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May 26, 2009

Lisa See: How Three Book Clubs Helped with SHANGHAI GIRLS

Posted by carol
Authors often to talk to book clubs about their work after it has been published. But in Lisa See's case, three groups had an impact during the writing process of her latest novel, Shanghai Girls, which is on sale today. In today's guest blog post, she reveals what insight they had to offer.

Lisa's other novels include Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Publishers, book critics, and writers often take a jaundiced view of book clubs. Publishers talk about the importance of book clubs and how they can help sell a book by spreading word of mouth. Book critics are scornful of the role book clubs play in the success and perceived quality of a book. Writers, for their part, do their best to cultivate book clubs, visiting them in person, by speaker phone, or on Skype, because we know that book club members can be our best readers and advocates. While I've done my fair share of courting and visiting book clubs (I've done an average of two book clubs by phone a week for the last three years), I was helped very much by three specific book clubs during the writing of Shanghai Girls. I don't mean that this was market research or that I was encouraged to write what book clubs said they liked or wanted next. Rather, each encounter changed the way I approached the actual writing --- the characters, the themes and, most important, the emotional heart of the novel.

I did a month-long online book club for Barnes & Noble for my last book. B&N online book clubs are supposed to have a moderator who asks questions and guides the conversation. This time, however, the moderator didn't show up. So there I was with a group of women --- total strangers to me and to each other --- from all across the country, trying to lead a conversation about Peony in Love. Right at that time I was thinking a lot about the Chinese and Western concepts of fate, fortune and destiny and how I might incorporate those ideas into Shanghai Girls. So instead of the women asking me questions, I shifted our conversation away from Peony in Love to these more philosophical ideas. The women not only helped me clarify my own thinking about fate, fortune and destiny --- those three words ended up dividing the three sections of the novel --- but some of their thoughts and words appear in the book as well.

Book clubs always ask what I'm working on next. During the last two years when I was asked this, I told them about Shanghai Girls, which is about two sisters. Always the conversation would turn to the often slippery and problematic relationship between sisters. I had my own ideas about this and had them in my outline for Shanghai Girls, but I began to question my decisions. One day, when I was on the phone with the 12th Street Book Club, I asked, "Is there anything your sister could do that would be unforgivable, and what would you do if that happened?" The women in the book club kept insisting that --- even though they'd had fights with their sisters and maybe hadn't spoken to them in years --- "sisters were for life." That simple sentence stayed with me and convinced me that my instinct was right, even if it meant I had to change my plot. This was the correct choice and one I was working toward myself, but these women acted as my sounding boards, unknowingly helping me to make the right human and artistic choices.

Finally, I was a live auction item for a library fundraiser in Fairfield, California. The winner would fly her book group to Los Angeles, where I would treat the members to a dim sum lunch, take them on a tour of Chinatown and then give them signed copies of my books. I thought, They'll never come. But they did! We had our lunch, and then we began the tour. The women were having a wonderful time, but I became increasingly devastated. As we visited with my family in their various Chinatown enterprises, some of which have been in business for more than 100 years, I realized that all the people and places who had made me who I am --- as a woman and as a writer --- were going to be gone in a few years. I know we all experience this feeling of loss at some point in our lives and that it becomes --- sadly --- more frequent as we get older. But I'm in it right now. That feeling of loss became the emotional heart of Shanghai Girls, and I don't know if I would have found it if not for the Fairfield Book Club's inadvertent help.

So thank you to all the women in book clubs who helped me. I know that Shanghai Girls is a better book because of you.

---Lisa See

Also by Lisa See on
Lisa See's Thank You to Book Clubs
How Book Clubs Have Changed