Were it not for coming across a couple of photos of her grandmother, Amy Tan’s readers would be treated to a tale about a mother and daughter banished from home after a fire.
Instead, Tan abandoned that novel – as she has many stories over the last quarter-century of writing – and delved into the mystery of her grandmother’s images.
“There’s so much in my life I didn't realize had been affected by the history of my grandmother, and my mother,” said Tan. “You know, we don't start off necessarily as just a blank slate. We have a particular mother and whatever her history is sometimes gets imprinted on us to some degree.”
Tan believed that her mother and grandmother not only served as her muses but her grandmother’s studio portrait and her uncanny resemblance to courtesans of that era, led her to write about the courtesan culture of early 20th century Shanghai in The Valley of Amazement, her first novel published in eight years.
“If my grandmother had been the quiet traditional woman, the long-suffering woman with a tragic past, that’s one thing,” said Tan. “If my grandmother, however, had been, say, a courtesan, as her clothes might have suggested, what had been her attitudes, her sense of survival that has come down through the ages to my mother and then to me? I think by placing myself in the character, I was examining what I believe and who I am and discovering who I am.”
As in her previous novels, especially The Joy Luck Club, the plot revolves around mother-daughter relationships. That novel became a film 20 years ago, with Tan as co-producer and co-screenwriter. Though The Joy Luck Club was a critical and box-office success, Tan said she has made a pledge not to get involved with movies anymore, even if The Valley of Amazement were to be adapted for the silver screen.
“It was a perfect experience, and I will never have that again, so why ruin that?” said Tan with a laugh. “We had total creative control. We had a wonderful director, a wonderful co-screenwriter. All the actors were amazing and kind and generous. But it took away from the writing. It took away from private time. And I'm more somebody who wants to be alone and at my desk.”
Tan began writing fiction professionally rather late in life for someone so well-known in the literary world. Though her mother had “demanded” Tan become a doctor and a concert pianist, Tan abandoned those plans not just because she didn’t have the requisite talent for the piano. She loved to write. But she had no role models as a writer. It was not until she was 33 that Tan transitioned from doing “what’s practical to make a living,” to figuring out “what we really want out of life.”
And her description of what would be a perfect life? “We felt enough. We loved enough. We were excited enough. We saw enough.”
For Tan, that goal was best reached by devoting herself fully to writing. She struck bestselling status with The Joy Luck Club, her very first published novel, a rare feat for any writer. But Tan believes the purpose of writing, first and foremost, is to write for yourself, “honestly, with a voice that is your own.”
She also stressed the importance of revising: “Do you realize how many times I revise my work? I would say a 100 times per page. Every time I open my file, I'm revising. And, even after I have the whole draft, I revise over and over again. So be patient about that. And enjoy the craft of it.”
But in writing and revising, Tan does not mean to be so singular as to close the world off: “Observing the world and asking a lot of questions is important.” And so is extensive reading, both as a model of great writing and for its inspiration. Tan cited authors Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, Jamaica Kincaid and Rabih Alameddine on her contemporary reading list. But she also turns to classics such as “Weights and Measures” by Joseph Roth, and even some non-fiction, especially about dog behavior, cognition and evolution: “Everybody who knows me says, ‘I want to come back as Amy Tan's dog.’ I am crazy about my dogs.”
And her all-time favorite book?
“One of them would be Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. It's about a community of Chippewa in North Dakota. And it's told by different generations, and you see the similarity here to The Joy Luck Club. So the more I read, the more I notice, the more I observe, the more I can put that into the work as part of my voice.”
Through most of her work, her writing explores the depths and complex dynamics of mother-daughter relationships, spanning generations. Yet, Tan and her husband decided not to have children of their own.
“You start asking yourself, ‘Do you want to have kids?’ and we discussed that. And I said, ‘You know, there are a number of things I want to do in my life.’ But with children, whether you worked or not, you have to be 24 hours available to that child. And we both agreed that, even though there might be this biological time clock everybody talks about, that we did not need to replicate our DNA pattern.”
Tan’s next novel is called The Memory of Desire, “a look at desire and who we think we are when we have things we want,” a theme that she said all her books share. Though her time is primarily spent writing, Tan has also built a home from the ground up in Marin County, Calif.; voiced her cameo in The Simpsons and even joined a literary garage band “The Rock Bottom Remainders,” comprised of authors such as Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver and Scott Turow.
“We got together and we played,” recalled Tan. “Badly. We ended up deciding to do a bus tour and write about it. And ever since then, we had been doing it, year after year, to raise money for literacy.”
The band played for two decades at booksellers’ conventions and on tour, and has raised about $2 million for charity. Its members even wrote about their experiences in the books Mid-Life Confidential and Hard Listening. The band is now officially retired.
“It was one of the scariest things we had ever done,” said Tan. “But we had so much fun at the same time. A scary and a fun thing is very addictive.”
ABC News' Luis A. Yordán contributed to this episode.