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May 1, 2010

Carolyn and Lisa See: When You Grow Up With a Writer; It's Easy to See Your Way to Writing

Posted by Anonymous

Carolyn and Lisa See both love the craft of writing and write 1,000 words a day. They are each other’s best support team and reading this piece you will see the special bond that they have between them because they respect each other as writers, not just as mother and daughter.

Carolyn-Lisa-See_150x110.jpgHow did you feel when you learned Lisa wanted to write a book?

Carolyn: I was absolutely tickled pink. Lisa had been working on a lot of magazine pieces, and she and John Espey and I had collaborated on a set of popular novels by a lady we called "Monica Highland,” and I was just absolutely delighted that she'd found this perfect piece of material to work from.  (I'm talking about the history of the Chinese side of the family, in "On Gold Mountain.")  Some of the relatives grumbled a little as she was writing it, but they were dazzled when it came out --- and of course she's contributed immeasurably to Chinese American history. It's a marvelous book, a genuine classic.

Did you feel you were following in your mom’s footsteps by becoming a writer?

Lisa: Absolutely!  And what great footsteps to follow!  My mom's father (my grandfather) was also a writer, so that makes three generations of writers.  I always say it was a good thing they weren't plumbers.

What do you remember about your mother writing when you were growing up?Lisa:

Lisa: When my mom started writing, there weren't many women writers, let alone women writers living in Los Angeles.  I have always seen my mother as being extremely brave and courageous to have kept forging ahead when the world was telling her no, no, no. I also know that my mother was incredibly disciplined. She has always written 1,000 words a day. That's what I do, too.

Do you discuss your work as you are writing?

Carolyn: In a general kind of way. We grouse about editors, or groan about deadlines. We used to talk more about our work in more detail, but with Lisa especially, now, her head is full of the very intricate detail that comes with working in the historical novel form and asking her to talk about it is rocking the boat, metaphorically speaking. I remember with PEONY IN LOVE there was a missing thingamajig that sticks on a tombstone --- Lisa couldn't figure out either how it got lost or how it got found. We talked about that a lot. Everyone in the family did. But none of our suggestions turned out to be very good.

Now I'm working on a book, and I've done nothing but book reviews or anthology pieces for six years. I'm very tentative about where I'm going. Lisa knows I'm working, but she's far too tactful to ask any specific questions right now.

Lisa: All the time, especially when we get stuck on something.  But I think that even more than talking about the writing --- the plot or the characters --- we talk about editors, the writing process, and the business of writing and publishing. What makes us truly lucky is that we have each other. Other writers have to join writing groups or look hard for people who will be supportive, but my mom and I have each other.

Are you each other’s first readers? 

Carolyn: We used to be, but not so much anymore.  Again, I haven't been writing for a few years, but I think that at the beginning of Lisa's process we all lived in the same house --- she wasn't married yet --- and we all read each other's work, which was very useful, because we'd pick up different things. Now I think that probably Lisa's husband and her agent are first readers, but I don't know for sure. Lisa and I had to go through some separation, which was completely appropriate, especially since we write such different stuff, and in such different styles. But we each read each other's material fairly early on in the process. We're just not "first readers" anymore.

Lisa: I have five people that I give my manuscript to all at the same time: my mom, sister, husband, agent, and editor. They each read a story very differently, so I always get really great advice and insights.

What is your favorite book of those your mother wrote?

Lisa: A favorite?  That's too hard.  Can I pick two? My favorites are GOLDEN DAYS --- an end-of-the-world novel with a happy ending --- and THE HANDYMAN --- which is a charming, funny, touching, and very true novel about how you become an artist. To me, all of my mom's books are love letters to Los Angeles. I love Los Angeles and she sees it with such a clear eye.

What is your favorite book of those that Lisa wrote?

Carolyn: As I said, ON GOLD MOUNTAIN is a classic in Chinese-American history, but SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN is a classic, period. I've told Lisa repeatedly, and anybody else who will listen, that it compares directly to Andre Malraux' MAN FATE. They're both as deep as serious literature can be, and also compulsively readable. SNOW FLOWER addresses the great problems of the human condition directly and full on, and in a genre that no one else has used in quite that way before.  It's a tremendous accomplishment.  

Do you turn to each other for writing advice?

Carolyn: Less now. I think our questions tend to be technical and specific. (How does that lost vase get lost?) That kind of thing.

Lisa: I'd say we turn to each other less for writing advice than business advice. That said, there have been times when each of us has gotten stuck, needed someone to bounce a new idea off of, or had some strange problem with a plot. I can't remember which of my mom's books it was, but the publisher had asked her to change it from the third person into the first person. We talked a lot about the pros and cons of that.

Has the fact that you are both writers brought you closer together?

Carolyn: Yes. When Lisa was a teenager and I was a harried single mom, she and I were both potentially pretty hotheaded, or, more accurately, had a capacity for being aggrieved.  Writing was the great neutralizer; the subject that was full of content but had very little that was contentious in it. We had something to talk about that we could both talk about respectfully and without contention. It got us through that tricky period when parents and "children" tend to argue about nothing. Lisa and I always have writing to talk about, and we're very lucky.

Lisa: I think so. We don't have the usual mother-daughter relationship. Of course, I don't really even know what that is, but it seems to me it involves a lot of arguing about things that aren't very important and shopping. My mom and I don't argue. And we don't like to shop. I suppose you could say that our relationship is more collegial --- we are two colleagues who happen to be related. We really love and respect each other. You know, there's something really wonderful about having someone really close to you who understands what it means to be a writer. I'm talking now about the emotional places you go as a writer that aren't always easy and aren't always understood by people in your family (children, husbands). My mom knows and understands what I go through to write a book, and I know and understand what she goes through. So --- while we may not have the most traditional mother-daughter relationship, I think we're much closer than that relationship usually is for the very reason that we're both writers.   

The countdown to publication day is a time full of anxiety no matter how many times you have been through it. What advice do you give each other as  that day approaches?

Carolyn: I think we just tell each other not to have nervous breakdowns. (And commiserate, when publishers aren't acting up to our respective expectations.) Also, we share a tremendous mailing list and a lot of announcements and invitations to signings go out during this time. We help each other, and other friends and members of the family help too. It gives us something to do as those days go slowly by.

Lisa: STAY CALM! It will all work out. May bad reviewers and lazy publicists burn in hell for all eternity. Let's get to work on the mailing! (We have a big mailing list and spend about a month getting it ready to send. This is kind of like a quilting bee, when it's my mom, sister, me, and other women friends who sit around, listening to music, laughing, and stuffing and stamping envelopes. That means, as things are happening with the book --- some good, some not so good --- we're surrounded by great people and we're having a good time. It makes a huge difference.

What’s your favorite snack food/drink when you are writing?

Carolyn: When I was still drinking it used to be red wine and Campbell's tomato soup (especially during revision, to keep anxiety down). Otherwise, it's quesadillas for me. Or again --- back when I was drinking --- champagne with blueberries.  That way you can relax and fight cancer at the same time.

Lisa: I drink a lot of English breakfast tea. I'm not big for snacking when I'm writing though. I take a break for lunch. Then, at the end of the day, I make up a bowl of Greek yogurt, almonds, red grapes, and cinnamon.

What do you think was the best present you gave your mother on Mother’s Day?

Lisa: It's actually something I'm going to give her this year. Is she going to read this? If so, I can't tell you exactly what it is, but here's a hint: my mom had a favorite writer when she was a little girl. That writer also wrote some novels for adults. I did a search and found all four. I've had them for a while now, just waiting for Mother's Day to roll around.

What was the best present you received from your “writer child” on Mother’s Day?

Carolyn: My younger daughter, Clara Sturak, 10 years younger that Lisa, has her birthday within two or three days of Mother's Day. We tend to celebrate the two holidays together.  For years, Clara has a lunch with her two best friends, Gretchen and Sasha, and then Lisa and me. The five of us have known each other forever. (Sasha is Lisa's webmaster, and mine too.)  I'm honored to be included with Clara's friends. But I also get a kick out of Lisa being there and being the big sister to Clara. It's an obvious thing, and very corny to say, but my best presents on any day are my two daughters who are each utterly different from each other,  but each absolutely perfect.  o I think the continuity of those small lunches year after year are my best presents --- or second only to the fact of my daughters being so alive, and so good. 

Carolyn See is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction including THE HANDYMAN and MAKING A LITERARY LIFE: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. Lisa See is the author of SHANGHAI GIRLS, PEONY IN LOVE, SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN and her family's memoir, ON GOLD MOUNTAIN.