Amy Tan: I started writing fiction in 1985, seriously looking at the notion that I should write fiction and try to do it the rest of my life and I was defining meaning in my life. I was already published as a business writer. This was really to find meaning. And I started writing a number of different short stories. They weren’t all of the same family and it never occurred to me I would write a book of them, they were just separate stories. And then one day I was in Hawaii and I started reading this phenomenal book, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Somebody had recommended this to me -- I wish I could remember who -- but I started reading this and all of a sudden it was like electricity going through the top of my head and through my body because these were the kinds of stories that I was trying to write. This was about families and history and finding layers. I was finding layers of myself by starting to write a few of these, and here was a complete book of somebody who had found that. Whether these are specifically her family or not, this was the sort of writer who would look at these layers of history and keep digging. They were all a community. They were told in different verses and that was what was exciting, that each of these voices, each was different and they were voices of men and women and of different generations. And you would read this, I read this and I thought how does this writer know these things? So that book gave me encouragement, but it also gave me permission in a way to write these different stories of people based in a community. That would be my framework for continuing to write them and also giving me that new challenge to hone in on voices and what was particular about a voice -- it’s more than diction, its more than just a way of speaking. It is what each of these people believe and how they go about their lives based on that belief.
It is the funny interesting curious paradox that when you do write in a very specific way that what you come up with is a truth, a personal truth, meaning that it feels true about life, about how you look at the world, about what you feel about people, and that that personal truth is something that is shared by other people. It’s remarkable that each of us comes from different backgrounds, circumstances and yet you end up feeling much of the same truths. And that’s what I think we mean by universal, that what is the truth, the truth having to do with honest ways of looking at life. Not hiding behind anything but saying that’s what feels like life, that’s what feels like a human being. Even when you look at a very specific detail on a character -- for example, there’s a character who takes the first drink or the first drink in a long time and suddenly the character is seized with this addiction and this visceral sense of what addiction is like for somebody like that. Well, you don’t have to be addicted to anything necessarily. You wouldn’t have to be addicted to alcohol or drugs and suddenly, you feel that visceral sense of addiction. And you know suddenly that that visceral sense of addiction could apply to anything. It could apply to love, it could apply habits that you have. And that’s what I mean by what is universal. So the details themselves -- taking the first drink -- is not so much the universal. It is that visceral sense of something grabbing onto you because of history or what is in you. And it is that feeling, that truth of how it’s been described in imagery and through words that evoke that visceral sense. That is what’s true.
Here, Tan describes how Love Medicine revealed to her the possibilities in her own storytelling. [4:24]