STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Amy Tan has a new novel for the first time in seven years. Her newest, out tomorrow, has the title "The Valley of Amazement." Like many of works by the author of "The Joy Luck Club," it deals with China's history and also tense mother-daughter relationships.
Recently NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited with Amy Tan in San Francisco, to talk about the very personal inspiration for her latest work.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Amy Tan is obsessed with detail. She spent years making sure the details were correct in "The Valley of Amazement." Her epic covers a half century and takes place on two continents. And even though the book is finished, Tan continues to double-check. She can't help it.
AMY TAN: When you're writing a novel, it's interesting, you'll say yes. Then they went from San Francisco to Shanghai, and then you think, well, how did they get there? And you can say, well, they went by ship. And then you say but I have to add this one detail; were there railings?
BATES: This richness of detail allows the reader to become fully immersed in the period and in San Francisco and Shanghai, where most of the book takes place.
Tan and I are in them main salon of the Eureka, a large steam ferry that carried people back and forth from San Francisco's Hyde Pier across the Bay to Marin County at the turn of the last century. She's talking to John Muir, a Ranger who works here at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Muir is showing Tan a book that depicts this part of San Francisco in the early 1900s, the time in which her new novel is set.
JOHN MUIR: Here again, there's the San Francisco waterfront envisioned in 1903.
BATES: Tan's research came with surprises. We discovered another one today.
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TAN: On this insanely windy day, Muir walks us down the pier, past a group of middle schoolers singing sea shanties.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)
BATES: We're going to see an exhibition in the Maritime Museum. In this cavernous, noisy place, Tan is startled to find the last name of her heroine pop up in a narrated slide show about important local businessmen of the day.
TAN: That is the name of the family, the Minturns. Isn't that - boy, that's weird? Isn't that weird?
MUIR: Yeah, I think he owned a steamship line.
BATES: In Tan's novel, Lucia Minturn leaves her San Francisco home to pursue her beloved. He's a young Chinese artist from a prominent family, and has long been promised to a suitable Chinese fiancee back home. But 15-year-old Lucia is in love and determined and pregnant and she follows her beloved to Shanghai.
The couple's daughter, Violet, is born soon after. With no other resources, Lucia becomes the owner of a successful pleasure house in a city famous for them. Later, through heartbreaking trickery, Violet is separated from Lucia and becomes one of the most famous courtesans in Shanghai.
Here, Tan reading as Magic Gourd, a retired courtesan, imparts wisdom to 14-year-old Violet as she enters the trade.
TAN: (Reading) Always remember, Little Violet, you are creating a world of romance and illusion. When you play the zither, it should be the aching or joyous accompaniment to your song-poem. Sing to your suitor as if no one else is in the room.
BATES: The inspiration for Violet and her work came a few years ago, when Tan was here at the Asian Art Museum to see an exhibition on Shanghai. Tan is a favorite here. And as school children flow past us, museum director Jay Xu hurries over to greet her.
TAN: Hi, Jay.
JAY XU: Congratulations...
BATES: In a quieter alcove, Tan shows me a Post-it studded book she used in her research. It's a heavily illustrated study of Shanghai courtesan life in the early 1900s. These courtesans, Tan discovered, were not just pretty flowers waiting for male patrons to visit with gifts and money. They were responsible for popularizing Western culture in the city, and enhanced its reputation as an international destination.
TAN: So when somebody said that they were very influential, I thought powerful women. Then I was looking through this book, and I get to this picture. And it's called "The Ten Beauties in Shanghai, 1911."
BATES: These were the winners of a citywide beauty contest for courtesans. The 10 young women are grouped before a painted backdrop, and five of them are wearing similar outfits: snug silk brocade jackets with high, turned-up collars lined in fur. They also have tight, pearl-encrusted headbands that emphasize the shape of the wearer's eye. All part of the courtesan's ensemble.
Tan found her own eyes widening in shocked recognition, though. Something about these women seemed very familiar. She dips into a hidden coat pocket, pulls out her mini tablet and now I'm shocked.
TAN: This photograph is the one that was a favorite on my desk that I would look at for inspiration.
BATES: It's a photograph of her grandmother, and Amy Tan's grandmother, the grim and proper matriarch of her family, is dressed exactly like the courtesans in the book. Does this mean what I think it does?
TAN: She looks very serene and sedate, not at all very - you know, not at all provocative.
BATES: And this is actually your grandmother?
TAN: This is my grandmother.
BATES: Could Tan's esteemed grandmother have been a courtesan? Why else would she be wearing those clothes in that photo? Family lore says she was widowed after a short marriage and desperate to support her two small children. Tan wonders if her grandmother could have become a courtesan out of financial need.
Dany Chan, one of the Shanghai exhibition's curators, says in the end, it doesn't matter.
DANY CHAN: Your grandmother, for whatever reason, she took those photographs and now she's not forgotten.
BATES: Tan decided to imagine why a woman might become a courtesan in the first place. She discovered that women who suffered reversals in early 20th century China had few options, even in a rapidly modernizing city like Shanghai.
CHAN: If you don't have family who are willing to take you in, you're stuck. If your family all have died in a famine or fire or whatever it was - political insurrection - you have nothing.
BATES: Same thing for women who flouted convention. In "The Valley of Amazement," Lucia Minturn's parents were appalled that she'd taken a Chinese lover. Her lover's family was equally outraged that he'd had the temerity to profess love for a white woman. And their biracial child Violet was an affront to both families.
After discovering the courtesan book, Tan dumped 200 pages of the novel she'd begun earlier and started on a new one.
TAN: I never have a problem cutting material.
BATES: And almost a decade later, the result is "The Valley of Amazement." Tan hopes her grandmother would approve.
TAN: What I imagined in my mind is whether she would have been pleased that I knew that she had more gumption, had more style and attitude than the stories that had been told about her.
BATES: And that her descendant had made her visible to the world.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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