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If you like Amy Tan's story, you might also like:
Rita Dove,
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
Dorothy Hamill,
Khaled Hosseini,
Maya Lin,
Frank McCourt,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Carol Shields
and John Updike

Amy Tan's recommended reading: The Catcher in the Rye

Amy Tan also appears in the videos:
Changing Lanes,
The Power of Words

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Amy Tan in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Power of Words

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Amy Tan
Amy Tan
Profile of Amy Tan Biography of Amy Tan Interview with Amy Tan Amy Tan Photo Gallery

Amy Tan Interview

Best-Selling Novelist

June 28, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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  Amy Tan

Did you know what you wanted to do with your life or did it just happen?

Amy Tan: I was told what I was supposed to do when I was growing up, so I don't think I ever had a chance to think about what I really wanted to do. Deep down, I wanted to be an artist but I knew you couldn't make any money being an artist. That was just play. My parents told me I would become a doctor and then in my spare time I would become a concert pianist. So, both my day job and my spare time were sort of taken care of. It terrified me when I got to wondering if that was something I really could do. I wasn't that good a pianist and I didn't know if I really wanted to help people who were sick and had diseases. I didn't know if that was really in me, let alone if I could pass a science course.

When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Was there a defining moment?

Amy Tan: I did some writing in class when I was young just as everybody did. I had to write little essays and things like that.

I wrote an essay called "What the Library Means to Me" when I was eight years old. It was very simple. It said things like "My name is Amy Tan. I'm a third grader at Matanzas School." And then I did what my father always did. He was a minister. I tried to be very sincere, sort of go for the emotion, you know, about how the library is a friend. And this really all was very sincere, but at the end (this is why I think I won this essay contest), I made a pitch for money which, of course, is what ministers do at the end of their talks. And I said how I had given (I think it was) 17 cents, which was my entire life savings at age eight, to the Citizens for Santa Rosa Library, and that I hoped that others would do the same. And so they decided to give me the award. They published my little essay and they gave me a transistor radio and, at that moment, there was a little gleam in mind that maybe writing could be lucrative.

I kind of forgot about that later. My parents said, "You're going to be a doctor." It wasn't until I was 33 years old that I started writing fiction.

That raises a lot of questions. How do you deal with parental expectations?

Amy Tan: Boy, that is such a tough one. I look back as an adult now, and I say, "They only wanted the best for you." But at the same time I try to remember. This is what I try to do as a writer, I try to remember what those emotions were like when I was younger. They just didn't understand. They didn't know who I really was. They didn't know how much the smallest amount of recognition would have meant to me and how the smallest amount of criticism could undo me.

My parents had very high expectations. They expected me to get straight A's from the time I was in kindergarten. I remember, I was in kindergarten and there was a little girl who I didn't think was a very good artist. I thought I did a very careful house, you know, with the chimney, and the windows, and the trees, and she was more of an abstract artist. Hers was very loose, and I didn't think it was very good but they decided to pin hers up in the Principal's office. So that was like getting the "A." My mother wanted to know. Why wasn't my picture in that window? I was very wounded and frightened. You know? Why wasn't it in the window? I remember feeling that pressure from the time I was 5 years old.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

My mother had a very difficult childhood, having seen her own mother kill herself. So she didn't always know how to be the nurturing mother that we all expect we should have.

I remember once one of my playmates from around the corner died, probably of leukemia. My mother took me to this funeral and took me up to see Rachel. And I saw Rachel's hands clasped over her chest, and her face was bloodless, and her hands were flat, and I was scared, because this was the little girl I used to play with. My mother leaned over to me and she said, "This is what happens when you don't listen to your mother."

Talk about pressure. Here was a little girl who didn't listen to her mother. According to my mother, she should have washed her fruit and she didn't. It turns out my mother might have been right. Pesticides might have led to leukemia and killed this little girl. My mother had this theory back in the 1950s. That's what she really meant. She had been raised in an atmosphere of fear, that fear was the way to control children for their own good. That's what I grew up with.

Amy Tan Interview Photo
Now, growing up in an American culture, of course, I also had other models. I had playmates with parents who thought, "Hey, they got a "C," who cares? That was great, Billy. Here's money. Go get a candy bar." If I came home with one "B," I didn't get anything. I got scolded for that one "B."

So I grew up thinking that I would never, ever please my parents. That is a difficult thing to grow up with. High-achieving kids go through some aspect of that, whether it comes from their parents or their teachers or themselves. It's an implied sense of their worth being determined by others. It's a horrible feeling, especially when you experience what you think is your first failure and you think your life is over. No more chances.

If you blew it -- you got a "D" on something because you stayed up all night or you weren't feeling well and you took the test and you got a "D" -- that was it. My mother actually believes that my older brother's life was devastated by something similar to that.

He was a straight "A" student, brilliant, was going to graduate at age 16. And a friend asked if he could look at his paper, some English paper. He had written a paper on The Loved One or something like that. This friend copied his essay word-for-word and the teacher failed both of them, not just for the paper but for the semester, as though he was going to teach them a lesson. I thought the lesson he taught my brother was a total disillusionment about the consequences that are meted out in life. I suppose if my brother had become older it would have transmogrified into something different and made it a strength in his life, a turning point. He despaired, and he went into depression and he began to sleep a lot. A few months later, he began to have headaches and a few weeks later he began to have convulsions and a few weeks after that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My mother believes, to this day, that that incident in his life caused his illness.

Now, I don't think that necessarily is the case but I think these failures can have a profound affect on us. Oftentimes parents or teachers don't realize how these very things that seem little -- a little praise, a little criticism, a little failure -- can create such enormous turmoil in a young person's life.

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This page last revised on Jan 16, 2008 16:17 EDT
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