Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author Lisa See to discuss Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, a meticulously researched and mesmerizing story inspired by the true love, life, and friendships of a woman physician in 15th-century China. Lisa describes how she conducted her research during the pandemic, her fascinating writing process, and the importance of female friendships in the book and her life. She also reveals where her love of writing and history came from and what it’s like to follow in her mother’s footsteps.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lisa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest novel, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women. Beautiful. Beautiful cover. Beautiful book.

Lisa See: Thank you so much for having me. I’m just really delighted to have a chance to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. I’ve been a fan since Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. You must get tired of having everybody say that to you, so I’m sorry.

Lisa: Never. Never get tired of it.

Zibby: Sorry to jump on the bandwagon. Was so excited when this novel came out and everything. Let’s start by you telling listeners a little bit about what Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is about. Congratulations, by the way, on it being a Sarah Selects title. I really love that book club as well.

Lisa: That’s great. It’s based on the true story of a woman doctor in the Ming dynasty, so five hundred years ago. It was really amazing to me that such a woman would even exist and be practicing medicine. What was amazing about her is that in 1511 when she turned fifty, she published a book of her medical cases. All of her cases were women and girls. This is actually the first time that I’ve written a novel that is actually about someone as opposed to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan where it has the secret writing as the historic backdrop, where it’s more of a general idea of a historic backdrop; The Island of Sea Women, the diving women of Jeju Island. This was really inspired by her. She was a remarkable woman in her time. I think she would be considered remarkable even today. One reason that her book is still in print five hundred years later — we should all be so lucky — is that many of her remedies are still used in traditional Chinese medicine today.

Zibby: Amazing. It was so interesting to get the frame of view of what they were doing medically and how things like leeches were just so common and how you set the stage. No?

Lisa: Actually, they didn’t use leeches. I think I used that as a comparison. Many people don’t even know about traditional Chinese medicine. If you’re reading it and think, oh, this seems backward, if you think where we were, the West was, in terms of medicine at that time, it really was things like leeches and sawing people’s arms off with no anesthesia and stuff like that. They were really far more advanced in how they were looking at medicine than we were here in the West.

Zibby: Sorry, I mixed that up. I apologize.

Lisa: That’s okay. It’s early in the morning.

Zibby: Thank you. Tell me where this idea came from. I read this was a pandemic book of yours. Something on the bookshelf caught your eye. Tell me the story behind the whole thing.

Lisa: I had thought I knew what the next book was going to be. I’d been quietly doing research on it. Then when the pandemic hit, I couldn’t do that book because it was going to require a trip deep, deep, deep into a very, very remote part of China. No way I could’ve done that in 2020. Even now, I’d be a little reluctant to go anywhere that remote in the world. For this particular book, it was just a very, very remote part of China. I then spent the next months of the pandemic moping around. My life is over. I can’t do the thing I like to do. Also, all of the research libraries, all of the archives, everything was closed. Not only could I not go to where I write about, I couldn’t do research on where I write about. It wasn’t until October of 2020 — you can see I spent quite a few months just at loose ends, like all of us or many of us. There was a day I was just walking right here. You can’t see this, but these are my research books. There are another three bays of them. The spine of one of them kind of jumped out at me. I really don’t know. I feel like this must have been fate or destiny or something that it just all of a sudden, out of that shelf, popped out. It was a light gray jacket with slightly darker gray lettering. No reason for it to jump out, but it did. I pulled it down.

Reproducing Women: Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Ming Dynasty. I had had that book on my shelf for ten years and had never opened it. I thought, here we are in the middle of a pandemic. My life is over. I might as well sit down and start reading right now, which I did. I sat down right over there. On page nineteen, there was a mention of Tan Yunxian. I just thought, this is so amazing. I came to the computer. I looked her up. Within twenty-six hours, I knew that I was going to be writing about her. That was so completely different than any other book that I’ve written. Usually, I think about something for five, ten, fifteen, even twenty years. Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, I had that idea in my head for twenty years before I finally found my way into that story. This was completely different. Then the research was completely different because, again, I couldn’t go to China to do the research. I couldn’t go to any of the research libraries. All of the research was done in a completely different way, new way for me.

Zibby: Mostly online? I’m assuming lots of books.

Lisa: There was some stuff that was online. There were certain books that I was looking for that ordinarily, I might be able to get them from one of the research libraries at UCLA, but I couldn’t. I actually set aside some money that I thought, well, this is the money I would’ve spent going to China on the airfare and hotel and food. I used that to buy books that I couldn’t get otherwise. Some of these were pretty rare, so more than one usually spends on a book. I felt like I had to do that. The main thing was that I reached out to different scholars. Ordinarily, I just read their work. This time, I just felt like I really needed to talk to people. These scholars around the country, but also around the world, were unbelievably helpful to me and so giving of their time. There was one professor at Harvard who, in this field, he’s kind of the god of Chinese studies. He talked to me many, many times. It was only recently that I had the thought that, oh, maybe they were feeling at loose ends as I was that they couldn’t do the thing that they do. Here I was sending them a note saying, would you talk to me about, how would you send a letter in the Ming dynasty? I couldn’t find that. How long would it take to travel from here to there in 1496? These very, very specific things. There are people out there who have spent years doing research on things like that.

Zibby: The funny thing is nobody would be able to notice if you were wrong. Let’s say you said it was two weeks instead of a week to get from point A to point B. It’s not like the average reader would be able to say something. Clearly, you are dead set on having it all be just right, which is amazing.

Lisa: You’re absolutely right. That is true. This is the novel that takes place the furthest back in time of any of my books. That’s great because people don’t know, but I would know. It’s really important for me to get those facts correct. I also find that some of that stuff is just really interesting. Because of how we live today, and even if we said a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago — we have a sense of how people lived a hundred years ago. We’ve all read The Great Gatsby. We’ve seen movies that take place in the twenties. We can imagine what it’s like to be a pioneer in this country because we’ve all read Laura Ingalls Wilder. We can imagine Elizabethan England because we’ve all read or seen something written by Shakespeare. We kind of have a sense of how their lives worked and what their clothes looked like. To really think about that then, it’s a long time ago. Just certain basic things that then when you get to them and you think, oh, to me, I find it fascinating.

Zibby: What were some of the things?

Lisa: I don’t know if other people will, but I find it fascinating to see how people lived their lives and how they got from here to there. What were the issues? What were the concerns? How did you get around certain kinds of things? Even just making a cup of tea, you’re not just turning on the gas. There’s something more behind it.

Zibby: I think anyone who’s interested in human emotions and human behavior and wants to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, you have to know what the shoes feel like, the binding of the shoes here and how much pain people are in. You need the context to get to the emotional truth sometimes.

Lisa: Exactly. Women in those days, especially elite women — she was a doctor. She was married into an elite family as well. Women in those days in that class, you would think on some level that their lives were better, but in many ways, their lives were so constricted that they weren’t allowed out into the world. Everything just revolved around these women’s rooms where there you were every day, day after day, with all of your husband’s relatives and your sisters-in-law and the aunties and the concubines and the second and third wives and all of these people who may not have had your best interest at heart. The novel is called Lady Tan’s Circle of Women. That Circle of Women part seemed really important to me. During the pandemic, because I felt isolated — I think we all felt isolated. It took us time to figure out things like Zoom where at least we could see each other a little bit, and how important that connection is to us, whether it’s now or it was five hundred years ago or five hundred years from today, that we need to make those connections. It’s not just the one-on-one. It is those circles of people who help us, who support us, who love us, who allow us to do the things that we love to do or see us through terrible times. Those circles can shift in our lives over time. Sometimes we don’t even recognize when we have them. I just think especially during those long months of isolation, that I personally really thought a lot about friendship and what that has meant to me in my own life and how it gives women such comfort but also fortitude.

Zibby: Tell me about your own circle of women. Who is your circle now? How has that shifted? Do you still have friends from college? Where are your friends from now? What is your structure?

Lisa: Unfortunately, most of my friends live in other places. One of my oldest friends is in Dallas now. Another one is up in Santa Barbara. They’re further away. I think that that also has meant that the time that we’re together is all the more important. I’m sure you have had this experience of people who have known you the longest. You see each other, and it’s instantly stripped away, all of the stuff of who we are in the world. You’re right back to being in the seventh grade. You know each other in this very pure way, before you became the person you became. You can connect on that level right away. I think that this is something pretty common with people, especially if it’s a really old relationship. We have that phrase. They knew me when… I knew her when… I think it’s that “when” part. It’s stripped away of all of the things that we’ve added onto our lives. I became a mother. I became a writer. I play tennis. I like to hike. All of those things that start to identify us. Once you get all of that off of you, then you’re at your core person. A really great friend sees through that to the core of who you are. The other thing about friendship — I’m sure you have experienced this yourself — is that it is unlike any other relationship that we have in our lives. We will tell a friend something that we wouldn’t tell our mother, our husband, a boyfriend, a lover, our children. It’s a very, very particular kind of intimacy. Of course, whenever you have your heart open like that, you are vulnerable to being hurt. I think it’s fair to say that in my novels, that I do come back to friendship a lot. It’s for the reasons we’ve been talking about. It’s that love. It’s that support. It’s the people who give you the strength to keep going forward in often very difficult circumstances. There is that dark shadow side or the potential for those dark shadows. Wherever I see those dark shadows, that’s where I want to go.

Zibby: So interesting. I feel like friendships, it’s so easy to say, well, I’m not going to make time. I can’t do that. I have to focus on that. I have to focus on my family or my work or this or that. Of course, I would love to see my girlfriends, but it’s hard to justify that time, when in fact, that is the time that sustains you and enables you to do all the rest of the stuff.

Lisa: Sometimes just even being able to go for a walk with a friend. You’re grabbing time, trying to grab this moment so that you can connect in this very special way. It fuels us. It gives us so much. Like I said, it’s just a unique relationship that we have in our lives, and I think very different than male friendship. It’s just very intimate. It does so much follow the path of women’s lives, how it changes and evolves depending on where we are in our lives, when we’re teenagers or when we’re in kindergarten or when we first have kids. Actually, some of my closest friends now are from my older son’s kindergarten class because we all came together at this moment. Then it was like, okay, we’re all going to go out trick-or-treating together. Let’s all go do this together. It was about the kids, but over time, it really became about the parents, and about the moms especially.

Zibby: True. I have a great group from — my twins’ preschool class was a great class. We still get together for breakfast and this and that. I know at any moment I could text any one of them and say — actually, one of our core in that whole group ended up passing away. She had ovarian cancer. It was one of the most painful losses. It’s not like she and I talked on the phone every single day, but we were all this interlocked web, and one piece fell off. These nets are what catch us through the hardest times. I totally get it. Back to the book. Tell me more about how you went about writing. You did all this research. How did you synthesize all the information and then pivot to the writing time versus the researching time? How do you get into that? How do you stay super creative and tapped into a character while integrating all of the different facts? How long did that whole thing take? How many hours a day were you at it? All of that.

Lisa: A book typically takes about two years. The majority of time is the research. The writing is actually the least amount of time. Then the editing is somewhere in the middle. When I’m doing research, I love it so much. To me, it’s like a big treasure hunt. I never know what I’m going to find. I can spend hours and hours and hours every day. When I’m writing, I write a thousand words a day, which is just four pages. It’s not very much. I keep a notebook where I keep track of how many words I’ve written in a day. Sometimes I’m at 997. I’ll just stay here until I get that final bit. I have to do the thousand. Sometimes I can do that in about two hours. Sometimes it takes me eight. I know if it’s eight, it’s probably not very good, but I will stay here until I get it done. Then with editing, I find that to be exhausting. I really do. That’s the most exhausting for me. When I first start, the first draft is just awful. I think most writers will say that. If I can do ten pages in a day, I feel like I’ve really accomplished something. Then by the end, several drafts in, I’m up at forty, fifty pages a day. It’s just a long process. For me, that’s where I really shape the novel. I do write from the beginning to the end straight through. You talk to a lot of writers. You know there’s no one way or a right way. Some people make the first sentence perfect and the first paragraph perfect and the first page perfect. I just go all the way to the end. Then I shape it as I’m writing. The one thing I would say about that — there was some part of one of your questions, and now I forgot it, that I had an interesting answer, but now I can’t remember.

Zibby: Synthesizing research…

Lisa: Yes, that was it. I know when I’m ready to write when the last line comes to me. I write the last line first. Once I have that last line, then I know where I’m going. Bad things happen in my books. I can’t deny it. When I know what the ending is, the emotional place that I want to end, that’s, to me, the light at the end of the tunnel. Whatever’s happening as I’m writing, I know that I’m writing towards that. Then the other thing I would say about the research is I do it all myself. I never know what I’m going to find. I look at it like it’s a huge treasure hunt. What am I going to find? Then I do find things. There are moments where I’ll find something and I’ll just think, I’ve got to use that. In this book, I don’t think it gives too much away to say that the scene with the worm, when there’s something written on the baby’s foot, and something that happens in front of the empress, all three of those happened to real women. When I read those stories of what had happened to those particular real women, I was just like, oh, yeah. Come on down, worm. It triggers my imagination. It’s also like, I’ve just got to have that. Those things also inspire me along the way of something that I know that I want to use. It comes out of the research. I could not have made up that worm from nowhere.

Zibby: As you got your career underway and as it continues to go, who have been some of the most influential people, either a first teacher who was supportive or somebody who helped you navigate being a best-selling author for the first time? Who are some of the people that stand out to you?

Lisa: My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Bruinslot. She loved history. This was when you’d learn American history. She really felt that history was about real people. She would have us do all kinds of plays, actually. I have red hair, people who are just listening and can’t see, and so I always got to be Thomas Jefferson. I know a lot about Thomas Jefferson. Her feeling was that if you could stand in their shoes, that then you could understand what they were doing. Of course, that idea — you touched on it earlier too. That’s what I want to do, is just be in their shoes, be in their clothes, and try to understand, in the moment, being in the room with those people, the people that I’m writing about. That’s the goal for me. The other person who would have to be much bigger than Mrs. Bruinslot would be my mother, Carolyn See. My mother was a writer. Her father was a writer as well. I feel, in many ways, like I had a lifelong apprenticeship. Sometimes I joke around. It’s a good thing they weren’t plumbers. Why couldn’t they have been brain surgeons? When I was doing research for something — my mother’s papers are at UCLA Special Collections. I was looking through some of the old correspondence. When she was in college, her father wrote her a letter saying, “If you want to be a writer, you need to write a thousand words a day.” Of course, he wrote that to her when she was something like twenty. It was something that my mother always said to me. It was something that she taught in her classes. I think just the discipline but also how you would think about editing and publishing — my mother, she’s gone now, but she was writing and publishing novels but also doing magazine work in the 1960s.

If you think about it, there just really weren’t that many women writers who were journalists or who were writing fiction. If there were some, they were mostly in New York. My mom was here in Los Angeles. There are many people who look at her as sort of the godmother of West Coast letters. She supported so many writers and influenced so many younger writers all the way to today. I get emails. I’ll run into someone who will say, “Your mother meant so much to me. She’s the one who helped me get published.” She was their teacher. She was my mom. The fact that I had watched her go through this process — people were mean to her, could be very mean to her. I can remember sometimes she’d be on the couch on the phone with an editor and just weeping but trying to be brave. She’d be dabbing her eyes. The editor couldn’t see what was happening, but I could see it. For sure, that really stuck with me. There have been times when I’ve had editors that have been very difficult. One editor was very mean to me and would write things in the margins like, “What kind of an odious person would write a sentence like this?” I’m reading that. It’s like, well, the answer is me.

Zibby: This kind of odious person.

Lisa: There’s no reason for that, for an editor to ever write something like that, but they can. They do sometimes. I never would’ve had the strength to get through the editing of that particular book if I hadn’t watched everything that my mother had gone through over the years. She really gave me such strength to deal with the more business side of writing and publishing.

Zibby: Amazing. Lisa, I feel like we’re only scratching the surface.

Lisa: We’ll have to do it another time.

Zibby: We’ll have to keep it going in person in LA, in the store.

Lisa: Yes, in the store. When you come out, you have to let me know. I’ll come on down and visit you. I’d love that.

Zibby: Me too. I would love that. Thank you so much. All your insight and all of it and the writing and the research, it’s really inspiring. Thank you.

Lisa: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Of course. My pleasure. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Lisa: You too. Buh-bye.


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