Where the Past Begins: An Interview With Amy Tan

Alison Singh Gee

This past summer, while speaking on a panel at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, Amy Tan surprised an audience full of aspiring authors with an admission: “There are times when I think to myself, ‘I’ve lost it completely,’” she said. “‘That’s it. It’s over. I will never write again.’” She shook her head and added, “It took me eight years to write the last novel. It seems like with every novel, it gets harder and harder.”

Amy Tan, whose new book is Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, published by Ecco in October. (Credit: Julian Johnson)

Tan, the author of six novels, including The Joy Luck Club (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989), as well as two children’s books, struggled with writing her last novel, The Valley of Amazement, first exploring one storyline for about five years, ditching much of it, and basically starting over, finally completing the book some three years later. Published by Ecco in 2013, the novel followed the odyssey of a young biracial courtesan as she searches for her American madam during the early twentieth-century in China.

As she grappled with her voice on the page, her public voice—on Facebook, notably—was becoming pointedly more personal and urgent, poking at topics that ranged from the whimsical (her beloved terriers and her latest sculptural haircuts) to the controversial (politicians she despises). In post after post on social media, Tan examined and confronted the world around her and the world within her. It was during this period that she began e-mailing with her editor, Daniel Halpern at Ecco, who she started working with on The Valley of Amazement, a little more than a decade after Faith Sales, her longtime editor at Putnam, died in 1999.

Halpern would send Tan a question, and the author would fire off a witty retort, or sometimes a very long missive. Once, for instance, Halpern asked the writer for a synopsis of her yet-to-be-written novel and Tan shot back a four-thousand-word response about why she hates writing synopses. All of these missives had a vital quality in common: spontaneity.

Buoyed by the vibrancy of their dashed-off e-mails, Tan decided to write a memoir, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, published this month by Ecco. The book collects Tan’s unguarded, free-flowing writing in response to family documents, personal photographs and journal entries she had collected throughout her life, which began in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she grew up the daughter of immigrant parents from China. The results of this personal research deeply surprised the author. In examining photographs of her grandmother and the clothing she wore, Tan discovered that her grandmother had most likely been a courtesan. In rereading letters she and her mother had exchanged before her death in 1999, the author realized they had remained close, even during the times that Tan tried to distance herself, and that her mother had felt that her daughter had truly understood her. The relationship between a mother and a daughter has formed the basis of much of Tan’s work, from The Joy Luck Club, which consists of stories about the experiences of four Chinese American mothers and their daughters, to The Bonesetter’s Daughter (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001), about an immigrant Chinese woman and her American-born daughter.

Tan, who readily admits that in writing her novels she labors over every sentence, discovered something vital about her writing process: that if she just shut out her self-conscious voice and wrote, she could capture something vital, intimate, and authentic on the page. “Writing this book was very painful,” she says. “But it was exhilarating, too.” 

I recently spoke with Tan about her approach to memoir and how this shift in process changed the way she views her fiction writing. 

You’ve written six novels, two children’s books, and one collection of essays. A memoir is a departure of sorts. Why did you decide to switch literary camps?
I would say I was lured into writing this book. It was the suggestion of my publisher, Dan Halpern, who thought I needed an in-between book—as in, between my novels. At first he thought we could put together a whole book of our e-mails. I said, “That’s a terrible idea.” But he kept insisting that it would be good. We could turn our e-mails from when we were first getting together into essays about writing. Then I looked at them and said, “This is never going to work.” And he finally agreed.

But by then this book had already been announced. And I was stuck writing it. At first I started writing something esoteric about language, but it was coming out all wrong and stiff. So I decided I was just going to write whatever comes to mind. It was going to be a memoir but it was going to be spontaneous.

But you’re known as a literary craftsperson, laboring over every sentence. How did you decide that spontaneity was the way forward?
This was one of the things I learned about creativity. You have to let go of self-consciousness. When I started thinking about this book, I knew that if I felt self-conscious while writing, it would probably come out bit by bit and it would not be as honest.

So I told Dan I would send him fifteen to twenty pages of writing every week. I imposed this crazy deadline on myself. I was just writing spontaneous sentences and not doing much in the way of revision. And this is what came out.

Throughout the writing of this book I was both excited and nervous. I didn’t know what I was going to find. It was like when you go to the circus and you’re about to see the next act. You’re looking forward to it but you’re also scared out of your mind. You’re worried that the trapeze artist is going to die. The process had a suspense to it. Even though I was writing about my life, here, I was writing about what I felt about certain experiences. There’s a difference between a narrative of facts and what happened in your life.

This was about what I felt about certain experiences and the association of that experience with another, and another beyond that. It was about who I am as an adult and reflecting on the core of these experiences.

What was your process? How did you organize the mining of these moments in your life?
I had collected all these things from my family and my own life, not ever thinking that I would write from them. I am sentimental; I have things from my high school, like my student-body card. I had like eighty boxes of this stuff in my garage. I kept them with the idea that I would one day go through them and get rid of a bunch and keep a couple of things. Then I thought, I will just pull something out of the boxes, and if it intrigues me I will write about it. So the process was: I stuck my hand in a box and what came out I wrote about.

It wasn’t as though I had it all lined up, like I wanted to write about this and this. The process was surprising, shocking. It was exhilarating, a mix of emotions. It brought about those things you get out of writing—you know, you have these epiphanies and discoveries. It was an affirmation of why we write.

How did this differ from writing your novels?
Writing fiction allows me the subterfuge of it being fiction. I can change things from real life. I can still go to an emotional core but not as intensely.

Fiction is a way to bring up emotions that I have and to get a better understanding of the situation. But I found that writing memoir brought up ten times the amount of emotion I have while writing fiction. This was truly an unexpected book. I kept telling Dan, “I hate this book.” It seems so personal, like an invasion of privacy. It’s as though I let people into my bedroom and into my darkest moments. I haven’t had time to really meditate over this as I would have liked—you know that word: process. I haven’t even had reflection time to sort out my emotions.

You seem to have lived a remarkably dramatic life and so did your mother, so did your grandmother. Your grandmother was likely a courtesan, one who committed suicide by swallowing raw opium. Your mother, in choosing to leave behind an abusive husband in China, also had to leave her daughters behind as she moved to America for a new life. And I read an article in which you mentioned that you had been sexually molested as a child, held up at gun point, experienced the death of both your father and older brother within six months of each other, and lived with a mother who threatened to kill herself on many occasions, and threatened to kill you with a cleaver on another occasion. In taking stock of this generational trajectory, did you have it in your head that you would one day make sense of all this as a writer?
Well, that’s what I was doing all along with my fiction. I was writing about things, and these moments would come up spontaneously, intuitively, naturally, as part of a narrative in which I was trying to make sense of a story.

For example, when I was writing The Joy Luck Club, I was writing to understand my mother more. But not to the extent that I did in writing this particular book—there was so much turmoil. When I examined for this memoir, in a very concentrated way, what it was like to live with my mother and her suicidal rages, it was so painful. The horror of seeing her put her leg out of a car and knowing that she might possibly die.

Is it meaningful to your memoir writing that your mother, who you’ve described as your muse, died almost two decades ago? How has that freed you to write autobiographically?
I wonder every once in a while what my mother would have thought about the things I wrote in this memoir. Would she have been upset or really happy? Would she be angry? When she was alive, anytime I wrote about her, even when I wrote terrible things, she was thrilled because it was about her. I could have written that she tried to kill me, and she would have been delighted. She’d say something like, “Now you understand how I feel.” My mother was an emotional exhibitionist.

My father, a minister, would have been wounded. In this book I wrote these things about him being sincere but shallow. He depended too much on the pat phrases of the Bible. Rather than truly feeling what somebody was going through, he wanted to solve things and be a good minister. He was so blind to what was going on in his own family. He didn’t have compassion for my little brother and me and what we might have been going through.

Was there difficult material that you left out of the book? If so, how do you feel about that decision now?
We took out about ten or twelve pieces and there was one, actually, that I debated over. Dan and I agreed that it was a little too risky. It was a letter I wrote to a minister based on having been abused when I was fifteen by their youth minister. This person I was writing to was not the minister when this happened. My point in the piece was that his church is a house of worship and it’s a continuous fellowship. I wrote that he is proud of the story of his church but he has to add this to its history. His house of worship has a stain on it.

I finally said, “We have to take this piece out. It goes off the path. It doesn’t enhance what I’m trying to write about.”

Are you happy with that decision or do you regret it?
I’m happy with the decision. Sometimes you write something and it becomes almost retribution, a desire to get even. In this memoir, I could have written about betrayal. I could have written about people who deeply wounded me, but why? I could have written about the fact that my mother went through her life feeling betrayed and that is a mark she put on me. I now have very strong feelings about betrayal and condescension. But I don’t want betrayals to be a dominant part of my life, and if I had written about them I would have given them more importance than I wanted to give them.

How did you push past your emotional blocks to include difficult information and lines of questioning?
In this book I say something about writing and honesty. And it has to do with spontaneity. If you are going to get to some emotional core and truth, you have to write spontaneously. You have to let go of that frontal lobe that says, “Oh, but my father will read this.” You can look at your writing later and say, “Oh my God, my father is going to kill me when he reads this, or he’s going to kill himself.” And then you will know what to leave in or take out. Or you wait until your father’s death. But if you start out in your writing having these concerns, maybe you are writing things that are vindictive. Or maybe you are not ready to write these scenes. Maybe you need to write them later. Maybe you need to take it from a different angle and it will come out in a different way. But I think that if you always write with compassion and understanding, then you stand a good chance of having that person understand why you are writing this. That you weren’t trying to be vindictive. Being vindictive is an automatic no.

Will you take this technique of spontaneity back to your fiction writing? How else will this foray into memoir affect your work as a novelist?
I always thought as I wrote fiction that I was making discoveries, deep discoveries. I was surprised by how much deeper these went as I was writing this memoir. How much more trouble the memories are and how much more risk I had to take to go into it.

Fiction offers us a subterfuge—I keep using this word—it’s almost similar to donning a costume when I go onstage as a ridiculous singer [as she does as a member of the literary rock band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, whose other members have included Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, and others]. If I wear the costume, I can do ridiculous singing because it’s supposed to be in the guise of a silly person.

I am much closer to who I am when I am writing fiction, but there is still a separation. I write my fiction in the first person but writing memoir is truly first person.

I wonder if, in writing fiction, I am going to be as close to the material now, as I was as writing the memoir. With fiction I will still have that protective mechanism. For my memoir I fell into this safety zone of fiction when I wrote that memory of being in the car with my mother as she threatened to commit suicide. I had to write that in the third person. At first, I wrote it in the first person and I had to take it in the third person because it was so painful. I could only get it out in the third person.

At the same time, I think that writing fiction can be very fun. It allows you to be reflective, and at the same time and there’s the art and craft of fiction that I like. So I don’t think I would ever continue to just write memoir.

You mention that you have a “messy narrative style,” that you might start a novel using one voice speaking from a particular period of time but then you shift to another voice speaking from another period of time. Does this have to do with the dual narrative you lived with your mother?
This seems to be true about every book I’ve written. I start in the present and then go into the past. I think this has to do with an interior sense that whatever is happening in one particular time has a connection to another. I’m really fascinated by what that connection might be.

It’s not always a direct connection. For example, my father was a Christian minister and very devout. That does not mean that the connection to me was that I became a Christian minister or very devout. But what it did do for me was made me question what I do believe and why. And also that I am interested in having a purpose in life, rather than a random one. 

At Squaw Valley you said something surprising—and probably very buoying to many writers—that sometimes you face a blank page and think that you have lost the ability to write another word. But then you start to write again. What’s gets you over that hump and onto writing the next page?
I sometimes have this existential dread that I will never write again. Or, I’m not a writer, or this book isn’t going anywhere. Everyone is going to be disappointed. It makes me sick. Then I just say, “Get over it, you are not the end of the world.”

I’m not a disciplined writer at all. I would never want to convey that and make other writers anxious.

What happened with this memoir is that I gave myself a self-imposed deadline—fifteen to twenty pages a week—and I allowed myself to write bad pages. That’s the thing. Allow yourself to write bad pages and just continue to write spontaneously and in that writer’s mind. Write as much as you can without self-consciousness over bad sentences. Write knowing it’s going to be imperfect—that’s important. Just press on. You might look at it later and maybe you have to throw everything away. But there might be something in there that is valuable, that you can keep.

What three or four qualities make a “literary writer”?
Ah, that’s a terrible term. It has triggered a response equal to what the word “liberals” has attracted from Trump supporters. Being a literary writer might mean that you think you’re better than everybody else, or what literary means is that you’re incomprehensible to about 90 percent of mainstream readers.

But, okay. A literary writer is serious about craft, and doing something original, writing a story that contains an important idea. Literary writing has an important theme and it comes through naturally, logically, imperatively.

What qualities make a superstar writer?
Luck. And some kind of style. There is a great deal of luck involved. You have to get recognized and read. You’re lucky if your book falls into the right hands and if it didn’t come out the day after 9/11. Beyond that, it is having established a voice that people enjoy or want to hear from and being able to provide that.

Superstar writers are not necessarily the best writers. Some have written the same book over and over again. They may have a formula that readers want. Superstar writers have that down. They can be depended upon to deliver what readers like to read. I’m not counting myself as a superstar writer, by the way.

What’s next for you?
My new book is a novel, The Memory of Desire. It’s a book that I dreamed up. The structure, the characters and the setting—they literally came to me in a dream. It is so gratifying to get the setting down. For me, it’s a major part of starting a book. But keep in mind, what works for me may not work for you. 


Alison Singh Gee is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Hong Kong-India memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing, about her comical and complicated relationship with her husband's family palace in Northern India. She teaches creative nonfiction and literary travel writing at UCLA Extension. Find her at Facebook.com/AlisonSinghGee.