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If you like Amy Tan's story, you might also like:
Rita Dove,
Carol Shields
Nadine Gordimer,
Dorothy Hamill,
Khaled Hosseini,
Maya Lin,
Frank McCourt,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Carol Shields
and John Updike

Amy Tan's recommended reading: The Catcher in the Rye

Amy Tan also appears in the videos:
Changing Lanes,

The Power of Words

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Amy Tan in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Power of Words

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Amy Tan
Amy Tan
Profile of Amy Tan Biography of Amy Tan Interview with Amy Tan Amy Tan Photo Gallery

Amy Tan Interview (page: 2 / 7)

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  Amy Tan

Were there any teachers who inspired you, challenged you, opened up new possibilities for you? Did you have any role models?

Amy Tan: I remember all of my teachers. I think of them all as being very kind and dedicated. I remember one teacher in particular.

Amy Tan Interview Photo

I was in a school in the third grade and they were thinking of skipping me, putting me in a higher grade. But then somebody said that would be bad psychologically. So, for that entire year, because I had learned all the lessons that year -- the multiplication tables, whatever the reading was -- this teacher let me go off by myself and draw pictures. So I had hours and hours of time where I was just left to my own devices, drawing pictures. And she would encourage me. That was a wonderful period in my life. I mean, I didn't become an artist, but somebody let me do something I loved. What a luxury, to do something you love to do.

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[ Key to Success ] Passion

I would still like to have that luxury, to be able to just sit and draw for hours and hours and hours. In a way, that's what I do as a writer. I just sit by myself, being in my own mind, not being directed at what I should be doing moment-by-moment, not having a clear plan set out by anybody and just letting imagination enter into the blank page. So in that respect, I can thank Miss Grudoff of the third grade for allowing me that.

What was your attraction to reading, to literature and to writing? What drew you to literature when it was not part of your family life?

Amy Tan Interview Photo

Amy Tan: Reading for me was a refuge. I could escape from everything that was miserable in my life and I could be anyone I wanted to be in a story, through a character. It was almost sinful how much I liked it. That's how I felt about it. If my parents knew how much I loved it, I thought they would take it away from me. I think I was also blessed with a very wild imagination because I can remember, when I was at an age before I could read, that I could imagine things that weren't real and whatever my imagination saw is what I actually saw. Some people would say that was psychosis but I prefer to say it was the beginning of a writer's imagination. If I believed that insects had eyes and mouths and noses and could talk, that's what they did. If I thought I could see devils dancing out of the ground, that's what I saw. If I thought lightning had eyes and would follow me and strike me down, that's what would happen. And I think I needed an outlet for all that imagination, so I found it in books.

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[ Key to Success ] Vision

I also grew up, thankfully, with a love of language. That may have happened because I was bilingual at an early age. I stopped speaking Chinese when I was five, but I loved words. Words to me were magic. You could say a word and it could conjure up all kinds of images or feelings or a chilly sensation or whatever. It was amazing to me that words had this power.

I don't know where I got that feeling. Possibly from my father, since he was a minister. He could say words in church and make people go up there and pledge ten percent of their money. That was powerful. As a writer, you do the same thing today. You write a book and you hope somebody will go out and pay $24.95 for what you've just said. I think books were my salvation. Books saved me from being miserable.

Were there any particular books that inspired you?

Amy Tan Interview Photo

Amy Tan: I loved fairy tales when I was a kid. Grimm. The grimmer the better. I loved gruesome gothic tales and, in that respect, I liked Bible stories, because to me they were very gothic. It's very gothic to have a little boy killing a giant, somebody's head being served on a platter, dead people being raised out of the grave, things like that. Also, because the rhythms, the prose style of the Bible is, of course, very influential, has been very influential on many writers. So as stories, I loved fairy tales. Anything that had a degree of the fantastic. I suppose what some people would call today "magical realism."

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[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Later, I loved all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Little House on the Prairie, Little House in the Big Woods, By the Shore of Silver Lake. I read all of those. And then I felt very grown up when I was able to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I was only about 10 years old. I was trying very hard to see if I understood the whole book, because it had a lot of big words in it. I tried to read more adult books around then.

I read a book a day when I was a kid. My family was not literary; we did not have any books in the house. I remember we were given one book of Chinese fairy tales when I was about eight years old. The other books we had in the house, besides Bibles and medical textbooks of physical anomalies, were the World Book Encyclopedia and Readers Digest Condensed Books that had been discarded by various people. That's what I grew up with.

I meet writers these days. I remember one who sat at the foot of Thomas Mann and was reading Flaubert in French when she was 15. I wonder what kind of writer I would have been if I had had that kind of privileged upbringing. I don't regret it at all. I grew up in a family that didn't speak English that well. A lot of people couldn't understand my mother. Nobody really cared that much about literature, although my father was a natural storyteller, being a minister.

Amy Tan Interview Photo

There was a lot of storytelling going on in our house: family stories, gossip, what happened to the people left behind in China. The gossip about people's character that went around as my aunt and my mother shelled peas on the dining table covered with newspaper. Overhearing things being said in Chinese that I wasn't supposed to understand -- which is the only reason I understand some Shanghainese and Mandarin. And being told there were certain books I couldn't read, which made me go out deliberately and find those books.

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[ Key to Success ] Preparation

The forbidden things were a great influence on my life. I was forbidden from reading A Catcher in the Rye.

Amy Tan Interview Photo

I was forbidden from reading the Harrad Experiment and also a book called Psychopathia Sexualis, a Kraft-Ebbing text from the 19th century. When it was discovered that I was reading this, my parents called in the family minister to counsel me, actually, the youth minister. The Youth Minister said how this would corrupt my mind and I would go insane and all this kind of stuff. We were seated in my parents' bedroom on my parents' bed. And, I have to tell you, what was so profound about that is that here this man, who I was supposed to trust, was telling me about these things and suddenly he saw that I was very sad because, at the same time, my father was in the hospital dying. So he said, "Cheer up, it's not that bad." And he threw me on the bed and he started to tickle me. Now even at that young age, being very innocent, I knew that what he was doing was wrong. And he would not stop. I found out later that he had seduced a young girl, left his wife and ran off with a 16-year old. Because of that, it has also made me hate... I cannot stand being tickled to this day. It made me disbelieve everything he had to say about books being bad for you. I was intelligent enough to make up my own mind. I not only had freedom of choice, I had freedom of expression.

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I think that, in part, also made me a writer, a certain stubborn streak. I'm not advocating disobedience to authority in general -- because that doesn't necessarily lead to anything -- but knowing the difference between your own intelligence and somebody handing you a set of things you should believe. It's important to understand their motivations, their intentions, where those beliefs derive from and then having a set of questions to make sure that what they give to you is equally important and meaningful to you.

As a result of that, I'm a very strong advocate for freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the danger of banning books. The danger is in creating the idea that somebody else is going to define the purpose of literature and confine who has access to it.

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This page last revised on Jan 16, 2008 13:17 PDT