A Literary Love Life
Novice novelist Sandi Tan and culture critic John Powers find romance between the sheets of paper.
By Lynne Heffley 09/06/2012
First-time novelist Sandi Tan spent 31⁄2 years writing her astonishing ghost story, The Black Isle, recently released in hardcover by Hachette Book Group’s Grand Central Publishing division after a promotional ebook release in July. A far-reaching, erotic, often horrific tale of one woman’s survival and redemption, Tan’s book takes readers on an odyssey of the supernatural from 1920s Shanghai and the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II to present-day Tokyo. The book has received early applause from Publisher’s Weekly for its “boundless imagination” and “mesmerizing power,” while Booklist has praised the novice author’s “rich imagination” and “lush style.”
Tan sold the book half-finished, an odds-defying surprise for both Tan and her husband, writer John Powers, who wasn’t allowed early access to the work-in-progress. “I knew that he would have opinions,” said Tan, a petite 39-year-old percolating with intensity and a wry sense of humor, “and I knew I didn’t want them.”
Seated near his wife at the dining room table of the couple’s modest 1905 Craftsman-style home in Pasadena, Powers smiles and nods his understanding. He’s never short of opinions. They’re his livelihood. A longtime contributing editor covering film and politics for Vogue and critic-at-large for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Powers spent 12 years as a critic and columnist at the L.A. Weekly, taught English at Georgetown University and is a former Southeast Asia correspondent for Gourmet Magazine. His reviews and commentaries have appeared in other publications, from Rolling Stone and The Nation to the Washington Post and The New York Times. Powers is also the author of Sore Winners: (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America (Doubleday; 2004), a tour through American culture and politics.
Surrounded by an eclectic clutter of books, art and curios from their travels—including an eye-catching stick insect professionally mounted in a specimen box—the couple discussed Tan’s novel, how they met and what it’s like for these two idiosyncratic artists to manage marriage and their separate creative lives.
When they’re working, “we’re very grumpy usually,” said Tan, a filmmaker and herself a former film critic for The Straits Times, Singapore’s major English-language daily newspaper. “Our cat [their beloved Siamese, Nico] is the mediator,” she deadpanned.
“It happens more often with me,” said Powers. “Every now and then there’s a piece that I know isn’t very good, but I want it to be done. I show it to Sandi, and all of a sudden she’s marking things, and I’m furious.”
“I feel the same when he’s marking my manuscripts,” Tan said.
“We have more disagreements over my things than yours,” Powers countered.
“Yes, because you write more and about different things. Mine is kind of like a secret that I keep close to my chest for months. His job, mainly, is to remind me, this is your rhythm—you’re going to be upset and then it’s going to be okay. He’s like a psychological coach.”
It was as a filmmaker that Singapore-born Tan, who holds an MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University, first met Powers. Tan’s short films, which have been screened at such prestigious venues as Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art, include Moveable Feast, her entry in the 1996 Singapore International Film Festival. Powers was among the noted film critics serving as festival judges. “I was the spring chicken of the jury,” he joked. (Powers, 61, blue-eyed, curly-haired, grew up in small-town Iowa in the 1950s and ‘60s.)
The relationship got off to a rocky start. When Tan saw Powers’ name and Vogue
affiliation on the list of judges, she wondered why some “trivial person” from a fashion magazine had been invited. “I was young and naïve and self-serious,” she said. “One of our friends says that it was the classic ‘cute meet.’ ”
“The thing that you’re too modest to say,” Powers told Tan, “is that we met because your short film won the festival. Now all these old guys,” he said, referring to his fellow judges, “think they have a special investment in us because they were basically three feet away the first time that we met, even though we didn’t get together for years after that.”
“He was involved with somebody else,” Tan said, “and then it took some years of getting to know him.”
“And you stood me up,” Powers reminded her.
“Yeah, at Cannes,” Tan said. “I didn’t think he was serious. He said, ‘Meet me after this film,’ and it turned out to be a horrible film. I thought no one could possibly sit through this thing, it’s so wretched. I saw about 10 minutes of it and left.” She turned to Powers. “I assumed you would split.” The couple was married in 2000 in Las Vegas with friends and family in attendance. “I was just attracted to the whole ersatz thing,” Tan said. “They had roller coasters outside the hotel.”
“But to make us seem less frivolous,” added Powers, “we then had a huge banquet in Singapore,” where the couple lived for a year, before relocating to California and one of Pasadena’s artists’ enclaves on the Altadena border.
Tan’s cinematic eye is a major factor in her writing. “Basically, I see images and scenes before the language even comes in.” A photograph Tan found on eBay of G.I.’s kissing women made of snow sparked one memorable scene in her book. Animals behaving strangely—sharks and jellyfish, a lovelorn octopus, a Rottweiler named Agnes—are among other riveting images that signal things are going very wrong on the fictional Black Isle.
The racing heartbeat of Tan’s novel, however, is the history of her home country and her own experiences growing up there as an only child raised by grandparents and an aunt. “In Singapore, everybody seems to have seen something or known somebody who has seen something. I was always afraid to open my eyes in the dark,” she said. “The thing about Singapore today is that it’s incredibly modern. It looks like Denver. I think for a lot of older people, their way of preserving the past is with ghost stories that they tell their grandchildren.
“My father, who is a great believer in these things, keeps telling me that he saw things as a child. He was very bitter, and still is, that no one ever believed him. I thought that since I find these things so terrifying, I should try to get some of my fears on paper and try to exorcise them.” It worked, Tan said. “I’m no longer as superstitious as I once was, because it was hard to write a scary scene. It’s actually quite hard to scare yourself.”
Writing about the brutality of the Japanese occupation proved more difficult. “Real people are more horrifying and terrifying than anything in the supernatural world,” Tan said. “But [the occupation] was very much a part of Singapore history, even though nobody likes to talk about it anymore. I didn’t want to dwell on it, but when you write about war in that part of the world, you can’t not include mentions of it.”
What was Powers’ reaction upon reading the finished book?
“Relief,” he said, to their mutual laughter.
“Because it was good,” Powers continued. “When someone you love has been spending years on something, there’s no guarantee that it will be good. I knew that Sandi had talent, but what impressed me in reading it was that there’s a huge imagination in it.
I mean, I knew that from living with her. Once or twice a week...”
“...I’ll have some crazy idea,” Tan said.
“We’ll be driving,” Powers said, “and she’ll say, ‘Write this down.’ And it’s either a book title or an entire idea for a story.”
“I wanted to do something that was emotionally gripping, as well as exciting,” Tan said. “I’m really glad that my nonsense has finally amounted to something.”
Sandi Tan will read from her new novel, The Black Isle, at 7 p.m. on Sept. 20 at the Glendale Central Library Auditorium, 222 E. Harvard St., Glendale. Call (818) 548-2042 for information.