Family secrets

Family secrets

Author Amy Tan discusses her dramatic life history and new novel in an appearance sponsored by Vroman's

By Carl Kozlowski 12/04/2013

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Amy Tan has earned worldwide acclaim as the author of nine best-selling books that are mostly rooted in the stories of Chinese women and their struggles to find dignity and respect. Her latest, "The Valley of Amazement," follows the parallel stories of a mother and daughter who each experience betrayals which force them to work respectively as a madam and a courtesan in Shanghai near the dawn of the 20th century.

Tan will be appearing at UCLA's Freud Playhouse on Tuesday night in a special event hosted by Pasadena's Vroman's Bookstore, answering questions about the new book as well as her overall life and career.

In a recent interview with the Pasadena Weekly, Tan reveals that her leap into success as a fiction writer almost never happened.

"I was late in writing fiction and started at age 33, but I had done business writing and education before that," Tan recalls. "What I enjoyed doing in part was writing grant proposals. I'd get hired for that because I had a very good hit rate. I never thought it was a means to support myself. I was racking up 90 billable hours a week but didn't enjoy it. I used to go to my office and wonder if that was what I'd be doing in 10 years. I started writing fiction, and I thought you don't have to make money, just write what your heart says, since I was making plenty already."

Tan was born in the United States in 1952, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her father was an electrical engineer and Baptist minister. Her mother, Daisy, had left behind a lifetime of secret hardships, Tan said, among them abandoning three other daughters. Her mother also believed she was being haunted by the ghost of her own mother, who killed herself when Daisy was just 9 years old.

Tan's debut novel, "The Joy Luck Club," was named after an informal social group whose members encouraged each other to achieve the American Dream by playing the stock market. Although her parents found rapid success through their participation, tragedy struck when Tan's father and brother died of brain tumors just six months apart and her mother forced her to move with her to Switzerland to escape the curse Daisy felt had been unleashed upon the family.

It was there that Tan's life became even more dramatic. As a teen she joined the Swiss counterculture and was headed for trouble after being arrested for drug use. But she took that arrest as a wake-up call, going on to win a series of scholarships to American colleges. Soon after that, she met her husband on a blind date in 1970 before going on to work with disabled children, getting caught up in her business writing career and eventually hitting a home run in 1989 with the release of her first book, a smash hit.

"Fame was frightening for me because I hadn't wished for it," says Tan. "It was like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. I cried the day my book was published, because I was happy already and now my life was changing. I really held back and didn't believe it was going to last. I didn't think it was real. It was good to think of my life that way. I have to tell myself that any day could be the last one anyone buys a book of mine. You can try to plan your life but you never know."

One fun perk of fame has been performing over the past decade as a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a humorous rock band which counts among its members best-selling writers Stephen King, Dave Barry and Mitch Albom. Tan recently enjoyed a reunion with the band at the Miami Book Fair. But for the most part, she enjoys a quiet home life with her husband and their four Yorkshire Terriers, or Yorkies.

"We love each other too much to stop performing completely, so we get together privately but wonder if we will play publicly again," says Tan. "One of our members is James McBride and he just won a National Book Award, so we had a lot of fun ribbing him onstage and saying he needs to do solos now. It's really fun because everyone knows us now and we get to just have fun and not just be authors."

For "Amazement," Tan drew inspiration from a photo she saw in a book about Shanghai, in which a group of courtesans appeared to be wearing the same kind of outfit Tan's grandmother often wore. Realizing that her grandmother had likely been forced into that lifestyle, she decided to dive in on researching that era and the culture in order to write a book of her own about it.

Tan has found that people at nearly every stop of her extensive book tour are telling her they believe or know that their grandmothers went through the secret of being a courtesan or a mistress or prostitute. "These family secrets that seem to be the most shameful are sexual, but they are very common," she says.

"All my books are inspired by family, but I'm writing about self-identity in all of them," says Tan. "Who am I and how did I become this way? Obviously family and mothers have a role they play in shaping who we become, certainly in daughters. There are other influences, even unknown ones from the past. My grandmother may have had to do it for economic reasons, so what did she give up to do that and what did she never give up? I don't know if other people are obsessed with that. You're born into a certain family. If you're born to the Queen of England, that sets you off a certain way in life. It's that kind of thing but more to do with values than financial success and how we see ourselves."

Amy Tan will discuss and sign "The Valley of Amazement" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Freud Playhouse, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromans.com.

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