Amy Tan Interview
Credit: Rick Smolan
Fiction can contain ideas, and that is very different from writing about the ideal. It should provoke thought but not deliver what everyone's thinking. Writers should not pander to popular opinion, because that means they have nothing real to say.
Author, scriptwriter, rock star, shark swimmer and dog lover. Amy Tan is an American Chinese writer who has risen above the critique and stayed true to her heart. With a career spanning over two decades, Ms Tan's books have been translated into over 35 languages. In an industry where fresh debut novelists appear every week, Amy Tan stays on the throne as bestselling Asian author.
In a candid interview with BW Amy Tan generously shares her years of experience to help new Asian writers as their embark on their journey into the literary world.
By: PP Wong
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Chinese Fairy Tales (don’t know exact title but it was printed in Italy and all the Chinese people looked sort of Italian)
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
My journal and a pen
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Curious, reflective, strong-willed
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. Would you like a Banana milkshake? Banana fritter? Banana cake? Or just a plain banana?
It has been eight years since the lovely Amy Tan has produced a book. What have you been up to?
I was writing another book for five years of those eight years, which I discarded three years ago to start another. The second one became The Valley of Amazement.
I also built an accessible house from the ground up, which includes all the features one needs to live comfortably until the age of 140. I worked closely with the architect throughout the process. He forced me to do so.
I raised money for an opera, wrote the libretto, and did massive amounts of publicity for it—the latter consuming many months of time. The opera premiered at the San Francisco Opera House in 2008.
I learned to swim with sharks. Seriously. In the Coral Triangle.
Your new book The Valley of Amazement is about courtesans, love and betrayal. What inspired you to tackle such emotive topics?
I discovered a photograph of ten courtesans, “The Ten Beauties of Shanghai,” taken around 1910. Five were wearing an outfit and headband identical to what my grandmother was wearing in my favorite photo of hers, also taken around 1910. I learned the clothing was specific to courtesans. I learned also that only courtesans had their photos taken in Western photo studios. I looked at other photos I had of her in a new light. Had she indeed been a courtesan? She had always been described as old-fashioned and quiet. I launched into an obsessive search for clues to this mystery. Among many things, I consulted academicians whose specific area of research was courtesan culture in Shanghai during the early 20th century. I talked to an older relative who had lived in the house where my grandmother briefly lived before she killed herself in 1925. I found contradictions within the various family stories. For example, she had not been the widowed first wife to a scholar. She had been the second wife, a concubine. This fact alone had great significance to the reported shame she felt in becoming a concubine later in life—this time to a very rich man and also as his favorite. I learned also that she was strong-willed, and those who did not listen to her opinions "were sorry later."
I don't know the answer to this mystery. Without absolute proof that she had been a courtesan, I cannot use conflicting evidence to conclude what her circumstances had been. But I do know that her life was tumultuous, as was my mother’s. I know that their traumas included betrayal and the abandonment of daughters. And so, in this new novel, I entered the world of courtesans and wrote about two women, a mother and daughter, whose lives are upturned several times, who remake themselves to make the best of their new circumstances. What in their psyche changes? What will never change? What did they do that is necessary? How do they appear to others differs from how they actually see themselves?
When you write, how do you decide which people’s opinions to listen to and which to shut out?
I used to belong to a writers group, led by a professor of creative writing, who was also an award-winning writer. It was helpful at first to hear multiple opinions. I sensed which ones were useful to my intentions for the story, and which reflected more what that particular writer wanted to write. If the opinions expanded my understanding of what to do, I listened. If it was limiting, I did not. In this way, I was learning to be my own editor. After I was published, the other writers seemed intimidated by me and took my opinions more seriously than others. Others felt that by giving me opinions, they were also "writing" the book. So I left the group.
At my first publishing house, I had a wonderful editor, who bought my book and was interested in not just my work, but me and the daily events of my life. I still consulted privately with the leader of our group. She became my freelance editor. And only she and my editor at the publishing house read my early drafts. I did not show the pages to anyone else, not even my agent or husband or best friend. Through these editors’ opinions, I also learned to go with my intuitions, and to "feel" the story.
A writer may put their heart and soul into writing a piece and find that some will love it while others will hate it. How do you deal with criticism?
I have been buffeted by reviews early on--the good, the bad, and the mixed ones. None ever captured what I felt I had written. But how could they know what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote the words? The meaning of the story was the complex of my life, my changing sense of self, and my obsessions—all laboriously worked out in an embedded narrative.
I was also attacked by factions led by a Chinese American writer, who said (with expletives) that my work was inauthentic because I had used stereotypes, such as mothers who spoke in broken English, or women who had been concubines. He said my work did not represent real Chinese people. He attacked other Chinese writers—Maxine Hong Kingston and David Henry Hwang—as having committed the same literary crime. I don’t think any individual writer's work could possibly "represent" a race of people who encompass many cultures, families, personal histories, tragedies, and food preferences. What I wrote was my truth. My mother spoke broken English. My grandmother was a concubine who killed herself.
In a similar fashion, I was criticized for not writing "positive role models of men." I don't think fiction should serve as a model for anything. Fiction can contain ideas, and that is very different from writing about the ideal. It should provoke thought but not deliver what everyone's thinking. Writers should not pander to popular opinion, because that means they have nothing real to say. They should not succumb to the grandiose goal that they can improve the world and end wars or make humans feel kindly to one and all. But a book that contains the deeply felt truth of its author may also be felt by others as true for them as well.
Family opinions and objections are another matter. In that regard, I have been lucky. My mother was quite moved by The Joy Luck Club. She was glad I had given voice to painful family secrets. She felt I understood her, and she asked that I write her true story as my second novel. And in fact, after many false starts with a second novel, I finally wrote a novel that was very much modeled on her life. With The Valley of Amazement, I faced for the first time the dilemma of writing what I needed to write, while knowing I might upset some members of the family who clung to the myth that my grandmother had been a quiet old-fashioned woman who stayed at home. I decided I would not hide the mystery that inspired the story. If I maintained the myth, it was akin to saying she never really existed. So I have talked about the inspiration for the book. And I have acknowledged that other family members scoffed at the idea she might have been anything other than a traditional women. The actual novel, however, is not a narrative based on my grandmother’s life, real or imagined.
All your books feature East Asian characters. Was this a deliberate choice to introduce East Asian characters to the western world and perhaps even help put Asian authors on the map?
I wish I could say I was noble enough to choose to write books to help others. The truth is, I write all my books for myself. If I tried to write for other reasons, I would be paralyzed. I am honored that in writing The Joy Luck Club, the success of the book opened up possibilities for other Asian writers. But it sometimes hurt their chances. Asian writers felt their books were compared to mine, when they were not alike at all. Years ago, I heard stories of editors saying to agents, “We already have Amy Tan,” as if they had one Chinese writer and thus had fulfilled a quota. But that’s not as true today in the US. I hope that becomes the case in the U.K. as well.
If you could get into a time machine and go back to meet Amy Tan the debut author, what advice would you give?
I would tell her to not try to analyze why people liked the first book, and to just write what I felt I needed to write. That is what I eventually did with my second book after many drafts of novels I imagined people wanted.
Writers often feel pulled by financial need. They write, knowing they also have to support themselves. They have to prove to others that they were not foolish to try. They have to prove to their parents that they were right not to listen to their demands to be a doctor. But I think they should also write at times without expectation. They should ask themselves if they would give up now if they knew they would never made a penny out of it. If they wrote and did not become successful, would they feel they had wasted their time? If the answer is yes, they should give up now.
When I started, I did not give up my job. But I set aside hours for writing fiction. I also gave myself a goal—a serious one—to be published in a small literary magazine by the age of 70. That may seem ridiculously modest, but it was more realistic than saying that I must be published within two years, as some writers feel they must be to continue. I told myself what I wanted to do as a writer, how I wanted to grow, what I got out of writing. I realized it was to find meaning in life, to think and feel as deeply as I could, to remember moments and the thoughts that occurred within them. When the moments are forgotten, it is like the death of part of my existence. But by writing, the moments are still there. I read them and sense that the past is a continuum of who I am. BW
THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT by Amy Tan is published by 4th Estate, price £18.99
Amy Tan will be at Book Slam UK on Friday 29 November