See, Lisa 1955–
See, Lisa 1955–
(Monica Highland, a joint pseudonym, Lisa See Kendall)
PERSONAL: Born February 18, 1955, in Paris, France; daughter of Richard Edward (an anthropologist) and Carolyn (a novelist; maiden name, Laws) See; married Richard Becker Kendall (an attorney), July 18, 1981; children: Alexander See, Christopher Copeland. Education: Received certificate from Institute for Balkan Studies in Greece, 1978; Loyola Marymount University, B.A., 1979. Hobbies and other interests: Travel, tennis, gardening.
CAREER: Writer. Work-related activities include Autry Museum of Western Heritage, guest curator and developer of the Family Discovery Gallery and the Gold Mountain exhibit which traveled to the Smithsonian Institution; guest curator of the Tyrus Wong Retrospective at the Chinese American Museum; El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority, Los Angeles City commissioner.
MEMBER: PEN American Center, PEN Center USA West, the Trusteeship.
AWARDS, HONORS: Proclamation from City of Los Angeles and Long Beach Literary Hall of Fame Award, both 1983, both for Lotus Land; Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel, Mystery Writers of America, for Flower Net; Woman of the Year, Organization of Chinese American Women, 2001; Chinese History Makers Award, 2003; additional commendations from United States Congress, United States Senate, California State Senate, County of Los Angeles, City of Los Angeles, Mayor of Las Vegas.
WITH MOTHER, CAROLYN SEE, AND JOHN ESPEY, UNDER JOINT PSEUDONYM MONICA HIGHLAND
Lotus Land (novel), Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1983.
110 Shanghai Road (novel), McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1986.
Greetings from Southern California (nonfiction), Graphic Arts Center Publishing (Portland, OR), 1988.
AS LISA SEE
(Author of text) A Day in the Life of Hawaii, Workman Publishing, 1984.
On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (autobiography), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Flower Net (mystery), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
The Interior (mystery), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
Dragon Bones: A Novel, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
Also author of libretto for opera based on On Gold Mountain, c. 2000.
Contributor of articles to Vogue, More, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book Review, and Los Angeles Times Book Review. Western correspondent for Publishers Weekly, 1983–96.
ADAPTATIONS: Film rights for Flower Net were bought by Paramount Pictures; Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road were optioned for television miniseries.
SIDELIGHTS: Lisa See, whose married name is Kendall, has also written with her mother, Carolyn See, and John Espey under the joint pseudonym Monica Highland. See once told CA: "I've been around journalism and letters all my life. My mother, Carolyn See, is a journalist, novelist, and critic. She has taught me everything I know about what might be called the popular, contemporary West Coast literary scene. I've known my other collaborator, John Espey, for over twenty-five years. He has taught me about the scholarly life. It is a pleasure to work with them as 'Monica Highland.' I know I speak for all of us when I say that it gives us a feeling of strength in numbers—something all writers need in the West."
See, one eighth Chinese, presents more than her own life story in her autobiography On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. The narrative is "a comprehensive and exhaustively researched account of a Chinese-American family as it deals with their rise and fall of several Los Angeles 'Chinatowns,' with the exigencies of discrimination, fire, flood, earthquake, the Great Depression and two world wars," summarized Zilpha Keatley Snyder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Snyder also commented: "Throughout the lengthy and complicated account the reader is carried along effortlessly by the author's skillful and absolutely convincing invocation of the fears, joys, loves, hatreds, strengths and weaknesses of her remarkable progenitors," Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Elizabeth Tallent noted that "the See family's adventures would be incredible if On Gold Mountain were fiction." Tallent also wrote that the author is a "clear-eyed biographer." Writing in People, Pam Lambert called the book a "lovingly rendered dynastic saga." Lambert added: "Deeply felt, [See's] story of culture and assimilation would likely make her ancestors proud."
"The complexity of [See's] own background" is credited by Paula Friedman in the Los Angeles Times Book Review for "the graceful rendering of two different and complex cultures, within [the] highly intricate plot" of Flower Net, a "novel of political conspiracy and family betrayal." See's debut mystery presents "a workman-like job with … plot and paints a vivid portrait of a vast Communist nation in the painful throes of a sea change," stated J.D. Reed in People. Critics applauded See's portrayal of the Chinese city of Beijing and characterization of Liu Halan, a female detective with the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing. Halan is paired with her love interest of a decade earlier, David Stark, an assistant U.S. Attorney. The team bridges countries, and rekindles romance, when investigating an apparent serial killer whose latest two victims were recently discovered. The body of a powerful Chinese businessman's son was found in U.S. territory and the body of a U.S. ambassador's son was found frozen in a Beijing lake. "True to [See's] predilection for doubling throughout this novel, when Hulan and David do reach the end of their investigation, they find two interdependent solutions. One is so sensationally evil, its hard to swallow; the other is quietly appalling," declared Washington Post Book World contributor Maureen Corrigan.
"All and all," wrote Gary Krist in the New York Times Book Review, "Flower Net [has] an inviting premise for a thriller … capitalizes on its inherent novelty and exoticism … [and has] delight[ful] … local descriptions" of Beijing. Of the detective pair, Krist commented: "Although Stark is constructed largely from crime-novel boiler plate … Hulan is a provocative mixture of vulnerability, bitterness and hardheaded practicality." Calling Hulan an "intriguing, if not fully fleshed out, character," Corrigan noted: "David may have the muscle, but Hulan has the moxie." This "nifty tale of suspense" presents "colorful observations of Chinese life … seemlessly combined with basic suspense elements," wrote Chicago Tribune contributor Chris Petrako, calling See "a writer comfortable with imaginative storytelling and the sweep of history."
See has continued to write Chinese-based mysteries featuring Hulan and Stark. In The Interior, the duo meet once again as they become involved in the death of a young woman. To investigate the death, Hulan takes a job in an American toy factory in China where the young woman worked and which also has a link to Stark's law firm. Writing in the Library Journal, a contributor called the book "an intriguing and fast-paced read." In a review in Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted that "much here is original and fresh, an absorbing look at an unfamiliar world."
Dragon Bones: A Novel finds Hulan monitoring a demonstration staged by a cult when a woman pulls a gun and tries to shoot her daughter. Hulan shoots the woman and soon finds herself coupled once again with Stark in a mystery involving religious fanatics, the Three Gorges Dam in China, and a possible terrorist plot. Nanci Milone Hill, writing in the Library Journal, noted: "The novel flows beautifully,… while gently introducing them to China's rich cultural history." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the author "succeeds in widening the reader's knowledge about … China while racing along with an absorbing story."
See leaves behind Hulan and Stark and goes back in Chinese history in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel. Narrated by eighty-year-old Lady Lu, the novel follows Lu's life in rural nineteenth-century China. Lu recounts her youth in a poor family, her betterment through marriage, and her often strained friendship with her best friend, Snow Flower, over the years, which has been dominated by the rigid code of conduct for women within their culture. School Library Journalcontributor Molly Connally wrote that, despite cultural differences between the East and West, the novel's "life lessons are much the same, and they will be remembered long after the details of this fascinating story are forgotten." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that the author "adroitly transmits historical background in graceful prose." A Kirkus Reviews contributor remarked: "Taut and vibrant, the story offers a delicately painted view of a sequestered world."
See recently told CA: "For a long time, I didn't want to be a writer. My mother and grandfather were both writers. When I was growing up, they seemed to suffer a lot. Publishers were mean and for a long time my mother's dreams weren't realized. Now of course, she's very successful, respected, and honored, but back then she was just starting out and writing seemed like a hard life.
"I knew three things about myself when I was growing up. I never wanted to get married, I didn't want to have children, and I always wanted to live out of a suitcase. I took two years off from college to travel in Europe. The whole time I was wondering how I was going to make my life work and how I would be able to afford it. One morning, when I was living in Greece, I woke up and it was like a cartoon light bulb went off in my head. I thought, Oh, I could be a writer! When I got back to the States, I got my first two magazine assignments within forty-eight hours and I've never looked back.
"But it's a funny thing. When you're young you think you know so much about yourself. I ended up getting married and having children, but I still spend a lot of time living out of a suitcase.
"My sons are my first and greatest inspiration. I've always wanted them to be proud of me and know that women can do interesting things and still be good mothers. But I'd have to say my whole family and my family background have been the greatest influences on my work. I come from a very large Chinese-American family. The stories of my great-grandfather formed the basis for my first book, On Gold Mountain. But I also heard wonderful stories from my grand-mother and great-aunt. They were interesting and kind women. Their strength—and often their sorrow—is something I'm always trying to capture in my books. Also, I learned so much from my mother about grace, hard work, and persistence. She taught me that if I couldn't have fun when I was writing and be happy with the work, then I shouldn't do it.
"Finally, I would say that the idea that history is something that effects individual people is at the heart of what I do. I had a fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Bruinslot, who taught history not in terms of wars and dates but in terms of how those things effected individual people, whether they were presidents or common people just trying to live their lives.
"I get up early and work on my e-mail for an hour or two. Then I write a thousand words. That's only four pages. Some days I write more, but I try never to write less. I usually have an outline and I write from the beginning to end without stopping to edit. So much of writing happens, I think, in the editing process. I tell aspiring writers that they should listen to criticism—whether it's from a teacher or an editor—and then look at it three ways. A third of all editing suggestions are right, a third are absolutely wrong, and a third are things you have to look at, consider, and play around with.
"I don't have any special rituals other than starting early so I don't get distracted by the day and drinking lots and lots of decaffeinated tea. On my desk I have photos of my sons, Chinese wind-up toys, a pencil holder my youngest son made me, a photo of a dim sum lunch I made that was really gorgeous (if I do say so myself), a dictionary of Chinese street language, all of the notebooks I've used for each book so I can refer back to them.
"[The most surprising thing I've learned is] that you have to be brave. Going to Jiangyong County in China to research nu shu for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan required a certain amount of bravery. I was told I was only the second foreigner to go there. (I think I was actually about the fifth.) There was no hot water and I ate things like pig penis. Having that kind of bravery has allowed me to explore my deepest passions. But beyond things like research trips, the actual process of writing requires a lot of bravery. Like all artists, writers have to be willing to go all the way to the bone, reveal themselves, and then be willing for people to hate what they have to say.
"[Asking which of my books is my favorite] is like asking which of my children is my favorite and why. I'll answer that the same way I answer my sons when they ask the question. I love all of my books but for different reasons. I'll always have a deep connection and love for On Gold Mountain, because it's about my own family. So many of the relatives I wrote about are now gone, so the book continues to keep those people alive for me. Flower Net was a huge adventure, because it was my first mystery. I was paid a lot of money for it and it was bought by a lot of countries, so the whole experience was exciting and fun. I thought my next book, The Interior, was the best book I'd written up to that point, but it wasn't very successful in the marketplace. Dragon Bones was wonderful for me because I had a new publisher (Random House) and a new editor (Bob Loomis). I like to think that that was the start of a very long and happy collaboration. And then there's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I'd be lying if I didn't say that the huge success of the book hasn't been wonderful and memorable, but I personally had to go to some very deep and dark places inside myself to write it. Was that a fun thing to do? No, but I'm very proud that I was able to do that.
"I always start from the position of being a reader first. What I love about books is that you can connect to people who are real or imagined and by connection to the human condition. I hope that's what people do with my books. I also hope they will think differently about Chinese-American history, China, and women. And I hope people will come on a journey with me as I uncover stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Finally, what I want people to get from my books is that all people on the planet share common life experiences—falling in love, getting married, having children, dying—and share common emotions—love, hate, greed, jealousy. These are the universals; the differences are in the particulars of customs and culture."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Booklist, September 15, 1999, Jenny McLarin, review of The Interior, p. 238; March 15, 2003, Carrie Bissey, review of Dragon Bones: A Novel, p. 1281.
Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1997, Chris Petrako, review of Flower Net.
Detroit Free Press, July 6, 2005, Susan Hall-Balduf, review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel.
Economist, December 13, 1997, review of The Flower Net, p. S14.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2003, review of Dragon Bones, p. 425; April 15, 2005, review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, p. 447.
Library Journal, August, 2000, review of The Interior, p. 192; May 15, 2003, Nanci Milone Hill, review of Dragon Bones, p. 127.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 23, 1995, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, review of On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, p. 4; November 17, 1996, review of On Gold Mountain, p. 14; September 28, 1997, review of Flower Net, p. 10; December 14, 1997, Paula Friedman, review of Flower Net, p. 5.
New York Times Book Review, August 27, 1995, Elizabeth Tallent, review of On Gold Mountain, p. 20; October 26, 1997, Gary Krist, review of Flower Net, p. 14.
People, November 20, 1995, Pam Lambert, review of On Gold Mountain, p. 32; November 3, 1997, J.D. Reed, review of Flower Net, p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, June 5, 1995, review of On Gold Mountain, p. 43; July 21, 1997, review of Flower Net, p. 181; September 1, 1997; August 9, 1999, review of The Interior, p. 338; March 24, 2003, review of Dragon Bones, p. 55; April 18, 2005, review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, p. 40; July 11, 2005, Bridget Kinsella, "See China," profile of author, p. 28.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 2005, Sara Peyton, review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, p. E2.
School Library Journal, January, 1996, Barbara Hawkinds, review of On Gold Mountain, p. 142; April, 1998, Pam Spencer, review of Flower Net, p. 159; October, 2003, Judy McAloon, review of Dragon Bones, p. 208; September, 2005, Molly Connally, review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, p. 245.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1996, review of On Gold Mountain, p. 20.
Washington Post Book World, August 20, 1995, review of On Gold Mountain, p. 1; September 21, 1997, Maureen Corrigan, review of Flower Net.
Asian Reporter, http://www.asianreporter.com/ (November 29, 2005), Dave Johnson, review of Dragon Bones.
Beatrice, http://www.beatrice.com/ (November 29, 2005), Ron Hogan, "Lisa See," interview with author.
Lisa See Home Page, http://www.lisasee.com (January 3, 2006).
USA Today Web site, http://www.usatoday.com/ (July 13, 2005), Susan Kelly review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.