November 2013

Amy Tan

A peek behind the curtain at the secrets of a courtesan
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Amy Tan does not have a fabulous closet befitting a world-famous author. She is in the midst of cleaning it when BookPage calls to talk about her lush new novel, The Valley of Amazement.

“It’s a terrible closet,” Tan says with a laugh from her home in New York City. “It’s a teeny-tiny closet. The doors keep going off the hinges and I keep having to figure out where to put my winter clothes.”

Subpar closet notwithstanding, Tan is having a very good year, highlighted by the publication of her first novel in eight years. The Valley of Amazement is the spellbinding story of Violet, a pampered girl raised by her American mother, Lulu, in Lulu’s plush Shanghai courtesan house. When Lulu is tricked into sailing for California during the 1912 revolution, Violet is left behind and sold to another “flower house,” where young girls trade companionship and sex for lavish gifts and the hope of one day becoming someone’s wife or concubine.

An older courtesan in the house, Magic Gourd, takes Violet under her wing, helping her become one of the most successful courtesans in the city. Violet meets many men during her time as a courtesan and eventually marries an American man and gives birth to their daughter. But when her husband dies of Spanish influenza and his spiteful American wife steals the daughter, Violet must decide whether it is worth reconnecting with her own mother in order to find her daughter again.

Tan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, modeled Violet in some ways after her own grandmother, who was widowed by age 30 and became the concubine of a wealthy man who eventually had seven wives. Whether she joined this household by choice or force is a matter of debate within the family. What is known is that she committed suicide. A haunting photo of her grandmother dressed in the clothing worn by courtesans got Tan wondering how much she really knew about her. Whether her grandmother was actually a courtesan is a fact lost to time, but Tan discovered other surprising things about her during her research.

The courtesans of Shanghai were competitive businesswomen who “wheedled and extracted,” Tan says. “They were competitive and jealous.”

“I found out during the writing that she was not who people said she was,” Tan says. “People had always said she was quiet, traditional, old-fashioned, she stayed home and listened to her husband.” Yet when Tan interviewed an older relative, who had lived with Tan’s grandmother as a toddler, the relative painted a much different picture of her grandmother as the favorite wife who had a fiery streak.

“She said she was very hot-tempered, and if you did not listen to her, you would regret it,” Tan says. “That gave me a sense that she had something more interesting that had tested her more. I think my grandmother had to make her circumstances as best she could.”

Tan began writing fiction when she was in her 30s and burst onto the literary scene in 1989 with the publication of The Joy Luck Club, which sold more than 2 million copies and was adapted into a popular film. In the years since, she has extended her critical and commercial success with several novels, including The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Bonesetter’s Daughter and Saving Fish from Drowning.

As with so many of Tan’s works, her latest book dives deep into the conflicted relationship of a mother and daughter and explores the questions of how much of life is shaped by circumstance and how much by what is passed down through generations.

“It’s such a rich ground for me,” says Tan, who had a complicated but close relationship with her own mother. “When you think of identity, much of that stems from parental influences—that huge, constant guide for so many years of your life.”

This book is a major departure for Tan in one way: It includes explicit sex scenes and graphic dialogue.

“I’ve always steered away from writing about sex,” she says. “Too many people already think I’m writing about my life. I had thoughts while I was writing about sadism—oh, they’re going to think this is based upon my 20 years of experience with beating. But I didn’t really care. What I was worried about was writing corny sex scenes. I didn’t trust myself that I wouldn’t hold back or go overboard.”

She talked to several researchers who study the world of courtesans, and read a famous Chinese pornographic novel as well as the journal of a young Chinese man who regularly visited flower houses. While some of the details in the novel are from that research (an aphrodisiac called “Gates Wide Open,” for example, was one of Tan’s favorites), Tan says she had a great time coming up with other names for aphrodisiacs, genitalia and sexual positions. She also loved imagining the relationships among the courtesans.

“It was fun writing those scenes,” she says. “I felt like I was there. These characters were not retiring flowers. They were businesswomen. They wheedled and extracted. They were competitive and jealous.

“I thought the conversations with my editor [Dan Halpern] would be very awkward, but they turned out to be fun conversations,” Tan says. “At one point, he wrote ‘Lawrence-ian!’ next to one scene. I didn’t know whether he meant that was good or bad or too repressed or what. I sent him a long email and at the end of the email, I said ‘Never mind. I’m taking it out.’ ”

Tan maintains the pace and allure of the story as Violet endures harrowing years of abuse and uncertainty, eventually reconnecting not only with her mother but with the powerful businessman who took her virginity when she was a teenage courtesan.

“Her thing was staying alive,” Tan says. “She thought of [her daughter] Flora all the time. It occurs to her what she has to do is find her mother and forgive her. Today, we can expend money, resources, call the FBI, whatever it takes, to find our kid. In that time, they didn’t have that ability. We impose our American sensibility on the situation.”

Tan may have drawn on her family’s history for many elements of the story, but her own marriage is a far cry from Violet’s tumultuous love life. She has been married to her husband, Lou, since 1974.

“We like to joke that it’s separate closets and separate bathrooms,” she says about the secret to their longevity. “We both share similar politics and respect for people. We have similar generosity. We allow a lot of individuality, but also we share a lot of things.”

At the time of our conversation, Lou was on a bike tour of French wineries, a trip that Tan chose to skip—“I don’t want to get drunk in the afternoon on vacation”—but he will return in time for her upcoming 25-city book tour.

“It’s very hard for me to travel alone these days,” says Tan, 61, who has experienced occasional seizures since being diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2003. “They’re not serious but they leave me very confused. It’s better if I have someone with me. He’s really good and supportive. He fed me three times a day when I was on deadline with this book.”

With that, Tan bids farewell and gets back to working on her closet.

“The exciting life of an author,” she says wryly.

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