An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Ms. Amy Tan, in two parts.
Columnist Anna Roins
The Valley of Amazement
by Amy Tan
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New York Times bestselling author Amy Tan, revisits the compelling themes of The Joy Luck Club in her latest release, and maps out three generations of mothers and daughters sweeping over fifty years and two continents. The women are connected by passion, betrayal and a mysterious painting known as, ‘The Valley of Amazement.’ Suffused with Tan’s graceful insight and depth, the story canvasses nineteenth-century San Francisco, the elegant parlours of Shanghai courtesans and culminates to a fog-shrouded Chinese village. The Valley of Amazement is sumptuous and gripping.
|“Inability to write coherently led to fears that my brain was losing whatever had once enabled me to write.”|
AUTHORLINK: What was the hardest thing about writing The Valley of Amazement? What was the easiest?
TAN: I had major distractions during the entire eight years. For one thing, I built a new all-accessible house from the ground up. I also raised funds for an opera and wrote the libretto. Those are not conditions for keeping track of a novel you are writing. The narrative was going in circles. Inability to write coherently led to fears that my brain was losing whatever had once enabled me to write. Uncertainty fed upon itself and created an inability to move forward. But then, I discovered the photograph of the Ten Beauties of Shanghai and I was promptly set on a new course. That did not immediately lead to effortless writing, but it did give my novel a new sense of purpose, and that was to discover who my grandmother was and how her life influenced me.
The easiest part of writing the novel was the research. But that’s like eating candy. I cannot get enough of it. It quickly becomes excessive, however, and then it is hard to quit. Of all the voices in the novel, Magic Gourd’s was the easiest to write. I understand her intuitively. I know her intentions. I have had a voice similar to hers in The Hundred Secret Senses, a woman named Kwan. She is thoroughly honest, without guile—or, if she has any pretensions, it is meant to be transparent. She has suffered greatly, but she is not mired in pain and regret. She speaks of unpleasant realities in a matter-of-fact tone, and her practical advice is often hilarious.
AUTHORLINK: Magic Gourd felt like a relative by the end of the book. This excerpt from your short story, Mother Tongue (1991), is remarkable given your wildly successful career in English literature. “But I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child. And I believe that it affected my results in achievement tests, I.Q. tests, and the SAT. While my English skills were never judged as poor, compared to math, English could not be considered my strong suit.” Despite your impressive education and how beautifully you write, do you ever have any bouts of insecurity about how you express yourself?
|“. . . at times, I do feel insecure about what I say and write. I have different expectations of what I should have learned by now. . .”|
TAN: I don’t think my education is impressive at all, except for the fact that I went through seven years of education owing a total of two-hundred-and fifty dollars at the end of it. And yes, at times, I do feel insecure about what I say and write. I have different expectations of what I should have learned by now that would have enabled me to think more deeply and widely about important subjects. At times, I think I lack seriousness of purpose. I often feel I sound inarticulate. My thoughts are much clearer in a written form and with revised sentences. At times, I am conscious of the fact that I am far less knowledgeable about literature than others. I cannot quote from Shakespeare. I cannot even quote from my own work. Those insecurities were more frequent when I was younger. They crop up from time to time. But I’ve reached an age when I can say to myself, “Who cares? This is who I am.”
I think my insecurities are normal. It’s the consciousness of a writer whose work is public, who is asked in the media to answer questions on the spot.
AUTHORLINK: What do you think makes a good story? And why do you think that some well-written books just don’t sell?
TAN: I’ve served as the literary editor of a magazine, which required me to select stories to be published each week. I was also the guest editor for Best American Short Stories, an anthology of twenty stories out of over two thousand that were published the year prior. And I’ve judged a few fiction contests. So I am aware of what I like from the start, and that is a distinctive voice. The voice should be apparent within the first page, and sometimes even the first sentence. The qualities of voice I am talking about are not about vernacular and mannerisms. It should not be overly clever or wacky. But it must be intriguing, interesting, and have its own intelligence. The voice conveys intuitions, particular knowledge, and perspective of a unique life. It is interested in human nature, even though it may be wrong in its assessment. The perspective is often an evolving one. Only that voice can tell the story about to unfold. It is our guide to a new universe and I am going to see and feel something both new and familiar.
Often I choose books based on the recommendations of friends whose reading choices are similar to mine. But in choosing books or stories blind, I would liken the process to choosing who to listen to at a party. It would not be a pedant who is trying to impress others. Nor would I have patience with the overly clever and self-consciously funny one, nor the weary one who knows why human nature is hopelessly flawed and how it can be fixed. I seek someone I would want to listen to for hours into the night.
|“I too often wonder why certain books have not sold as well as they should. “|
I too often wonder why certain books have not sold as well as they should. With some, it might be because the readers don’t want to read stories set in a different culture, country, or time. I have heard readers say they want to read books set only in the United States. So cultural difference may be a factor, although these days the barriers are not as high as they once were. And there are notable exceptions: novels by Khaled Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri, and to some extent, those by Daniel Alarcon and Junot Diaz. It may take literary prizes for an author’s work to be noticed. I think that was true of work by Aleksander Hemon and Yiyun Li, both of whom won MacArthur prizes, as well as James McBride, who won the National Book Award.
But what about those books that are well-written, which have American settings and have not been singled out for prizes? Their authors are unknown and they may be with small publishers without the resources to strongly promote them. They depend on some bit of luck – say, world news that makes the “subject” of the book topical. But as is, the book is lost in a sea of new books, including those that are published only in eBook formats.
The well-written books that I think are most in danger of perishing largely unsold and unread are those by midlist authors. They have none of the advantage of being hailed as a bright new writer. Their new work is often compared to their first book. The reviewers may be less generous than they would be to a new writer. Or they may not be reviewed at all, given the dearth of space given to reviews these days.
And there is also bad luck with timing. I feel incredibly sorry for those authors whose books debuted on September 11, 2001.
AUTHORLINK: Do you feel it’s fair to be placed in the position of role model for Chinese/American authors, when you are really just writing for you? You say in an entry in your blog dated, 14 May 2014 that, “And while the details and characters were fictional, the mess was very real, and that was what I would recognize as the real truth that had nothing to do with facts. It had to do with me.” And as an extension of this, do you hope Frank Chin, author and playwright, who has been critical of stereotypes of Asian Americans and traditional folklore, might finally see how reality and stereotypes can actually co-exist separately with The Valley of Amazement?
|“. . .the criticisms also helped me understand the reasons I write.”|
TAN: When I was first published, being seen as a role model bothered me a great deal. I thought it was dangerous to view literature as serving a social or cultural purpose – a politically correct one. It made me uncomfortable when people ascribed too much to what I wrote as representative of a larger population, when clearly it was much more based on family history. But the criticisms also helped me understand the reasons I write. These days, I know there will always be people who praise me for having intentions more noble than are true. And there will be others who say I am writing about the old stereotypes – a grandmother who is a concubine, a mother who is misunderstood because her English is imperfect. None of this has to do with fairness. It is simply what readers want to get out of a book. Who am I to argue with what they find valuable? I’m just grateful that they paid good money for the book and invested many hours reading it. If they liked it and found it relevant, that’s lagniappe for me.
And yes, Frank Chin has been one of my most strident critics. In those early days I was shocked by his hysterical invectives. I was tempted to answer him. But I quickly learned that he lambasted every Chinese American novelist and playwright who had the spotlight. His condemnation was always the same. I was curious to know what he thought was authentic, so I read one of his books. There were characters who worked on the railroads. That could certainly be someone’s idea of a stereotype. There were also rather crude descriptions of a grandmother’s private parts. Definitely not a stereotype. Do I hope that Frank Chin will understand my intentions? I don’t see that ever happening, nor would I want to engage in a discussion to change his viewpoint. What he believes is who he is.
AUTHORLINK: How is your day structured between researching, writing and editing? What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
|“However, I am working on a non-fiction book and it is about writing. It is called The Mind of the Writer.”|
TAN: I have not been able to work on my new novel except to jot down ideas in a journal. I have learned my lesson: I should not write a novel when distracted by something else in a major way. This past year has been consumed by book tours and publicity. It will continue until November. I cannot concentrate on a new narrative while talking about an old one. However, I am working on a non-fiction book and it is about writing. It is called The Mind of the Writer and concerns some of the ideas I’ve talked about here. Why I write.
Even when I have few distractions, my writing process is rather disorganized. I have no regularity in my day. I often go to bed at 4 a.m. But there are some generalities. I have a basic outline of the story, which could be summarized in a paragraph. I have an image of some part of the story, which includes an unsure sense of things. I know the shadowy outlines of my characters, as well as time and place. I have questions that relate to the story, ones about human nature and morals. And as I write, I will find myself in places and situations that require more research. I continue to jot down notes in my journal. A great deal of what I write will be excised later. I revise whatever pages I have already written whenever I open that file. That’s not an efficient way to write. It gives me the illusion I am making progress when I am actually spinning my wheels. I will do several major rewrites before I have a draft I can show my editor. Having written numerous books, I know now that when I have finished writing the end, the first chapter will need to be cut and a new one put in its place. So why do I still spend so much time polishing that first chapter? Why don’t I remember that it is only there as an anchor in the beginning?
Much of the research is done before I begin. But because the story goes in different directions as I write, I must continue to do research. Most of it won’t appear in the novel. But it is essential that I have a good understanding of, say, a particular geography, if that is part of a story and its narrative. I want enough knowledge to enable me to write as if I have intuitions based on a lifetime of experiences.
My most interesting writing quirk? When I write scenes, I listen to a particular cut from a soundtrack. Music for film is intended to be played in the background and reflect mood, so it is a wonderful way to remain in the emotions of a scene. When I return to writing the scene the next day, the music transports me quickly to that imaginative place and what is going on. In a way, it works like hypnosis. My favorite composers of soundtracks Include Ennio Morricone, Alexandre Desplat, Rachel Portman, Philip Glass, and Danny Elfman. I also love listening to certain pieces by Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams.
AUTHORLINK: That is so fascinating, thank you for sharing that. You once said, “I was so excited by what I was learning about myself that I decided it didn’t really matter whether I ever got published – this, in itself, was worth it.” Do you think it’s a mistake for new writers to try and find the latest formula or genre, to try and sell a book? Is it more important to write from the heart than from the head? Can it ever be both?
|“What has persisted, however, is a daily consciousness of death – not a fear, but an awareness . . . “|
TAN: It’s a mistake for several reasons. First of all, if you’re doing it to get published, you should realize that publishers don’t want imitations of successful books when they already have the real deal. And second, you should want to find your own voice and have people love your writing for who you are. If it takes a while to get published, you’ll still find the effort was worth it because you were discovering what is original, what is purely you. It’s important to know the difference between genre and formula, influence and imitation. Most of the writers I know don’t write according to genre. They simply write the story they want to tell.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Tan, we wish you every continued success for The Valley of Amazement and any future novels you want to write. It’s been a real privilege and a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for your time once again.
End of PART TWO and interview
|About the Author:|
Amy Tan is an American writer whose works explore mother-daughter relationships and what it means to grow up as a first generation Asian American. In 1993, Tan’s adaptation of her most popular fiction work, The Joy Luck Club, became a commercially successful film of which she was also a co-producer and co-screen writer.
She has written several other books, including The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and a collection of non-fiction essays entitled The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings. In addition, Tan has written two children’s books: The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), which was turned into an animated series airing on PBS. Her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York. She was the literary editor for the Los Angeles Times’ West magazine.
If you would like to learn more about Amy Tan, please see her website at the following link: https://www.amytan.net/
|About Anna Roins:|
Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked on a career in writing six years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with bestselling authors. You can find out more about Anna Roins on https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins and https://twitter.com/Sophiabluestar