Novelist Lisa See wows the crowd

DOWNEY - Displaying a not-so-subtle, self-deprecating but delicious sense of humor, Lisa See spoke of her tenacious research ways to probe deep into the backgrounds of time and place to clothe her chosen subject in authentic robes and make it come alive.She spoke of her travel to a remote part of China to find out more about an ancient Chinese secret for her novel, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" (2005) for which she is said to be probably best known: it ended up as a New York Times bestseller, even as MGM Studios picked up the film rights. She spoke of her adherence to the dictum, "Write about what you know," and, in talking about the Chinese-American culture of which she is a part, her admission that it's something she really didn't know much about. Thus her total immersion in research when writing a novel. This pleasure in doing research, she says, has its actual origins in her college days as a humanities student at Loyola Marymount, where her focus on modern Greek studies serendipitously helped her as a future writer and novelist. She spoke about how she set her latest novel, "Shanghai Girls" (2009), first in Shanghai, known until the outbreak of WWII as the 'Paris of Asia', then in Los Angeles, which saw her great-great-grandfather found Chinatown. She spoke of her research finding that, in contrast to the welcoming stance of Ellis Island, there was this witch-hunt attitude of the officials at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay which, for reasons valid or contrived, she thought was designed to prevent would-be Chinese immigrants from making a fresh start in this country. She spoke of various age-old Chinese customs such as footbinding, arranged marriages, the primacy of male heirs in inheritance matters, etc., etc., topics which have found their way into any of her mostly award-winning books, including: "On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family" (1995), "Flower Net" (1997); "The Interior" (1999); "Dragon Bones" (2003).and "Peony in Love" (2007). See, who among other activities serves as a Los Angeles Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority and also curates "the occasional museum exhibition," was the guest of honor at last Saturday's author (Chinese buffet) luncheon and book signing at Rio Hondo Event Center which drew 143 guests, "the largest and best crowd we've had" (Cleo Latimer, Friends president), and which also revealed her excellent speech skills, a main reason why she is in great demand as a speaker here and abroad (she was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles). . Elsewhere, she would write about her mother's advice (her mother is the equally famous writer Carolyn See) telling her to write 1,000 words a day, about staying focused and not letting any negativity creep in from the publishing business, about just having fun-practices and attitudes she has totally embraced. Her insights are sharp and precise. The following extract is from a published conversation she had with her writer-mother: "For all the goodness and all the blessings we have in life, there's no getting around the fact that it's ultimately tragic. All the people we love most in the world are going die. We're going to die! All we can hope is that it will be later rather than sooner, painless and not prolonged agony, that we will have loved and been loved and not die alone… The greatest losses [we experience] are things we can't even see or touch: love, devotion, admiration, dedication, loyalty, memories. You and I have lived in Southern California-a place plagued by earthquakes, fires, and floods-all our lives. I can't even count how many times we've had to evacuate. But you only need to do it once to know that stuff is unimportant. The only important things are what we carry in our hearts." Because she has also written some noteworthy mysteries, critics have compared See to Upton Sinclair, Dashiell Hammett, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

********** Published: June 11, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 8