Amy Tan is a rock star—and not just because she sings with the literary rock band Rock Bottom Remainders in a dominatrix outfit.
“At the end of my song, I take my whip and whip all the boys. They have to bend over and I whip them. People have seen me whip Stephen King and Mitch Albom,” she said.
Yes, the woman who wrote “The Joy Luck Club” is beyond cool, but that’s something her Filipino fans already know.
When Amy announced on Twitter that she was going to the Philippines, National Book Store (NBS) was besieged with interview requests and messages from fans who wanted to know how they could meet their favorite writer. “They said, ‘What do we need to do to have our book signed?’ or ‘I really want to have my book signed’ or ‘I’ll do anything to have my book signed,’” said NBS marketing director. Miguel Ramos. “We’re expecting over a thousand people to show up for ‘The Spotlight on Amy Tan’ panel on Friday.”
Amy and Chang-Rae Lee are the featured writers of NBS’ first Philippine Literary Festival, happening until Saturday at Raffles Makati.
Asked why she said yes to coming to Manila, Amy said, “In part, it was because Mitch Albom said I should come here, that he had a wonderful time and I should do it. I was coming off a year of a lot of travel and I was exhausted, but I was told that it really was a place I should go.”
Filipino readers have a way of welcoming visiting authors extra warmly, but make no mistake—Amy would rather be called a writer than an author. “A writer is an active thing and an author is a very impersonal public title. An author, it’s like the name on a book. But I’m not authoring, I’m writing. I don’t know, the title ‘author’ just seems very pretentious, so I like ‘writer’ better.”
Amy is elegant, poised, sharp and funny. And we had a blast with her in a suite at Raffles Makati, talking about her Internet habits, her band, her latest book “The Valley of Amazement,” appearing on “The Simpsons” and having dinner with Anthony Bourdain (and not knowing who he was).
Were you aware of your huge fan base in the Philippines before coming here?
No, I had no idea. Mitch Albom told me that I have a lot of readers, but I started posting on Twitter and Facebook and I got a lot of response. So that was surprising.
Your tweets are so funny. How quickly did you embrace social media?
I had started doing Twitter a while ago, but I had really not settled in on what I would tweet over time. My publisher Harper Collins encouraged me to do more tweeting. And I started
settling into writing a lot about daily life. And then, of course, there’s some mention of the books available. But it would be more of an interaction with the readers.
I love your battle against the eggheads on Twitter.
(Laughs) Yes, I know. I’ve just been invaded, it’s horrible. If I don’t do anything about it, I’m gonna have a million followers by the end of the year.
Does social media have an effect on your writing process?
No, no. In fact, I wish I could have shorter novels. I am limited by Twitter to, what is it, 140 characters. That’s a challenge. The only effect would be less time writing.
Do you read reviews of your books?
I did not read reviews of my books after the second book. It was too disturbing to me, even the praise… I didn’t want to be influenced by that. The recent book, I haven’t pushed them away. When my publisher shows them to me, I scan them but I don’t read the whole thing. It’s been 25 years, I don’t have to take them as seriously.
What was singing with Rock Bottom Remainders like?
It is the silliest experience I have ever had; it was the scariest experience when we first did it back in 19… how many years ago, 22 years ago, in 1991? Something like that. I did not have a voice, a singing voice, but I found that it was really gonna be our motto: three chords and an attitude. You have to have an attitude. And I wear a silly costume, a dominatrix costume… You know, they just really go crazy, they just think I’m such a good singer. (Laughs)
Will you play with them again?
We had retired over two years ago, but we’ve been playing ever since. We’re gonna play again in Tucson, Arizona, in March.
What did you think of the film version of “The Joy Luck Club?”
I actually loved it because I worked on it. We put everything in there that we wanted. I was working with terrific guys. I never intended to work on the film and they kind of lured me into it gradually, in bits and pieces. I had a wonderful education on film and an experience with the best possible circumstances with people who deeply respected the book, the words, in a film in which we had total creative control. No one gets that.
And because we held out, we said, we’re not gonna sell it after we’d written the screenplay until we get that, and we managed to get it. I didn’t realize until later how impossible that was.
How did it feel to have “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” turned into an opera?
That was also one of those surreal, amazing experiences because I had been raised with classical music and so I had a deep, deep appreciation of music. And the best part was working with the composer and going into what he calls his sound world, which would be equivalent to a writer’s voice. Going into little villages and gathering sounds with him in China, then sitting down and composing words and music together. That was thrilling.
You mentioned in an interview that you always wrote for your grandmother.
My grandmother and my mother, thinking that they are going to be very discerning of whether I’m probing deeply and coming up with something that is honest and not simply something that sounds good. In that way, yes, they are my critics. My sh*t detector.
I know you didn’t get the chance to meet your grandmother, but it seems you have a strong relationship with her, and she inspired “The Valley of Amazement” in a way.
I feel that I know her by knowing myself more deeply. Because she obviously influenced my mother, and my mother had a profound influence on me. And some of the attitudes and beliefs that my mother really emphasized, I have to believe, came from my grandmother. In that sense, she’s a part of me, just as my mother is a part of me.
This book is not about my grandmother, but includes the question I had that my grandmother might have been a courtesan. Whatever her circumstances, something was given to her in her life that was not her choosing, and she had to make her way and have a sense of herself to survive.
I read about how your relatives in China reacted strongly to you exploring that possibility, that your grandmother was a courtesan. Is that something you always have to take into consideration when you write—making sure that your relatives are not offended?
That was the first time I’ve had that in writing a book. There was a fear that I would be writing about my grandmother. Part of my going forward with the idea of my grandmother possibly being in this is that the myth was so obviously not who she was. She was not old-fashioned, she was not a quiet woman, and to me that description meant that she didn’t exist.
When I discovered what these photos meant, not that she was absolutely a courtesan, but that she had either a sense of humor, a sense of style, a forwardness, an attitude, then she became a real person. And I thought that was important, too. So I hesitate not just for my family, but also knowing that you can’t make a claim that somebody was in a certain profession. If somebody looked at the photograph of me with the dominatrix clothes and said, “She was a dominatrix,” that would be inaccurate. But I think they could say, “She was daring, she had a sense of humor, she wasn’t quiet or traditional”—me, as well as my grandmother.
You started writing fiction when you were 33. Do you ever wish you started earlier?
I don’t know whether I would have been prepared or had the impetus to do what I did. But in a way, I was writing fiction from a very early age because we would move almost every year during my childhood. I was always leaving behind friends, and to keep up with them, I would write them letters. I found it very boring to write after a while, “Here is my school,” “Here’s what I’m wearing today.” So I would make up stories. I gave myself different names, my adventures, so in that sense I was writing already.
You led such an eventful life, even before you became a best-selling writer. Do you think your experiences with death, trauma and tragedy shaped you into becoming the writer you are?
Absolutely. I think that writers often… it’s not that they just have imagination, it’s the qualities of the imagination and where they come from—memories, trauma are an excellent push into thinking more deeply about life and death and why we’re here, the meaning of life. They force us to observe more clearly and look for things to observe in human nature, ourselves.
We’ve seen some parallels between your books and your life, but just how autobiographical are your novels? And do you have to draw the line sometimes?
I do, because I have people who say, “Oh, how are your daughters?” I have to say, “I don’t have children.” “Oh, I thought you did, I read that you did.” You read it in a novel. Or they’ll say, “You know, I left my husband for the same reasons.” And I’d say, “No, it’s fiction.” Or, “Do you still play chess?” What’s autobiographical are the kinds of conflicts or the emotional questions that I’ve asked myself. I make up situations, contexts, narratives that may be very different from my life, but will include some things that maybe reflect a part… You know, that I play classical piano, that my mother expected that I would be a prodigy. But I did not have a scene like that in “The Joy Luck Club” in real life.
What was it like being featured on “The Simpsons”?
Oh, that was hilarious. (Simpsons creator) Matt Groening is in the band, he’s a good friend. What was really funny was Matt giving me the script and going through about 25 different iterations, and he wanted me to be spontaneous, improvise. And I had to be meaner and meaner and meaner to Lisa until I was cursing her. And it would have been child abuse if they had used any of that. But of course, we used probably the safest one, which was the one they had scripted.
Can you tell us about your writing process—do you have specific working conditions you require before you can work, or can you write anytime, anywhere?
Or I cannot write anytime. (Laughs) Usually I like to write later than early. During the writing of the book when I’m really heading toward the finish, I sometimes can write for 12 to 16 hours a day, but through the night; it’s the quietest time in the house, I do my best work.
What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
I enjoy reading any book with a very strong voice. I like first-person narratives especially. Right now, I brought along two books. One is by Anthony Bourdain, whom I had dinner with. I had no idea who he was, I thought he was just a cook and I thought, why did I get seated next to this guy? A chef, you know, and I don’t cook. And I found out later as he was talking that he had all these interesting places he goes to, interesting food.
He was here.
A couple of years ago.
Well, I had dinner with him all night long, and I had no idea until the end of the night who he was and what he did, and he does exactly what I love to do: to go to interesting places and try things. And so I was reading his book, I think it’s his first book, sort of the early books where he goes to crazy places.
We’ve read some of your tweets about it. But how do you feel about the Umbrella Revolution?
So many of the changes in the past in China have started with these student revolutions. A lot of them ended violently, as they did in 1989. And I watch it with trepidation. You have to say that these students are so brave to stick up for something that’s so important, and yet it’s with a feeling that it might be futile. The fear that they might be hurt. And they’re young students who are so idealistic about what can be done.
China has never ever given in to any kind of public shame. You look at their record, and you wonder what they’re going to give in return, and you hope that it’s some kind of dialogue. The world is watching more closely because we have the Internet, we have Facebook, we have Twitter, and they also don’t want to undermine, I think, the progress and the image that’s been made as an economic leader, so who knows? All these factors are a little different from what they were in the past.
By the way, I am going to be in Hong Kong on the 26th. I will be there for four days, so I will be able to see. Apparently, where I’m going to be staying is fairly close to where the demonstrations are, and I’m gonna be with friends who have been carefully watching it, people in the media. I will get to see more.
Are you going to be there for a book signing?
No, it’s just to relax on the way home. I haven’t seen my goddaughter in a couple of years, and I have relatives I haven’t seen in a number of years, so that’s what I’m going to do, visit them.
What are five things you can’t live without?
My husband. I don’t know what I would do for so many reasons.
Forty-four years together, right?
Forty-four years. He’s here, he’s downstairs. He knows all my needs, and I’m always so grateful that he is willing to go on these trips because they’re not always fun, a city a day…
I hope this one’s gonna be fun.
Yeah. This one’s far more interesting to him. But for medical reasons, I can’t travel alone, so if he’s not with me, I have to hire someone who comes with me. I have epilepsy, I’m not afraid to say that. I have seizures when I’m stressed, and they happen most often in an airport. So he makes it less stressful, but also takes care of me if something happens.
The other is my dogs, of course, I’d never be able to be without them. I’d never be able to be without a book. That and something to write with, a journal book. Some of the worst
situations I’ve been in, I’d get to an appointment at the doctor’s and I’d have nothing to read, nothing to write with, and I’m stuck there and I look at the magazines and they’re all sports magazines or something and I’m thinking, what am I going to do? So I just have my mind to reflect on a question I want to think about.
Do you write more on the computer?
I do, although in the beginning of a book, I do a lot of notes freehand in a journal because everything seems less permanent and more free. I can play with ideas, cross them out, do arrows, referencing them to that, write down inspiration. I star everything that’s original to me so that I know later when I go through my notes what those ideas are. That, at a very early stage, is what I do. I think that’s an important thing.
What’s the craziest thing a fan has done to get your attention?
There’s a bar in San Francisco called AsiaSF, and there was an Asian guy who dressed up as me, and I just thought, “Wow, okay, that’s very unusual.” That was funny.
Do people get tattoos of quotes from your books?
Yeah, they do, which I should write down. They pick out really good ones. On Twitter, I say, “Where did that come from?” And they say, “You wrote it.” And I think, “Really? That’s great!” I should actually go through Twitter and write down the ones people have picked out because I don’t remember them. I should put together something, because I’m asked for “quotable quote” things.