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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: 6 / 7)

Best-Selling Novelist

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  Amy Tan

Speaking now only of your writing career, what setbacks or detours have you had along the way and how have you dealt with them and learned from them? Self-doubts, fear of failure?

Amy Tan: I didn't fear failure. I expected failure. I think I've always been somebody, since the deaths of my father and brother, who was afraid to hope. So, I was more prepared for failure and for rejection than success. The success took me by surprise and it frightened me. On the day that there was a publication party for my book, I spent the whole day crying. I was scared out of my mind that my life was changing and it was out of my control and I didn't know why it was happening. I thought it would ruin things, because at that moment in my life I was fairly happy. I was getting along with my mother. My husband and I had been married for a long time, we were happy, we had our first house, we had great friends, we were doing well, we weren't starving. We had a comfortable living and I thought, "Things are going to get messed up here and I have no control over this." I could already see how people were treating me differently. That's the scary thing. You know, when people say, "How has success changed you?" you have to say, "No. How have people changed toward you as the result of success?" And "How have you dealt with that change in how people have changed toward you?" That's the most difficult thing.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

So I went through a terrible period of feeling that I had lost my privacy, that I had lost a sense of who I was. I was scared by the way people measured everything by numbers: where I was on a list, or how many weeks, or how many books I had sold. By the time it came to the second book, I was so freaked out, I broke out in hives. I couldn't sleep at night. I broke three teeth grinding my teeth. I had backaches. I had to go to physical therapy. I was a wreck!

I started a second novel seven times and I had to throw them away. You know, 100 pages here, 200 pages there and I'd say, "Is this what they liked in The Joy Luck Club? Is this the style, is this the story? No, I must write something completely different. I must write no Chinese characters to prove that I'm multi-talented." Or "No, I must write this way in a very erudite way to show I have a way to use big words." It's both rebellion and conformity that attack you with success. It took me a long time to get over that, and just finally being able to breathe again and say, "What's important? Why are you a writer? Why did you write that book in the first place? What did you learn? What did you discover? What was the most rewarding part of that?"

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Don't think of what's going to happen afterwards. If it's a failure, will you think what you wrote was a failure, that the whole time was wasted? If it's a success, will you think the words are more valuable?

That crisis helped me to define what was important for me. It started off with family. It started off with knowing myself, with knowing the things I wanted as a constant in my life: trust, love, kindness, a sense of appreciation, gratitude. I didn't want to become cynical. I didn't want to become a suspicious person. Those were the things that helped me decide what I was going to write.

My mother, meanwhile, all the time kept saying, "Write my true story. That's all you have to do. Write my true story." I kept saying, "No, that's not fiction. I'm not writing biography."

Writing is an extreme privilege but it's also a gift. It's a gift to yourself and it's a gift of giving a story to someone. What better gift can I give my mother than to finally sit down and listen to her entire story, hour after hour after hour? She's very repetitive. This is hard work, listening to her say the same laments in her life over and over again, but this time asking for more details. Getting this story out, I realized, was a gift that she was giving me. And there was a gift I could give back to her, and it didn't matter what happened to that book afterwards. If it didn't sell a single copy, if it was panned, that whole time I spent writing it, getting to know my mother, getting to know myself, all of it was worth it. Nobody -- no review, no place on a list -- could take that away from me or make it more important than what it already was.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

I still have to think about that over and over again, with everything I do in life. It's so easy to get derailed by success. You get distracted. You get opportunities. If I look back ten years ago, fifteen years ago, I would not be able to believe that I would be saying, "No, I don't want to make another movie. No, I don't want to do a TV series." You can get sucked into the idea that, "Gosh, this is impressive. Maybe I should do this. It will look good." Or "I'll write like this because it will impress that critic."

I think a lot about death because of what's happened in my life. And I like to hope that there is something after death. And I like to hope that if there is something afterwards, the people I love will be there. So, I say, "If I die, who's going to be waiting for me on the other side -- that critic, or that movie producer, or that TV exec? Or is it going to be my mother and my husband and my brother?" Gosh, it simplifies things a whole lot. It's just crystal clear what's important.

No matter what field you're in, you can't please all of the people all of the time. How are you affected by criticism, and how do you deal with it?

Amy Tan: The question for me is, "How am I affected by praise?" I am more fearful of praise these days because I don't want to depend upon it. In the world of book publishing, there is never a comfortable balance point where you either have enough praise or enough criticism. If you get this kind of review then you worry about what's going to happen with the next. So there's never any comfort point.

On the other hand, I welcome criticism when I'm writing my books. I want to become better and better as a writer. I go to a writer's group every week. We read our work aloud. They're old friends, and they treat me as an equal in the group, meaning they tear my stuff apart like anybody else's.

What I fear most is taking the criticism too seriously, the negative criticism or the extremely positive reviews, and not knowing which one I should believe. It's the worst ones that stick in my mind. It's like a little mantra I hear: "Not interesting, not interesting, not interesting." I lie awake thinking about this and trying to block it out of my mind. It's like cat pee on the pillow, you just can't get it out.

I also worry about those who praise my work for what I think are the wrong reasons. They think I have done something mystical or wise, or that I've demystified Chinese culture, and I wasn't trying to do any of those things. Or people will say I've done a great service in helping with generational gaps. I don't think of my work as being therapeutic or sociological or psychological. It's not educational. I think the closest it comes to is simply being storytelling for others. For myself, it's very personal. So I have a hard time accepting what is said about my work when it's taken apart.

After a number of years of going crazy over this, I don't read any of the reviews. I don't read the interviews and I don't watch the television tapes people send me. Radio tapes? Newspaper clippings? I don't read it. I do look at the photos of myself and see how I age each year, and how my hairstyle changes, but I try not to take any of that stuff seriously, because I'm afraid of then contouring my life, which is my writing, my self, toward those reactions, and I don't want to lead a reactionary life.

What personal characteristics do you think are most important for achievement, for success?

Amy Tan: I'm the worst at coming up with the single word, which is the reason why I write novels. I've never been good at multiple choice questions or true/false things because I always want to tell a story. I always want to give exceptions to the rule.

What comes to mind is what I think about with my nieces. They are very, very smart and they have a very smart mother and they are so afraid to be wrong. These little girls, they're only eight and six and they are already so afraid to be wrong. There are a lot of people who think that's what's needed to be successful is always being right, always being careful, always picking the right path.

Amy Tan Interview Photo
I think self-knowledge is important and that embraces so many things. It means that when you make a mistake, you realize what it is but you don't beat yourself over the head for it and you don't try to cast blame on somebody else. You don't say, "Life's not fair, I worked hard for this. I deserve this." Finding a sense of balance and a philosophy that can keep you consistent on one level when life is going to be one hell of a bumpy and exciting road -- that's important!

I think a spirit of generosity and kindness is extremely important. People forget that, in this day and age especially, with women wanting equality and sometimes, I think mistakenly, using male models of success. There are virtues that are oftentimes unique to women. Those are going to be important to the new kind of success. Success being defined not by how many billions of dollars did that company make, how many new products did you get out, but as something that makes a wonderful difference in the long term. When people measure their lives in those terms, the passion is there, the self-guidance is there, and the rewards are there. The success is always there.

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