THE BOOK: As the young women of 17th century China were drawn to the famous opera, The Peony Pavilion, author Lisa See was drawn to the 17th century text, The Three Wives’ Commentary, “the first book of its kind, having been written by women, to have been published anywhere in the world.” The fruit of See’s curiosity can be found in her most recent book, Peony in Love, recently published in paperback.
THE AUTHOR: Voted Woman of the Year by The Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001, and the 2003 winner of The Chinese American Museum’s History-Maker Award, See is the author of three mysteries, two novels and the critically acclaimed memoir, On Gold Mountain. She is currently on a fairly grueling speaking tour, working on another novel* — and graciously granting an occasional interview. For more information on her upcoming appearances, visit her website at http://www.lisasee.com.
DR: You wrote that when you came across The Three Wives’ Commentary, your interest in the first women writers in China became an obsession. This was a fortunate obsession which resulted in your wonderful book, Peony in Love. How did you happen to come across this text?
LS: I first heard about the lovesick maidens when I was researching a piece for Vogue on the Lincoln Center production of the Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion.” Women and girls in China weren’t allowed to see the opera, but they could read it. When they read it, young girls caught cases of lovesickness, wasted away, and died, just like the main character in the opera. As they were dying, they wrote poems and stories which were then published after their deaths. I came to find out that the lovesick maidens were part of a much larger phenomenon.
DR: In the beginning of the book, we learn that young Peony is already betrothed – even as she finds herself falling in love with a man she barely knows. Do you think that arranged marriage ever had a proper place within the Chinese culture?
LS: This is a curious question. Do you mean do I think arranged marriages are a good idea? As a modern woman and a western woman, I don’t like the idea of arranged marriages in China or anywhere else. That said, I also know that arranged marriages even today-whether in this country or elsewhere-often work better, last longer, and have more genuine affection in than western marriages.
DR: As a person with some Chinese heritage, do you believe in the “ghosts” of China that were portrayed in Peony in Love? Do you think it’s possible to die of a broken heart, as the ‘lovesick maidens’ in the book seemed to?
LS: I don’t particularly believe in the Chinese version of the afterlife anymore than I believe in the western version of the afterlife. But I do love the idea that in the Chinese version you go to the afterworld-whether as an ancestor or a ghost-with all the same needs, wants, and desires that we have in life. People in the afterworld still need clothes, food, a place to live. What I love about the Chinese afterworld is that you go there with all of your emotions.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I finished writing the book. Most of us have lost someone in our lives. We’re left with feelings of love, despair, anguish, grief, and sometimes anger and resentment. What if the person who dies is experiencing a kind of mirror image of that? We live by our emotions, so why should or would they disappear when we die? I think it’s rather intriguing to think that our emotions would continue. I also really like the Chinese idea that even after you die, you continue to learn and evolve.
I don’t know if it’s possible to die of a broken heart…The lovesick maidens were classic anorexics. They felt like they had no control over their lives, and in truth they didn’t. From the time they were born, they were told, “You’re a worthless branch on the family tree.” When they turned five, they had their feet bound. (Their feet were broken and molded to just three inches.) When they were fifteen or so, they were sent into arranged marriages sight-unseen. As soon as they arrived in their husband’s homes, they were told, “Have a son, have a son, have a son.” And if they didn’t have a son, they could be sold into another marriage; they could be discarded out into the street. When they looked ahead in their lives, they saw no chance or hope for choice, control, or most important, love–the one emotion that all of us want even today. The only thing these young women could control in their lives was what they put in their mouths. So they stopped eating, and wasted away and died, hoping that in death-like the main character in the opera-they would be able to find love (the strongest emotion to travel to the afterworld).
DR: Why did you choose the mixed format of history and fiction for Peony in Love?
LS: You were right earlier when you said I became obsessed with these women writers. I thought for many years about how to tell the three wives’ story. I didn’t think there was enough for a non-fiction book. But when I thought about telling their story as fiction, I wasn’t interested in telling one wife’s story, followed by the second’s, and then the third’s. I wanted one strong voice to carry me and readers through.
On the last day and on the very last page of writing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I figured out how to do it. On the last page, Lily, who’s been writing that story as an autobiography, says that she hopes her writings will be burned at her death so that the words will travel to the afterworld where they’ll introduce her to others who already reside there, keep her company in years to come, but most of all be an apology to her best friend Snow Flower. In that moment, I wondered, how would Snow Flower have told this story differently? I didn’t want to retell Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I did realize that I could tell the story of the three wives from the perspective of the first wife by letting her be in the Chinese afterworld. Obviously, if you’re writing from the Chinese ghost world, it has to be fiction!
DR: I’ve read that your research on Chinese culture is just about the best there is. Where do you begin and how do you follow through with it?
LS: Wow! Thank you! I’m a research fiend. I admit it. I read everything I could on the three wives and I spoke with the top scholars in the field of Chinese women’s history. One of the neat things that happened was that one of the scholars sent me a photo copy of a 17th-century edition of The Three Wives’ Commentary that’s owned by a private collector. I also searched for and found first-person accounts of what happened during the Manchu invasion of Yangzhou. These were true stories of terrible suffering, but I used them to tell what happened to Peony’s mother and her family, because the little details that are found in the truth are so much more wrenching and terrifying than anything I could make up.
I also dug and dug and dug to find spells, traditions, and remedies that were accurate to that time and place in China. A whole separate part of my research had to do with ghosts and the need for sons, which are closely related. There were things that I came across-ghost weddings and ghost brides, for example-that I thought, Oh, I’ve got to have those in Peony in Love! I guess what I’m saying is that the research not only gives interesting details but can also influence the plot.
And of course I went to China. I went to every location that I wrote about. It’s one thing to read about something like an Unmarried Girl’s Lookout Pavilion and see one. In a wealthy family compound, this pavilion, which was built on a raised piece of ground, was the one place from which an unmarried girl could see who was in the compound. She could see but not be seen. In a few of these compounds the pavilion was just high enough that a girl could see over the perimeter’s wall to the world outside. For some women, this was as much of the outside world that they would see in their entire lifetimes. Again, I thought that was intriguing, and so the Unmarried Girl’s Lookout Pavilion is very important to what happens to Peony and the other women in her family.
DR: Your critically acclaimed memoir, On Gold Mountain, was made into an opera, and I’ve read that film options might be on the table for Peony in Love. How do you feel about your work being presented in other media forms, and how can you maintain the integrity of the story should Peony in Love be made into a major motion picture?
LS: I wrote the libretto for the On Gold Mountain opera and I was the guest curator for a museum exhibit on the Chinese in America also based on On Gold Mountain. In working on the opera, I learned how to tell a story-my family’s story-through the pure emotion of music. With the exhibition, I learned how to tell that same story in a purely visual way. I think there’s a real difference in my writing from before those two experiences and after.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love came after. So I’m excited about the film prospects for both of those books. I’ve already seen the script for Snow Flower and have had discussions with the producer about the story. Ridley Scott’s company, Scott Free, is optioning Peony in Love and I’ve already had some interesting conversations with those folks. What I hope is that I’ll learn a lot through this process about how to tell a story in even more visual and emotional ways.
As for the integrity of the both of these stories, I realize that there will need to be changes. At the same time, I have in both contracts a say about Chinese culture. This is more important to me than plot points or what has to be cut to make a 120 minute film. I don’t want to see Chinese culture, Chinese people, or Chinese traditions warped, corrupted, or portrayed in a derogatory manner, and I’ll fight very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
DR: What is the best advice you can offer to new or would-be authors?
LS: Write what you love! You’re going to be married to the project for the rest of your life, so you’d better love it. You’re going to spend time doing research, time writing and editing, and time promoting the book. You may also end up talking about a book for years, just look at your questions today about my mysteries and On Gold Mountain. It doesn’t happen with every book, but there will be some of my books that I know I’ll be talking about for the rest of my life. So, you’d better be obssessed and in love. It can’t just be a momentary infatuation.
Beyond that, I’d say write 1,000 words a day. That’s only four pages. I write from beginning to end without going back over my work. For me–and I know other writers do it differently–I don’t want to get bogged down making the first paragraph perfect or the first chapter perfect. When is something perfect? I just keep writing, knowing that I can fix things later, but also trusting that some miraculous and unexpected things are going to happen if I just keep writing.
*See is currently working on a new book about two sisters from Shanghai who come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages. It is tentatively titled “Shanghai Girls“. She says, “Your sister is the person who has known you your entire life, who should stand by you and support you no matter what, and yet, it’s your sister who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most. I have to say – I’m having a lot of fun with it.”