Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Lisa See: “The writing is the shortest part of the process.”

Lisa See is a New York Times bestselling author of several novels including The Island of Sea Women and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

She has received multiple awards and honors, including the Golden Spike Award and the National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women. Lisa has also written a mystery series and her books have been published in 39 languages.

In addition to her writing, she has curated exhibitions, designed a walking tour, and is a trustee on the University of California Press Foundation. She resides in Los Angeles.

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Hi Lisa! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. How did your background and experiences growing up in Los Angeles and spending time with your father’s family in Chinatown influence the themes and characters in The Island of Sea Women?

 Not that much, actually. The Island of Sea Women takes place in South Korea, which is a long way culturally from Los Angeles Chinatown. But what I will say is that in my writing I really focus on relationships and emotions, and those things often come from my own experiences as a daughter, wife, mother, sister—with parents, grandparents, children, aunties and uncles, and siblings.

Like everyone else in the world, I’ve experienced love, anger, envy, jealousy, and loss. These relationships and emotions are universal—whether you’re on a street in Chinatown, on an island off the tip of South Korea, or in Paris, Tokyo, Dubai, or Melbourne.

Can you discuss how your past bestsellers such as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane informed your writing in The Island of Sea Women?

This is an interesting question! I’d like to think that I learn more about life with the writing of each novel. I’m growing as a person—not just learning more about the world but also about myself as I age and have more experiences in life. I would say that I have a big desire not to repeat myself.

Yes, there are certain themes that run through my writing – female friendships, the bonds between mothers and daughters, the toll that secrets and misunderstandings take on people and their relationships – but I try to make each story unique and uniquely different. I want to explore new things!

How do you feel The Island of Sea Women contributes to the larger conversation on the strong bonds between women?

Of course there are the bonds of friendship that we all know and understand, but the haenyeo – the free divers of Jeju Island – are literally putting their lives in each other’s hands every time they enter the sea. They typically dive in a collective of about thirty women, but they also follow what we would call the buddy system, with two or three women as buddies who look out for each other in the water.

There’s a famous haenyeo aphorism that says “Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back.” The dangers a free diver faces are real: death from getting tangled in seaweed, getting cut on rocks, being hit by a boat, being attacked by sharks, getting the bends, and, most important, running out of air and drowning. These women must look out for each other.

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Can you describe your daily writing routine? What does a typical writing day look like for you?

It depends on where I am in the writing of a book. For me, there are three phases: the research, the writing, and the editing. Each book takes about two years. The research takes the longest. It’s my favorite part of the process. To me, it’s like a being on a treasure hunt. I never know what I’m going to find. What I find often inspires entire scenes. I find something and think, Oh, I have to use that! I can do research all day.

When I’m writing, I write a thousand words a day, which is just four pages. Sometimes I can get the work done in about two hours. Sometimes it can take eight or ten hours. But I write that thousand words! I even keep a notebook where I keep my word counts. Interestingly, the writing is the shortest part of the process.

The second longest part of the process is editing. I find that quite taxing. It uses a very different part of my brain. When I first start editing a new novel, I can only do about ten pages a day before being totally wiped out. Anyway, every day is different, depending on where I am in the process.

Do you have any specific rituals or habits that you follow before beginning to write?

I need to brew very good tea. When I started writing The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, I was a tea lover. By the time I finished writing the book, I had turned into a total tea snob.

Can you speak to any advice you would give to aspiring writers on developing a consistent and productive writing routine?

I learned this from my mother, who learned it from her father. Both of them were writers, so I’m third generation. Write a thousand words a day! As I said earlier, that’s just four pages. At the end of a week, you’ll have twenty pages. A chapter! If you can’t write a thousand words a day, then write five hundred words a day. At the end of a week, you’ll have ten pages. At the end of two weeks, you’ll have a chapter. (That is if your chapters run to twenty pages, which mine typically do.)

The idea is to be consistent and to put the writing before anything else. There are all kinds of excuses not to write, while there is only one way to get the writing done. That is to put your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Messy. Perpetually messy. The photo of my desk looks neat only because I took it today—the day after I returned from vacation.

Photo courtesy of the author

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1 Comment

  • Irving
    March 24, 2023 at 08:53

    I remember reading Shanghai Girls for the first time and was transported. The story, character, the setting … I read and reread many of Lisa’s books. Every time, I find myself completely immersed and suddenly the day went by and I’m researching the historical events described in awe. 🥰


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