write to win

Embracing your complicated family and four other lessons on fiction writing from Amy Tan

The American writer of novels such as the ‘Joy Luck Club’ stood out at the Jaipur Literature Festival for her candour, self-reflection and insight into writing.

One of the first things you notice about Amy Tan is the razor-sharp precision with which she talks. The American writer doesn’t use a word out of place, measures what she wants to convey before she says it and at the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, she managed the near-impossible – speaking on multiple panels with sharp clarity and not the slightest hint of a litfest ramble. Which makes it even more pleasantly surprising that the controlled author is also strikingly open, speaking candidly about everything from the time her mother threatened to kill her with a meat cleaver to how she goes about the process of writing.

With six New York Times-bestselling novels under her belt, and another on the way, the writer is a master hand at imbuing her fiction with deeply personal facets of her own life. Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Tan lived in twelve different homes by the time she graduated from high school, a nomadic lifestyle of constantly adapting to new environments that she says trained her to notice every little detail. She lost her father and brother when she was a teenager and had a troubled relationship with her mother up until her death.

Tan’s best-known novel, of course, is The Joy Luck Club, a tale of the generational divide between Chinese immigrant mothers and daughters. As a theme, the relationship between mothers and daughters recurs in most of her books, one that succeeds because of a keen introspection and excavation of her own relationship by Tan. Easily one of the high points of the Jaipur Literature Festival, her insight on the art of writing fiction, particularly in a conversation with author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, was illuminating, practical and unfiltered. Here then, are five takeaways from Tan on the craft of writing.

Embrace complications and turmoil

Every fiction writer mines from their own life and while Tan doesn’t necessarily advocate a family life as messy as hers, she says it doesn’t hurt. As an adult, Tan discovered that her mother had left behind a family in China when she migrated to the United States with a lover. She found out that she had half-sisters whom she had never known about. The betrayal of this secret, however, was soon overtaken by a desire to know more. “When you’re a writer, everything becomes...well, not material...but a part of the understanding of life because you’re curious to know more,” she said while referring to her far-from-perfect upbringing. It’s a curiosity that translates to a love for detail, a crucial ingredient for engaging fiction writing.

Don’t be afraid to dig deep

One of Tan’s most sensational revelations at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which she also wrote about in her recently-published memoir Where The Past Begins, is from a time when she was 16 years old. She was living in Switzerland at the time, dating a German man older than her, who had a child with another woman, no job and no prospects. Her mother did not approve. One day, infuriated, her mother pushed her against a wall, bathing them in the sunlight streaming through a window and pressed a meat cleaver to her throat, threatening to kill her daughter, and then herself. It was an incident that the now 66-year-old writer had completely blocked from her memory, surfacing many years later at a writer’s workshop, when she was asked to think about her death.

Once the memory returned, Tan recalled it in all its vivid detail. “It felt like the end of love, it could have been the end of life,” she said. But it added another degree of complication to a relationship made murky by the death of the two men in their family – the incident occurred shortly after the death of Tan’s father and brother. But unlocking the memory made her a better writer, unraveling why and how people act recklessly, irrationally and hopelessly against those they love.

Choose your editor very carefully

Tan is a generous writer, not only in how much she shares, but also how much credit she gives to her editors. It makes all the difference, she says. The legendary editor, Faith Sale, who discovered Tan’s writing said in an interview that it was “the biggest thrill an editor can have.” Tan for her part, credits Sale for being the opposite of a “crushing” editor – hands-on, an integral part of her daily life and quietly pushing her when something could be fleshed out further. “You need an editor who engages with a writer’s emotional life and health,” said Tan. With all the psychological hurdles that the process of writing includes, an editor who makes the effort to “get you” and your life is critical, Tan believes.

When Faith Sale died after the publication of her third novel, Tan chose her new editor, Daniel Halpbern, because he had been mentored by Sale. Her memoir, in fact, is almost as much about a writer’s relationship with an editor as it is about her own life and writing. There’s no way she would have written it if it wasn’t for him, she admits. When it comes to editing herself, Tan reads her work out aloud, sentence by sentence. “It’s how you catch the bad sentences and know when something is false and not about the story.”

Don’t try to write representative fiction

For all her acclaim, Tan’s writing career has also been plagued by accusation of perpetuating racial stereotypes, misrepresenting Chinese culture and inaccurately depicting details for a Western audience. Tan admitted the criticism affected her deeply when she first began writing, spurring her to defend herself and what she had written. Now, she claims, she’s learned better and does not believe that fiction should be representative. “It would be impossible to represent billions of Asians, that would be propaganda” she said. “I cannot carry the burden of billions of people by myself.”

Pay attention to your dreams

In his absorbing book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes the creative potential of entering a waking dream-like condition. “As your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night – six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight – so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction,” he writes. Tan is no stranger to King, having played with the horror writer in a band called Rock Bottom Remainders, but when it comes to the creative power of dreams, she takes it one step further.

“On New Year’s Eve, I dreamt up an entire novel, complete with characters,” she said, when asked a related question about the dream-like nature of her writing. “I now have the framework of a novel, with the details needed to be fleshed out.” She hasn’t written it yet and acknowledged that an excruciating amount of work will need to go into making it whole, a process she likened to making a sculpture. Perhaps being an already brilliant novelist has something to do with it, but for all those writers diligently maintaining a dream journal, there might be hope of a bestselling novel in those pages.

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