The Beatrice Interview

Lisa See

"Often all we see are people's faces without understanding what's behind those faces."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Despite having author Carolyn See for a mother, Lisa See never wanted to be a writer growing up. "But then one day I was in Greece," she says. "I'd been travelling for about two years and woke up one morning and said to myself, "This is the way it should be. All I really want in life is to be able to travel and not be in an office. How can I do that?'" That was the start of her literary career. It hasn't necessarily gone according to plan (she's gotten married, has two children, and travels less than she'd expected when she was younger), but it hasn't gone that badly, either. After a dozen years as the West Coast correspondent for Publisher's Weekly, and several collaborations with her mother and John Espey, 1995 saw the publication of See's first full-length solo project. On Gold Mountain is the story of four generations of her family's Chinese- American heritage, beginning with her great-grandfather Fong See, that has everything from secret weddings to kidnappings. I caught up with her in San Francisco in '96 during her tour to promote the paperback and to talk about her next completed work, a thriller set in contemporary China called The Flower Net, "although my editor told me the other day," she says half-jokingly, "that he wasn't sure men would buy it if it had the word 'flower' in the title." If it's got the same flair for telling a story with perspective and emotional staying power as On Gold Mountain, that shouldn't be a problem.

RH: To me, one of the fascinating aspects of this story is that you've always considered yourself Chinese, even though the outside world wouldn't say so, because you look white.

LS: People at radio stations and TV studios on the tour are often surprised by what my looks, even when they've seen the picture on the book. Often all we see are people's faces without understanding what's behind those faces. Even in my own family, there were times when I would be interviewing someone and they'd say, "Remember so-and-so? He was Caucasian, just like you." And I'd think, "Why are you thinking of me that way? You've known me my whole life; I'm not like that." Now that the book's done, I think that they accept me as being Chinese like them.

RH: In the foreword, you discuss dealing with your family's history in terms of the broader Chinese-American experience while trying not to 'take sides' in the literary debates on the subject.

LS: In Chinese-American literature, and in American literature in general, there's a certain amount of political correctness. What's right, what's wrong, what we can and can't talk about, whether it's good or bad to be commercial. And I just wasn't interested in those things. There's a section in my book that I read on the tour about my Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Sissee not being able to get married because Gilbert's family didn't like the fact that she was half-Caucasian. Let's face it, they were racist! And that's not something that gets talked about often enough. It's "okay" to say that whites were racist, but not that Chinese or other groups were racist, too. I felt that the only way that this book would work was if I was honest and fair in both the political and personal matters, and being fair meant not only going after the asshole, but owning up to the bad things done by good people.

RH: When you were interviewing your family, did they ever seem to feel, "Why would you ever want to tell the world these things about our family?"

LS: Oh, they would ask that all the time, or they'd tell me, "We don't talk about that." They were very concerned with how it was going to be presented, and it wasn't until my Aunt Sissee began talking to me before her death that I really got the go-ahead from my family. In many ways, I think her death was what finally convinced much of the rest of the family to talk. She had given it her blessing by doing the interviews, and because she had died so early in my research, it was almost as if their speaking to me were a funeral gift, a way of fulfilling her wishes. If she were still alive, I'm still not sure how many of those people would have decided to let me interview them.

RH: You knew the surface of these stories growing up. But were you constantly surprised by the new details that emerged as you dug into the story? How did you get your family to tell you more, especially given their reluctance?

LS: In any family, I think there's an assumption that you know the whole story. So that's why somebody could say in an offhand way, "Oh, the kidnapping..." They assumed that even though I wasn't even born then, that I would know that story. So some of this stuff wasn't really a secret before I started interviewing; people didn't talk about it because they thought everybody knew.

The two people who were kidnapped had never talked about it before, not even with their own children, and didn't talk about with me at all, no matter how I tried. But then I went to China, went to the village where it happened, saw the wall that the kidnappers had broken into, the room the children had been in. And when I came back, one of them started to discuss it with me. I don't know if my trip to China had convinced him that I was serious about the project, or if it was just that he could talk to me about it because I had been there and seen the place where it happened. Either way, he was very candid from that point on.

RH: You did a lot of research in China for The Flower Net as well, right?

LS: I was there just last summer by myself. I went into one of the last panda reserves, out in the middle of nowhere, and to a Buddhist pilgrimage site at a mountain. If you've ever seen those misty Chinese landscapes, that's really what that region looks like; they aren't being fantastic in their style at all. I won't tell you what I was really looking at, though, because I don't want to give that part of the book away yet.

RH: What can you tell us about it?

LS: I can tell you how it got started. My husband Dick is a lawyer who represents many foreign governments, including China. We had been travelling there periodically for his cases. One time, we were there for a case he was working on for the Bank of China, which is like the U.S. Treasury but is also their bank. A man had stolen fifty million dollars from the Bank of China, and they hired Dick to find him and the money.

He was working not only with the Bank of China, but with people in the Ministry of Public Security, the people responsible for Tiananmen, and occasionally I'd have the weird experience of being out at dinner or in karaoke bars with these people. Two things struck me. One was the usual notion of the banality of evil, and the other was that I had access to material that almost nobody else had, watching these people and hearing about their internal operations. And I realized there was a great book in those two ideas. It'll be coming out in the fall of 1997 from HarperCollins; we've sold the foreign rights in thirteen countries and Paramount has bought the film rights.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Val McDermid | Margot Livesey

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan