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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: 5 / 7)

Best-Selling Novelist

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  Amy Tan

What turned you to fiction? What's the genesis of The Joy Luck Club?

Amy Tan: I wanted to write stories for myself. At first it was purely an aesthetic thing about craft. I just wanted to become good at the art of something. And writing was very private. I also thought of playing improvisational jazz and I did take lessons for a while. At first I tried to write fiction by making up things that were completely alien to my life. I wrote about a girl whose parents were educated, were professors at MIT. There was no Joy Luck Club, it was the country club. I tried to copy somebody's style that I thought was very clever. I thought I was clever enough to write as well as these people and I didn't realize that there is something called originality and your own voice.

One day, after being told one of these stories didn't work, I thought, "I'm just going to stop showing my work to people, and I'm just going to write a story. Make it fictional, but they'll be Chinese-American." What amazed me was: I wrote about a girl who plays chess and her mother is both her worst adversary and her best ally. I didn't play chess, so I figured that counted for fiction, but I made her Chinese-American, which made me a little uncomfortable. By the end of this story I was practically crying. Because I realized that -- although it was fiction and none of that had ever happened to me in that story -- it was the closest thing of describing my life. Of the feelings that I had, of these things that my mother had taught me that were inexplicable or had no name. This invisible force that she taught me, this rebellion that I had. And then feeling that I had lost some power, lost her approval and then lost what had made me special. It was a magic turning point for me. I realized that was the reason for writing fiction. Through that, this subversion of myself, of creating something that never happened, I came closer to the truth. So, to me, fiction became a process of discovering what was true, for me. Only for me.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I went to a writer's workshop. I met a wonderful writer there named Molly Giles. She looked at my work and said, "Where's the voice? Where's the story? There's so many things that are happening that are not working, but there's a possible beginning. If I were you, I would start over again and take each one of these and make that your story. You don't have one story here, you have 12 stories. 16 stories." She was right because those 16 stories became The Joy Luck Club.

I was at a stage where that kind of criticism didn't dishearten me at all. It made me so excited because she had said it in the most constructive way -- not simply saying, "This isn't working, this is bad, this is nothing." She said, "Look at this. Here you have a voice, and it's inconsistent with this voice, but it's an interesting voice. So maybe you should think about this question, what is your voice?" That's a question I still ask myself today as a writer.

I had an agent who, by luck, read my stuff in a little magazine and wanted to be my agent. Believed in me as a fiction writer before I ever believed in myself. In fact, I told her, when she wanted to be my agent. I said, "I'm not really a fiction writer. I don't need an agent. But if I ever write anything else, maybe ten years from now, I'll let you know." She pursued me and she kept saying, "You have to write more fiction." I said, "I can't pay you anything." She said "I'm by commission. You don't have to pay anything until you sell anything." I said, "Well fine. You want to be my agent and not make anything." I thought, "Boy, is she dumb." She hounded me until I wrote a couple more stories and then she sold that as a collection called The Joy Luck Club.

You've spoken of another turning point. In 1987 you traveled with your mother to China, where you had never been. What did you learn from that trip that was so important to you?

Amy Tan: I took this trip to China as a way of fulfilling a promise. I thought my mother was going to die and I had sworn to God and Buddha and whatever spirits are out there that I would do this if she lived. And by God the little mother pulled through, so I went to China.

I was nervous about it because it meant three weeks with my mother, and I had hardly spent more than a couple of hours alone with her in the last 20 years. So it was a chance for me to really see what was inside of me and my mother. Most importantly, I wanted to know about her past. I wanted to see where she had lived, I wanted to see the family members that had raised her, the daughters she had left behind. The daughters could have been me, or I could have been them.

Amy Tan Interview Photo
And I did see all of those things, and even more. I discovered how American I was. I also discovered how Chinese I was by the kind of family habits and routines that were so familiar. I discovered a sense of finally belonging to a period of history which I never felt with American history.

When you read about the Civil War, a lot of people, like my husband, can say my great-great-grandfather fought in that war. We have the gun and all that kind of stuff. I have a good imagination, but I could never imagine my ancestors having been in any of this history because my parents came to this country in 1949. So none of that history before then seemed relevant to me. It was wonderful going to a country where suddenly the landscape, the geography, the history was relevant. That was enormously important to me.

It doesn't necessarily have to be that way for everybody, but for me it was extremely important because I had spent so long denying that side of me. In fact, one of the subjects I hated the most was history. I thought it was completely a waste of time. It had absolutely no relevance. Today, I love history. I find it is absolutely relevant to everything that is going on. It's not just some philosophical babble of how things repeat themselves. You see the undercurrents of change and culture and that is history. It's those behaviors that are important. History really is a record of behaviors and intentions and actions and consequences.

So, I think going to China was a turning point. I couldn't have written The Joy Luck Club without having been there, without having felt that spiritual sense of geography.

Was it also a turning point in your relationship with your mother?

Amy Tan: Oh yes. For example...

I used to think that my mother got into arguments with people because they didn't understand her English, because she was Chinese. And I saw in China that she got in arguments with Chinese people. She was just as difficult in China as she was in America. I had to laugh about that. There are so many things that I could laugh about and see that my sisters were the same way, that we had inherited things from my mother. But there were differences as well. And my sisters, who had grown up thinking that they had been denied this wonderful, loving, nurturing mother who would have understood everything and been sweet and kind and never would have criticized them. Well suddenly they were shocked to find this mother saying, "You didn't cook this long enough," or "This is too salty," and "Why do you wear that? It makes you look terrible." They were shocked too. It had nothing to do with being American. They were daughters, also wanting their mother's approval, and didn't understand why their mother was so critical.

So I saw my mother in a different light. We all need to do that. You have to be displaced from what's comfortable and routine, and then you get to see things with fresh eyes, with new eyes. The new eyes can be very useful in breaking habits of relationships, the old irritations, the patterns of avoidance. You start talking about things. You still get into fights but you learn to just pick what's important and say, you know, it's not so important really for me to win this one. Really, what my mother wants is for me to think that what she has to say is valuable. That's all.

Then there was The Joy Luck Club and endless weeks on the bestseller list. Many people are smart and have talent and potential. Why do you think it is that you succeeded, when not everybody does?

Amy Tan: You know, I get asked that question a lot and I never know the answer. The answer keeps changing. Sometimes I think that it's pure luck, I won the lottery. Sometimes I think it's because I'm a Baby-Boomer and what I wrote about are very normal emotions and conflicts that many people have, so somehow it struck a universal chord.

I think that I was in the right time and the right place. I met the right people, who were passionate about my work and, thus, able to get it in front of people who would sell the book in bookstores, readers who would pass the word along to their mothers or daughters or friends. I think it's all of that.

I also begin to think there are things in life that we don't understand, that are a mystery. I give credit to something beyond me. I'm not sure what that is exactly, except I think it's a very benevolent force.

A lot of bad things have happened in my life. I never believed the sort of pap that ministers would say. You know, "Bad things happen for certain reasons. God decided to take your brother at this time for a reason." I thought, "Bullshit, why would somebody allow such pain to happen to anybody?" It's so difficult. We don't have words to explain why things happen and you can't couch them in terms like that and explain them at the moment that they happen. It's only later that you see what the connections might have been and how it led to something.

I think that's why I'm a storyteller. I take all these disparate events and I have to connect them. I have to make them seem inevitable and yet surprising and plausible. That's what I think life is like, too. I have the luxury to do exactly what it is we all need time to do, and that is just think about the mystery of life.

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