Amy Tan on writing, whipping Stephen King, and being cool on Instagram

Author of the modern classic, The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan was recently in Manila for the Philippine Literary Festival organized by National Book Store and Raffles Makati. We got to chat with Amy and asked her just about everything — from being the “Dominatrix” of her all-writer garage band, to traveling the world and battling disease.

You were 33 when you started writing fiction. What were your circumstances back then and how did the shift come about?

(Laughs) Yes, I give a lot of hope. I was a business writer then so I had the discipline of having a deadline every day, but I found that I was writing about subjects that had no personal interest to me — telecommunications. I was thinking to myself every day, “Is this what I would be doing 10 years from now? Is this what I would be doing 30 years from now?” And that was frightening, because we all want to find a particular meaning in the life that we choose. I decided I needed to make a living, so I will do something on the side. It could be music, or art, or writing fiction. And fiction won out.

Fiction surprised me because I wrote a story, and I found that things coming out of me that I had experienced but had never been able to put down in a way that really captured it. And I realized that fictional stories bring in context to circumstances of personal history. Through that context, I could get to the emotional memories much more fully. I had what I call the Big Gasp, the times I had written something and thought, “This came out of me?” This feeling and understanding of what had happened. With fiction, you meditate for hours and hours, even months and years, on the same subject, and it is often an emotion, a conflict that everyone has. They don’t get to sit for hours and hours every day, thinking about that. But as a writer, that is such a privilege, an amazing amount of luck to just sit and make up stories and have me wrestle with the ideas.

During the writing of A Hundred Secret Senses, which in a sense was about a ghost, there were so many strange things happening. Every third interview, there was nothing recorded. Or television stations would lose a sound. Universities videoing, nothing is videos. It was so strange, and it was only for that book.

Yes, you mentioned that in your TEDTalk back in 2008 — that either these things are serendipitous or you just happened to be more focused on the subject.

I can be distracted and go the wrong way with some of the serendipity, because the idea of it might be very appealing and I might lose a number of weeks and realize that it doesn’t really fit the over all world that I want to live in for that period. I’m always tempted. Yesterday, I heard about Imelda Marcos building all these buildings in 160 days or 177 days, and the National Hero Jose Rizal. I wanted to know about the woman he married in the last minute. I could be distracted by things like that and follow that thread and then realize, it’s not going to work.

So you’re like a detective when you write.

It’s partly in the facts, especially with my own family, when I would uncover details that would really illuminate who I am and who I became. And certainly in my books there is an aspect to the fiction based on the questions or the things that I feel about love and betrayal and hope and honesty. Those are the discoveries I make are more like that of a detective’s, finding out clues from that past that feel true. The other ones have to do with, for example, when I’m thinking about women stranded in a country where they didn’t speak the language, and had to start over again. Suddenly I will come across dozens of histories of women who had been abandoned in a country where they didn’t speak the language. This is like confirmation for me, encouragement because of my focus or because maybe I have some kind of help from my grandmother, whom I had never met. But usually, the more focused I become — I know exactly what I’m looking for anyway — the more these clues or serendipity, become relevant.

After you wrote The Joy Luck Club, which was partly about discovering your own history, did you feel like a load had been lifted off you somehow?

I don’t know if it was a burden lifted so much as an opening. It was more the idea that world opened up and I could enter it and I could see the past and what my mother had gone through, and what she’d be was trying to say to me— not that it was right always, but I could see what the basis of it was. Now I could step into that world with fascination, try to find out everything about my mother and that period she lived in, to learn about history in China that I never had an interest in. My mother and I at that time, we were not fighting all the time, but I had learned to avoid the topics that always led to disagreements or unpleasantness. And that’s a way to shut down conversation that might have been important. Now she would say, “I don’t have to tell you because you understand, you’re just like me.” It wasn’t a burden lifting up, it was something about me rising up and discovering something new and unexpected.

When you try to look for historical basis for your books, you often leave your life and live in that world. How do you prepare for that?

I happily go into those places. I choose deliberately to go elsewhere, to a different time. It’s an opportunity to learn. It’s very easy for me to go to another place. For this particular book, The Valley of Amazement, I went of course to Shanghai, but I also stayed in a tiny village of maybe 100 people, where there was an old house that was 400 years old that belonged to an old merchant who had many wives. And I thought it was important for me to be there and see what it was like…it was very cold. It was a very small room in a very isolated place. I also went to the poorest province in China, high up into the mountains, took these windy trails and I was always fearful that I was going to fall and kill myself. And that became the setting for one of the parts of the book. I will find an excuse to go to these places.

Your Instagram feed is really interesting — your fans get to see all the places that you go to. Do you have your own personal guidelines when posting on social media?

I see people who post, and it’s mostly about “My book is on sale!” And I’d do that. When I started doing more of it, it was because the publisher thought it would be helpful. It took me a while to figure out what to post about. So I thought I’ll just post about what I found interesting for the day, and often it has to do with travel, attitudes, sometimes politics. I’ve posted my dog sniffing around with my luggage. For a number of hours while I was at the airport, it was “You know you’re going to Asia when you can get noodles at the airport lounge,” or “You know that when you see people criticizing the food and talking about how they can make it cheaper, you know you’re going to Asia.” I’ll put that in, because it’s humorous.

I wanted to put in something about the places I saw yesterday that I found surprising. I learned a lot about the National Hero, about all the buildings that are condemned and falling down, about the occupation of the Philippines by so many different countries, the betrayal of the United States — purchasing the Philippines right on the day before they would’ve had independence. So now, I’m interested in the idea of betrayal and the circumstances of that betrayal, that this would’ve led to a freedom that had been sought all these hundreds of years, and look what they did. Did they do anything positive? Yes, maybe. But there’s nothing like a country’s independence. I’m not writing a book about a country that’s been betrayed, but I am going to find something that would feed into that idea.

Do you consciously seek for these ideas?

It’s better that I don’t. I could manipulate what I’m seeing and try to see it in a particular way and that I think is a real danger — we interpret, not openly, but with a very fixed lens. I have to find it naturally because things occurs without plan. People don’t plan to fall in love, but they want to. So I do leave it open. I know other writers have checklists, but I don’t want to do that. I find that I become more interesting in the conversations, it strikes me freshly in a way that it would strike a writer. It’s not very efficient though. I get to enjoy it and then later on, “Wait what did I just see?” My notes are more about something that struck me as a very interesting phenomenon that I never would’ve thought about. Of all the things about the National Hero that people would be interested in, I was interested in small details that nobody may have attached that much of significance. It’s the details that people have saved, the fact that our guide kept saying, They saved a polo outfit. I thought that’s fascinating. Of all the things they would’ve saved, they saved a dirty polo outfit — rather than his baby clothes.

What distracts you from writing?

Everything. My dogs. Something that’s gone wrong, something’s broken down. The good things, somebody has a birthday. My brother just turned 60. We planned for many months a birthday in the Grand Canyon. But that’s good, family is the most important. I’m distracted by certain events. For example, the night before I left, I was part of a fundraiser gala for the Asian Pacific Fund. I was an auction item and I had to be there, and being at events is distracting, because I often work at night.

You’re friends with a lot of writers — do you feel like many writers are the same way?

The writers that I know, they’re always trying to discover something about what they mean by truth and what they mean about the importance of what they write. It is different, but they’re also trying to find they’re own voice. I think we’re unified in some attitudes about what’s happening in publishing. Curiosity, I would say is a huge commonality among everyone. Curiosity and the rejection of accepted thought, the need to look at the rules and conventions and beliefs that seem harmless enough and to examine them and take them apart and find out that maybe not all of it is false, but some aspect of it or even the basis of it is at fault. That is really interesting to a writer.

That’s also something you’ve mentioned in the past. Moral ambiguity is important in writing.  

Yes. What makes me uncomfortable is the direction that I have to go in. That I spend hours a day, years, thinking about a subject. If I knew the answer, why would I spend all that time thinking about it? A subject like betrayal and forgiveness, which are things I also thought about for this last book — I wanted to know what I think about betrayal and think about what I have done in the past and why that’s important, or not.

Just as an example, I was talking to somebody about forgiveness and she had a family member who had robbed her. And she was saying she had to forgive her and she felt good about that. And I tried to find out what she really thought about that person. She hadn’t really forgiven that person. She on the surface had forgiven that person. We often go by this Christian principle of forgiveness, which is the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas, Jesus dies then he comes back and he becomes a symbol of forgiveness of mankind, and in return, we have to forgive those who trespass against us. We feel guilty if we don’t. In a sense, we have done something that goes against the laws of decency.

So I thought, let’s go back and look at the fact that, we’re not Jesus Christ. We say we forgive somebody, but we don’t really. It’s human nature. I’m not saying that this principle is completely wrong. What is false though is that many people can’t do it and they end up feeling guilty and resentful. They get away with it, they don’t even think they’re wrong, and then they make you believe that you’re wrong to not forgive. If you don’t, what happens? For the sake of being right, what have you sacrificed? It’s a very complex issue and you get to weave them in a complete story that goes outside of your life and turn around to take that other person’s point of view and really, really stretch where that ambiguity is.

Have you ever read a book that was so good, you wish you had written it?

Not that I wish I had written it, but that I wanted to write because I was inspired by it. The reason that I don’t wish I had written it is that one of the main purposes of writing is to find my own voice. It has to do with all the things that I put into the thinking of these questions, my own personal history, the cultural context in which I had been raised, so many different things, including what’s happening currently. I couldn’t possibly imitate a voice like that. That is their history. But to write something that about the intimacy of life, this separation of thought over time, that is interesting to me. But I do feel insecurity when I read something wonderful, and say, “I could never write anything this profound. So I should just give up.” (Laughs)

I have know the reason why I write and what I want to get out of it and why I would never write that kind of book that people perceive as being of a higher literary merit. Usually, it has to do with transgression with higher political thought, or a government. Issues like that. I don’t want to write about that. I could, but if I did, it would be so false that I would be doing the same thing when I said, “Why am I writing business articles about telecommunications?” It would be betraying myself.

Many more writers have a frustration that if they had written something better than somebody else, why aren’t they published, why aren’t they receiving accolades and recognition. That is extremely common. I haven’t had that experience and I keep waiting for the day that people stop buying my books and that I have to stay strong now in knowing why I’m writing to sustain me later. It could happen, and it’s not going to be a reflection on me, but more on what is happening in the world. I’m not always firm, I can be swayed by similar insecurities.

On your Instagram and Twitter, we see you hiking, swimming with the whale sharks — how do you stay healthy?

(Laughs) Part of it is genetics, because I do a surprisingly little amount of exercise. But when I do an uphill hike for a really long time at, say, the Grand Canyon, I don’t get tired of out breathe like a lot of people who have been working at it. I think, I’ve been fairly healthy, just doing things in general. This little band measuring how many steps I take [She shows me the black rubber pedometer on her wrist.] is a terrible indication of how little I do. There are people out there who take 10,000 steps a day, and mine is just 1,500 because I’ve been sitting at my desk all day. So it’s a reminder that I have to get out and do things, to walk.

Do you walk your dogs?

They’re so little! I can let them out into the garden and just go “Outside!” And they go around and around. But I do also walk them. It’s surprising how unfitness oriented I am. I don’t have a weight problem and that’s lucky. I had a test, I have very high cholesterol but I was told that it was benign. So it’s just a number. The only thing I’m not healthy with is that insect, a tick that bit me and gave me a disease. If I had not been infected by something environmental, I would be absolutely healthy.

How has this illness affected your outlook and your writing? (Amy has been diagnosed with Lyme disease, which, as she wrote in her article in the New York Times, left her with permanent bodily damage, including epilepsy and 16 lesions in her brain. She is the co-founder of LymeAid 4 Kids, which pays for the diagnosis and treatment of uninsured children who have the disease.)

Oh, the old cliché, you’ll never know what’s going to happen. And then there’s the attitude that it happened to you, and in a way, that’s random — is there any way you contributed to it happening? Of course, not. I’ve heard people say, “It’s not fair, you don’t deserve to be ill,” and I thought, what does it have to do with fairness and deserving anything? Non one who gets cancer deserves it. So you think about what people believe about illness. I’m just going to fight for my health and live with what I can and try to be as healthy as I can be. And I am. I consider myself far healthier than most people my age. I do anything I want, but I have a few limitations. One of the biggest ones is that I can’t drive, but I never liked to drive. And it’s not the kind of sunny disposition where I say, “Hey, I’m a better person because I’m ill.” I’m just thinking, “Wow, you can lose your brain so fast. Does that mean you’re a lesser person?” “Who are you without that part of your brain that functions in a certain way?” I think about my mother and when she had Alzheimer’s — it made me think about what other people go through when they have trouble processing. It’s amazing to me how much the brain does and we just take it for granted.

It certainly hasn’t kept you from being active. You also have a band! (Amy’s band is called the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Katy Kamen Goldmark, Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening, Greg Iles, Mitch Albom, Roy Blount, Jr., Ridley Pearson, Sam Barry and Scott Turrow.)

Yes! For 22 years! And was supposed to be a one time deal.

And do you play… the keyboards? (Amy took classical piano lessons starting at age five — for 15 years.)

No. (Laughs) You know, piano and keyboards, classical piano is not the same as rock ‘n’ roll keyboards. The joke is that I play the “Dominatrix.” So I wear this ridiculous costume and I sing a ridiculous song. I have a whip, and at the end of my song, These Boots Are Made for Walking, all the boys turn around, bend over and I whip them! And people go crazy because I’m whipping Stephen King!

We didn’t really know one another to begin with. She picked people who didn’t have a sense that they better than everyone else. We get people who say, “Your band looks really fun! I wish I had the talent.” That’s what Scott Turrow said. Mitch Albom is actually really talented. Everybody has to have a sense of we are all just friends. We don’t say, “I sing better than you do,” because then I would be at the bottom if everybody was ranking. I received a statue for Most Improved Remainderette (their band is called Rock Bottom Remainders), but I was the only one! So that’s what our band is like. We have fun, we love each other, and we’re grateful people come see us even after 22 years.

So, your latest novel, The Valley of Amazement — how does it reflect who you are right now?

I always am interested in how I became who I am. Self-identity, versus the identity given to you by society, peers, parents. What is original with me at birth? Is there such a concept as original personality at birth? I think there is, something having to do with what you do from birth, what you focus on. But I also wanted to look at the influences, what I absorbed, what I rejected. Certainly, my biggest influence is my mother. I think many women find that to be true as they reach a certain age in their lives and say, “I hated that about my mother and now I’m doing the same thing, obsessing over the same thing, obsessing about the same thing.” And then I thought to myself, where did she get it and why does she have that and what were the circumstances. So clearly her biggest influence was her mother, who killed herself when her mother was nine.

I feel that by knowing myself, I know who my mother is as well, and I have a pretty good idea then of who my grandmother was, her attitude toward adversity, or illness. I had a huge lead in this subject when I saw a photo of my grandmother that I’ve always had. In one of the research books, I saw of photo of ten women, and five of them were wearing the same clothes as my grandmother. I had not realized it was costume. I looked at that and these women were courtesans. That led to an enormous amount of research to try and find the truth of what it could’ve been and what the circumstances way and all the possibilities. And I love the contradictions — you can’t take anything in fact. So that’s what I was looking at, contradictions in myself, feelings that I have about the life given to you without your choice. Getting a permanent illness is not a choice. Becoming someone in society that is less than who you’d want to be is not a choice. How do you handle that but what do you think of yourself? What would you say is original? Or are you a product of all these influences? Do you say to yourself, “Because society looks down on me, or the literary world says my books are not as good as this persons,” all of these things feed into how I conduct my life today.

(This interview by CHONX TIBAJIA was originally published in The Philippine STAR)

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