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What inspired Lisa See to write Dreams of Joy

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

see_lisaHaving written a number of reader’s guides to my books, I thought it would be fun to delve into Dreams of Joy from a different perspective by showing you some images that inspired me as I wrote the novel, as well as explain some of the decisions that went into the publication of the book. I’ve selected a few sentences from Dreams of Joy (and included their page numbers so you can find them easily) and then given you an image that inspired me to write those lines. Several of these are travel photos that I shot in China and some are posters from the Great Leap Forward. I’ve also included a couple of things, which, at first glance, may seem not to have anything to do with the novel, but they have everything to do with how I approach writing, how I do my research, how one thought can open a whole new world to me, and the pure serendipity that sometimes happens in the creative process.—Lisa See

“The houses themselves are lovely—with tile roofs, nicely painted façades, and iron grillwork in art deco patterns covering windows, as peek-throughs for doors, and as decoration along the eaves and around mail slots.” (page 23)

Shanghai-houseShanghai house

A lot of my job as a writer of historical novels involves seeing past what something looks like today to what it looked like long ago. This isn’t very hard for me. I grew up in Los Angeles. I drive down streets and through neighborhoods and see things as they were, not as they are. I prefer that old Los Angeles to the one here now. And who wouldn’t? An orange grove is so much nicer than a strip mall, after all. Some might say I look through rose-colored glasses. Maybe I do, but I consider that ability a gift that has allowed me to visit a poor village, such as Tongkou in Hunan province, and see past the poverty and decrepit buildings to what it must have been like in its heyday when Snow Flower and Lily lived there in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It’s allowed me to visit Hangzhou—a city of six million—walk around West Lake, and imagine Peony living in her family’s seventeenth-century compound for Peony in Love. And it’s allowed me to explore Shanghai, come across a little walk street, and see past the laundry, the public toilets on the corner, and the electric wires all over the place, to a house that could be only Z.G.’s elegant home.

“Now I’m to do calligraphy for this man—my father? Why do my artistic skills matter?” (page 28)


If I’d known I was going to write a sequel to Shanghai Girls, I would have set up Joy as an artist or at least as a girl with artistic tendencies. Fortunately, as I looked back through Shanghai Girls, I saw that her calligraphy was so good—“uncorrupted”—that neighbors asked her to write couplets for them to hang on their doors at the New Year. That was enough for me, since calligraphy has a long tradition as one of the main art forms in China.

Lantingji Xu, literally “Prologue to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion,” is probably the most famous piece of calligraphy in China. It was written by Wang Xishu in 353 and commemorates a famous drinking and poetry-writing party. Centuries later, in the Tang dynasty, a Buddhist monk named Huaisu (737?799) wrote an autobiographical essay in which he talked about his love of calligraphy, his search for different calligraphic models to emulate, and his untrammeled life. Although he was a monk, Huaisu loved to drink and was celebrated by his peers for his alcohol-fueled bursts of calligraphy. What makes his calligraphy so memorable and beautiful is that the characters get looser and wilder the more Huaisu had to drink.

As you can see, much of the appreciation for calligraphy comes from the back story. This example of calligraphy was painted by Tyrus Wong, my grandfather’s closest friend, the artist who created the ambiance for Disney’s Bambi, kite maker and flyer (yes, think about Z.G.), and now the oldest Chinese-American artist at 101 years of age. He has inspired me in so many ways and I love him dearly. Here, Tyrus has written Gold Mountain, the Chinese name for the United States, with ink and brush.

“Then we pick up our bags and begin a long, slow hike up a path, over a small hill, and down into a narrow valley, where elm tress provide shade.” (page 32)

Huangcun-villageHuangcun village

When I began Dreams of Joy, I knew that I wanted about half the story to take place in Shanghai and the other half to take place in a small village. As I looked at the map of China and all the different provinces I could chose from, I started thinking about the nature of Chinese written characters and how much depth they have compared to English words. For example, we might read the word pond and conjure up a small body of water with maybe some trees dotted around it. But when you look at the Chinese character for pond, you think of all the magnificent poems, arias, and plays that have featured ponds. Did Li Bai write one of his rollicking drinking poems by a pond? Was there a righteous battle by a pond? Is there an exquisite painting of a lovesick maiden gazing at her reflection in a pond? As I considered the depth of Chinese characters and what they can evoke, I decided to set Dreams of Joy in Anwei province, because it is known historically for its poverty, droughts, floods, and famines. It’s also where Pearl S. Buck set The Good Earth. Other people might not know all these allusions, but I would.

Look for more photos in the back of the Dreams of Joy paperback!

A message from Lisa See about her new novel, Dreams of Joy

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

see_lisaWith Dreams of Joy, I wanted to write about a mother-daughter relationship. I also wanted to create two women who would have their own unique voices. Joy is nineteen, stubborn, naïve, and has run away to China. Pearl, Joy’s mother, chases after her daughter, hoping to bring her home. Joy follows her Tiger personality and often leaps blindly into situations she shouldn’t, while Pearl has had a lifetime of heartbreak and knows from experience that whatever she does will be tempered by fate, destiny, and the vicissitudes of luck. Joy is absolutely sure of herself, while Pearl questions everything.

Joy makes some terrible mistakes, which, as a mother and her writer, I sometimes found hard to watch. Like Pearl, I often felt great pity for Joy but also great impatience. Did these things make her difficult to write? Not really. All I had to do was put myself back in time. I, too, was pretty stubborn and naïve at her age. (What nineteen-year-old isn’t?) With Joy, I think in particular of a scene in the novel where she’s been caught secretly visiting a boy in a village. She keeps insisting “Nothing happened,” when of course it did. Been there, done that—and other dumb things— myself. In fact, this really hit home for me recently when my step-sister brought out a bunch of letters I wrote to her when we were between the ages of sixteen and nineteen. We laughed very hard as we read the letters aloud to each other, but I also couldn’t help feeling real sympathy and compassion for the earnest, but totally idiotic, girl I was back then.

I’m now closer in age to Pearl, and I was already familiar with her strengths and weaknesses from Shanghai Girls. HerDreams of Joy words and sentiments flowed very easily, because I’ve now lived with her every day for over four years. But even if I didn’t know Pearl as well as I do, I could relate to her purely as one mother to another. After all, what mother on earth hasn’t had moments when she’s thought to herself, as Pearl does at one point, It’s just so hard to be a mother? What mother hasn’t worried when she’s seen her child making a life-changing mistake? What mother hasn’t tried to “fix” things for her child, only to make things worse? (But we make things better most of the time, right?) What mother hasn’t at some point had to hide her sadness, anger, and grief, as Pearl does? I could write about those aspects of motherhood, because I’ve experienced them myself.

I drew on all of my experiences as a mother to write Pearl, just as I drew on all my experiences of being a daughter to write Joy. What a “joy” it was, as Joy’s literary mother and as a mother myself, to watch her go through all the terrible things she experiences and see her grow into a wonderful artist and courageous mother. And how happy I was that Pearl, who has been through so much, finally got to have a happy ending.

You don’t need to be a mother to enjoy Dreams of Joy. (Although if you are, it may make you think about the emotions you’ve felt or the experiences you’d had with your own children.) But one thing I can say for certain: we were all young and daughters once upon a time. I hope that as you read Dreams of Joy, you will remember yourself at age nineteen. Be kind, laugh ruefully, and try to have a little sympathy and compassion for the girl you were back then.


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