SAUSALITO, Calif. — In Amy Tan’s office, to the left of where she writes bestselling books, sit a dozen framed photographs. Her father looks up from one, his smile impish. In another, taken in the 1940s, her mother leans back against the hood of a car. Then there’s her grandmother, posing in a silk jacket against a painted backdrop.
The snapshots remind Tan of the stories her family members told — and these days, the ones they didn’t.
“My parents kept secrets,” said Tan, 65, smiling at the understatement.
Some secrets were big: Her mother fled an abusive husband in China, leaving behind three daughters. Some were small: Her parents told her, at age 6, that a test proved she was meant to become a doctor. A few remain fuzzy: Was her grandmother, as the outfit in that photo suggests, a courtesan?
Even little lies, discovered long after her parents’ deaths, shook her. In her intimate new memoir, “Where the Past Begins,” Tan reveals memories and discoveries about her mother and grandmother — familiar figures to her readers — as well as her father, about whom she’s never before written. With essays, e-mails and peeks into her journal, she explores how their lives have imprinted her own, compelling her to write.
“I want to know why I got damaged and why I’m glad,” Tan said recently, sitting in her living room, sipping licorice tea. As she laughed, she tilted her head back, tousling her angular, blue-tinged bob. “I wouldn’t want to change anything. It’s all me now.
“But I just want to know what it is.”
Tan will speak Thursday in St. Paul about her new book, penned with the help of faded documents, her father’s diaries and the “sheer terror” of weekly deadlines. Tickets for her conversation, part of the Talking Volumes series, quickly sold out.
The collection is a kind of writer’s memoir, a dive into how she thinks (with great wonder), how she writes (with film scores playing) and how she struggles to write. (“This is not writer’s block,” she writes. “This is chaos with no way out.”) Stories emerge from dreams, perhaps from spirits. (She believes in “gifts from the universe.”) But most important, from memories — some her own, some inherited.
Art of remembering
“To my mother and the memory of her mother,” Tan dedicated “The Joy Luck Club,” which in 1989 launched her literary career. “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more.”
Nearly three decades after that novel become an international bestseller, inspiring a film and a play, Tan is still writing, still making sense of her relationship with her mother, Daisy, her first reader.
Tan and her husband, Lou DeMattei, a tax lawyer, live in this city north of the Golden Gate Bridge and not far from Oakland, where Tan was born in 1952, two years after her parents emigrated from China. Their house, built in 2012, is perched on the steep hillside. Its windows face east, overlooking Richardson Bay and a few bird feeders. Hummingbirds stopped by, flitting, fighting.
On a recent afternoon, as her book release was growing close (“too close,” she said, shaking her head), Tan was distracted by the birds outside the window, enchanted by the dogs at her feet.
“You’re giving me that dreamy look,” she cooed to Bobo, her teacup terrier.
Tan claimed to be tired. “You can note,” she said, raising an eyebrow, “that ‘she didn’t seem as sharp as I thought she would be.’ ”
She had been up late the night before, drawing a bird, the shading of its intricate feathers homework for her nature journal class. The next thing she knew, it was 3:30 a.m. Then she awoke early, to be at the gym by 9 a.m. (“The only ugly excess fat I’d like to get rid of sits in the Oval Office,” she posted on Instagram, beneath a photo of her flexing her wide biceps.)
Tan was tired, too, of news coming out of the Trump administration. Just days before, the president had announced that he would end the program that protects young, undocumented immigrants from deportation known as DACA.
Tan takes the issue personally. Her parents overstayed their student visas, as evidenced by a folder of increasingly urgent paperwork in her office. “I sort of knew that something had to be done and they weren’t quite legal,” she said. “But I did not understand what peril they were in until I took out the files.”
Tan and her husband are also hosting, in their old house, an employee and friend of 10 years, a so-called “dreamer” with a young family. “It’s my thing, my way of doing something personal about DACA,” Tan said.
But despite being weary, Tan seemed bright, upbeat. Even when talking about death, something she thinks about each day, she smiled. Like the characters in her novels, Tan’s early life was touched by tragedy. Six months after her brother Peter died of a brain tumor at age 16, her father died of one as well. Her mother regularly threatened to kill herself and once threatened to kill Tan, coming at her with a cleaver.
That last memory emerged later, while in a creative-writing class. For Tan, writing and remembering have always been closely tied.
“I kept thinking, What am I going to feel at the end of writing this?” Tan said of her new collection. “What’s going to happen? Where is this going to take me?”
Disaster and death
Tan has her mother’s sharp handwriting, her father’s warm smile.
She inherited her mother’s pragmatism, her frustration with condescension, her honesty. “She’d talk about constipation, you know,” Tan said, chuckling. “She talked a lot about her agony, her sadness. … She just took delight in revealing all kinds of things.”
“I’ve had people in the past who have read my books and said, ‘Oh, you’re so brave.’ And I think, I was? Am I revealing things most people would not?”
But at least one thing is off limits: her husband of 47 years. “You have to keep some things private,” she said.
At first glance, the house they share is a Zen Arts and Crafts-style retreat. But its design anticipates disaster. In case of an earthquake, steel beams. In case of injury, wide doorways make room for a wheelchair. In case of more metaphysical concerns, a curved entry gate modeled after Chinese architecture wards off evil spirits.
Tan ran her fingers along the thin railings guarding floor-to-ceiling bookshelves outside the master bedroom. “I came up with this idea,” she said. “If we had an earthquake, you don’t want books to fall and trap you.”
On those bookshelves are volumes by Minnesota author Louise Erdrich, “somebody who made me want to write,” Tan said. “Her stories were so lush and beautiful and about families and ordinary people who were not so ordinary. They had interesting lives and secrets. They were connected in improbable ways, histories.”
Tan grinned as she talked about preparing for an earthquake. (“It’s fun to think about — fun in a Girl Scout way.”)
“I think about death every day,” she said. “It’s nothing I think about with a great deal of fear, although sometimes I imagine it and say to myself, that’s unbelievable, that one day I won’t be here in this room.”
In one journal entry, at age 24, Tan wrote: “My own death seems so remote — like a faraway foreign place — separated from the here by distance of time.”
Then, at age 50: “I have a sense of my life as a percentage of what has been used and what is likely left.”
“Every day, I think about the fact that I will one day die,” she journaled at age 60. “Every day I think about the possibility I will lose my brain.”
If she were to get dementia, worries might give way to happiness, as they did for her mother, who died in 1999. “I say this absolutely sincerely that my mother had a wonderful time with her dementia,” Tan said. But years back, Lyme disease left Tan unable to tie two thoughts together.
That’s what truly scares Tan, a writer of words, a thinker of ideas: “Not being able to write, not able to think, not able to observe things anymore.”
‘Pain long buried’
For a moment, the memoir was not a memoir. Instead, it was “becoming a really boring, pedantic book,” Tan said. A redo of the TED Talk she gave in 2008 titled “Where Does Creativity Hide?” But as Tan sifted through old documents — her father’s journals, her mother’s letters, the pair’s citizenship paperwork — it turned into something deeper, more personal.
Tan spent six years penning the epic “The Valley of Amazement” and five years writing the libretto for the opera based on “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” But for this book, she asked her editor, Daniel Halpern, to enforce shorter deadlines, hoping they would motivate her. Halpern suggested an essay every three weeks. One a week, she countered.
At that pace, Tan said, “you don’t get to stop and have a little nervous breakdown.”
The pair nixed the words “essay,” “chapter” and “deadline” — “anything to suggest that she was actually going to write a book,” joked Halpern, president and publisher of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. Working this way “allowed her to be less self-conscious,” he continued. “When somebody’s writing without watching themselves from above, stuff comes out that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.”
In Tan’s case, that meant uncovering “big and little frights, emotional pain long buried,” as she writes in one essay. Writing helped Tan process her discoveries, helped her connect the dots of her family’s past — “a dot here and a little squiggle here.”
The book “was couched in the form of being about writing and creativity and imagination,” Tan said. The personal and family histories “came in through the side door and took center stage.”
She paused, took a sip of her tea. “By then it was too late to change directions,” she continued, “because I had discovered that truly was the basis of my imagination, my associations. The metaphors that I use to encapsulate, to contain so much of my life.
“So by learning about these secrets, I feel like my voice has been amplified.”
Tan compared that voice to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels, steeped in history. “Every sentence seemed to contain, without saying it, knowledge of a life, an individual, a community and a whole culture,” she said.
She hasn’t yet written fiction with that new power. Working on a new novel while doing publicity for the last “could damage it,” she said. But Tan knows what the next novel will be — the setting, the story lines, the characters.
They came to her in a dream.