Amy Tan’s new novel is a lesson in love and loss.
AWARD-winning author Amy Tan may have made her bones in the literary world with her brand of endearing and enduring stories of mother-daughter relationships, but only one person has the honour of awarding the popular writer her “biggest laugh” over her latest work.
He had praised The Valley Of Amazement as a “great book”, despite only gifting it to his wife and not reading it himself.
“As a result of her reading it, their sex life improved and she was willing to try all kinds of things. I’ve never had an accolade like that!” Tan shares during a recent e-mail interview.
What is a boudoir boost for one man is a long-awaited book for many Tan fans worldwide.
When work on her newest book first began, the 61-year-old author was eight years younger, and the story was a different one all together. Earlier drafts saw the story starting in an abandoned cowshed, where a mother and daughter had been banished to after a fire that killed the woman’s husband.
“Her crime lay in not sacrificing her own life to save him,” explains Tan.
That idea had been inspired by a trip to the Dong minority village in the mountains of Guizhou, China’s most remote and arguably poorest province, where a tragedy saw a fifth of the village burned down and a man banished to a similar fate.
Despite completing 200 pages, Tan was prompted to start anew by the discovery of certain photographs of her grandmother, which suggested that the lady might have been a courtesan.
What finally emerged from the fire, figurative and otherwise, is an epic story spanning generations and continents.
Here, the eclectic cast of characters are led by Tan’s signature strong female personalities while the tale unfolds in a glamorous courtesan house in the razzle and dazzle of Shanghai, the streets of 19th century San Francisco and a remote Chinese village.
Lucretia Minturn is the masterful American mistress of a luxurious courtesan house in turn-of-the-century Shanghai, while her tempestuous half-Chinese daughter, Violet, is a privileged bloom in a “house of flowers”.
Though the duo faces great odds throughout the novel, Tan’s own take on destiny and fate – one informed by her mother’s sense of Chinese fate, her Baptist minister father’s belief in God’s will, and an American education with peers who believed themselves entitled to the pursuit of happiness – endowed her characters with a persistent hopefulness that refuses to succumb to fate.
The Valley Of Amazement is centred on the theme of identity, which, according to Tan, is about “personality and its determinants” that impact attitudes, desires, and emotional resonance between one person and another.
“Are there traits in me ‘inherited’ non-genetically by upbringing, circumstance and observed example? What can I undo?” she asks.
Tan’s upbringing featured themes from several habits that she shares with her mother, such as anger over condescension and an inability to forgive betrayal.
“I believe my mother received those from her mother. But there are also traits I did not inherit, such as suicidal impulses (that they both had),” she says.
While they may share certain common attitudes, Tan feels that their spirits are not manifested in the same way, partly due to vastly differing social circumstances.
“I could have divorced my husband if he had abused me. I was not forced to have children. I chose my life. I chose to be a writer,” she adds.
As for the whimsical title, it was plucked from a brief visit to Berlin, where Tan chanced upon a “particularly dramatic painting” at the Alte Nationalgalerie seven years ago.
At the time, she had not known she would use its title for her book, or include the painting as a key piece in the plot.
“It was a fantastical landscape with a man standing on a ledge. He is surveying a valley at either sunset or sunrise, and either before a storm or after it. It is both ominous and hopeful. That ambiguity was unsettling and also familiar,” says Tan.
With a substantial part of the story devoted to the courtesan world, Tan also had to explore previously uncharted territory.
“I avoided bedroom scenes before in part because people tend to think everything I write is autobiographical. I shuddered at the idea that people would think they were peering into my bedroom window,” she confesses.
But at her freelance editor’s command, Tan included sex scenes to establish the nature of the business of courtesans: a transaction formed on illusions and negotiation, as well as a need for security and love.
She was surprised at how much fun she had writing about the subject, though she did ask her editor at Ecco to keep her from writing corny love scenes, a process she found “funny and insightful” as they sought to use terminology that was neither coy nor jarring.
“I found it hilarious to write about the sex manual and to include the actual names of positions and products used during that era.
“But I also wrote about the depth of our emotions as humans, expressed as a connection of body and spirit,” she adds.
But with her first foray into fiction taking only four months to flesh out, some have questioned why The Valley Of Amazement took two years shy of a decade to write (her last novel, Saving Fish From Drowning, was released in 2005).
Tan clarifies that The Joy Luck Club was not intended to be a novel, and first existed as an outline of stories: “I did not struggle in the same way to connect all the pieces of the narrative.”
She finds every novel harder than the last, and owes this in part to an increasing number of intriguing distractions, such as writing the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter opera for three of the last eight years.
“The hardest part about writing a novel is overcoming the fear that I will not find the essence of the story. I begin each story with an image that includes a place, a situation, and an ambiguity of emotion,” she says.
Eventually, the nature of the ambiguity becomes more defined as she writes: “Images enlarge, as do the emotions.”
Tan’s addiction to research may have also contributed to the delay: “There is never enough, so there is always too much.”
Research books line the shelves above her desk, she says, while her iPad is home to other electronic editions. Notes are scribbled in dozens of journals, along with transcriptions of oral interviews.
And lest anyone think it an entirely cushy process, Tan also jokes about her enlightening stay in a 400-year-old mansion in a very small village in Anhui province, which formed the basis for the Moon Pond village location in The Valley Of Amazement.
“It had belonged to a merchant and we discovered its fascinating features and its discomforts. The furniture was typical of the period, the rooms were tiny, and there was no glass in the windows. It was incredibly cold that spring. I suffered for my art!” she says.
This obsession with research probably stems from Tan’s old fear of fumbling historical details, or possessing inadequate authentic knowledge of a person’s psychology in a specific period.
However, Tan received “surprising remarks” from older readers, including her mother, who believe that she described exactly how they felt about such harrowing incidents as having to leave their child by the road or watching raging flood waters destroy their home.
“I realised then that if you write authentically about emotions, the details will take care of themselves. Everything surrounding the story is believable because that world is felt,” she says.
Happily, readers need not wait another eight years for Tan to weave another world in her writing.
She is currently working on The Memory Of Desire, a story about a family dispute over a house in San Francisco, slated for release in 2016.
Asked if the building of her own house lent itself to this upcoming work, Tan said nothing she learnt during the process – which “created a huge disruption of time” – had been useful in writing a novel.
Instead, she cherishes the support received from her readers: “As I grow older, I am increasingly grateful that I can actually make my living through imagination. Thanks to my readers for making that possible.”