Amy Tan

Amy Tan

Season 1 Episode 14

When Amy Tan was growing up, her immigrant mother made it clear that she had very high expectations for her daughter. She expected her to become a successful doctor and concert pianist. Instead, Tan became a worldwide literary sensation. But Tan’s path to becoming a bestselling novelist was one with many detours, winding roads, and uncertainties. While working as a freelance writer for big corporations like IBM and AT&T, Tan found a passion for fiction writing, and a spark was lit. She published her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, which focused on the lives of four Chinese-American immigrant families in San Francisco. The book became a New York Times bestseller, sold nearly 6 million copies, and was a finalist for a National Book Award.

Many bestsellers later, she’s still plying her craft, and still learning. Her most recent book, Where the Past Begins, is a memoir about her life as a writer and an intimate peek inside a writer’s brain. Tan also reveals the influence of her family’s traumatic history on her writing.

Born in the U.S. to immigrant parents from China, Tan grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. By the time she was 15, she had lost her older brother and father to brain tumors. Reeling from their losses, Tan’s remaining family, her mother and younger brother, moved to Europe, settling in Switzerland for a time, where Amy rebelled against her mother’s wishes and searched for her own path. After graduating from college, Tan worked for a time in developing literacy with developmentally disabled children. In our interview, she recounts how her seemingly unrelated experiences led to and still influence her writing.

Outside of her writing, she has been a joyful advocate for literacy. She sings and plays second tambourine with the literary rock band Rock Bottom Remainders. The group, which includes Stephen King, Scott Turow, and Dave Barry, has raised more than $1 million for literacy programs. Tan has a TED talk on creativity and has appeared on shows ranging from Sesame Street to The Simpsons, and written libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter. For creating unforgettable stories that have captivated millions around the world, the College invited her to give the 2019 Commencement address.

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