Interview with Amy Tan: tape transcription
What do you think of your success now:
I am completely surprised, in fact I've been overwhelmed by it. If I in the beginning I was probably much more gracious to people who called me for interviews, but now I am so completely overwhelmed by it and I am trying to keep my life a little in control.
I had signed a contract after writing only three stories. My hope was that I would not disappoint the publisher and that the sales would pay for the advance and that they would not be disappointed with the result. My expectations were so modest, I hoped that somehow they would be able to recoup their advance -- $50,000--which is a great deal of money for a first book. It was, in fact, a tremendous amount for a collection of short stories. And then I thought, well, I can't worry about how they're going to sell this thing, the most important thing was the writing of it. I thought it was there concern and I hoped it wouldn't be a terrible disappointment.
There were a number of things that happened that gave me a hint that it might sell more than a typical first book, a collection of short stories, would be around 5,000 and maybe 7,500 for a first novel. And there was the book club that came along. Then in the summer, in late August, I had just come back from Mexico. And somebody called me and said, "One of the clubs wants to buy your book." And I thought, my that's fast, they're already selling to the clubs in Mexico. I was so naive about everything, I didn't realize they were selling my book to the book clubs. Somebody would call and say, "Well, there's a paperback floor on your book." And I would say, "Oh, that's good. And then I would ask, later, "What is a floor? What is this about."
The floor, which is the baseline for where the options start, was established in May of 1988, I had finished the book in April of 1988, and the floor was established under the first three stories. They had not seen the rest of the book yet, and it worried me again as with the first advance, that the paperback publisher might be disappointed with the final result. I kept asking myself, "Why are they buying this thing?" I had no track record then. As a fiction writer. And there were only three stories that they were looking at and the remainder of the book may be a big disappointment. So that was my main concern all the time.
You wouldn't think that people would want to buy a book and read about Chinese mothers and daughters or Chinese anything. In fact there was a very funny quote that someone read to me from the New Yorker last summer when my book was number three on the New York Times best seller list, And the thing was talking about how there was a fascination among Americans for Soviet espionage type novels, and it referred to Polar Star and Russia House and so on, and then somewhere in the article it said that Americans were too insulated from things that happened in China and so we would not see in the future any books on the best seller list that concerned China. Not that my book is simply about China, it is about Chinese Americans, but it struck me as funny that when they were saying this there was a book on the best seller list that had to do with China and was not a spy novel.
My mother has a good answer to where my stories came from. She says that all of my fiction is completely my imagination and I would like to say that. What is autobiographical are the feelings that did come from the experiences that I had from growing up in the country having parents who came from China in the 1940s and also trying to imagine what my mother would say to me if she could just sit down and tell these stories. She has told me stories much more recently since the book has come out that are more complete, but there are fragments of the stories based on things that my mother told me. Most of the factual details of the stories however, are fiction. The most true story of the book is called "Magpie." It's probably one of the most exotic of the stories, the story of the woman who becomes the third concubine. What is true is that my grandmother and she cuts a piece of flesh from her arm and makes soup, and my grandmother did that and my mother saw her do that. And it was a testament of how deep one's mother is in one's bones. My mother didn't use that expression to describe that event, but she was trying one time to explain the quality of respect that is very much a Chinese value that is not the same as mother/daughter love, but it is the kind of love where you would sacrifice your own life, and the proof of that is that when your mother is about to die, there is this tradition where you make this soup and you use part of your own flesh. And it is true that my grandmother was forced to become a third concubine to a, she had been a first wife, the wife of a scholar, and she became a widow, and she became the third concubine of a rich man and she overdosed on opium and my mother was there to watch her die. It is true the way she was forced to become a concubine. This actually happened in Shanghai, this part about meeting the man and his wife along a lake in Hangzhou is true, how she was raped and forced to become his concubine, this is true. The story of the red candle and the marriage is not true. My mother told me that there was this tradition in China where you could not get out of this marriage, marriages were a contract that could not be broken, and there was this candle, and so I decided to write a story about a marriage that could not be broken and how you could not go against your family in this tradition. I wrote a sense of how you could claim your own spirit back.
There was a story about a woman who lost her spirit and then saw her daughter going through the same thing, that was the story about the daughter's marriage with the architect where they put a list of things on the refrigerator, but superficially where they are achieving equality through tallying up expenses. I have been with the same man for over 20 years and we have been married for 15 years. And he is not like any of the men in the book.
I have three older sisters left in China in 1949. My mother told me how she had to leave the children behind, but she left because she finally had proof, so to speak, she had this man she was married to who declared that she was not his wife but that the concubine was his wife, she decided to leave, and in those days when you decided to leave this, but when she tried to leave before she was put in jail, this was an incredible story that is not in the book about her life with this man, she was abused in all sense of the word, but she was finally able to escape from this man she had to leave her daughters behind. You could not claim custody of the children. Had she stayed she would have killed herself. And probably, I don't think she would have killed her daughters, but if she wanted them to have a better life it would be something like let's all kill ourselves rather than stay in this marriage. She hoped that when she came here she would be be able to establish a better life and then send for them. But in 1949, then everything shut down, and she left literally on the last boat out of Shanghai. there were other people leaving after that, leaving on boats in the night, the boat people of 1949 and 1950, a lot of boat people who escaped through secretive means, but my mother was able to bribe herself on the last boat leaving Shanghai.
I went back to meet my sisters. We've asked if they want to come here. My mother has not had a letter back from one of my sisters to see if she want's to come. My oldest sister's son wants to come here to study. I wrote to him and said I would pay his air fare and his tuition and he will get a passport and come here to study.
All my life my mother had been telling me, especially when there were times when I wanted to say that I was not Chinese, I mean there were times , that I was not Chinese, I was American, I mean I thought it was a mistake, that I was an American born into this Chinese body. I was this American girl born into this Chinese body and how did I have these strange parents. And my mother said you are Chinese, you were born Chinese you will always be Chinese. As I got older I began to sense things about my upbringing that were Chinese. That was OK but I still felt American. My relatives always said that you are Chinese and you belong to China no matter what, even if you were born in America. In fact there is a saying, an expression, that Chinese relatives who live outside China are called "overseas Chinese," and it is thought you will return some day, you are just temporarily away. I went to China when I had become much more interested in my family's past and I wanted to meet my sisters. And my mother had said that we were going to go to China together, and she had this expression, "You will see. You will see. As soon as your feet touch China you will become Chinese." She was right. It was such a different country in one respect. It was such a paradox in that I was a stranger in such a strange land. My style was different. My mother said that there was an expression, people will know that you are not Chinese by the way you walk, by the way you carry yourself, by the way you look, the way you dress, people will know. I had this really silly fear that I would go there and they would think I was one of them and they would not let me come out. But my mother said, NO way. So that there was this feeling. It wasn't with what I... the way I looked ... it had to do with the fact that I had all these ambivalent feelings about being Chinese and here was the country my parents belonged to, my parents were born there, my sisters lived there, but also most of my family, and there was a feeling of coming home, I had two countries. One was the fatherland and one the motherland. And I really felt that China was my motherland and that I had come home. I felt I had a more complete identity then. All those things I didn't understand or didn't feel comfortable with sort of all of a sudden evaporated. I actually landed in Beijing. It was more because my family was there, they were there at the airport, and we were so surprised that they were there. And one of my sisters was there, and there was this instant family feeling. My sisters would start criticizing me immediately. Here you would say that was strange, but in Chinese families that is a sign of intimacy. they said Why are you wearing these clothes. Have you been taking care of our mother. she doesn't look so well. It was just like family, just like I'm home and here is my family. and they had all these gifts. But they had the gestures of intimacy at the same time.