Interview with Amy Tan

Posted by Goodreads on November 5, 2013
It's been eight years since Amy Tan published her last book, and in many ways the influential novelist has not changed at all. She still wears her hair in a trademark ink-black bob, and she is still obsessed with the way we are shaped by the DNA of our past. But with her newest work, The Valley of Amazement, the San Francisco-based perennial best seller tackles a new world: high-class courtesans in 1920s Shanghai. This is the story of Lulu Minturn, an American woman who runs a courtesan house in China, and her half-Chinese daughter, Violet Minturn, who through a devastating turn of events has to forge her own living as a courtesan. Tan talked to Goodreads about her exploration of self-identity, things that make her laugh, and a shocking discovery about her own grandmother.

Goodreads: The plot of The Valley of Amazement is really moved by betrayals. Is betrayal something that you think about a lot?

Amy Tan: I lump [abandonment] into the betrayal. So being abandoned is a betrayal, and you don't let these people back in your life who've abandoned you. Abandoned your trust or abandoned you physically. My father dying, I felt like it was a betrayal, "How dare you leave and leave me with this mother unprotected?" Even if it's accidental. My mother left her three daughters. [Editor's note: Tan's mother left an abusive first marriage in China.] They have ambivalent feelings where they wanted her, she was the one who would have solved their unhappiness, and she was the one who caused their unhappiness. I feel that that theme of abandonment is in our family. My mother lost her mother when she was nine; her mother killed herself. That was a kind of betrayal, an abandonment, leaving her alone. So that's in our family, repeated. A mother abandoning a child. My mother her children. I don't have any children to abandon.

GR: Children can also be betrayed by the identities that are given to them. Violet, who is half-American and half-Chinese, wrestles with this throughout the book.

AT: Violet, her identity changes without her wanting it to, constantly. She thinks she's this privileged American girl, she's spoiled, and then she becomes half-Chinese, and then she becomes an abandoned little girl, and she becomes a first-class courtesan, and then she becomes a courtesan who's really losing her popularity and on the brink of something unknown. So many different parts of her where she either has to take hold or let go—let go of pride or keep pride—that's what I was working through. And those are not my circumstances, and yet I felt some part of it was. Duality. Or thinking about who you are and then being cast into a different world and suddenly a lot of that changes.

One of the biggest changes for me was the year we lived in Switzerland [when I was a teenager]. And suddenly the way people looked at me, literally looked at me, was different. I suddenly became exotic and attractive. In high school I felt ugly, and I thought, "This is great. I'm in this world where people think I'm really sexy." Not a good thing to have when they try to rape you at the same time. That whole thing of self-identity again. Or going to China, again, and being cast in a different light and realizing how American I am. Those things fascinate me. With Violet I got to play some of that out.

GR: Your mother once said that it was a good thing that you told these stories, because when you rewrite the past, you can change it. Do you believe that?

AT: She believed you could change it. And I had to think, "Well, what does that mean?" She meant that she had to keep [the past] a secret and that it was shameful. And that nobody would remember how much her mother suffered and how much she suffered. And by telling the world, it changed it. Everyone knew. It wasn't a secret, and people felt compassion. They sympathized and even empathized by reading this story with what she had gone through and what her mother had gone through. Even though those stories were fiction.

My mother was such an open person, I think almost with a naiveté, and I must have inherited part of that. I often have people tell me after I talk, "You were so brave to say that." And I think, "What was I so brave to say?" Or I'll mention something and they'll say, "Oh, I would never say that in public."

GR: Sometimes just telling the truth about your past can be a very brave act.

AT: Everything that I said about my mother were things that I could say to her to her face. Now here's something different—she was also very open in talking about her sex life! Not so explicitly. She would talk about what this guy tried to do in bed, and other women in the bed, and he made her stand there, he had a gun to her head, or she pretended she had diarrhea so she wouldn't have to sleep with the guy. All these funny things. She was dating a guy when she was in her seventies, and she said, "He touched my skin. He said, 'Very soft, just like a young girl's.'" And I thought, "I do not want to hear this from my own mother!" Or she would talk about, "Oh, so sad about your brother. Your daddy and I couldn't have sex for one month." Or whatever. And I thought, "I don't want to hear about my parents having sex ever!" I don't care how old I am or how open we are, I just don't want to hear that. So that was a leap in this book, because that's one thing I would never talk about in public. I would never talk about my sex life, or if my husband thought my skin was soft, or anything like that. And I had to write these sex scenes, because at one point I hadn't written any, and my outside editor, my freelance editor, Molly, said, "This takes place in a courtesan house; you have to write some sex scenes." And I was so afraid that people would think they were mine, from life.

GR: But why would it be bad for people to think you have a great sex life?

AT: Well, I don't think all of it was great [laughs]. The other thing is, I didn't want people to imagine that it was me. There's something very creepy about that. You're standing there and people might think that that was the author. And I was also afraid of writing terrible sex scenes. I said to my editor at Ecco, Dan Halpern, who's an amazing editor, I said, "Dan, do not let me write a corny sex scene." He said, "I think I'm a pretty good judge of sex scenes. After all, right now I'm editing Naomi Wolff's Vagina."

GR: Did you know much about the courtesan world when you began?

AT: I would have thought that it was a terrible thing to write about because it was a cliche, that it was erotica, that it was "oriental," but I became obsessed by it because I found photographs of my grandmother that suggested that she had been a courtesan. And it was shocking because we had family tales where she was an icon, she was mythic. Everybody said she was old-fashioned, she was quiet, she was traditional, she stayed at home. You look at the pictures, and no way could you ever say that she was old-fashioned, traditional, or stayed at home. And I started doing more research and finding contradictions in what relatives said in Shanghai, here, Beijing, depending on whom the relationship had been with. To my uncle, who really didn't live with her as a young boy but would go home and visit her, she was a paragon of virtue. My mother, who did live with her, before and after she was with this rich man, had a different picture of a woman who complained how boring it was to be in Shanghai, who would pass the opium pipe to her mother and then to the man.

GR: What was your immediate reaction to the photographs? Shock?

AT: Well, I was shocked, and then I was trying to imagine, "How would she have been? Why would that have happened? How did she feel?" One thing that made me happy was that I knew she wasn't this old-fashioned, quiet woman. It was shock and a kind of gladness. It was a gladness that she hadn't been this passive, quiet, lifeless woman.

GR: You said you didn't want to write about courtesans because it felt "oriental." There are people out there whose entire idea of Chinese culture is based on your books. Do you feel a sense of responsibility?

AT: To some degree I have to think about people's perceptions. On the other hand, I am not writing for the enlightenment of people. There are some people who believe that you are teaching lessons. I am not teaching a lesson. I am learning something myself. I had some people in the past who criticized me for having mothers who spoke broken English. I think it's more of a myth to have people believe that people from another country who came here as adults would have perfect English. I could not create the role model that people wanted these characters to have. So I wrestled with that early on when my books were published, thinking, "Oh, I've reinforced some stereotype." And then I thought, "No, readers have their own intelligence."

GR: In this book you talk a lot about Chinese fate versus American destiny. Can you explain the difference?

AT: If I were to explain it without the story, I would say that those two terms are not understood by people very well. An American does not understand that Chinese fate is something that happens to you. And often you submit to it. It is a higher power, and you can do nothing about it. American destiny is based in part on circumstances, but theoretically you can choose your destiny. And you can enter a pathway that will lead you to your different destiny. One of those being education. So your destiny—you may have been born poor and among people who didn't have a college education, but that's not your fate.

With fate, at a certain time period in China, when you were dealt fate, when you're born to this kind of family, you couldn't choose. So here you have Violet, and she's somebody who's been raised both ways. The idea you can use Yankee ingenuity, and you can get your way out of anything. But now she's cast in a world where, no, that doesn't work. [Her lover] was born to a Chinese family, and this is his fate. You can't alter that he is Chinese and that he has this family. And she doesn't understand that. So I would say it has a lot to do with choice. It has a lot to do with belief of how much you can change your circumstances. So you can have one or the other.

GR: You were in your mid-thirties when you began writing seriously. What changed?

AT: I made a goal, a really modest goal, that I would be published by the time I was 70 in a little magazine, a good little magazine like Grand Street, and so that was a serious goal. And it was not an impossible goal. I think a lot of people get discouraged because they say, "I'm going to start writing fiction, and I'll be published in a year, and then every single problem will be solved." I was happy in life anyway, so I didn't need writing to solve anything. I wanted the writing because it was deepening.

GR: Deepening in what way?

AT: Well, in learning what you know about the world and yourself. In knowing what you believe and how you see yourself. It's self-identity more than anything. I think about George Orwell's [essay] "Why I Write," and the very first [reason] is something like "egotism" or "self-interest." And that's fine. I think many of us do that. Playing with words, but also wanting to know more how we think, how these characters will play out with our instincts and our intuitions and what we believe about human nature. Those beliefs are a part of self-identity. I felt that could be a reason to write. That alone.

GR: Did you always think a lot about human nature and self-identity, even before you became a writer?

AT: I did in ways that I wouldn't have identified. One very long period was related to a job I had shortly after a friend was murdered. The job was as a language development consultant. I worked with programs serving children from birth to five who had developmental disabilities. It involved being with parents when they first learned their children had something that would not mean they would be perfect in the way their parents dreamed they would be. And that shock reverberated with those families over and over and over again: When they finally realized the child would not speak perfectly. Or the child would not speak at all.

Those were the parents I was dealing with. And I often cried with them. And I would say, "Well, let's look at what interests him and what he wants to communicate about." So it could be that even if a child was profoundly retarded, all children communicated something—it was always looking at these qualities of love, loss, hope, and that I think was, as much as anything, lessons in human nature.

The other periods, very sad periods—my brother dying, my father dying, my friend being murdered, and then my mother getting sick, my editor, in later years, becoming ill, and then both of them dying—I think periods of grief and loss and love are those periods when we're forced to think about [human nature]. And the notion of self-identity changes over time. It's one of the themes I think that goes back into my writing, and people don't realize it. They think I'm writing about a subject. Like America.

GR:Goodreads member Frances, asks, "How would you say your voice has evolved over the course of your career?"

AT: That is an interesting question. It necessarily has changed because of the way I think of voice…[as] a kind of guide to how you see life. I have many more questions than I had when I was 35. My world that I was exploring was different. So in some ways it's similar, but I would say that my abilities to observe and to have refinements of questions has changed. I hope that my voice is not more cynical. My voice in the first book probably contained a bit of naiveté. And I remember that I was certainly naive about publishing. The voice was not as self-conscious. [Now] I do think about what people are possibly going to react to, and that's not good because I can end up altering what I have to say, and then I have to go back…and strip that away. So it's multiple things. It has to do with my being the guide to the universe.

GR: The universe of the book?

AT: Yes. I don't know whether many people have had this feeling in childhood that you created this world that you're looking at. And everything through your eyes is the same as your imagination, the same as your existence, that imagination is existence. And that if you did not exist, this world would not exist.

I have a fascination now with the natural world, and I see parallels in the natural world with human beings. So I've been doing things—I have friends who are marine biologists or biologists, and we go to different places in the world that I never would have gone to otherwise. So, for example, two days ago I was with a marine biologist in Tahoe. I am somebody who would never swim in cold water, okay. Swimming pool, if it's not 110, I'm not going in. [Yet] I put on a wet suit with this person, and fins, and it's the spawning season of the salmon up at Taylor Creek, near South Shore. There's this wall of million-colored swimming salmon around me, and I am just in another world.

That's what I want to do when I'm writing fiction. I want to dive into those areas I've never been, and see it. Try to describe it. And the only way you can describe something is through a story. If I just said to you, "I saw a bunch of salmon spawning, this is what they look like: They're red." But if I tell you what I did, this whole thing about what it meant to me getting into cold water and doing this and jumping in. The murkiness of water suddenly clearing and seeing this wall of salmon around me, and my feeling about that and what it means, the association of that to something else in my life, something that has died but is beautiful…that's what I do as a writer. That's my voice. And I realize what voice is and what story is more over time than I did when I first started.

GR: One more member question. Maryann says, "I would love to know what makes Ms. Tan laugh."

AT: Just about everything. There are different kinds of laughter, I realize. And I say that because I have a reaction physically of an unexpected happiness that makes me laugh, and then I realize what it's about, about a fraction of a second later. And that is—there's some quirk in my body, and it probably has to do with seizure medication I take, which makes me a little too happy. Now happiness I realize is in part neurological and then a physical response. There's perceptive brain—all of this stuff happening in a physical response. And what happens is, I feel this tickle—it really tickles! Like a muscle. And then I realize what it is that makes me…it's my dog doing something funny, and then I laugh and I feel I know what it is. So it's unexpected joy that makes me laugh. OK, so that's one kind.

Another, of course, is slapstick. Or something that looks different from what it is supposed to look like. Something odd. If right there, instead of plants, it was clouds running by there, I would be amazed, but I would start laughing. Because something's been upturned. I laughed when I was watching the salmon, but I couldn't laugh out loud because I was snorkeling. There are these creatures that come up to you, and then they just back away and you just have to laugh. So that's it. I would say overall it's the unexpected. It's cuteness. It is what makes you feel good in your heart that is unexpected. The best example is the little dog doing something that you don't expect at that moment.

GR: What are you reading right now?

AT: I'm reading this book, this little fable-like book, and it's called Weights and Measures. It's by Joseph Roth. It was written in probably around 1930. The language is so simple, and it makes me wonder how he does it, in the way that the language is simple, seemingly simple, in Kafka. Or seemingly simple in Jamaica Kinkaid. And it immediately, in these sentences, conjures up everything about that world. It's a very short book.

GR:Which books have been an influence on you?

AT: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel, and Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. And books about medical anomalies.

GR: Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AT: I used to have these rituals, and I realize this is really a sad thing, that it's been replaced by email. The bad thing is that it fills my mind as opposed to clearing it for writing. And I realize now that what I should do is get rid of that ritual. What I do have is I have pictures of what inspires me when I'm writing the story. When I was in the throes of writing, and there's always a desperation, of needing to get to the kernel of something or past a little whirlpool that's sucking me in. I would look at these pictures of my grandmother, in this last book, or my mother, and that would focus me back into what the story was about. And I put music on. The music for this last book, I would wear earphones, in fact, because it blocks everything out. The music for this book was from the soundtrack of Lust, Caution, the Ang Li movie. There's some beautiful songs in there that are mournful but beautiful, and so for different parts I would put that on to keep myself in the mood.

Oscar Hijuelos died yesterday, and he was a good friend, and I was recalling what Oscar said to me as ritual for writing in a book of his. He said, "No email, no TV, no sex, until you write ten pages." When he was having a problem finishing a book, I said, "Are you following that advice? No email, no, you know...." And he said, "I can't believe I wrote that."

Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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message 1: by Bobby (new)

Bobby Hutchinson Amy Tan, my hero. Such an inspiration, putting into words what most of us sense but can't verbalize.

message 2: by Ann (new)

Ann  Lynch Cannot wait to pick up this book! I love Amy Tan and can't wait to read this book. This will be a hard copy instead of downloading it on my Kindle.

message 4: by Mari (new)

Mari Olsen On my book club recommendation list for next year! Amy Tan makes the exotic familiar, universal.

message 5: by Nicolette (new)

Nicolette She has always been one of my favorite writers, and while I am still working on some of her older novels, I also might have to pick up a hard copy of this. She's so frank about her writing, too.

message 6: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Keenan I can't wait to get the book. Amy Tan is one of my favorite authors.


message 7: by Peggy (last edited Nov 08, 2013 02:04PM) (new)

Peggy Tan I have loved every Amy Tan book I have read and can hardly wait for this one. I am an American caucasian married for 48 years to a Chinese Filipino. Ms. Tan's books have helped me understand the culture, my in-laws, and my husband. I have tried to pass on what I have learned to my children, too.

message 8: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Amy isan amazing writer. One of my all time favorites. Need more movies of her books.

message 9: by Judy (new)

Judy Tyrer Immersed in this book at the moment. A wonderful read.

message 10: by Suresh (new)

Suresh Good reading ,satisfied.

message 11: by Hemant (new)

Hemant Words ! Words ! Words !

message 12: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Read This is not her best work. The writing is beautiful but the story is only fair. She does best with complicated stories and I found the main characters a little flat. I didn't love or hate or feel much any of then.The story is long and readable but didn't stir me. Also the backdrop to the world during WW1 and turmoil in China during 20s is not woven into story. The issues with Japan are not made important and they really mattered. This could have been great history fiction instead of a simple unsophisticated story of women betrayed. We all know women were nobodies. I have 100 pages to go and only now is character development explained.

message 13: by Pam (new)

Pam I am reading Saving fish from Drowning. Excellent.

message 14: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Read Saving Fish also was not her best work but bettrr than her new book

message 15: by ليلى (new)

ليلى actually i feel pleasure to read about themes of identity and how to probe in the past and the present , such novels are taking its interest in reading . i want to read a copy of that book

message 16: by Pam (new)

Pam I've also read, and enjoyed, The Bonesetter's Daughter.

message 17: by Diane (new)

Diane Roemke i have never read Her books but they are the type I am interested in so I will download on my kindle and see for myself. I feel I will really enjoy Her writing.

message 18: by Simone (new)

Simone I am half way through Valley of Amazement. The beginning was a little similar to her other books (mother/daughter angst), but that quickly turned into independent stories of the two women and the book is now a page-turner, am enjoying it thoroughly. Amy Tan is an unbelievably good author, just amazing herself. Thank you Ms Tan for never disappointing!

message 19: by Mrdaniel (new)

Mrdaniel cant wait 2 read d book

message 20: by April (new)

April robinson new book alert !!! cant wait to get this !!

message 21: by Gwenda (new)

Gwenda Bellion This was a great interview!

message 22: by Aqdas (new)

Aqdas Ali okey. I am neither American nor Chinees but working on different cultures and customs. was pleased to learn know the boldness of the writer she rewritten her past.Many things are yet to be unveiled. Amazing and facinating.

message 23: by Aqdas (new)

Aqdas Ali okey. I am neither American nor Chinees but working on different cultures and customs. was pleased to learn know the boldness of the writer she rewritten her past.Many things are yet to be unveiled. Amazing and facinating.

message 24: by Sue (new)

Sue I loved this book. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Amy Tan. The characters she depicts in her new book, just fly off the pages! I was totally immersed in the story, and didn't want it to end.

This is Amy Tan at her best.

message 25: by Shaunaly (new)

Shaunaly Higgins Great interview! Looking forward to reading her new book.

message 26: by Cut Siti Sarah (new)

Cut Siti Sarah Cut Siti Sarah My favorite writer and my hero as well, she could captured Asian character precisely.
It's just like reading about my grandmothers, aunts and uncles...
I've read all of her books including 'The Valley of Amazement'.
Amy Tan you rock....

message 27: by Terri (new)

Terri Definitely a must read!!! Thank to the moderators for setting up this interview, this is GREAT!

message 28: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Culshaw I don't think this book is as good as her others. She is at her best when writing about her relationship with her mother.

message 29: by Timothy (new)

Timothy I always love your book! Especially very connected and bond between mom and daughter, even after daughter turns to mom and still reminisce of her mom of what she had passed onto her to teach the next generation daughter. Looking forward to your new book!

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