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LOS ANGELES — If she'd just stuck with her plan to write that family Christmas letter back in the early 1990s, Lisa See might still be reviewing best-selling novels instead of writing them.
But the 1995 publication of "On Gold Mountain," an acclaimed history of Chinese migration to California that draws largely from her family's colorful experiences, turned the former West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly into one of Los Angeles' most prominent writers.
"You know how people at Christmas will put in their Christmas card a Christmas letter that says, 'Johnny played soccer, and we went to Italy and that kind of thing?'" she asks. "I thought, 'That's what it will be, and I'll just give it to the family. We'll have it on one piece of paper, and everybody will know what happened.'"
The result turned out to be a critically acclaimed 400-page opus.
"Things got out of hand," See says with a shake of the head and a hearty laugh.
With her 12th book, "The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" (Scribner, $27) about to be published, the literary odyssey that "Gold Mountain" inspired continues, one that in its best moments links little-known aspects of Asian culture to modern-day Los Angeles' burgeoning Chinese-American community.
It's an odyssey that has come to see See's books translated into dozens of languages and published in China and nearly 40 other countries.
As she awaits her latest book's release on Tuesday, the author sits in an LA-area teahouse on a recent day sipping a dark reddish beverage called Pu'er. It is to tea aficionados what single-malt scotch is to whiskey drinkers, and it has become the writer's beverage of choice after studying and learning how to ferment it as part of her research in China's Yunnan province for "Tea Girl."
"We have a sense that fiction is just made up, and certainly invention is part of it. But the most resonant fiction, certainly the most resonant naturalistic fiction, has to take place in a recognizable world and a recognizable landscape."
As she pours steaming water over tea in a mini-tasting ritual, See reflects on how a one-eighth Chinese, native Californian whose bright red hair, freckles and pale skin belie her Asian cultural roots, went from freelance journalist to one of the most prominent Chinese-American writers of her generation.
Soon after "Gold Mountain's" publication, she quit her day job at Publishers Weekly to write three Chinese-centric mystery novels in fairly rapid succession. Each won wide praise from reviewers but, unlike her first book, were received with general indifference from the public.
"I was what they called a critically acclaimed writer," says See, who is as witty in person as on the page. "What that means is you get really great reviews and nobody reads your books."
That changed when, against the advice of publisher, agent, fellow writers, even friends, she decided to research a historical novel about two women growing up as best friends in rural 19th century China.
Published in 2005, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" has sold more than 1.5 million copies. It not only established See as a serious literary force but gave her a template for future storytelling.
Several deeply researched historical novels have followed, each featuring strong characters who, despite close friendship, sometimes betray one another. They are often day-to-day people caught up in the circumstances and traditions of their time, which can lead to situations running the gamut from laugh-out-loud comical to deeply, darkly tragic.
Heroes sometimes die in See's novels, while others are brutalized, as in a gruesome recreation of the World War II Rape of Nanking that's a centerpiece of her 2009 book "Shanghai Girls."
It can be as heart-rending to write those passages as it is to read them, says See, recalling one from "Tea Girl" that is guaranteed to break hearts.
"But it's life," the 62-year-old adds quietly. "You don't come to the end of your life without some bad things happening along the way."
It's that ability to conjure up real-life events, along with a talent for storytelling that's matched with equally strong lyrical prose, that makes See such an engaging writer, says fellow novelist and former Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin.
"We have a sense that fiction is just made up, and certainly invention is part of it," says Ulin. "But the most resonant fiction, certainly the most resonant naturalistic fiction, has to take place in a recognizable world and a recognizable landscape. And I think that adds to the texture of the world she's creating. It's not a superficial world."
In "Tea Girl," a young peasant must forsake dreams of leaving her poverty-stricken village for college after becoming pregnant outside marriage and abandoning her daughter.
The baby is adopted by a well-off white American couple and raised in Southern California, while the mother's life is transformed when the outside world discovers the high-quality Pu'er her village produces and begins paying outrageous sums for it. Meanwhile, mother and daughter mourn their separation from a world apart.
It's a story filled with plenty of colorful twists, something befitting an author whose family is filled with colorful characters. Chief among them may be her great-grandfather, a legendary raconteur who all but founded Los Angeles' Chinatown in the late 19th century.
"I was what they called a critically acclaimed writer. What that means is you get really great reviews and nobody reads your books."
Fong See made a small fortune in the mercantile business and spent a good portion of it collecting luxury automobiles and women. By the time he died at age 100, he'd had three Chinese wives and one white one, all at the same time.
Los Angeles is in some ways still the Wild West of See's ancestors, she says. That's why the married mother of two grown children and the daughter of another prominent writer, the late Carolyn See, can't envision living anywhere else.
"We do have a certain people who still come here to change their lives and to change their story, and I think that really infuses our city with that kind of energy," she explains.
"And," she adds with a smile after stepping outside into a sun-splashed California day, "we have some pretty nice weather."