An Interview with Amy Tan

Written by Angelica Castillo and Tristine Baccam

For this year’s The Writer’s Voice, the incredible novelist, Amy Tan, graced the campus community with an evening of high-spirited and comical insight into the life which has served as the inspiration for her widely known and much loved novels. Earlier in the day on Tuesday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Tan to discuss her novels, views on authorial responsibility, and the experiences which have colored her life in the wake of The Joy Luck Club’s initial publication.

Amy Tan:If you hear this sound recording, I’ll say, “This is Lily drinking water”

Laughter

The Megaphone:Lily is a very cute doggy!

Laughter

Megaphone:First of all, Would you like me to refer to you as Ms. Tan…?

AT:Amy is fine.

Megaphone:Alright…thank you.

AT:Oh even my nieces call me Amy. Yeah…They start to say Auntie…but they still call me Auntie Amy…laughter.

Megaphone::Ok…So let’s start off with…How would you, Amy Tan, introduce your work to a new reader? How would you describe it?

AT: Oh…um… Well I’ve never been asked that question…(laughter) You’d think it’s an obvious one, but I’ve never been asked that. Usually when people ask…Well you know, if I’m on an airplane or I meet somebody and they don’t know I’m a writer…They say, “Well what do you do?” and I say “I’m a writer. I’m a fiction writer,” and then that’s basically all I say. And if they were to say “What kind of fiction?” I suppose that I would say that “I write, um, literary fiction” and second, if they asked what it’s about, then I would say “Most people would say it’s about mothers and daughters.” For me, I would say that it’s about the questions that I ask myself in life that add up, that one day add up to what I think is the meaning of my life. I never have short answers to anything, and everything is in context which makes it very difficult if you were to write a one sentence answer…If you ask me what my favorite color is, I can just go on and on and on…there are different reasons for every answer I have, I don’t have just one answer to anything…

Megaphone: No that’s great… I mean the more we get to learn about you the better. Like I said we are all very excited to have you here…You have asserted on several occasions, that writing is a deeply personal thing for you, and I believe in one of your essays, you described… the words that you use in your books… as words that often have “specific associations with something deeply personal and often times secretly ironic in my life…” So, how do you reconcile this intimacy with the fact that your work, once published, is read, interpreted, and possessed by millions of readers?

AT: Well partly, I don’t always have awareness as I’m writing it. I have had people say to me “You are so brave to write that.” and I think, “Well… What did I write?” Laughter It’s as though I um… I had said something that was shocking or that people wouldn’t normally say. And then I wonder, well, what is it that people don’t say to one another? I don’t think that I reveal everything about myself in the deepest sense of what I’m trying to explore in myself. The things that are private…when I said that I use choices of words or whatever it is, they are things that nobody is going to be able to read and say, “Oh. I remember. She was doing this on such and such a day. Or this came about the day that her friend died and she was wondering about such and such and that’s why she wrote that. People will not know that. So that’s what I mean by “deep and personal.” The kinds of questions that we all have in life, I get to explore on a daily basis when I’m writing, so as I said, I don’t think that I’m sharing everything in my life but I think that what I write about is deeply personal in the sense that they’re the questions that I want to ask. I think that they are probably the questions that everybody wants to ask, or they do ask themselves. How many people don’t get to sit down for twelve hours a day, just thinking about that, writing about it, you know, it’s a great luxury to be able to think a lot…

Megaphone: When my mother found out that I was going to interview you, the first thing she did was rush to buy a Spanish language version of The Hundred Secret Senses, which is the book I recommended to her. So what do you think about the fact that your works are now widely available to people around the country and around the world and that it has become widely cherished and appreciated?

AT: It was shocking when I first found out that I was going to be published at all. Shocking when this book was selling much more than anybody thought that it would sell, and so when it was being published in other countries, I thought it was strange—in one sense because these were characters who to me lived in such a small world, the private world, these were in some respects modeled after my mother who was an unseen person. She was the person you would see in the store who didn’t speak English that well, and you know, people wouldn’t think “I want to sit down and talk with this person.” She didn’t speak English that well. So these were unseen women, all of these women in my family, and suddenly they were being seen in all these other countries! My grandmother who died without even, without most of us knowing her name, what really happened…now she has the life outside of that window of time when she lived. So, it was a tremendous honor in many respects and frightening (laughter). So I take it your mother, she speaks Spanish…she’s reading Los Cien…

Megaphone: Los Cien Sentidos Secretos.

AT:Ah… I will say that at one point in my life I could speak Spanish, far better than I could Chinese, very ironic, I was in Cabo [San Lucas], and I got to use it, and when you don’t speak a language very well…I was pretty… It’s the only translation I have been able to read in the past, otherwise, I’m learning French now, so I’m now able to read the French edition.

Megaphone:I don’t know, If I were able to read something I had written in another language and be able to understand it, I don’t think I would even be able to run that through my mind, to process it.

AT:Yeah…I’m even more curious, also, in a cultural sense, about what people see. Because in a story there are a lot of images and there are a lot of cultural assumptions. It is an American writer and an American context and what do people in other countries think about those various American images that are a display of culture. There was a journalist in Italy, in my first year, who wrote that when she interviewed me, I had long, lacquer red finger nails and I think she called them “Dragon lady… long, lacquered dragon lady finger nails” and I thought that what she did was carry in her mind some image that she had of Chinese women, and that’s what she claimed in the way of describing me. I don’t have long, lacquer red nails. I mean, you can see, they are short nails. And I don’t think I ever wrote about a character with long, lacquer nails. It just never would have occurred to me that that would be a detail but that’s what I mean about people’s own cultural assumptions and impressions that are over laid in the book and that’s interesting…I don’t think I have time to talk to everybody about what they see and a lot of what they see is going to be caught in a rubric of the exotic…

Megaphone:So, kind of on that note, since your books have been published in so many different places, do you receive fan mail from readers abroad with their reactions to what you write and, maybe, do you know how that compares to how readers in this country feel about your work?

AT: The fan mail that I do get is often similar. You know, it often has to do with something that struck a personal chord…um… I am always surprised when I get something from a man, say in another country. He’s read one of my books and has much appreciation for it. You know, the curious thing is, I don’t really get a lot of fan mail and maybe it’s because we’ve also made it hard to get the fan mail. I don’t know what it is, but I hear about these people who say “yeah, I got 89 letters the other day…” 89 letters, you know! I get one or two every now and then but or maybe Ellen (her publicist) doesn’t show them to me…I don’t know…I have no idea…It’s not that I’m encouraging it because I also have a policy of not wanting to read them. I think that I try to leave as many influences out of my life as that of being, in that public sense, an author and not a writer, and I don’t want to be a hermit. But I also don’t want to read things like “You’re just wonderful!” You get this distorted sense of yourself.

Megaphone:Since the publication of The Joy Luck Club, which was your first big novel, I would imagine that many things probably changed in your life after that. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve developed as a writer, and as a person, how this has affected you?

AT: Well, in a wonderful way and a difficult way. The difficult was feeling that my life was completely out of control. I had never dreamed of being a published writer. I had never dreamed at all of selling a lot of books. All of that was pulled along, I never… Someone sent my story to somebody, it got published. That is, it was never anything that I sought that actively. I cried the first day my book was published. I cried all day long because I was scared. By then things were getting a little weird. I just didn’t know where my life was going, because I had a very happy life in many respects, and I didn’t want anything to change too horribly. A friend of mine actually just wrote me a letter, an email yesterday, and he had a partner who won the equivalent of American Idol in China, and suddenly was all over the place. Movie deals, tours, signings…and they broke up. His partner came and said “Yeah. My life has changed and …” then he broke down and cried and I could really empathize with somebody who goes through that. There’s a part of you that’s still there but you are no longer the same person. It’s like you lost a part of yourself…So that’s the scary part, and I’ve adjusted to that. The good part, one of the main things is that I get to meet a lot of really interesting people. Writers. Wonderful writers, and I get to call them my friends as well as people in other areas. That is truly one of the best things. Another one, a huge one, is that I was able to make my mother very happy. The last few years of her life were completely happy, and she was so happy that we appreciated her. That was wonderful. I was also able to support her and do more things for her. Although with that kind of financial success there comes a certain responsibility, and so our goal has always been to think about how you manage these funds. All of our money basically goes to charity…you know…who do you look at…who do you leave money to and why and so that’s really been an interesting way of how we look at our lives and how we affect things. I always keep in mind, though, that somebody who scrimps and saves ten dollars and gives that same amount of money to an organization probably had to make a bigger sacrifice than I had to make, so the amounts of the money are not an indication of being a more generous person, and I mention this because I’m always struggling with this sense of who I am. That who I am, in one, for me should not have anything to do with how many books I sell and the same thing with your generosity…there are so many different elements that go into that. It’s easy to give away money if you have money to give away. Oh …just one other thing…as a writer I’m much more self-conscious. Much more self-conscious. Every writer I know has dealt with the same thing. It doesn’t get any easier…

Megaphone: Do you think that it could be because you are giving away a part of yourself in the book that you’re writing and so in that sense, people are having access to you?

AT:No. I don’t think that is the issue. I think more that as a writer, the whole craft of writing, and what you seem to be saying, is what you argue. Are you trivial, are you shapeless or over-inflated? There are tons of different questions having to do with craft. When you are better known, you will hear more opinions, and so every single writer would have this kind of exposure…they’ve been exposed to these kinds of opinions and it’s kind of scary. It’s like going out to be target practice for somebody. I’ve had friends who say, “Well, if you get published you should expect that people are going to attack you and that people at a party can come up to you and say “I really didn’t like that last novel…” I don’t know, I’m only a human being. Why would people think that things like common courtesy go away just because you’ve been published? Anyway, it’s hard. It’s also wondering if, as a writer, you’re covering the same ground…When you look at people’s work, you also see that many writers write about a similar thing which eventually…ooh you know the work and so I see that a particular question I’ve been asking myself becomes clear to me, and when it becomes clear to me then it is a little bit dangerous, because then I fall to the possible avenue of being contrived. Of moving in a certain direction rather than letting it be discovered naturally…

Megaphone: So, throughout your career and the publication of your novels, I imagine that since you’re so well known and read by many people, and you’ve already addressed part of this…that there are pressures which come with having your work published, so do you think that the writer has a responsibility to the society?

AT:Yes and no. A writer does not have the responsibility to shape her work according to what society says it should be about. That is a surefire way to have literature go down the tubes of propaganda. There are writers, however, who write politically. But they do it in a form of a fiction that is not polemical. It just presents a story in which the person feels the story and then the issue and the nature of whatever politics they have in mind are going to assert themselves. If everything in life, if you say politics has a lot to do with what you believe and then what publicly people should do is according to those beliefs and then everyone has some kind of politics in their books. There is a responsibility, and you say “Gee, If I write this will everybody in a certain city think that all men have concubines even to this day, and at some point, I as a writer have to say, I cannot be responsible for every single way somebody is going to read something, that readers have a responsibility too, to be aware and not read everything literally and textbook. The third kind of responsibility is when people say “You are in the limelight. You are in the spotlight. You need to call attention to abuse in orphanages in China or these baby girls or you need to protest in Burma and I had to say to myself, “Well, what is it that I believe that I should do? What do you do with compassion?” I have to come to the conclusion that I don’t want to make my responsibility that of somebody who stands out and shouts and vilifies people. I would rather do something actively than attack. So the things that I have done, you know, working with orphanages, it has to do with trying to get more babies adopted. Then you have programs to improve care giving in orphanages, or Burma, not protesting out loud “Burma is terrible!” standing out there. Writing a story, you have to at least feel the suffering that others have, and I think my big conclusion is compassion…that you are doing something that other people read and feel compassion…that’s a good political move…

Megaphone: Great… now to change the subject a little…

AT:You see… I have no short answers…

Megaphone: No, that is, I love that you are letting us know so much…laughter… You are a wonderful, wonderful storyteller. In all of the different novels that you have presented us with, you take us around the world and you introduce us to so many different relationships and so many different situations. At some points, some of them even seem quite fantastic. For example, in The Hundred Secret Senses, the character of Kwan, she can see and she can speak to ghosts. So, where do you get the inspiration for some of these fictional characters and situations?

AT:Well, a lot of them were inspired by my mother. She was so honest and she was contradictory, very opinionated, really, really an expert in human behavior and observation of human beings. She was especially good at saying if somebody was…the Chinese word basically means “fake.” She would get really mad when people pretended to be nice, and they weren’t, and she would tell them they weren’t. She taught me to read faces. There was something about being able to read a person’s face, and you could know, almost instantly, something about their character. That helped me as a writer because then I put it into my books. So Kwan, I have no idea where Kwan came from. Well, in some ways she is like my mother…having these opinions and being very open. Kwan is a very open person. My mother was completely open. People would say to me “What does your mom think of the book? You know, was she wounded or…?” I would say “No. She loved it!” I could say anything openly and honestly. She had nothing to hide. If I said there was a time my mother tried to kill herself, she would say “Oh, I remember, but there was that other time too… I thought about killing you. I didn’t tell you but I was thinking about it.” So she was just completely open. I don’t think she had the understanding that it might have been inappropriate, that there were some things she should hide…Kwan, sometimes I think she is my grandmother…

At this point Amy’s assistant comes in to remind us that we need to finish up the interview…

Megaphone: Oh ok, so just really quickly…to finish up…Any future plans? Are you working on a novel or anything that your readers can look forward to?

AT:I am working on an opera. I actually wrote the libretto for an opera based on “The Bonesetter’s Daughter”. I finished the libretto. The composer is still finishing the music, but he’s pretty close to done. We start our rehearsals in December, and it will open, have its world premiere September 6, 2008. David Gockley, we got him from Houston Grand Opera, you know, he was twenty five years at Houston. My composer also, he trained in Austin—a lot about the opera comes from Texas (laughter), and then I’m working on an article for National Geographic that concerns a tiny village of rice farmers in the poorest province of China, probably one of the poorest regions in that province. The province is Gui Zhou and it’s a tiny, little village, and so that story will come out in National Geographic sometime in the spring in a special issue on China. All the other articles will be about China. And then my new book…

Megaphone: Oh…

AT: have a lot of notes for it in my head. And the only thing I can never talk about is a book and what it’s about. But I will say I will say that I so fell in love with this village and I have many books…notebooks and hours of tapes, interviews and research, that, and I am writing only a little fourth of it for an essay for National Geographic, and they know I am going to use it, that material for something. It is such a beautiful location, such an interesting location. I love being there, and I figured, that is where I want to be in a story. I am going to write it and be there. It’s where I want to be.

Megaphone: That’s wonderful…

AT: I’m pretty, you know… ok, maybe, yeah, readers will want to be in a beautiful, interesting place like that.


Megaphone: That’s great. It’s exciting that we have that to look forward to, and I am sorry I took you over time…

AT: No, No. I should have kept my answers shorter, but it would have been over in like 10 minutes.

Megaphone:Thank you so much.

AT: You’re welcome.

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