The complex bond of female friendship and intimacy is something author Lisa See has explored extensively with her past two novels. In her recent "Shanghai Girls," See looked at two sisters who left Shanghai in the late 1930s for arranged marriages in Los Angeles, and in the international best-seller, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," which has since been translated into 38 languages and will be released July 14 as a feature film, she ventured to the far reaches of China to research a secret form of communication used by women for over a thousand years.
She spoke with The Huffington Post from her home in Chinatown, Los Angeles.
How involved were you in the development process for the film version of "Snow Flower?"
They sent me every version of the script and I would write back long emails. A lot of the time they were in China filming and I was on a book tour for a different book. We had a lot of phone calls, a couple conference calls with everyone, and I will say that sometimes they listened to my advice, and sometimes they didn't. In the trailer there's one line I recommended and a scene I recommended.
The "Snow Flower" film features a parallel story not found in the book -- that of two women in modern-day Shanghai. How do you feel about these additions?
It's a modern story -- I really didn't have much input in that. Wayne [Wang, the director] really wanted to tell it. I didn't have a lot of thoughts about it. A book is one kind of an art form and a film is a different art form. I think as a writer you just have to say, well the book is one thing, and the film is a completely different one. I felt I was entrusting my book and my vision to them, and they should also include certainly Wayne's vision, and his aesthetic on how he saw the story.
Friendship is a central theme of so much of your work. Do you have a close friend who knows you inside and out?
I have a friend that I've known since high school, and when you have a real close friendship like that -- ours goes back to 9th grade -- this is someone who has, in a sense, known you your whole life. I also have a step-sister, a former step-sister, rather, and we've known each other since we were [very] little. She lives in Australia, I live here. When you have those kinds of relationships that go back that far, these are people who knew you before you've become a fully formed person. They see you for your essence, they see you as you were at that young age, purely yourself without having fully developed into an actual person.
And, in your case, before you became a best-selling author.
Right. They knew you before you became successful or a failure, or whatever. They knew this very core part of you. And they know where you came from. For me, now, there are often people who will say, "Well, you're a bestselling author," and they have this whole idea in their mind of what that means. That's not who I am, that's just a thing I do. I think sometimes as an adult, you take people for what they do, and what they are now, instead of the whole picture of their lives. But the old friends who have known me forever, they know that part.
Is it difficult for you to sustain those long-term friendships?
I think we all have people -- along the lines of "Oh, you're going to be my best friend for life," but it doesn't always work that way. People come in and out of our lives, and the true test of friendship is whether you can pick back up right where you left off the last time you saw each other.
But a lot of your characters are extremely close, very intimate, and use that closeness against one another.
Sure. I would say that's the downside of really close friendships, specifically female friendships. But I've always been interested in the shadow side of female friendship. A lot of stories out there are along the lines of, you know, three friends go back to their college reunion and all the secrets came out. I think all women have a friend who at some point dumped them or betrayed them or deeply disappointed them. And at the same time all women have a friend who they dumped or betrayed or hurt in some way. That's universal in women's friendships. You will tell a friend -- women will tell a friend something they wouldn't tell their boyfriend, husband, mother, children. That kind of intimacy can leave you open to being hurt and betrayed.
Is that different than male friendships? Is it a biological thing?
I think its cultural. From the time they're little girls, women are raised to be good, not to pick fights, to behave themselves. With guys it's just, like, "Oh, I'm angry, that made me mad, lets go grab a beer." They verbalize it, they punch each other in the shoulder, but then its like, okay we did that, now let's watch the game. But with women -- from childhood you're not supposed to object, you're not supposed to make a fuss or say what you think. I think women are much more tactical in how they deal with anger. When I wrote "Snow Flower" -- my editor is a man -- and there was only one place that he really disagreed with what I'd written, and I found it really interesting.
Which scene was that?
It was a scene when Lily, the main character, kind of takes down Snow Flower in a very public way, in front of all their friends, all the important women in their village. My editor said, "Oh, women would never do that because women aren't mean." And I was like, "Of course they are!" I suggested we show it to women at Random House. So Monday he called me and says he asked the publisher, a woman, about that scene. And the publisher, of course, said that of course she would do that! Women are mean! When women do something like that, they like to do it in a public way -- they like to do it for an audience. Little girls in seventh grade -- these are the meanest people on the face of the earth. But they are socialized not to be direct.
Most of your work explores Chinese culture from different standpoints. Your mother, also an author, interviewed you for your website, and pointed out: "You're only one-eighth Chinese, but you've said many times that you're 'Chinese in your heart.'" Does this ever surprise people?
I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. I've got about 400 relatives -- a dozen look like me, the majority are full Chinese, this little spectrum in between. My great grandfather was this kind of godfather patriarch of Los Angeles' Chinatown. You identify yourself with the people you see around you, and I clearly identified with them; their cultures, traditions, customs, are all things I was raised with. I think like all people, I'm always trying to figure out who I am and what I know and where I fit in.
What's your favorite scene in the "Snow Flower" film?
Nu shu, the secret women's writing [explored in the novel] -- a lot of that was sung when they would get together for weddings and funerals, all these different gatherings throughout the year. The women would all be together, they often would sing stories and poems and letters. In the novel, any time it came time for them to sing all I could write was, "And then they sang ..." you know, whatever the lines were. But in the film they hired people who knew these songs -- these experts on nu shu -- and to actually hear that in the film I think is spectacular. It's really something you can't experience fully on the printed page.