Amy Tan has a bad cold. Between sniffles over the phone, she says she thinks she caught it at President Clinton’s inauguration, in “that 20-degree weather in Washington.”
The author of the best sellers “The Joy Luck Club,” “The Kitchen God’s Wife” and “The Hundred Secret Senses” may not feel well, but she still manages to laugh about her adventures as a guest at the inaugural festivities.
The low point, she says, was the dreadful California-Hawaii-Alaska ball, which she likened to “going to the wedding reception of 200 Moonie couples.” “I told my husband that if we’d given $100,000, we could have gone to another ball instead. I was half-joking,” she says, back home in San Francisco.
Tan’s two tiny Yorkshire terriers, which she carts around in a bag, also made the inaugural rounds. “One of the Secret Service people almost had a heart attack when the dogs jumped out of my bag,” she says.
“I guess he thought I was trying to conceal a bomb.” Fans of Tan’s popular books - particularly the most recent, “The Hundred Secret Senses” - know that the novelist has a good sense of humor, which she uses to leaven the poignant, even tragic, stories she tells.
Tan admits she has always been something of a prankster.
“To this day I still do these terrible things,” she says. “I started a rumor on the Internet that Amy Tan is not really Chinese, she’s Jewish. Everybody’s always telling me that Chinese mothers are like Jewish mothers, so I decided to start this rumor.” Tan, 44, knows Chinese mothers.
Her complicated relationship with her own immigrant mother has been the starting point for her fiction. Her first novel, “The Joy Luck Club” (1989), told the story of four Chinese immigrant mothers, all of whom had led traumatic lives in China, and their cultural clashes with their Americanized daughters.
“The Kitchen God’s Wife” (1991) was based on her mother’s own story - Daisy Tan left a horrific marriage and three daughters behind when she came to the United States from Shanghai in 1949.
Amy Tan was in her teens when her mother told her she had been married before.
“A lot of her revelations came during moments of anger,” recalls Tan, whose parents had great expectations for the daughter they wanted to become a doctor. “The way I remember it she’d be angry and say, ‘Why did I have to have you as a daughter when I’ve got these other great daughters in China?’ ” When she was in her 30s, Tan traveled to China for the first time and met her three half-sisters. She recently helped one sister and her family move to the San Francisco Bay area.
Her mother, now 81, lives in an assisted care home and has Alzheimer’s disease.
“People think it’s a terrible tragedy when somebody has Alzheimer’s,” Tan says. “But in my mother’s case, it’s different. My mother has been unhappy all her life, she’s never liked where she’s lived, she’s felt insecure. For the first time in her life she’s happy. She has no worries, she’s not in any pain, and she is surrounded by people in the home who adore her.” She still recognizes her daughter.
Tan was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1952. Her father, a Baptist minister, immigrated to America from China in 1947. When she was 15, her father and older brother died of brain tumors.
The novelist attributes “the fascination I have with what happens after one dies” to their deaths.
“The Hundred Secret Senses,” published in 1995 and released in paperback by Ivy Books late last year (it’s currently a paperback best seller), is Tan’s most mystical book. Instead of mothers and daughters, the feuding-loving pair in “Senses” are Olivia, a Chinese-American yuppie, and her eccentric Chinese half-sister Kwan, who communicates with “yin people” (translation: ghosts).
When “The Hundred Secret Senses” was first published, Tan worried that people might think she’d gone off the deep end. “I have to say I’ve only been invited to one psychic event since,” she says, joking.
Tan’s mother always talked about ghosts, and she believed that her daughter could see ghosts from the time she was 3 years old. “Later on in life, when I started to notice things, see things, hear things, I naturally questioned that perhaps I was crazy, that my mother, in talking about this, had stretched my imagination so far it broke,” Tan says.
If the ending of “Senses” stretches credulity with its suggestions of reincarnation, Tan says that isn’t the point. She’s writing about hope and its “emotional sibling, love.” Tan’s books have touched an emotional chord with readers, particularly women. The success of “The Joy Luck Club” was so unexpected - Tan had given up technical writing for corporations to give fiction a whirl - that it frightened, even depressed her. “I was afraid it was going to change my life,” she says. “Things were out of control and I felt I had nothing to do with it.” She says she has since found a balance in her life. To help maintain her equilibrium, she decided with “Secret Senses” not to read her reviews or interviews anymore. Her husband of 23 years, tax lawyer Lou DeMattei, also keeps her grounded.
“My husband treats me the same, unfortunately,” she says, laughing. “He says when it’s my turn to clean the litter box.” The 1993 movie version of “The Joy Luck Club” was broadcast on network television recently. Tan, who co-wrote the script and was one of the producers, says making the movie was a happy experience, except for the 2-1/2 years it took from her writing life. She has backed out of a movie deal for “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” concerned about compromising the book, which is “more my mother’s story.” And the movie rights to “Secret Senses” have not been sold, because Tan wants creative control over her books. “Those are very, very difficult conditions to get in film,” she says.
She has started a new novel, but she declines to say anything about it because that would be “like letting the air out of the balloon.” Whatever the book is, chances are good that audiences will again relate to Tan’s universal themes and her baby-boomer sensibilities.
“My emotions are very ordinary,” she says. “I have been lucky enough to put those into a story. Despite the differences in the characters’ backgrounds, people have identified with the story emotionally.”
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