Amy Tan: ‘Writing it was exhilarating, but I wish it hadn’t been published’

The author of The Joy Luck Club talks about her favourite authors – and why she has misgivings about her own new book

Amy Tan is the author of six bestselling novels, including The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Bonesetter’s Daughter. She has also written a memoir, The Opposite of Fate, and two children’s books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa. She co-produced and wrote the Bafta-nominated film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club and wrote the libretto for the opera version of The Bonesetter’s Daughter. She has served as lead rhythm “dominatrix”, backing singer and second tambourine with the literary garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members have included Stephen King and Scott Turow. Their yearly gigs raised more than $1m for literacy programmes. Tan’s latest book is another autobiography, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir (4th Estate, £18.99). She lives with her husband and two dogs in California and New York.

Your first memoir was published in 2004. What made you want to return to life writing?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was between novels and I needed to write a book that could withstand interruption, because I was on a book tour. It started off as a record of emails about the process of writing between me and my editor, but that was an awful idea. It fell to pieces. Then it turned into something much more personal, about how I write and what inspires me. But once it was done I realised you shouldn’t explain the magic tricks. Writing shouldn’t be dissected and pulled apart. So I hate that this is out there. I told my editor how I felt but he persuaded me it was wonderful and I caved in. I found writing it exhilarating. But I wish it hadn’t been published.

What is the difference between your approach to memoir and fiction?
Memoir is unvarnished. In fact, too much so in this case: I would have revised this book numerous more times. In fiction, I’m much more concerned about the sequence of sentences and the flow of the narrative from beginning to end. When it comes to my own life, the sequence in which I remember things is not necessarily going to be orderly for the reader. Events and memories are going to emerge according to their importance and how they shaped me.

What books are on your bedside table?
I live between California and New York, so I have two piles of books by two bedsides and they make for two embarrassingly greedy lists. The books at the side of my bed in New York are quite different from the books in Sausalito. In the city I have the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson; A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass; Life & Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee; Vanity Fair by William Thackeray; Just Kids, Patti Smith; Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera; Richard Ford’s Canada; Four Quartets, TS Eliot, and Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel. In Sausalito there is Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death by Bernd Heinrich; The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws; The End of the Story and Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis; How to Listen to Jazz by Ted Gioia; and another copy of Collected Poems by Emily Dickinson. That last one I have bought three times, because I am always putting it somewhere and then wondering: “Where the hell is it?”

Can you explain the difference between what you read in New York and what you read in California?
I write in Sausalito and while I am writing I cannot read any wonderful fiction because I get sucked into the story and end up thinking my own novel is a piece of crap. I need to read nonfiction that brings me close to the present. I’m in love with birds, so reading about them and looking at the birds right outside my office brings me to that space without interrupting what I am writing.

What is the last great book you read?
The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine. He’s a Lebanese-American writer who writes about morality, Aids and how we want to forget things that are really painful. I don’t understand why he is not better known. I have been a champion of his books since his first novel, Koolaids, was published 20 years ago, as are Michael Chabon, Colm Tóibín and many other writers. A fun fact: his cousin is the woman who is married to George Clooney, Amal Alamuddin, although she spells her name differently.

Which novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you most admire?
Louise Erdrich is probably my favourite fiction writer, but there is also Richard Ford. His is such a male sensibility, but there is something beyond that – the interior monologue, his commentary on life but also society. Lydia Davis, who I only discovered recently, is another big favourite of mine. In nonfiction, as well as Alameddine, I adore Bernd Heinrich and all of his books on birds and, as a former student of linguistics, I love Deborah Tannen’s writing on language.

Do you have a favourite literary hero or heroine? Antihero or villain?
Antihero or villain is a lot easier than favourite hero or heroine. Mine would be Humbert Humbert. Also Meursault in Camus’s L’Étranger. As well as a composite of everything that was wrong with French society at the time the book was written, Meursault is a sociopath. That was particularly my impression when I listened to this book in French, with Camus reading it. His voice is unforgettable: he speaks in a very flat tone that is absolutely chilling.

Which book did you expect to like but didn’t?
A book given to me by Don DeLillo. I was on a book tour and did an event with him and Michael Ondaatje. They were talking backstage in the green room about books they liked and I felt like such an illiterate. There was one book they went on and on about: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. They couldn’t believe I had never read it. When I arrived at the next hotel on the tour, the receptionist handed me a copy of the book, saying that Don DeLillo had left it for me. I thought, “Wow, this is going to be fantastic, it is going to change my perspective on literature.” And I hated it. This has nothing to do with the literary qualities of the book. It was just so violent. The imagery was brutal. I am a person who absorbs imagery, and I knew that if I kept reading this book I was going to have terrible nightmares. I feel murder. I had a very dear friend who was murdered, I saw the blood. And I cannot read books now about people being killed.

What book might people be surprised to see on your bookshelves?
I get sent a lot of books and I usually just randomly put them on my shelves, because when someone gives me a book I can’t readily throw it away. It doesn’t feel right to me. That means there are a lot of books, romances, for example, that I would not want people to think I would read. Once I gave a party for other writers at my house, and I imagined them glancing at my shelves and thinking: “Oh my God, she reads about poodles?” So I took all my Camus books and my Coetzee books and hid all the other romantic books behind them. I ended up looking really literary.

• Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan is published by Fourth Estate (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Lisa O'Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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