Amy Tan Revisits The Roots Of Her Writing Career In 'Where The Past Begins' In a new memoir, the Joy Luck Club author searches her past for the sources of her creativity. She says, "I certainly think that the bad experiences ... shaped me as a writer."
NPR logo

Amy Tan Revisits The Roots Of Her Writing Career In 'Where The Past Begins'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/555572312/558160497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Amy Tan Revisits The Roots Of Her Writing Career In 'Where The Past Begins'

Amy Tan Revisits The Roots Of Her Writing Career In 'Where The Past Begins'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/555572312/558160497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Amy Tan is best known for her novels that focus on mother-daughter relationships and Chinese-American culture. Her most famous of course is "The Joy Luck Club." Her latest book, "Where The Past Begins," is what she calls a writer's memoir. In it, Tan looks into the past to uncover the sources of her own creativity. And as she tells NPR's Lynn Neary, by doing this, she got a deeper understanding of what made her a writer in the first place.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Amy Tan loves classical music and jazz. In the middle of Tan's New York living room filled with a lush and eclectic mix of furniture and fabric sits her grand piano - a Steinway, she proudly tells me.

AMY TAN: It was my life's dream to get a Steinway.

NEARY: She likes to play it when no one is around to listen.

If you want to play it, you're welcome to (laughter).

TAN: No, I'm not going to play for you.

NEARY: When Tan listens to a piece of music, she imagines stories to go with it. So she always listens while she writes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF RACHMANINOFF'S "CONCERTO NO. 3 IN D MINOR")

NEARY: For this book, she chose Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D minor.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF RACHMANINOFF'S "CONCERTO NO. 3 IN D MINOR")

NEARY: It's a piece of music Tan says she used to hate.

TAN: Then I thought, you're crazy not to love this music. This is my mother. This is my life. This is (laughter) - these are the moods. This is where I went. This is me as a young woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF RACHMANINOFF'S "CONCERTO NO. 3 IN D MINOR")

NEARY: As much as she loves music now, Tan hated it growing up. She had to practice piano every day, and she felt burdened by her parents' expectations. They wanted her to be a concert pianist, if not a doctor.

TAN: And even to this day, I realize that some of these expectations - you know, becoming a doctor, becoming a pianist - led to - in part to be a writer. I wanted to be just myself, and I was inside. And that private, little place that I was was the writer.

NEARY: Working on this book, Tan discovered that some of those expectations were based on a false premise - a test that, according to her parents, indicated she had a very high IQ.

TAN: And I had a feeling that I wasn't really that smart, that the test had made a mistake. And yet there was this expectation. So I grew up feeling very - that I was a fraud.

NEARY: Looking into it, Tan found out the test had nothing to do with her IQ. She had just been part of a study on early readers. It was one of a number of revelations she uncovered while delving into a treasure trove of family papers.

TAN: Let me just get a few of these things out.

NEARY: Tan sifted through boxes of documents, letters and photographs, all of it meticulously preserved.

TAN: This is - let's see.

NEARY: Sometimes they contained startling information about her family, especially her parents.

TAN: And this was for their application for renewing a visa or something that would enable them to stay in the United States. So that was something else I discovered. They were illegal.

NEARY: The collection raised a lot of questions about Tan's family history both in this country and in China. It made her think about how the past can be transformed into a work of fiction.

TAN: As I looked at these things, whether they were documents or photos, these emotions came up. And I realized if I took those emotions, I could write a story about them. It's the combination about the emotions that came up and the confusion, the misunderstanding and the discovery of the lies, the variations. That's where you find stories.

NEARY: As Tan explored the connection between memory and creativity, she realized not only can memories inspire a story, but writing can trigger memories. This prompted her to write down the details of a day when her mother threatened to commit suicide. Such experiences, Tan says, made her the writer she is.

TAN: When you're a child dealing with uncertainty and the moods of a mother who might kill herself, you observe what's going on. So I don't know whether I would have been observant of people's intentions, their emotions, pretenses, their secret desires. I certainly think that the bad experiences - definitely the bad experiences in my life shaped me as a writer.

NEARY: Tan's deep dive into her past has made her wonder if her future writing will be affected by the experience.

TAN: Will my stories become darker? Will they be more emotionally intense? Or will I have a better understanding of myself that would enable me to write a different kind of story?

NEARY: Tan says some people may think her work is all about family or the immigrant experience. But really, she says, her stories are about emotional identity and how you become who you are. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.