A Master Class in the Art of Writing: Q&A With Best-Selling Author Amy Tan

A Master Class in the Art of Writing: Q&A With Best-Selling Author Amy Tan

Tan will be the keynote speaker at this year's Rutgers-New Brunswick Writers' Conference

Author Amy Tan
Photo: Julian Johnson

Born in California to immigrant parents from China, Amy Tan has been a best-selling author since her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published in 1989.  Since then, her work – which often reflects on mother-daughter bonds, and the immigrant experience – has included children’s books, a memoir, a libretto, a screenplay and other fiction, including The Kitchen God’s Wife.  Currently at work on a new book,  she jokingly admits “There’s a pressure that comes with being published – that expectation of  ‘Gee, I wonder what she’s writing next?’ I almost yearn for the freedom of when I could write without any expectation of it being published at all!”

Tan will be the opening keynote speaker at the third annual Rutgers-New Brunswick Writers’ Conference to be held on June 1-2. Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies recently spoke with Tan about the craft of writing.

Q: What’s been your relationship with storytelling? Were you writing stories as a child?
A: I was writing letters to friends, because we moved just about every year. And when you write letters as a kid, you soon run out of things to say, so I started making up adventures that I was having, fantasies. However, the stories I most remember from my childhood really came from my mother who had many stories to tell – and many versions of them. Listening to her tell her stories was, I think, just as important as writing my own.

Q: What gave you the courage to start writing fiction as an adult?
A: I was a business writer, and a very successful business writer, but I was unhappy with the work I was doing; there was nothing meaningful about it. A friend gave me a list of fiction books I should read and I started to devour them – I remember really loving Amy Hempel’s work. And then I met her and said the words I now dread hearing from a friend – ‘I’m thinking of writing some fiction – if I wrote something would you tell me what you think?’ And bless her heart, she did.

Q: It can be such a solitary craft, it must have been wonderful to have that kind of personal encouragement early on.
A: It’s incredibly helpful, if you can find someone who is simpatico with the writing you want to do. It’s a gift. I’m not saying you need to find a person who will go through your manuscripts line by line, but someone who might ask, ‘What are your intentions here?’ Someone you have to talk to about books, about characters. You learn a lot when you can go back and forth with other writers. I remember having to learn what people meant by “voice” and “story.” How are they different and how are they the same? It is a question I still ask myself.  Which comes first? Do they both have to land on the page at the same time?

Q: Do they?
A: Well, I think voice is absolutely imperative to have on the page pretty quickly. And it comes from – What have you noticed in your life? What is unique in what you’ve seen in life? I’m not talking about strange dialogue or two-headed cows, but your unique point of view – your guide to the universe.  ‘This is how I see things, this has nothing to do with the rest of the world and how it sees things.’ It’s a question young writers should be asking themselves throughout their career:  Who is telling this story? Because if anybody can tell the story, then perhaps that’s not the story you need to be telling. 

Q: How do your stories begin? Do you have to hunt for them?  Do they pop into your head while you’re chopping up vegetables for dinner?
A: Well, they don’t land special-delivery in my lap! But I do think that your emotional life and your experiences accumulate and congeal, and suddenly they become an image. It’s hard to analyze my process as a writer – someone will ask, ‘How do you develop a narrative?’ and I don’t have those answers. But one thing I think is true is that it begins with an image, a dynamic image. And it always contains an emotion that is going to transform, by the end of the chapter or by the end of the book.

Q: Have they ever come in dreams?
A: I have dreamed a story. A lot of our dreams are pretty meaningless – just flotsam and jetsam – but certain dreams are the result of experiences, and dreams, with their loose boundaries, can bring them all together. It can also happen that way when I’m just writing in a journal, not editing myself, not thinking that anyone will ever read it. I’m totally free then to write down whatever I want – conflicts, ideas, a scene between two people. Maybe I’ll never use any of it, but there’s a lot of stuff that comes out. Actually, that’s what I think writers’ block is – not that there’s nothing, but that there’s too much. You get anxious about what you should focus on.

Q: Like a chess player, thinking about your next move?
A: More like coming into a messy room filled with everything from your childhood! Every little board game, every collection of dolls, bundles of favorite letters – they’re all in that room, jumbled together. It’s not so much like the strategizing of chess as it is trying to make sense of the mess of our lives. That’s what I think stories are: trying to make sense of what’s happened.

Q: Do your characters surprise you, sometimes? Go in directions you never expected?
A: Well, it’s not as if they have their own volition. But the writing can lead me to a place that surprises me with a new kind of understanding of what the character is, and what the story is about. Actually, if that’s not there – if there’s no surprise, if there’s no change in the story, no deepening of emotion – then something is terribly missing. It’s hard for me to explain but I think a good model to think about is the poetry of Billy Collins; you’re reading along and suddenly there’s a feeling that you’ve turned around and seen something behind you. It’s surprising, it’s wonderful, it’s shocking. That’s the power I like to have in a story, this turn that leads to a deeper understanding. Which can be healing but can also be quite disturbing.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
A: I think the best advice is to read a lot, to read stories by someone whose work you love and to be inspired by that. And the other is just to write, all the time. Take notes in a journal – and I would say do it in the morning when your mind isn’t full of the day’s criticism – and just write down everything, any images, any ideas. And do this without the burden of expectations. Start off with the idea that you are doing this completely for yourself, then the time you spend on it, and the value you take from it, will not depend on it being published. That’s a hard thing for people to accept. But ask yourself: Would I still do this if I didn’t get published? Would I feel like a failure if no one else read it? Ask yourself, why am I writing? And then keep that in your heart.


The third annual Rutgers-New Brunswick Writers’ Conference will be held on June 1-2 in Somerset, N.J., where aspiring and established writers, agents, editors and publishers will gather to learn and share experiences. Attendants can choose workshops from multiple concurrent sessions, meet individually with agents, editors and publishers and participate in open-mic readings. Workshop topics include humor, dialogue and plot; children’s literature, novellas and plays; and finding an agent, pitching stories and marketing creative nonfiction. For a lineup of presenters, the full program schedule and event registration information visit: https://ruwriterscon.rutgers.edu/.