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As a critically-acclaimed international bestselling author, Lisa See seems to be inspired by forgotten histories and driven by Asian cultures. Her new book, ‘Shanghai Girls,’ is also a story about a covered-up past, and is sure to be flying off shelves soon.
On top of writing multiple renowned books, Lisa See has also written the libretto for the Los Angeles Opera.
10 Questions With Lisa See
1. How did you get involved in writing and what motivates you to continue?
My mom is a writer and my mother’s father was a writer. I just followed along in the family business. I always say that it was a good thing they weren’t plumbers. I continue writing and will always write, because it gives me an opportunity to think about the human condition, and try to get to the truth of the emotions and relationships that give us such joy and sorrow.
2. How significant are the topics of cool hunting and trend spotting in the world of writing?
I get asked this question all the time from writers who are just starting out. I always answer that if writers knew how to spot a writing trend, wouldn’t they do it? If publishers knew how to spot a trend, wouldn’t they buy those manuscripts and sell them to the eager masses?
No one knows what book will sell or even why. A lot of it is timing. A lot of it is magic. Some of it may be that someone wrote a good book, except that a lot of great books are written every year and they don’t come near the bestseller lists.
All that said, there have been a few trends in publishing. The popularity of memoirs started with Frank McCourt and Angela’s Ashes and pretty much ended with James Frey and A Million Little Pieces.
Women detectives were a hot trend there for a while. Now there are so many women detectives in fiction that I don’t think of it as a trend at all. It’s become a genre—women detectives—which is a whole different thing than what you’re asking. Vampires have been cool for more than a century. I don’t think of them as a trend either. Boys studying to be wizards seem to be over. As for actual “cool” in writing, that seems to come along very rarely—perhaps once in a generation.
3. How do you define a trend?
A trend is something everyone wants to do until they get bored and move on to the next cool thing. Pilates and yoga are trends. I believe that fancy coffee from places like Starbucks is a trend that has already begun to taper off. (How cool can it be if you can get more or less the same coffee from McDonald’s for half the price?) I bet using cell phones and other handheld devices in cars will turn out to be a short-lived trend—kind of like driving without seat belts was in the past.
4. How do you define cool?
My dad is my ultimate definition of cool. He is hands down the coolest person on Earth, which is not something most people say about a parent. I have only seen him wear real shoes once, and that was when he rented tuxedo shoes for my wedding. Otherwise he wears zories. And that’s just his feet! I could work my way up, but I won’t, although the coolest things are in his head. Fred Astaire using a tie for a belt was pretty cool, as was the way he walked down a flight of stairs. Bob Dylan is cool.
All three of these guys didn’t or don’t care what anyone else thinks. They have their vision of the world, their own style, and are true to themselves. That’s cool.
5. Do you need a culture of innovation to create something that is cool?
Not necessarily. You need to see the world through unique eyes, though. I remember hearing that my grandparents once bought seven small Christmas trees and hung them upside down from the ceiling. Was that cool or idiosyncratic?
6. What is the best way to create an infectious idea, product or service?
Having a good idea would have to be number one. There are a lot of things—like Chia pets, pet rocks, Paris Hilton, and colonics—that aren’t good ideas, products, or services from the start, but they have great mass marketing teams to sell them. Obama and his team were masters of marketing during the election. (Sure, they used television, radio, and print, but their biggest successes came out of the way they utilized new media.)
Finally, you can have the best idea or the dumbest idea in the world, but if the timing is wrong, it will fail. Paris Hilton was right for her time, but would she get anywhere in this particular economic climate? She was very much a product of and for the early 2000s, but those days are so over.
7. What is the key to innovation?
Paying no attention to the naysayers.
8. What are the most important trends you see in the writing industry?
I see four trends in publishing.
1. The publishing industry has begun to mimic the Hollywood model. How well does a book do on the NY Times bestseller list during the first week of publication is comparable to how well a movie does its first weekend. What’s the drop-off the following week? Everything seems to be based on a downward trajectory as it now is in Hollywood.
2. There are very few books that start low on the bestseller list and then move up. This is a very big change.
3. Also similar to the film industry is the need for a brand, opening, or star name. “We can open this film if we have Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, or Brad Pitt.” The same is now true for books. Brand author names can open a book big on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s very hard—nearly impossible—for someone who hasn’t been on the NY Times list to get on these days.
4. Finally, I think the bad economy has created a situation where all the people who love Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, or Michael Connelly will buy a new book by that author when it first comes out, but after that first wave of fans there’s a big drop off. People are willing to wait for the paperback.
9. Professionally, what do you want to be doing or studying in 10 years?
In ten years, I’ll working on a book that will take me to China. It will probably require a lot of research about some hidden or lost aspect of Chinese culture. In my writing, I’d like to keep digging deeper into the mystery of human emotions and relationships. Come to think of it, I’d like to be doing that in my non-writing life too.
10. What are your most important hobbies?
Playing tennis, hiking, doing Pilates (!), talking to friends, talking to family friends who new my grandparents, going to hear music of all kinds (from opera to rock and roll, and everything in between), going to the nursery to pick out plants for my garden. My most important and favorite hobby of all is sleep, because I surely don’t get enough of it.