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Bev Cohn: Lisa See

Interview With Lisa See
Thoughts on Women Through the Ages

By Beverly Cohn

award-winning historical novelist Lisa See
Award-winning historical novelist Lisa See.Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures (Photo by: Patricia Williams)

ward-winning author Lisa See grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by writers – her mother, Carolyn See, and her maternal grandfather. As a child she spent a lot of time with her father’s family in Chinatown which led to her writing her first book which traced the journey of her great grandfather: “On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family.” Her subsequent books, all of which deal with the Chinese experience, include “Flower Net,” “Peony In Love,” “Shanghai Girls, and “Dreams of Joy,” which recently became the New York Times #1 Bestseller.

See recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss the film “Snow Flower and the Hidden Fan” which was adapted for the screen from her novel. The following interview has been edited for print purposes.

book cover of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lisa See's best selling novel which was adapted for the screen version. Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Cohn: What was your reaction to seeing the screenplay version of your book?

See: It was amazing to see my characters, the story, and the emotions that I had in my mind. I’m literally seeing my actual words on the screen. It’s really wonderful.

Cohn: How did you feel about the additions made to your story?

See: The modern part, which is woven into the film, is not something that I had envisioned, but I think it’s a very interesting way to tell this story. A book is completely different than a film and lives in its own universe. A film is a collaborative effort, starting with the director, who has his own ideas, so when you are one artist, what you hope to say is that I, as an artist, am turning this over to you.

Cohn: Is there a message for today’s women in setting the ancient part of the film in the 1800s which graphically depicted foot binding?

See: The women who had their feet bound lived in total isolation and were illiterate, but they had a deep desire to communicate with others so that could share their lives. Most of them lived in one room upstairs with one window to look out of from the time they were five until the time they died. That is why they invented this secret code writing called Nüshu, the only one of its kind in the world used exclusively by women. This secret language allowed them, in a sense, to fly out of that window and reach across the fields and find other women to “talk” to so they could share their lives.

To get back to the question as to what that has to do with today, I think in many ways women are still very much bound up in careers, we’re bound up with responsibilities to our families, we’re bound up to our houses, we’re bound up to things outside of our control – government, natural disasters - and yet we still have this deep desire and need to fly out of that window of our lives and reach across the fields to find other women to whom we can connect and share our lives. And, that need hasn’t changed over time. Sometimes when you write something in the past, and I’ve done this before because I write historical novels, by looking at the past, that allows you to look at the present and to think about your own life.

Li Bing Bing and Gianna Jun in a scene from the movie Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Li Bing Bing as Lily and Gianna Jun as Snow Flower, best friends for life.
Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Cohn: Was it ever your intention that relationship between the two women was going to transition into being lovers as some of the scenes looked like they were going that way?

See: I saw the film a few months ago and just saw it again and thought are those girls going to kiss or not because they’re awfully close to kissing. (laughs) I have gotten that question about the book from the beginning. Here’s the thing: Nüshu writing, itself, was highly emotional, with lines like, ‘You are the love of my life,’ ‘Our bond will last for 10,000 years,’ ‘Nothing can ever sever our bond,’ You are the light of my life.’ Reading those lines you would think those women were having sex. At the exact same time period in England, New England, and France, for example, women were living very closed lives. They were in their corsets and were in arranged marriages. Even in this country, women didn’t travel and didn’t have telephones so almost all communication between women friends was through writing and when you look at that writing, it was written in that very same heightened emotional place. Certain phrases were used in different continents during the same time period. Why is that? I think that part of it was the relationship you had with your husband was not like what we have today. You didn’t talk about how the kids are doing in school or where you are going on vacation, or the household budget, or whom you’re going to vote for in the next election. There weren’t any conversations like that – there was the men’s world and the women’s world and marriages had very little emotion.

Li Bing Bing as Lily and Gianna Jun as Snow Flower in the movie Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Li Bing Bing as Lily with her best friend Snow Flower played by Gianna Jun.
Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

book cover of Shanghai Girls

Cohn: Because of the intense emotions these women shared, did any of those relationships cross over into a sexual one?

See: There were some women who were more than just friends and were having sexual relationships. Academics seem to feel that it was about 10%.

Cohn: As an historical novelist, how important is it to be totally accurate?

See: Hugely important and I’m really a nudge about that. Each time I received another version of the script, I didn’t have many comments about the modern part, but for the part that was based on the book and on historic fact, I felt that had be accurate. I’m happy to see that the part based on the novel is very accurate. One of the great things about films and books is that they allow you to enter into a different culture and a different time. That’s what I especially love about books; you open them up and you step into a different world. That’s what art is about – whether it’s a book, or a film, or a painting, or music; it allows you to experience another time, another place, and another culture.

Lisa See with director Wayne Wang, producers Wendi Murdoch and Florence Sloan and actress Li Bing Bing in Los Angeles
Producer Wendi Murdoch, Li Bing Bing, Director Wayne Wang, Producer Florence Sloan, and Author Lisa See at Fox Searchlight Special Screening of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" on the Fox Lot in Los Angeles, California. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/WireImage)

Cohn: Did you start writing as a little girl?

See: No. Even though I grew up around writers, I didn’t start writing until I was 21. My mom is a writer and my mother’s father was a writer so I didn’t really want to be a writer, but I always say it was a good thing they weren’t plumbers.

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Let Bev know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Thanks so much for those lovely tourism photos, especially of Ireland. I certainly enjoyed all the places you suggested, and am working towards my next vacation. Don’t forget Cuba. That’s an exciting place.

Rosalie, Los Angeles

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Enjoyed your article on Mira Sorvino. Such an interesting background – family, education, career and now human rights activist. I'm not a gossip mag fan so getting more meaty news about movie celebrities from you gives me hope that there are some inteligent life forms in Hollywood.

Peter Paul, Pasadena, CA

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Thank you, Bev. This reminded me to go see the movie, "An Education," which I had already almost forgotten about, having seen the preview a few weeks ago. I enjoy this actress quite a bit--she has a uniqueness about her and she pulls me in. I enjoyed this.

Sandeee, Seattle, WA

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Thank you Beverly,I really enjoyed reading about your intimate conversation with Forest, of whom I am a great admirer. I look forward to seeing the film "Our Family Wedding."

Yoka, Westlake Village, CA

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Thank you for the sending me the beautiful article you wrote about Ireland. We will use your recomendations for hotels in the Southern part. We plan to also go to Dublin and some other Northern cities so I will get some recommendations for these from others. After reading your article, I am getting more excited about going. I think we will be in Ireland for 8 days altogether.

Leah Mendelsohn, Santa Monica, CA

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Very much enjoyed Ms. Cohn's article about Munich, especially the visuals. Though it has been 25 years since my last visit, the piece brought back countless pleasant memories of the city and the people!! Many thanks.

Lawrence, Los Angeles

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Marianplatz and that general area is truly one of the best Christmas celebrations in the world. Between that and Oktoberfest (which I can only imagine) Munich is one of the greatest cities in the world for major annual events.

Christopher Dale, New York, NY

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Hi Bev, you have done some wonderful pieces on some great celebs...Great work. The travel articles are just wonderful too.

Scott Mueller, Huntington Beach, CA

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Your great Zurich article makes me want to go there for the holidays! I love the photos, too, especially the ones of you in the sleigh, the view over the houses and the zoo!

Anna Marie, Santa Monica, CA

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Lovely article! As a European, and having been to Zurich (albeit in summer) I can vouch for this lovely city. Great pictures, too!

Helene Robins, Santa Monica, CA

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Hi Bev,

Nice review, nice seeing you, nice website interface "...Talk to Bev" - Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Richard D. Kaye, Marina del Rey, CA

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Hi Bev,

Your interview with John Cusack is very interesting. I always wondered why these actors/actresses always get top billing when really, if you think about it, the real work come from the animators, writers and tech whizzes who spend far more hours on the movie than those actors. I know, I know, it's the all about marketing. The names of these actors are what bring in the big bucks. Still, I think these actors are way overpaid for the "little" that they do.

I remember that once upon a time, the early animation classics never mentioned the voices behind the characters. I think it was only later when Walt Disney tapped into the voices of known celebrities like Walter Matthau in the Jungle Book or Zsa Zsa Gabor in The Rescuers that the voices became a marketing magnet.

Keep up the good work. I enjoy your interviews as you peer into the lives of the Hollywood celebrities.

Peter Paul of South Pasadena, CA

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