Having 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)
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)
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!