Lisa See

How did you become a writer?

I didn’t want to be a writer. My mom’s a writer and my mother’s father was a writer. I wanted to do something different. But then I became 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. But after years of resistance, I woke up one day, and it was like a light bulb went off. I mean it was just like, “Oh, I could be a writer…” At the time, I was living in Greece, and I didn’t want to get married, and didn’t want to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase, and I thought, how can I do that? I’ll be a writer!” It really had to do with how can I have real freedom with my time? My goal was how can I have a life where my time is my own? Where I don’t have to be in an office, where I could travel, where I could choose my own hours? I was really trying to find what that could be because it was really important to me, and it still is. Especially when my sons were younger, I could work from home. When they had the Halloween special thing at school, I wouldn’t have to miss it. And that was just very important to me.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I adored my paternal grandmother. She probably was the greatest influence on my life. She loved to travel. She wasn’t very conventional. (She married a Chinese man when it was still against the law.) My mom, Carolyn See, who is a writer, has been a huge influence on my life as a woman and a writer. I can honestly say I wouldn’t he the writer I am if not for her. Bob Dylan has also been an influence, not that I know him or anything. I love how he can tell an entire story in just a few minutes, and I love how he plays with words. Lastly, I’d have to say Wallace Stegner. I used a line from Angle of Repose as the epigraph for my first book, On Gold Mountain: “Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t comprehend. I’d like to live in their clothes a while.” I didn’t realize when I used those lines that the sentiment would continue to influence me and my writing to this day.

When and where do you write?

I have an office in my house. When I’m writing, I work first thing in the morning. I write a thousand words a day. Sometimes I can do that in two hours. Sometimes it takes eight or ten hours. On those days, we have cheese and crackers for dinner.

What are you working on now?

I've just finished a new novel. It's called China Dolls, and it's about Chinese American performers in the 1930s and 1940s here in this country. These were people who billed themselves as the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the Chinese Houdini, the Chinese Frank Sinatra. My story is about three young women who meet in San Francisco at the Forbidden City nightclub. High jinks ensue!

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No, thank god!!! That doesn’t mean that some days I don’t feel like writing or that I don’t know that what I’m writing sucks and will eventually be cut. Even when it’s going badly, I feel it’s really important to just keep writing that 1,000 words a day.

What’s your advice to new writers?

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—rather, what I consider to be fun—projects. But the most important thing is 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. Life is short, so be passionate about everything you do.

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy. She has also written a mystery series that takes place in China, as well as On Gold Mountain, which is about her Chinese-American family. Her next novel, China Dolls, will be released by Random House in June 2014. Ms. See serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority. She was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001 and was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award in Fall 2003. To learn more, please visit her web site at