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Posts Tagged ‘Lisa See’

Discussion Questions: China Dolls by Lisa See

Friday, March 13th, 2015

China Dolls

San Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Use the discussion questions below to guide your book club conversation.

1. The novel opens with the below quotation:


Only three things cannot be long hidden:
the sun,
the moon,
and the truth.

What does this quotation mean in the context of China Dolls? Lisa’s novel is filled with secrets—some hidden and not revealed until late in the novel. What were the most important ones? Why were they hidden? Did you agree with how and when they were revealed?

2. “In just these few minutes I’d learned two things about myself: I would never lower myself by faking an accent like my dad did (or Charlie Chan did in the movies), nor would I work naked as a hoochie-coochie dancer. All right, so I had pride. But what price would I have to pay for it?” (p. 11). This is something Grace realized about herself when she just started out as a performer. How did her outlook evolve throughout the novel?

3. Grace’s father brutally abused her when she was a young girl. Although Lisa never excused his behavior, how did she gradually reveal to the reader some of the factors that made him the man he was? Did you ever accept him for who he was? In what ways did the abuse Grace suffer at the hands of her father shape her subsequent relationships with men?

4. How did your perception of Ruby shift throughout the story? Did the hardship and discrimination she experienced affect the rest of her actions, whether commendable or not? How did Ruby’s ambition differ from that of Grace’s?

5. Ruby could have had any man she wanted—and she often did. Is it fair to be critical of the way Ruby tried to hide her early relationship with Joe from Grace? Why did she choose Joe, especially in light of Grace’s crush on him? Was this betrayal ultimately helpful to Grace in some respects?

6. How did you react to the way Ruby hid her Japanese ancestry as World War II began? How did you feel about her relationship with her parents? Did you think Ruby’s parents were Japanese spies? Could you tell one way or another? Did it matter to you whether they were verifiably innocent or guilty?

7. Helen’s narratives were filled with traditional Chinese sayings. Which are the most important in the novel and why? What aspects of Helen’s life made her situation fundamentally different from that of the other girls? When Helen’s past was revealed, were you surprised? How did it affect her approach to friendship?

8. Helen’s and Grace’s fathers share many similarities in how they look at their daughters and women. In what ways do their personal backgrounds make the two men different from each other?

9. What important elements did Eddie bring to the novel? Would you have married Eddie if you had been in Helen’s situation?

10. Ruby says to Grace, “You want an American life. I want an American life. Even Helen wants an American life” and then thinks to herself “And all of us, in our own ways, were doing the best we could to erase who we were” (p. 301). What do you think an “American life” meant for each woman, and why did they have to erase themselves to achieve it? Who were you rooting for most in the novel—Grace, Helen, or Ruby? And why?

11. Did you think Grace’s relationship with Joe was significantly different after the war? If so, how? In what ways had Grace changed? Joe? In reality, could they have changed as much as they did in the novel?

12. How was Helen’s betrayal of Ruby different from her betrayal of Grace? Which betrayal was worse? Why? Would the final confrontation scene have been different if it had been entirely narrated by Grace? Or by Helen?

13. While there are big betrayals in the novel, there were also moments of great resiliency and hope as the girls helped each other. In what ways did Grace, Helen, and Ruby support one another?

14. Perhaps more than in any of her other novels, Lisa has written in great detail about clothes and fashion. Why do you think she did that and what was she trying to say?

15. “China doll” or “China dolls” are phrases used often in the novel. What are the most important meanings behind this phrase? Which are positive? Which are negative? At the end of China Dolls,Tommy’s daughter criticized Grace’s career as one that promoted racial stereotypes. Was that criticism fair? Why or why not?

Q&A: Lisa See, author of China Dolls

Friday, March 6th, 2015

China DollsSan Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Read the insightful Q&A below between Lisa and the real life China Dolls!

I first met Jodi Long, an actress who made her Broadway debut at age seven in Nowhere to Go But Up and now stars in Sullivan and Son on television, when she came to one of my book events. She gave me a copy of Long Story Short, a documentary she produced about her parents, who were nightclub performers. Larry Long was from Australia. He danced as a solo artist, teamed up with Paul Wing, and later married Trudie Kim (née Kimiye Tsunemitsu), who had been interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center. After they married, they put together their own song, dance, and comedy act. On May 7, 1950, they were among the first Asian-American performers to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 2011, I did two interviews with Jodi and Trudie together. I offer these excerpts so you can get a sense of how I do research and then how the truth and details of real-life stories inspire me.

Lisa See: How old were you when the war started?

Trudie Kim: I was nineteen. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in New York City when I got out of the internment camp in Idaho.

LS: When you were in the camp, you wrote letters to people, asking them to sponsor you to leave. How did you know who to write to?

TK: I knew that several people were writing for newspapers in New York; they were nightlife people. Not Walter Winchell, but others. So I
wrote, and I said I was in camp and I didn’t want to stay there. I said, “Why am I here? I’m an American citizen.” I couldn’t get out of camp unless someone agreed to give me a job.

LS: Your parents let you go?

TK: We were in camp! We lived in barracks. The whole family lived in one room. They evacuated us from the West Coast. A lot of people lost property, farms, and so forth, but we didn’t own anything like that. They sent us there, and when we got out of the train, we put our hands up like this and we couldn’t even see our hands because that’s how dusty it was. When I got there, I said, “How in the hell do I get out of this joint?” I spent all of my days going up to the placement office, which wasn’t even settled at that point, in a spot two or three miles away. I’d walk up there, and I’d say, “How the hell do I get out? Give me the papers.” It took me weeks. Lee Mortimer finally answered. He was a writer for the New York Daily Mirror. He was the nightlife editor, or whatever. He used to take out Asian girls. He used to take out Noel Toy. She was a bubble dancer. I think he took out Florence Ong. She was Korean, and she was sort of an opera singer.

LS: What did you think when you first got off the train in New York?

TK: I didn’t have a soul to help me. I got off at Penn Station. I had read about the Barbizon Hotel for Women, which was on Lexington and Sixty-third. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. I started to look for a job. I went to Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Best & Co., Arnold Constable, and Gimbel’s. No one would hire me as a saleswoman.

LS: Do you think that was because of the war?

TK: Probably. But they probably weren’t hiring any Asian people, anyway, at that time. No one said that. That was just my intuition. No one offered me a job—not even in the storeroom. I wasn’t fussy. I just wanted a job.

Jodi Long: I think what’s really interesting is that she couldn’t get a job in any of those places, but the one place that gave her a job was the American Bible Society as a file clerk and a typist.

LS: [To Trudie] You must have been a bit of a dreamer.

TK: I thought, Gee, I might be a singer. When I first came to New York, someone said, “Let’s go to the Hurricane Nightclub, where Duke Ellington is playing with Johnny Hodges.” Someone said, “Go up and sing.” I sang a few bars. Duke Ellington didn’t really listen to me, but it was an entrée.

LS: How did you get your job at the China Doll?

TK: Lee Mortimer took me out. That’s how I met everyone. He used to call me at the American Bible Society and say in a very low voice, “You want to go out tonight?” I used to go to nightclubs with him. When the China Doll opened, he had some pull in trying to get Asian people into the show. He is the one who suggested that I go down there to audition. “Go down there and audition. Maybe you’ll get a job!” I wanted to try out, but I was afraid that I might lose my job at the ABS, even though the pay was only seventeen dollars a week. Let me put it this way. The girls at the China Doll were making seventy-five dollars a week, so I talked to my boss at the ABS. “They have an open call for chorus girls. They make much more money than I do here. Would I be able to go down there and not lose this job here?” She said, “Go and try for it. Don’t worry about your job here. If you get it, fine. If you don’t get it, come back. I’ll hold the job for you.”

LS: So this was your first experience dancing?

TK: You go in, and he looks at you. The next day, they show you—do this and do that—which is absolutely nothing much. I guess he wanted to see how I looked onstage—presence, walk, and so on. It wasn’t too long, otherwise my boss wouldn’t have let me go. And then he decided. “Okay. I’m going”—like in the movie The Black Swan—“I’m going to pick you, pick you, pick you. The rest of you, thank you very much for coming.” When I went back to the dressing room, I said, “I got the job!” The other girls said, “You did?” I shouldn’t have bragged, but I was so excited. I wasn’t that clumsy, I guess.

JL: This was so much about survival. Performers like my mom and dad grew up in the Depression era. They saw Hollywood movies and somehow they got in their minds that they could do that, whether they had any formal training or not. Like my mother—​she didn’t have any formal training. Some of them did, like my father, who was taught how to tap by a Caucasian woman in Australia. The person who really took him under his wing was an African American man who was putting on music-hall shows in Australia. How interesting that that guy got from Africa to America, learned tapping, and then went to Australia and gave it to a little Chinese boy. I think it was really, “Oh, I can do this, and who cares what anybody thinks? I can make more money doing this.”

TK: Back home I used to work for fifty cents an hour in a grocery store. The big thing for me was, God! I can make seventy-five dollars!

JL: Tell Lisa the story about the guy, who, when you girls sat with him at the China Doll, he always took the money out of his socks.

TK: He was a Chinese guy. He worked on a big boat, going back and forth, with lots of passengers. I don’t know what his function was. I know he wasn’t just a sailor. I don’t think he was a cook, either. Maybe a steward. He used to come in regularly when he came back to shore. He would have all the girls sit at his table. When I say “girls,” there were a lot of us—six or so. We’d order food and drinks. That’s what we did after the first show. We used to sit and eat!

LS: What was your favorite thing to eat?

TK: I just wanted food. We didn’t go home and cook. When the tab came, he used to get cash from his shoe, from the heel, and pay for it. There were no charge cards back then. One time, he came in and said, “Oh, you girls want some shoes?” About four or five of us said, “Sure.” We went to his hotel. I thought, Oh my God. What’s going to happen? Let’s go get them and get out as fast as we can. He gave us shoes and some of us went home. I don’t know if anything happened with other girls. We used to stick together because we were all so young.

LS: It sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie with the other girls. Were there rivalries and jealousies and competition too?

TK: I don’t think so, not rivalry. The only thing I really didn’t care for and I really didn’t like was that three-quarters of them were Chinese, and they spoke Chinese most of the time in the dressing room. I didn’t like it.

LS: Did you feel they were doing that to leave you and the others out? Did you feel they were gossiping?

TK: I felt sometimes they may have been talking about us. I just didn’t like it. They probably weren’t talking about us, but who knows? When you’re young, you always think someone’s talking about you. Still, that was one thing I detested.

LS: All this time, were you writing to your parents? What did they think?

TK: I didn’t write to my parents. They didn’t read English, and I couldn’t write Japanese. Who used the telephone in those days? But they might have thought, Ah! What is she doing? It’s not traditional. The only worry they probably had was, Is she getting along?

JL: My grandparents couldn’t provide my mother with anything. They were in an internment camp, after all.

TK: I don’t know how my mother felt. She used to iron shirts in the Laundromat and she would work really hard, and she would send me ten dollars every once in a while.

LS: When you were working at the China Doll, what did you do when the night was done? Would you just go home or did you go out with everyone?

JL: Tell her about how you used to go to the drugstore after the show.

TK: Hanson’s Drugstore was across the street, and everybody hung out there. It was on Seventh Avenue, right across Fifty-first Street. [To Jodi] Your father always used to be there.

LS: Was Larry considered a headliner, a big star?

TK: Yes, he was a headliner at the China Doll.

LS: So he saw you and thought you were cute?

TK: I was the only one who listened to him! He hung around. I used to take a cab home to Seventy-fifth Street, but he’d make me walk all the way up to Seventy-fifth Street. I’d say, “Cryin’ out loud. I could have taken a cab.”

JL: Because he couldn’t afford a cab? Right?

TK: Right. Exactly. Sometimes we used to stop at Reuben’s, which was a pretty big restaurant; a lot of people used to go after the shows. Lena Horne was there one time, in the next booth. That was on Fifty-seventh Street.

LS: So Larry comes to the club; he’s got an act; he starts following you around . . .

TK: No. He was in an act.

JL: We should back up a little bit and give the backstory to that. Paul Wing was in a dance act with his partner, Dorothy Toy. [Wing & Toy were considered the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.] They were married at one point. Dorothy, even though her last name was Toy, was Japanese. According to the stories that I’ve heard, and I think it was Dad who told me, Wing & Toy had a Hollywood contract and another performer, who will remain nameless, ratted her out and told the people that they were hiring “a Jap.” The other performer was Chinese, and she got the job instead. That’s when Paul and Dorothy split up their act, because now that her cover was blown, she went on the road with her sister. Paul was on his own in San Francisco, and that’s when my father got up to the Forbidden City and they formed the Wing Brothers. Paul went from being Wing & Toy to the Wing Brothers. Even though all the pictures make them look like they were like the Nicholas Brothers—with all this tap dancing—my father was a tap dancer, but Paul didn’t really tap.

LS: He was more like a ballroom dancer.

JL: Yeah. Exactly. They did lots of jokes and patter and that stuff. They brought that to the China Doll, and that’s when my mother met my father. The Wing Brothers broke up somewhere in there, and my dad stayed in New York. I think because he gambled all his money away and couldn’t get it back!

TK: That’s true, because after work, not every night, but on certain nights they would play pai gai.

JL: They would stay after the show—not just at China Doll but also at the Forbidden City—to play cards or mahjong or whatever.

LS: [To Trudie] What was it like working with your husband?

TK: Putting the act together wasn’t just overnight.

JL: My father was a real stickler. He’d come see me at my show. “Did you know somebody was moving during your punch line? Tell them to stop moving.” He probably did that with my mom too.

TK: He’d say, “You moved!” “I moved?” I did move. [To Jodi] You went through that too? I didn’t dance, so I was faking when we did the tap dancing.

LS: I’ve seen the clip of you on The Ed Sullivan Show. You looked like you were dancing to me.

JL: If you really watch her feet [on The Ed Sullivan Show], she’s really good from here up. If you really watch my father’s feet, he’s tap dancing. My mother’s just stepping. It’s really funny to go back and watch it. She’s just doing the moves. She’s a good faker.

TK: I’m a good faker!

JL: Yes, you are!

LS: [To Jodi] What’s your earliest memory of being in a nightclub?

JL: I remember the waitresses. They used to take care of me when my parents were onstage. I remember I would sit sometimes in the audience, if it wasn’t too late. I specifically remember that you had to go through the kitchen to get to the dressing rooms. We’d be going through the kitchen with all those cleaver-wielding chefs, and that was scary. They’re all barking Chinese and wanting to pinch your check, and you’re like, “Ugh!” You’re running through the kitchen and getting backstage. The backstage area is still so clear in my mind. There were two staircases that went up. One to the women’s dressing room and one to the men’s dressing room. I also remember a stripper at the Forbidden City. She used to babysit me backstage. I used to play with paper dolls, and I liked to cut out the dresses myself. One day, she cut all the paper doll dresses out of the book. She thought she was doing me a favor. I was so upset. And I remember as a child thinking, “Why is she doing that?” Thinking about it later, she was giving my dolls clothes, even though she didn’t wear them. That’s pretty strange. She was putting clothes on my paper dolls!

TK: You used to run around backstage with Michael.

LS: Another boy?

JL: Yes. Larry Ching’s son. [Larry Ching was billed as the Chinese Frank Sinatra.] He was my first crush. A few years ago, we did a movie together up in San Francisco. It’s six in the morning, I’m in the makeup chair, some guy’s supposed to be playing my brother-in-law and I’m hearing him talk about how his father was a -performer at the Forbidden City. I’m like, What? I look at him, and I say, “Your father worked at the Forbidden City? So did mine.” He goes, “Oh, yeah. What was your dad’s name?” I say, “Larry Long.” I say, “What’s your dad’s name?” “Larry Ching.” “And what’s your name again.” He goes, “Michael.” I go, “Wait a second. You’re not the Michael I went to the San Francisco Zoo with?” He goes, “Oh my God! You’re Jodi.” It was unbelievable. It was just too weird. We’re still friends.

LS: One thing that struck me was how people were billed: The Chinese Fred Astaire; the Chinese Sophie Tucker. What was the reason or thinking behind that? Why would they get those labels?

TK: They called Toyet Mar the Chinese Sophie Tucker because she was heavy, I think.

LS: And she had a big voice.

TK: Yeah. Kind of. With the Wing Brothers, when your father and Paul Wing danced together, the newspapers used to call them the Chinese Nicholas Brothers.

JL: I always thought they did that for the Western audience to go, “Oh, I know what that is!” You look at certain actors, and they’ll look like Errol Flynn or whomever, and there’s a context already when you see them on the screen. You recognize what that stands for. It contextualizes the performer. I think in the performing arts that’s somewhat useful. But it’s also why it’s been hard for Asian Americans when you get to that other level of breaking into television or film. There’s not quite been a context for it. “Now I know what that is and I’m not completely shocked.” Seeing my parents on The Ed Sullivan Show, what’s always so amazing to me is that they start out doing the chinky-Chinaman kind of thing, but it contextualizes them and it makes their act almost acceptable for the audience, because that’s the way the audience is looking at it. When they take off their Chinese robes and they’re just Western-style performers, it’s like, “Oh!”
LS: How did that come about—being on The Ed Sullivan Show?

TK: I have no idea. I didn’t handle any of that stuff. All I know is we were going to perform there.

JL: Ed Sullivan had scouts who would go to all the nightclubs and all the vaudeville places, and that’s how they would see you and then they would want to book you.

LS: I would have been excited and terrified too.

TK: I really can’t remember if I was excited or not. I was trying to be very careful of what I wore. I had something I had already made. Everything matched. I even had green hose.

JL: Mom made all her own costumes. But it was always about the career and putting it out there. It was the only way you were going to get ahead. That’s the performer’s dilemma. There will always be that Broadway show, that television show, that movie part that will put you over.

LS: But maybe people really did think there was a chance. “I’m at the top of what I’m doing as queen of the nightclub acts.”

JL: You’re right. There is that glass ceiling. Completely. And it is still here for us now. There’s always that vague hope that one day that one thing is going to happen that’s going to change something. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe it does for half a second, and then you’re back to square one. That was really what I wanted to say about these performers and how they were perceived. The times were different. In those days, you could make a lot more money in entertainment than the average Joe putting wires into a transistor, slinging hash, or typing.

Jodi Long brought her memories of the Forbidden City, her parents, and all the amazing performers she grew up knowing to her narration of the audio version of China Dolls. On June 13, 2014, Trudie Kim Long passed away at the age of ninety-one, exactly two weeks before the publication of China Dolls. In the memorial card Jodi sent to her friends, she used the following lines from an Eskimo legend:

Perhaps they are not stars in the sky. But rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.

Request a live chat with bestselling author Lisa See for you and your book club!

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Lisa See credit  Patricia WilliamsChina-Dolls
In her beloved bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and, most recently, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the strong bonds between women, romantic love, and love of country. Now, in the New York Times bestselling book CHINA DOLLS, which is about Asian-American nightclub performers of the 1930s and 1940s, she returns to these timeless themes. The San Francisco Chronicle praised the novel, stating,“China Dolls plunges us into a fascinating history and offers an accessible meditation on themes that are still urgent in our contemporary world. The women’s story explores burning questions about the possibilities of friendship, the profound effects of betrayal, the horrors of prejudice and the nature of ambition—especially female ambition. . . . These Asian artists were true pioneers, breaking ground, chasing vast dreams, subverting stereotypes simply by appearing onstage against the odds. Here, in CHINA DOLLS, they have found another stage of sorts, another place to rightfully shine.” The Washington Post said,“This emotional, informative and brilliant page-turner resonates with resilience and humanity,” while O Magazine called CHINA DOLLS “a spellbinding portrait of a time burning with opportunity and mystery.”

Lisa’s novels make excellent book club discussions, and now you can request Lisa to join your club meeting with a live chat!

Just fill out the form below with your request. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

To learn more about Lisa See and her books, visit LisaSee.com
Find Lisa on Facebook and Twitter.

Giveaway Opportunity: Summer Reading Bundle!

Friday, June 6th, 2014

Strout_Kitteridge Nothing says “summer” like a bundle of books, right?! Okay. A lot of things say “summer,” but today it is a bundle of books! Enter here and below for your chance to win a summer reading bundle that will make you swoon with literary love whether you are on a beach, climbing a mountain, or just sipping lemonade on the back porch.

Celebrate summer with us and enter for your chance to win one copy of each:
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
Widow for One Year by John Irving

Stay up to date with Random House Reader’s Circle on our Facebook page for author updates, more giveaway opportunities, and feel good book love.

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)

CalligraphyCalligraphy

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!

Jane’s Bookshelf: Favorite Love Stories

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

In an editor and a publisher’s life, there are certain authors and publications that stand out. For me there was my first acquisition (House of Heroes by Mary La Chapelle), first bestseller (Backlash by Susan Faludi), the first bestseller I didn’t originally acquire (Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman). It’s sort of embarrassing to realize how well I remember these events from almost two decades ago!

Snow Flower smallHere at Random House, Lisa See is an author who looms large for me in large part because Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was one of the first big paperbacks I published when I came here nearly seven years ago. We moved the paperback up from the traditional 12 months after hardcover publication to 9 months, completely redesigned the jacket, sent Lisa on a huge tour, and did major marketing outreach targeting book clubs and avid fiction readers. The success we shared with that campaign became a calling card for Random House Readers Circle and our trade paperback program. So February 7 was a special day for me: Dreams of Joy went on sale in paperback. I won’t try to describe it since the Los Angeles Times does it better than I ever could: “The scope of the novel is astonishing. . . .See aims her pen at the most vivid aspects of daily life but never loses the sweep of history. In the end, it’s a story with characters who enter a reader’s life, take up residence, and illuminate the myriad decisions and stories that make up human history.” And you may be able to catch Lisa while she is out on tour.

major_pettigrewBeing that it’s near Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but think of some other firsts: first kiss, first love … though I’m not sharing them! Instead here are some of my favorite love stories: Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand combines British wit and charm, a small British village, and two wonderful characters – the Major and Mrs. Ali – who fall in love despite everyone’s disapproval; it’s an endearing, thoroughly grown up romance.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetSome love stories take place in the midst of momentous events, so that the relationships at their heart take on almost epic proportions: I think of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and Sydney Carton’s sacrifice that allows Charles Darney and his lovely Lucie to remain together despite the ravages of the French Revolution. Or how World War II interrupts the young love between Henry and Keiko in Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

EndlessLoveVaclav&LenaPerhaps it is stories of young love that resonate most with us as readers. I for one can’t forget the angst-ridden romantics that Scott Spencer created with his teenage protagonists in Endless Love. More recently, I adored the young characters at the heart of Haley Tanner’s Vaclav and Lena; theirs is a story not only of love, but also of magic. Need I say more?

As you think of your first Valentine or your favorite love stories, I hope you will share them with me and our Random House Readers Circle community.

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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Discussion questions for Lisa See’s new novel, Dreams of Joy

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Dreams of Joy1. Joy is frequently described in terms of her Tiger astrological sign.   In Dreams of Joy, where do you see her acting true to her Tiger nature?  Where do you see her acting un-Tiger like?

2. Many of us grew up believing that the People’s Republic of China was “closed,” and that it remained that way until President Nixon “opened” it.  Certainly Pearl (and even Joy, to a great extent) go to China with preconceived ideas of what they’ll see and experience.  In what ways are they right—or wrong?

3. Does seeing the world through Joy’s eyes help you to understand Pearl? Similarly, does Pearl give insights into her daughter?

4. The novel’s title, Dreams of Joy, has many meanings.  What does the phrase mean to the different characters in the novel, to Lisa, to the reader?

5. In many ways Dreams of Joy is a traditional coming-of-age novel for Joy.  Lisa has said that she believes it’s also a coming of age novel for Pearl and May.  Do you agree? If so, how do these three characters grow up?  Do they find their happy endings?

6. Although May plays a key role in Dreams of Joy, she is always off stage.  How do you feel about this?  Would you rather have May be an on-stage figure in this novel?

7. Pearl has some pretty strong views about motherhood.  At one point she asks, “What tactic do we, as mothers, use with our children when we know they’re going to make, or have already made, a terrible mistake?  We accept blame.” Later, she observes, “Like all mothers, I needed to hide my sadness, anger, and grief.” Do you agree with her?  Does her attitude about mothering change during the course of the novel?

8. Joy’s initial perception of China is largely a projection of her youthful idealism. What are the key scenes that force her to adjust her beliefs and feelings in this regard?

9. Describe the roles that Tao, Ta-ming, Kumei, and Yong play in Dreams of Joy. Why are they so important thematically to the novel?

10.  Food—or severe lack of it—are of critical importance in Dreams of Joy.  How does food affect Joy’s growth as a person?  Pearl’s?

11.  Let’s consider the men—whether present in the novel as living characters or not—for a moment.  What influence do Sam, Z.G., Pearl’s father, Dun, and Tao have on the story?  How do they show men at their best and worst?  Are any of these characters completely good—or bad?

12.  Dreams of Joy is largely a novel about mothers and daughters, but it’s also about fathers and daughters.  How do Joy’s feelings toward Sam and Z.G. change over the course of the novel?  Does Pearl’s attitude towards her father change in any way?

13.  There are several moments in the novel when people have to choose the moral or ethical thing to do.  Where are those places? What purpose do they play?  And why do you think Lisa choose to write them?

14.   Z.G. quotes a 17th-century artist when he says, “Art is the heartbeat of the artist.”  How has this idea influenced his life?  What impact does this concept have on Joy?

15.  Ultimately, Dreams of Joy is about “mother love”—the love Pearl feels for Joy, Joy feels for her mother, Joy experiences with the birth of her daughter, and the on-going struggle between Pearl and May over who is Joy’s true mother. In what ways do secrets, disappointments, fear, and overwhelming love affect mother love in the story?

Come out and see Lisa See on tour!

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Lisa SeeLisa See, bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, is out on the road touring for the paperback release of her latest novel, Shanghai Girls. Check the list below to see if she is coming to a location near you! For a complete list of events, visit Lisa See’s website.

Now you can become a fan of Lisa See on Facebook and get the most up-to-date news from Lisa herself!

Lisa See’s Event Schedule

Tuesday, March 9th – San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, March 10th – Stockton, CA

Thursday, March 11th – Dallas, TX

Tuesday, March 16th – Santa Monica, CA

Thursday, March 18th – West Palm Beach, FL

Saturday, March 20th – Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Saturday, March 27th – Los Angeles, CA
Monday, April 5th – State College, PA (more…)

Now in The Club: online book groups and a cookbook giveaway!

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

If you haven’t already logged on to The Club and explored all the fun new features, now’s a great time to do so! We’ve just launched our first Online Book Group meeting with a discussion of Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls!

Also, check out our latest post in the Food and Drink forum for a chance to win an advance copy of Rocco DiSpirito’s new cookbook Now Eat This!

See you there!

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