Interview: Lisa See of ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’

Posted on July 15, 2011 at 10:26 am

Lisa See is the author of literary novel and book club favorite Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the story of a deep and loving but sometimes conflicted friendship between two women in 19th century China.  She spoke to me about what inspired her about women’s relationships and about how the story had to change when it was adapted for the screen.  The movie opens today in some cities and and expands over the next few weeks across the country.

First, tell me what you think of the movie based on your book.

I really enjoyed the process.  Of course I was nervous the first time I saw it but I really loved the movie.  The part that is very true to the book is absolutely true to the book.  The readers who read it will recognize certain scenes and characters and certainly all the emotions I had included.  And there’s a modern element that has been added.  It was not a part of my original book but it is a parallel story of friendship that I think will make viewers think about their own friendships.   There are these two stories of different aspects of friendship that I think are pretty powerful.

Any adaptation of a book to a movie is a big move from the internal to the external and the addition of the modern story was a way to do that. What do you think the modern-day friendship story added?

That story is a little different, more a story of sacrifice in friendship and the consequences of sacrifice.  What I really liked about the modern story in comparison to the original story set in the past is that it takes place in Shanghai right now, today.   This is one of the biggest, most important cities now on the planet but one many people don’t know about.  They were able to film in certain places where you and I would never be able to get to.  For example there’s a nightclub scene.  The club is called Shelter because it is in an old bomb shelter underneath the city of Shanghai.  I thought, that’s so cool, I just love that, and how the old parts of the city are being torn down as all this modern life is going on.

Sometimes with Chinese stories, it can seem so much about this past, like costume drama or kung fu.  But this combines a little of both, not just in the past but a continuum that brings these people right up to the present.  Certainly now China is a global economic superpower and it is interesting to see that and Shanghai in particular in a way that has not really been seen in a film before.

How did you get interested in the issue of foot-binding and the ancient notion of laotong, or “old sames” to describe the deep and sustaining friendship between women — and are those two connected?

I had reviewed a book for the LA Times on the history of foot-binding. And in that book there was a three or four-page mention of a secret language.  And I thought, how could that exist and I didn’t know about it?  How could it exist and we all didn’t know about it?  So often you hear that in the past there were no women writers, no women historians, there were women but supposedly they didn’t do anything.  But here was an example of something women had invented and used.  They had kept a secret for a thousand years.  I was completely obsessed.  But as I was doing the book and as I was doing the research I knew that I could not really write about this language and the relationships these women had without including foot-binding.  It was part of why this even came about.  It was a combination of illiteracy in men’s writing and the isolation caused by foot-binding that caused these women to first invent the secret language and then use it.  This allowed them in a sense to fly out of their rooms, reach across the fields and find other women with whom they could connect, and how important that is for all women, whether in the past or in the United States today.  We all have a need for friends or a friend with whom we can connect.

Both the ancient and the modern story in the movie are about friends who were pretty much assigned to each other.  That seems different from our American notion of finding our own friends based on shared interests and perspectives.

Aren’t you thrown together by circumstance when you become friends?  You’re in the same kindergarten or dorm or you work together or your kids are in the same class?  They’re real circumstances, not artificial, but that’s how you meet.  I know it’s in the book but in the film as well, that whole cultivation of a friend.  Maybe you’re supposed to be friends and maybe you’ve just met them and would like to be friends but what is interesting is how you cultivate someone to become a friend.  It is a kind of a courting, I suppose.

These friendships in the movie are so close.  Is it possible to have that kind of closeness without impinging on your other relationships — your romantic relationship, your family?

You will tell your best friend things that you wouldn’t tell your boyfriend or your husband or your mother or your children.  That doesn’t impinge on those relationships.  It’s just different, a different kind of intimacy.  The downside of that closeness is that it can leave you open to betrayal — just like any relationship.

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