books in 10 years. Her last one, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," became a best seller and shot her to literary fame. Boosted by favorable publicity and word of mouth, it has sold more than a million copies and been translated to 35 languages. Baldwin Films bought the movie rights.

"There are certain things that have happened with this book. I can't even say it's a dream come true because I never even dreamt it," See says in an interview at her airy home office, which looks out to a pool and garden.

She points to a framed photo of a Paris subway billboard advertising "Snow Flower" in French, and is giddy as she talks about appearing at the recent BookExpo in New York with comedian Stephen Colbert.

The 52-year-old author came to novel-writing after many years in journalism. Her mother, Carolyn See, is a Los Angeles-based author and literary critic. Her father, Richard See, is an anthropologist. They divorced when she was young and she spent much of her childhood with her father's Chinese relatives in Los Angeles' Chinatown.

She majored in modern Greek studies in college and, after graduation, spent two years traveling in Europe. She said she vowed never to become a writer like her mother.

"I thought I knew three things about myself: I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, I always wanted to live out of a suitcase and I never wanted to be a writer," she says.

But when she started to run out of money, she realized she could write for a living. With her mother's help, See soon landed two magazine assignments. Many more followed, and she broke her own rules by marrying an attorney and had two sons. She still spends a lot of time living out of a suitcase, but acknowledges that it's not as appealing as she once thought.

Though her red hair and pale skin do not reflect that she is part white, part Chinese, See says she is strongly influenced by her Chinese heritage.

She began working on her first book, "On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family," in 1989. It came out in 1995 was a best seller. It was during her research for "On Gold Mountain" that she uncovered many family secrets — including the fact that her pioneering great-grandfather Fong See had four instead of two wives — and it sparked her fascination for what she called "lost, forgotten or deliberately covered up" stories.

She found a treasure trove of such tales in Chinese and Chinese-American history.

Her first three novels were suspense thrillers set in contemporary China: "Flower Net" (1997), "The Interior" (2000) and "Dragon Bones" (2003). She was inspired to write "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" after reading a book about foot-binding in China that mentioned a relatively unknown written language — nu shu — used by women of the Yao ethnic minority so they can communicate among themselves.

The novel, set in 19th-century rural China, paints a detailed picture of two young girls, isolated from the outside world because of their bound feet, who found solace and friendship through nu shu.

Before its release in 2005, See thought "Snow Flower" would be a tough sell.

"I just thought, it's about women, it's about women in a room, nobody is going to care about this," she says.

To her surprise, the book became a success thanks to booksellers who received advanced copies of the novel and recommended it to book clubs and other customers months before its summer release.

"I read it and I thought it was fantastic," said Sue Boucher, owner of Lake Forest Bookstore in Lake Forest, Ill. "I told people I just read this book, it's fantastic. By the day it was released, I had 120 people in here. And nobody had read that book or read her other books."

So far, Random House has printed 102,000 hardcover and 986,000 paperback copies of "Snow Flower."

The publishing house has similarly sent booksellers advanced copies of her upcoming novel "Peony in Love," months before its June 26 release. Boucher read it and said it "stands up to 'Snow Flower.'"

"We're really excited to sell it," she said.

The book has an initial print run of 150,000.

"Our expectation is that 'Peony in Love' will continue to build on the support of the many readers, including book club members and booksellers, who loved 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,'" said Barbara Fillon, a Random House spokeswoman.

See developed ideas for the novel after writing an article seven years ago for Vogue magazine about a full-length, 20-hour performance of the Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion," staged at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.

"Peony in Love" is based on a true 17th-century story about young women who became so obsessed with "The Peony Pavilion" that they would starve to death, hoping that like the phantom heroine in the opera, they could choose their destinies in the afterlife. Known as lovesick maidens, they wrote many books and poems during a particularly productive period for women writers in China.

"That sense that more women writers in this one area of China, in the Yangtze Delta, who were being published than anywhere in the rest of the world at the time — that just blew my mind," See says.

See is intrigued by Chinese history and culture, particularly the place of women in them. She says she is influenced by her mother, her paternal grandmother and her great aunt Sissee, whom she describes as strong women who "did unique things at a time when women might not have been doing that."

"For me, it's been amazing to find these things that women have done and yet what they did had been lost along the way — people had forgotten about it," she says. "The word 'empowering' is really overused, but I think there's something ... incredible knowing that these women existed. They were doing something before 1960: meaningful things, interesting things, brave things."

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