Interview With Lisa See, Author of The Red Princess Mysteries

Lisa See is best known for her historical novels, especially Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I reviewed here. But she also wrote a fabulous mystery series back in 1997. I recently read all three of the Red Princess mystery books and really enjoyed them. Lisa was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the series. Check out my interview and enter for a chance to win all three Red Princess mystery books at the end!

1) Tell me a little about yourself.

I was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. I’m part Chinese. My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather was the godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I have hundreds of relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are only about a dozen who look like me.

I go for walks and play tennis. I love movies, and I used to see about 100 a year. But frankly, I don’t have much free time these days. I’m a L.A. City Commissioner. I also curate the occasional museum exhibition and do tons of speaking events each year. I’m also a freak when it comes to letter writing. I write lots of letters, and I think I’m pretty good at answering my e-mail in a timely way. My days are extraordinarily full with all sorts of things. These days, I have to say no more than I’d like so I can write.

2) Tell me a little about your writing history.

In one way, I was extremely fortunate with my first book. In another way, I’d already worked a very long time as a writer. To backtrack… I had worked as a journalist for many years and had been the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly for about eight years when I started On Gold Mountain. Like I said, I’d already been working a long time as a professional writer, so people in publishing knew me and my work. (They may not have known me personally, but they read me almost every week and knew, among other things, that I could meet a deadline.) I also benefited from the success of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Publishers were actively looking for more Chinese-American stories. Amy’s agent was Sandy Dijkstra. Sandy has a great American art collection, and she helped me with some of the art sources for On Gold Mountain. After two years of work—doing interviews, traveling back to the home village in China, searching out what I could find in archives, and then writing the proposal—I thought that Sandy would be the perfect person to sell the idea. There was an auction—a miracle as far as I was concerned. So, hard work, timing, and good luck.

3) You published the first Red Princess mystery, The Flower Net, in 1997. Can you tell me how the series came about and what publishing it was like?

My husband is an attorney and he represented the country of China back when most commercial ventures were owned by the government. He had a case that resulted in our spending an evening in a very swanky karaoke bar in Beijing in the middle of winter. This was back in something like 1994, so China was very, very different than it is today. Anyway, we were with all these agents from the Ministry of Public Security—China’s version of the FBI. Now there’s one thing you can say about people in law enforcement: they basically all look alike, no matter where you go in the world. They have a particular build, they carry weapons, they wear black leather jackets, they have their tough-guy attitudes. But these guys also had something else. They were covered in gold: big gold Rolexes, big gold rings, big gold necklaces and bracelets, because they were corrupt but they were up front about it. They were getting up to sing sappy love songs in these gorgeous tenor voices, with the tears streaming down their faces. If you’re a writer and you get to experience something like that, there’s only one thing you can think: This is the best material and I’ve got it!

4) Did you always plan for Red Princess to be a series or was that decided later?

I always thought of it as a trilogy. While I didn’t know what the next two “mysteries” would be when I first started writing the series, I knew what I wanted as an emotional arc for David and Hulan.

5) You once described Flower Net as a snapshot of China in the late 1990s, but I was surprised by how contemporary the books still feel. For example, the descriptions of the factories in The Interior still seem to apply today. Do you think China has changed much since the last book was published in 2003?

Yes and no. You’re absolutely right about the factories. I feel like I was way out front on that subject – long before revelations about Nike or Apple, long before the publication of Factory Girls, which is a fabulous non-fiction book on the subject. I’m very proud of the fact that The Interior helped to lay the groundwork for some of the journalism that followed.

But in other ways China is completely different. When I was first going to China, there were still very few cars. The last time I was in Beijing, it felt like it was all cars and very few bicycles. And just the physical changes that occurred in the lead up to the Olympics and all the way to today! When I first went to China, they had Pizza Hut, which did very poorly back then, because no one liked all the cheese, and no McDonald’s or Starbucks.

The societal and economic changes are also tremendous, especially in the big cities. The money—the sheer number of millionaires and billionaires—well, they just didn’t exist in the early 90’s. Even more striking, at least to me anyway, is the younger generation. If you’re 25 or younger, you personally don’t have memories of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or the events at Tiananmen Square. You may have heard stories of hardship, but that’s not your day-to-day reality nor does it affect your outlook about whether your future is tenuous or secure.

Lastly, I’d say media—television in particular—has really changed how people look at the outside world, their aspirations, and their sense of what they might be entitled to. While small, isolated, and poor villages may not have Starbucks or experience the economic benefits of being the second largest economy on the world, they do now have electricity and televisions. Even if they only have access to state-run channels, they still see how people dress in the cities, get glimpses of the rest of the world,
and, rather dismayingly, see commercials that are Western in style or content.

But going back to my comment about the mysteries feeling like snapshots… Each one is very specifically tied to that particular year. For example, the day the manuscript for Flower Net went to press, I had lunch with some writers here in Los Angeles. It was quite celebratory, because everything was done—all the writing, editing, and copy-editing. I said, “The only thing that could cause a problem now is if Deng Xian-ping dies.” When I got home, the phone was ringing. It was someone from the lunch, who said, “You’d better turn on the TV. Deng Xiao-ping just died.” We had to pull the book from the printer. And as you know, I added a scene that includes Deng’s funeral.

6) How did you learn so much about the inner workings of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and other official agencies?

As I mentioned above, my husband is an attorney and he had one particular case in which he worked with the MPS. It was the first time—and to this day the only time—that the FBI and Ministry of Public Security worked together. (The FBI has worked with other Chinese ministries since then, and I’m sure that the MPS has worked with other U.S. agencies since then too.) I met many of the people who worked for the MPS. I asked lots of questions. For example: If you were going to dispose of a dead body in Beijing, how would you do it? (I’ve always found that people in law enforcement – all around the world, including here in the U.S. — think a lot about how they would commit a crime so as not to be caught. That’s part of how they catch the criminals! My husband was also having meetings inside the MPS and a prison. He could tell me details about the lack of heat, the type of flooring, and what people wore.

7) After Dragon Bones, you switched to historical novels. Why the change? What are the differences between writing a contemporary mystery or a historical novel?

I first heard about nu shu—the women’s secret writing—in 1999 when I reviewed a book for the Los Angeles Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short three or four page mention, but I thought, how could this exist and I didn’t know about it? I looked nu shu up on the Internet. At the time there wasn’t much about nu shu out there. (Now there’s quite a bit.) It took me a long time before I realized I would write a novel based on nu shu. I read all this academic stuff written by scholars and I went to southwestern Hunan province to learn what I could. What I discovered was that the scholars—as brilliant as they are—always seemed to leave out the emotions inherent in the secret language. It was something used by real women who had real emotions. I thought a novel would be the best way to explore that.

To answer your second question, writing straight fiction is much easier than writing mysteries or thrillers. Writing the mysteries helped me tremendously with Snow Flower. With mysteries, you have to keep focused on the plot. You can’t overlook a single detail. It’s a very tight form and pacing is extremely important. Today, straight fiction, especially women’s fiction, has very little plot. It’s just a slice of life with an emotional change. I personally prefer novels that have enough plot that I’m anxious to turn the pages. For Snow Flower, the plotline was why does Lily feel such regret, and what happened between her and Snow Flower to create their rift? You see, it’s still a mystery. I had to place clues about Snow Flower’s upbringing, about the hardships of her life, and what the secret message on the fan actually meant throughout the novel for it to work. Writing the mysteries has helped me with the pacing, characters, and emotional arcs of all the novels that have come since. Really, if you look at all my novels, you’ll find secrets that need to be revealed.

8) Do you think you will ever return to mystery writing?

Right now I don’t have any plans to continue with them, but that doesn’t mean I won’t one of these days. Poor David and Hulan have been through so much. I like to think that they’re on vacation somewhere, sitting by the ocean, under a palm tree, sipping drinks with those little umbrellas in them. Those two deserve a break! But one day they’ll be called back to work.

9) What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a new novel called The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, which has three main elements: the mother/daughter relationship, the history of tea (with an emphasis on Pu’er), and the Akha ethnic minority of Yunnan. For the mother/daughter story, I want to write about a woman who gives up her baby for adoption in China, the woman in California who adopts her, and the girl herself.

Lisa See, thank you so much for chatting with me!