In The Dissident, Nell Freudenberger revisits the themes of expatriate isolation that ran through her much-lauded 2003 debut, Lucky Girls.

How did it feel to write your first novel?

People kept telling me the stories in Lucky Girls were novelistic. I thought that meant they were too long. Spending three years with the same set of characters really felt right to me.

What made you want to set much of your story in Los Angeles?

For me it's always easier to write about somewhere I'm not currently living. When you've been away, a place takes on this shimmer. In the case of L.A., the shimmer is probably smog.

What does The Dissident have in common with the expatriate characters in Lucky Girls?

This book is about what Americans think about China and what we think about foreignness in general. What you believe about someone is sometimes more powerful than the evidence in front of you. It takes the family in the novel a long time to get to know the stranger in this house.

Where did the title character, a Chinese performance artist who comes to teach painting at a Los Angeles girls' school, originate?

The real inspiration came from a Chinese artist who visited [my] high school. He was supposed to teach us about ink painting. But he told us there were rules: "This is how you make a bamboo. This is how you make a lobster." Up to that point, our art education had been about using your imagination and being creative. I knew so little about China then—it was as if he had come from the moon.

What are our misperceptions about China?

I think our idea is at once too romantic and too politically oriented. The second time I went to China, I met some young artists and interviewed them. They aren't interested in the Cultural Revolution, but American curators are interested in political art.

How important is research to your process?

I think I would have read about the performance art I write about in the novel whether I was working on The Dissident or not, so it made sense that it worked out. Setting out to write a book about something you don't know inevitably corrupts your story—it takes it somewhere the characters wouldn't naturally take it.