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.