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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
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Amy Tan Interview (page: 4 / 7)

Best-Selling Novelist

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  Amy Tan

What advice do you have for kids of essentially bi-cultural parents, for American kids growing up in America with parents who were either born in another country or are themselves of the first generation in this country?

Amy Tan: I would say first, you are not alone. I thought I was and I didn't realize it until I wrote The Joy Luck Club. I had so many readers who said, "I feel as though you've written my life. That was how I felt."

Amy Tan Interview Photo
I thought, "Well, that's probably what happened to people who grew up in the '50s and '60s and it's probably not happening today because we have progressed beyond that in the United States." But, no. I have a lot of young people coming up to me and saying "That's how I felt. That's how I still feel. I don't get along with my mother and I'm the only kid in an all-white community. And, "I feel like I don't know if I'm Chinese." "Am I American? Am I Korean? What should I be? How should I feel about this?"

It's hard to believe, but this feeling changes over time. So many people feel this way. It's normal to feel conflicted. What you'll find ultimately is that this whole question of who you are is a very, very interesting question and having two cultures to add to the mix of it makes it even more interesting.

The strange thing is, if you ever have a chance to go back to the country of your parents or your ancestors, you'll find out, not how Chinese or Korean, or Indian you are, you'll find out how American you are. You'll find out how many American assumptions you have and it will give you a sense of perspective and humor about the whole idea that identity is what you create. It's not foisted upon you. You are presented with circumstances in life and those circumstances change very rapidly.

I said to myself when I was 17, "I'm not going to have anything to do with anything Chinese when I leave home. I'm going to be completely American." None of that Chinese torture or guilt ever again in my life. None of that responsibility crap, "You owe it to your family. You have to do this for your family." I was never going to speak to my mother again. She was disappointed in me? Well, I wasn't going to be around to disappoint her anymore.

So if you were to say to me when I was 17, "You know, one day you're going to write a book about Chinese people and about your relationship with you mother and how much you love your mother," and all this stuff, I would have said "You are crazy. You are absolutely crazy. There is no way I would ever do that." Those are the kinds of surprising changes that you can have in your life. Just be open to it and never let yourself despair that this is it. This is the way it's always going to be. I'm never going to get along with my parents, never going to feel accepted by the other kids, never going to make it because I'm going to be held back with this enormous burden of -- something or other -- pressure, not being good enough. God, life changes faster than you think.

How did you finally get started writing fiction?

Amy Tan: I actually started doing some other kinds of writing before I wrote the fiction.

I was writing for businesses. I think my mother was a little skeptical in the beginning, but fortunately, as a free-lance writer I was successful almost immediately. And so she was very proud, because she measured success in terms of money, which is what I started to do as well. My goal then, became to increase the amount of money that I made each month. Not simply each year, but each month -- I mean, talk about pressure -- to have more billable hours each month. So that by the end of my third year of being a free-lance writer, I was billing 90 hours a week. I had no time to sleep. I had no life. People said I was crazy, that I was a workaholic. And I couldn't understand how it was that I had these wonderful clients, and I was making all this money, and I wasn't happy and I didn't feel successful. That's when I started to write fiction.

It didn't matter to my mother that I was writing fiction, because I still had the job. I made it a goal however, to cut back and work only 50 billable hours a week. No one in my family was a reader of literary fiction. So, I didn't have encouragement, but I didn't have discouragement, because I don't think anybody knew what that meant.

Was there anyone who gave you a first big break? How did you get started in your career?

Amy Tan: I would say that half of it was adversity. It was people discouraging me that got me into writing.

I had a partner, a business partner, who ended up cheating me, as a matter of fact. We had signed some papers to have this business together and I worked many long hours and one day we had a disagreement and I said I wanted to do more writing and he said that my strength was in project management. That was like taking care of clients, doing estimates, going after contractors and collecting bills. Horrible stuff. I'm not good at that. I hate that kind of thing. He said, "That's your strength. Writing is your weakest skill." I thought, I can either believe him and just keep doing this... I disagreed with him a little bit more forcefully and I said that I get to decide too, because I'm a partner in this. He said, "No you're not," and I said, "What do you mean no, I'm not?" and he said "I never signed the papers." At that point I said I was quitting and he said "You can't quit. I'm firing you." I said, "Go ahead. Fire me." You know, this is my adversity, this is a low point in my life. He said, "So what do you think you're going to do?" I said "I'm going to freelance write." He said, "Oh, fat chance. You'll be lucky if you make a dime."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

With that sendoff into the world, I was determined to make it as a writer. I worked day and night trying to build my business, writing a business plan and thinking of how I could do this. So in that sense, it was adversity that made me force myself to be successful in that kind of business writing.

Amy Tan Interview Photo
As for the other writing, fiction writing, there are so many people. In part, I would say it's people I don't even know. Sometimes I think it's the ghost of my grandmother, the spirit of my grandmother. She never had a life of her own. She never had choices of her own. She was raped and forced to become a concubine. She killed herself because she had no other way to escape. She had no choice in the kind of life she was given because she could not make her own living. I think she said, "You have this choice and you can change the past. You can do all these things."

At the time I was doing business writing, I also had a friend who introduced me to a fiction writer. My friend said that I could meet this woman and tell her how to make some real money. Instead, I said to the woman that I had been thinking of doing some fiction writing myself. "If I wrote something, would you read it?" I recall this now, laughing, because it's the question I hate hearing the most. Oh, my God, here is somebody who is just starting out and it's going to be dreadful. You're going to have to encourage them and try to help them and still be truthful. She was wonderful. She read my stuff and she was very gentle and also very encouraging. So I kept writing.

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