by guest contributor Stefanie Hollmichel
There was a packed house to see the Hennepin County Library’s Talk of the Stacks event with Amy Tan on Wednesday, November 13 2013 at the Minneapolis Central library. The crowd filled Pohlad Hall and two overflow rooms. After introductions were made, Tan stepped out on stage. She is a petite woman with a big presence.
Instead of the usual author reading approach of providing a brief overview of the book followed by reading a number of long passages and then taking questions, Tan spent about forty minutes mostly telling stories about her grandmother and mother which then led to the writing to her new book, The Valley of Amazement.
Tan’s grandmother married the richest man in Shanghai. There are two versions about how this happened. She and her half-sister were staying in the house of the man who would become her husband. At one point during the night her sister got up and left the room and the man came in. In one version of the story he held a knife to her throat and told her that if she did not agree to marry him he would kill her. In another version of the story he held the knife to his own throat and threatened to kill himself.
So Tan’s grandmother married him and became the fourth wife living in the house on a small island off the coast of the city. During her last pregnancy at age thirty-six, she asked her husband if the baby was a boy could she have her own house in Shanghai. He agreed. The baby was a boy but her husband did not keep his promise. In order to escape her unhappy marriage, she took an overdose of opium. It took her three days to die and Tan’s mother, who was nine-years-old, was with her the entire time.
Tan’s mother always blamed her mother for all of the hardships and unhappiness in her life. She was convinced that if her mother had not committed suicide her life would have been happier. But she also thought she had done something to anger her mother and was sure that her headstrong and misbehaving daughter Amy was her mother returned to torment her.
It has been eight years since Tan’s last novel. She has not been idle during that time. She and her husband built a 100% handicap accessible house in Sausalito, California. Tan, a classically trained pianist, also wrote a libretto for an opera. And, she had begun writing a very different book.
The research for that book took her to Shanghai where she came upon a photo of a group of courtesans. Several of the women in the photograph were wearing the exact same outfit Tan’s grandmother was wearing in a picture she has of her on her desk. At first Tan just thought it was a popular fashion trend. But the more she researched, the more likely it seems that her grandmother was a courtesan. She gave up on the other book she was writing and began writing a new one, the one that would become The Valley of Amazement.
After all the wonderful stories, Tan read a very short excerpt from the book and then took questions from the audience.
Someone asked what advice she could give to aspiring writers. Tan said, “Don’t use the internet until after you’ve written at least one page.” She finds the internet to be a great distraction. She also suggested reading the book that inspired you to want to write when the writing gets stuck and is going nowhere.
Someone else asked if she thought being biracial and bilingual helped her creativity. Tan said she thought it did. Not that it made her smarter or better than anyone else, only that it gave her a bigger playing field.
Another person asked about her father and why she never talked or wrote about him. Tan said she was a daddy’s girl and loved her father dearly. When he died while she was in her early teens she felt like he had abandoned her to the crazy woman who was her mother. Tan said she sees her father as perfect and perfect characters aren’t interesting. Her mother on the other hand….
Tan spoke so well one gets the feeling she has told these stories many times before. Whether or not that is the case, she came across as an energetic and interesting woman and her stories made for a wonderful evening.
Stefanie Hollmichel is a librarian, book addict and blogger. She blogs about her reading adventures at http://somanybooksblog.com
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