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Amy Tan's Journey To 'The Valley Of Amazement'

December 3, 2013 1:28 p.m.


Amy Tan, bestselling author of "The Joy Luck Club." Her latest novel is "The Valley of Amazement."

Related Story: Amy Tan's Journey To 'The Valley Of Amazement'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Amy Tan's new book ìThe Valley of Amazementî has been long awaited by fans who loved her other books. This book is very different, but centers around the theme of the journey of self discovery through examining mother-daughter relationships. For your fans, we should let them know that you will be in La Jolla next week on Monday evening at Warwicks Book Store. The characters in your books are often powerful women and these happen to be high-class courtesans. Why did you decide to start the book in a high-class courtesans house in Shanghai?

AMY TAN: I never imagined I would be writing about courtesans. But I came across a photo and it said ten beauties of Shanghai, I thought those women, those women were wearing clothes identical to clothes my grandmother was wearing in my photo of her when they were courtesans that led me to think was my grandmother a courtesan? And the clothing was so specific and I thought at first that maybe it was a popular outfit, and it had a head band that formed the fee at the top of four head with and had a high neck quarter caller that went just below the year in a tight jacket shorter sleeves sleeves and tight pants, and taken in the photo studio what known as a Western photo studio.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Did you set out to write a different book before you saw the photograph?

AMY TAN: I did for the first five years, is writing a book that was set high in the mountains and not in the Shanghai courtesan houses, and it did concern a mother-daughter who are separated, but is far different.

ALISON ST. JOHN: When you consider that your grandmother might have been of courtesan, how did that change her sense of self?

AMY TAN: I discovered that some of the story of that was always talk about my grandmother was true and said that she was quite old-fashioned and a victim of society, but she might've been a victim of society but which is not quiet or old-fashioned and I thought about my mother, and myself and the qualities that must've passed down from her, this finished quality of independence and need to be independent and determine your own self-worth, and so as I was doing for the research, family research and history, I get than the mind, who was she and how did that affect UIM court

ALISON ST. JOHN: There's a thread running through the book in the way of doubts about whether the mother who really loves the daughter, what are you exploring in that relationship?

AMY TAN: I think that all daughters at some point wonder what the motherly love encompasses and how much testing can you do to see how deep it is. Violet finds that but her mother's compassion is often consumed by individuals with men and her business and she is not receiving as much as she think she deserves. Also explored what I thought had gone on with the daughters and my half-sister of my mother's first marriage and they had been abandoned by her later in life, she did not see them for thirty years. They talked about this with quality of love and so, in part that was what it went up to come this part of the book. Examining and am looking at that, did my mother really love me?

ALISON ST. JOHN: We all relate to this idea of partly learning who you are from finding out more about your mother, the you think it is so important, such a rich source of creativity because of the nature of Chinese-American relationships by the American relationships or because of your particular mother or the more universal?

AMY TAN: I always thought it was just my particular mother and I discovered that many people have this kind of mother and we're very pleased to know in some way that's not totally personal and I think that there are qualities of mothers and daughters in many relationships that are universal.

ALISON ST. JOHN: One of the most delightful chapters in the book is the one with the one who is Violet's attendant and he was instructing her on how to be a first-class courtesan and she is a down to earth humorous and practical. Read us something from that.

AMY TAN: Do you want to wear out your insides by the time you are sixteen? Of course not. Learn these lessons well while you're still a virgin courtesan, you must learn all the arts of enticement and the balance of anticipation and reticence. You can forest and it won't happen into the year. By the time that Madame is ready to sell your bud, you might be thinking what does my attendant know about romance, but I was nineteen I was one of the top ten beauties of Shanghai, and not too many courtesans lasted until they are thirty-two. So you see, I know more than most. Always remember little Violet, you are creating a world of romance and illusion, we play the zither they must be the aching or joyous companion to your song poem. Sing to your suitor as if there is no one else is in the room that is it worked great that brought you to together at this moment in this place. They cannot simply plucked the silkscreen to let memorize words from your mouth, you might as well not play had all humans will take the sedan directly to the brothel where no one bothers with illusions.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Reading from her new book the Valley of Amazement. This is fun, learning about how to create the illusions of love, which you think this book is about female power to skillfully wield the understanding of sexuality get what you want?

AMY TAN: Has a lot to do with understanding everyone's desires and egos, the illusions of who they think they are or wanted to be there ideal self and that is what the courses are teaching young for the region courtesans to be attentive to that. But at the same time they courtesans have their own illusions about the kind of life that they might have it for me the wind that special person or become more popular than most.

ALISON ST. JOHN: You did put a lot of research and that in this chapter of etiquette for beauties, tells about how you did your research.

AMY TAN: I went to different places in China for example one of the international settlements where that's where the courtesan houses relocated and I talked to three academicians who specialties were cultured in the twentieth century in this Shanghai specifically I read numerous books and just to get a feel for what might've been like during that those early years, it was a love of doing this research and I wanted to immerse myself in this world and imagine what it might have been like for my grandmother that she had been a courtesan. It's interesting that Chinese courtesans brought this Western culture to Shanghai, you see them as being more to change than other women?

AMY TAN: They were the popularizers of all kinds of things from fashion to furniture. That was one of the first things I learned when I started reading about courtesans that they had such an influence and I thought about why this was of course our clients were some of the most powerful men in the city and these were people who took what was popular in the courtesan house into their own homes and they were like Lady Gaga's of their time, wearing these outlandish fashions and going in exotic carriages attracting as much attention could come young girls would faint at the sight of them and other women would be looking at them with disdain.

ALISON ST. JOHN: They were also very quite powerful businesswomen as well. They actually had an effect on the business world in Shanghai.

AMY TAN: This is partially my imagination that they would have this effect because they are very good negotiations the initiators and if you know any Shanghai woman and you know that there is something about them that is different in their way to be persistent and good negotiators. The women were privy to hearing what these men were talking about because they came in with several boyfriends always would have drinks or what have dinner together and play games, but throughout the time they would be talking about the lives of what was going on in their businesses.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So some of it was very based on your research and your imagination, what were the historical details that you felt were important where you let yourself go more?

AMY TAN: On is the time. In Shanghai, illicit explosive growth due to the foreign trade and business deals between Westerners and Shanghai ease at that time and it was historically significant the end of the sheet dynasty and the and of thousands of years of Imperial year you will and the rise of the Republic, was also the time of gangsters that took on a very influential role and also later syndicated the courtesan houses so you know that there were periods also of intense anti-foreign movements, and those were things that would lead to implications in the future and even to this day.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Said this is your that I've spoken your first novel in several years, how was it writing it, but different when you wrote your first book?

AMY TAN: All of my books have been differences were first put back to do with expectations and conscious sense that the reviewers waiting with their sharpened pens, and readers who expect a tender mother-daughter story, and I think it's tender but I don't know if there going to expect something is going to be so different from the other ones and terms of what these mothers and daughters do. It's been nerve-racking and I think in part that is why took so long.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I heard that he spoke about how something is produced from nothing and is a function or function of nature and nurture something in between that you called nightmares, do nightmares literally inform your work?

AMY TAN: The epicenter of my past and briefings and what happened for example, there was a time when my mother was incredibly angry at me because I wouldn't stop seeing the boyfriend who was a German Army deserter who was unemployed and suicidal. She was so crazed about what was happening and my father and brother had died a year before, that in itself was a horrible nightmare. And she backed me up against the wall when they with a cleaver hand and said that she was going to kill me and then my brother and myself so we can she be done with the misery and join my brother and father and I go back to those moments of extreme terror and loss and that goes into my fiction.

ALISON ST. JOHN: There are days that you locked yourself away to force yourself to finish this book.

AMY TAN: My husband brought me meals three times a day and breakfast lunch and dinner and assurance foods that I was well taken care of. But in this mad dash, and complete sweat to finish this book.

ALISON ST. JOHN: You obviously got a lot of meaning out of this novel. Has that sort of merged with the process?

AMY TAN: All of my books at you with self-identity and how I became the Lamb. And a very strange notion when I was younger that had been ported to the rock family and I felt like I went into debt issued and blended into Chinese family and even Chinese food chain to make the Chinese and throughout the years, I wondered how much my mother is that influence of my thoughts. I went through periods when I got married and wondered if I was losing something of yourself and I think many people with true crisis identity in a way and when I was writing the book I thought of all of the books and and the things that caught the came down for my mother my grandmother which was derived from trauma which was an inheritance of trauma and circumstances and I did find a number of things of flattery and one was an inability to forgive those who had betrayed me and that was powerful with my mother and my grandmother and they both had suicidal tendencies they came out during those moments.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Are you writing another book already or are you taking a break?

AMY TAN: I'm always having something in mind, one of them is a novel and I have ideas for that some of the things in nonfiction book on writing.

ALISON ST. JOHN: We look forward to seeing you in La Jolla next week at Warwick bookstore where you will read through the new book the Valley of Amazement. That is Monday, December 9 at 730 and I would like to thank you so much for joining us and sharing what you did with this book.