Amy Tan: How I Write
On being on The Simpsons, playing music with Stephen King, and the importance of the opening line.
Describe your morning routine.
I’m usually woken by a vibration on my up-band. It’s the gradual vibration for about ten seconds, and then the chimes of my blue light. It’s just a way to wake gently. It all gently puts me into awake-mode. I play music off of my Sonos playlist. The Rachmaninoff Concerto 3 in D-minor, 1st movement. Then I have to play with my dog, who’s on the bed and has brought me a toy. We play tug-of-war. Then I have to make the bed before I do anything else, as soon as I get up.
I was about to ask if you have any distinctive habits or affectations…
That’s probably a little quirk of mine. I have to make it so it looks like a hotel bed. I can’t have any wrinkles whatsoever. I then have to play with the dog again. I go up and prepare my breakfast. My breakfast is usually a wholegrain cereal or porridge, with walnuts sprinkled in it, berries, a tablespoon of honey, and chia seeds. I have coffee and a little cherry juice with seltzer. I have a seat by the window and I look out at the view. Then I go downstairs with another cup of coffee, and I look at a master list of things I’m supposed to do for the day, provided by my assistant. I finish those and I begin to work.
Now, when you sit down to write, could you describe your workspace?
Ah, well this is a new office. I have another one from which I haven’t moved all my belongings yet. This particular office is fairly bare. I do have my photos of my family here on my desk. Only family members who have died. My grandmother, my mother, my father, and my oldest brother. I have also a doll of the Little Prince from the 1960s, that belonged to my friend, who died. So I surround myself with things that belong to people, or photos of people, who I’ve really loved in my love. My reminder to think deeply and honestly, to feel deeply. That’s what I want to do with my fiction. I also have all my journals in front of me on two shelves. I have old photo albums and a recording my father made of his voice, speaking, with my mother. On one of these old time records. But I lack a record player to play it! But there it is, their voices captured.
Tell me about your journals.
It’s notes to myself. Ideas for a novel, the notes I took when working with a composer on the libretto for an opera I did in 2008. Some say “miscellaneous China 2003” and others “miscellaneous conferences.” Or “Easter Island” or “Bhutan.” What’s in there doesn’t necessarily relate to the place. It’s just a marker of when I started the journal. I don’t keep the journals in chronological order. I might pick up a journal from 2004 because it happens to be handy, and start writing in it. It’s complete disorganization, but it doesn’t matter. They’re all, in one sense, ideas that go somewhere. Sometimes I go through them and jot down things that would be useful for whatever book I happen to working on at the time.
Do you go through them often, or is it more about preserving the memories just to know that you could go through them if you wanted to?
Yeah, it’s mostly the latter. It’s the habit of writing down a thought, memory, an idea … I feel that moments forgotten are moments of my existence that are no longer there. They’re pieces of me that have died. Very strange idea, I know, but if I can preserve them, the thoughts come back when I look at what I’ve written. The memory of the feelings, as well. And I have a sense of a continuous being from the past—it’s not the past anymore, but I’m a continuous being, rather than a delineation between past, present, and future. These are not diary entries. I don’t say anything like “today I had dinner with Stephen King, Dave Barry, and we rehearsed this particular song” [they are all members of a writer garage band band called the Rock Bottom Remainders]. It may be something I’ve overheard. When it’s something that’s my own, I have an asterisk next to it. If it’s from another source, I cite it. It’s so easy to put daily thoughts down and not know who they should be attributed to. I always put down the date and the place where I wrote each entry. I then go back and recall where I was at the time I was writing it. A mnemonic to bring the memory back.
I’ve interviewed several members of the Rock Bottom Remainders. Tell me a good story about performing together.
Ha! Well, I am the person who gives credence to their bragging that we are a band that is “hard listening.” There are a number of members of the band who are quite good musicians, or who have voices that are quite good. I have a terrible voice, and I cannot remember lyrics. I like to say that I have a brain disorder that makes it impossible. I can’t even remember passages from my own books—I can’t memorize anything. So it’s guaranteed I’ll forget my lyrics. We’ve chosen comedic songs for me, so it’s part of the act, that I don’t remember my lyrics. The songs are “These Boots are Made for Walking” and “Leader of the Pack.” I wear costumes for both. For “Boots” I’m especially gifted. I wield a whip and at the end of the song, I tell the boys to bend over. The audience somehow forgets that I’m not a good singer, and they go wild! When our musical director, Al Cooper, first suggested I do the song, I was mildly outraged. I said, “That’s a sexist song!” He’d also suggested I wear thigh-high boots and fishnet stockings. I rejected that at first, but my friend said that it would be cute, and when she said that, I realized, This is not me trying to be able to sing a song that is easy. It’s about entertaining the audience. So that’s been my signature song for a good twenty years.
Speaking of entertaining the audience, of all your many accomplishments, the one I think I’m most in awe of is that you appear in an episode of The Simpsons. What was that experience like for you?
Well, you have to understand I didn’t have to audition for the role. Matt Groening asked if I would do it, and he also volunteered to direct me. He’s so sweet. So there I was in a studio, connected to Matt, who was directing me. I was saying to Lisa Simpson, after she had complimented me on my tender mother-daughter stories…I’m berating her for describing erroneously what my book is about. “That’s not what I said! That’s not what the book is about! Sit down, I’m ashamed for the both of us.” Matt went through twenty iterations of that. “Sound meaner, really let her have it.” By the twentieth take, I was saying “Fuck you, little girl!” It was hilarious. I was trying to get to the point of fomenting, full of madness, berating some poor little girl who would have psychiatric problems the rest of her life! What we ended up with was probably the first take, which was fairly mild. I sound nasty, but not nearly as much as in the takes Matt cajoled out of me. We were cracking up!
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I map out some of it, through the journals. I like doing it with journals, because I can jot down ideas quickly, and then write in the margins arrows that will connect one thing to the other. There are notes I often write at night in bed, or on an airplane—wherever I have time. I think about the novel every single night, before I go to bed, and try to work some aspect out. Usually the beginning and the voice. I sketch out a very very basic outline, a couple of paragraphs. Then I add little funny details—well, not funny, but some specifics that I know I want to include as part of the character. It could be a small attribute or an event. When I finally sit down and write, it is done entirely on computer.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
Well, in my book, the opening invariably gets changed—it’s the last thing that gets written. Only when I finish the book can I go back to the beginning and write in the voice of all that happened. For books I want to keep reading, it’s definitely the voice. It must be a voice I’ve never heard before, and it must have its own particular intelligence. By “voice,” I don’t mean vernacular. It has to have its own particular history and world that it inhabits. I mean an understanding of how events happen in the world, whether it was the result of simply growing up, or accidents, or bad choices, good choices. That becomes evident in the beginning. If the book starts with the name of some popular icon, I immediately put it down! I don’t know why, there are probably many good books that begin like that, but it’s a sign to me that it’s going to feature stock characters.
You were guest editor for Best American Short Stories in 1999. What did that experience teach you?
I learned from that—and judging a competition and being the literary editor—how important the opening line is. I would make a guess, based on the first line, whether I would like the story by the end. And I was almost always correct. If the story fell apart by the first paragraph, it would not save itself by the end.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
My dog. My dog does a million things every day that I don’t expect. He gives me a certain face, you know this “wincing of the heart,” that “ah” moment.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
Thinking about the death of my other dogs, and friends who have died, as well.
Do you have any superstitions?
You know, what we call superstitions are often a matter of perspective - of one culture towards another, what beliefs we hold or don't hold. I will say this. I have the feeling that my [deceased] mother and grandmother are often in the room with me, giving me serendipitous hints. There are coincidences, the arrival of information, a knock at the door, invitations, the appearance of the exact source to confirm some specific detail…
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
My grandmother. She’s someone I never met, and I would’ve loved to have met her. She’s been a huge influence on our entire family, not just me. She is a mystery. It’s not clear exactly what about her is truth and myth. A lot has been myth, and I’m uncovering what some of those are. She had attitudes that influenced my mother, and they lie within me. So I wanted to know what in me has been passed to me by my grandmother. She killed herself in 1925 and she also may have been a courtesan, I discovered a few years ago. And that was the inspiration for my latest book!
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
Ha-ha. The old cliché. “So many books, too little time.”