Novelist Amy Tan talks about her new novel, The Valley of Amazement, set in a Shanghai courtesan house, how she researched Chinese history, and learning how to write about sex.
Amy Tan has a wicked sense of humor. She’s attained sensational literary success; her novels The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and The Bonesetter’s Daughter have defined the Chinese-American immigrant experience. But she’s also a master of the deadpan spoof, as in a YouTube video she made for this year’s Ecco/Harper Collins sales conference. Sitting at the grand piano in her spacious living room, she talks about everything her new novel, The Valley of Amazement, is not. “It’s not ‘Fifty Shades of Tan,’” she jokes, “although it has a lot of sex in it—because it’s set in a courtesan house and they don’t sit around playing ping pong.” It’s not a romance, it’s not a mother-daughter saga, it’s not a historical novel.
“But it’s all of those things,” she told me when I visited her last month at her hillside home in Sausalito. She greeted me with her exuberant year-old Yorkie Bobo at her side. She wore a black silk brocade jacket and trousers with silver and jade jewelry.
We sat for several hours drinking tea and talking about this new novel, her first in eight years. She’s taken time off to build a fully accessible house and write the libretto for the opera based on her novel The Bonesetter’s Wife. She’d also been snorkeling in Indonesia and, just recently, in the icy Truckee River, to see the salmon spawn.
The Valley of Amazement is as dramatic and multilayered as an opera, filled with intricately detailed set pieces, intriguing characters, and elaborate illusions and betrayals. The novel revolves around Lulu Mintern and her Eurasian daughter Violet, both of whom become courtesans in Shanghai through circumstances that indicated how rigid social structures and stigmas limited women’s lives at the turn of the last century. Lulu, a San Francisco girl, becomes pregnant at 16 in 1897 as the result of an affair with a visiting Chinese artist. She sails with him to Shanghai, is rejected by his family, and finds she and her daughter Violet, lacking papers and legitimacy, have no rights. Lulu opens a courtesan house for wealthy men, the first in the international zone to cater to both a Chinese and Western clientele. The house becomes a back channel of sorts, as the men mingle over drinks and cigars and cultivate business deals.
In 1912, when Violet is 14, Lulu is tricked aboard a ship sailing for San Francisco, and is told her daughter will join her. Instead, Violet is kidnapped and solid to a rival courtesan house, where she is trained by an older courtesan named Magic Gourd.
There’s a lot of sex in the book. Not titillating sex, but, as Lulu and Violet both discover, the business of sex.
“Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir,” the novel’s fourth chapter, excerpted as a Kindle Single titled “Rules for Virgins,” is a courtesan’s handbook from 1912 Shanghai, including which jewelry stores to recommend so men will bring special gifts, and how to handle the physical requirements of the job.
“I took the positions from a book,” she said. “I added a few impossible positions, just to have a little fun, like the Swan Flying over the Oyster Shell.”
How did she learn about courtesan culture? I asked. She handed me a book thick with Post-it bookmarks: Catherine Yeh’s Shanghai Love, about the influence of Shanghai courtesans on the intellectual and popular culture at the end of the Qing dynasty from 1850 to 1910. The book is filled with illustrations of newspapers, postcards, travel guides, and writings from the time, all showing how courtesans were style-setters in fashion, literature, music and theater. Gossip about the first-class “flower houses” and reviews of the entertainment there were written up by the Western tabloids (‘the “mosquito press,” as Magic Gourd puts it). Courtesans vied to be voted one of the year’s “Top Ten Beauties of Shanghai.”
Tan found a 1898 novel written by a journalist who apparently made nightly visits to courtesan houses in the International Settlement “very instructive and accurate about the social atmosphere.”
“The fiction part,” she said, “was to think of the emotional atmosphere for the men and the women. The selling of illusion. Women dressed like noblewomen, but there was a clear understanding the courtesan’s life was time limited. They held out hope about their patrons, hope that this person could save them.” Salvation might mean becoming the fourth wife of a wealthy man, but this was rare. Because of the limited options at the end of a courtesan’s brief career, she said, about 25 percent ended up committing suicide.
While working on the novel, Tan discovered a 1912 photo in which her Shanghainese maternal grandmother was dressed in clothing identical to that worn in a photograph of the Top Ten Beauties of the time. “She may have been a courtesan,” Tan said. She had been told her grandmother was a traditional woman; she became a fourth wife under what Tan called “murky circumstances,” and committed suicide within the year.
This photograph reshaped the novel, turning it into a story about a courtesan, but someone unlike her grandmother—a woman who is half-Chinese, half-American, “her mind caught in the turbulence and eddies of both,” as she puts it. “Like mine. And so the story latched onto me, for everything I write is based on a personal obsession, an examination of some refracted aspects of myself—my ambivalence, my intentions, my beliefs and my contradictions in what I believe. The story is not about me, but those questions about myself are always there.”
The most difficult part of writing about sex, she said, was “the thought that a reader might interpret the writing as being my sex life, because so many people imagine the books I write are autobiographical. I did research on Yahoo about what it’s like to lose your virginity. When I lost mine, it wasn’t very interesting, because it occurred before I had sex, so I couldn’t write about it.”
At one point, she said, her editor at Ecco, her publisher, Dan Halpern, called one of the scenes “Lawrencian.”
She shuddered. “I said, to him, ‘Please don’t let me write corny sex scenes!’”