Amy Tan — novelist, essayist, children's book author, opera librettist, health activist and "lead rhythm dominatrix" for author band the Rock Bottom Remainders — published her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, in 1989. At the time, she says, "I was shocked when people said it was universal. When I wrote it, it was so much more personal to me." • Tan, speaking by phone from her California home, says that since then she has come to see why her novel about four Chinese women and their American-born daughters became a bestseller, embraced by readers of every ethnicity and made into a popular 1993 film. • Although Tan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, drew on her own experiences, The Joy Luck Club focuses on a dynamic that affects families in all cultures: "We often don't understand the very people who love us, who have protective feelings and who have expectations of us. We reject them, refuse to understand them, until it's almost too late."
One mark of the novel's wide appeal was its selection for the list of recommended books for the Big Read, the community program started by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 to restore reading to the center of American culture.
Since 2007, the NEA has made more than 800 grants to communities sponsoring a Big Read program. This year, one of those grants went to the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative, which chose The Joy Luck Club. To launch that Big Read, Tan will make two appearances in Tampa this week.
"I think I was one of the first living writers they picked," Tan says of the NEA. "You can't ask Willa Cather to come talk about her book, so I was inundated by requests. I told them, hey, you should choose more living writers who can go out and talk about their books — that's what readers want."
Tan, 58, is very much a living writer despite a serious health scare several years ago. In 1999, she began suffering mysterious symptoms: headaches, joint pain, loss of memory and concentration, seizures, even hallucinations and brain lesions. For anyone, such symptoms would be debilitating; for a writer, they were catastrophic.
She underwent countless tests, surgery, the advice of 10 specialists. Her own research led her to believe she might have Lyme disease, an infection carried by ticks, but doctors insisted it was unlikely because of where she lived (although Lyme disease has been reported in every state). After several years she was finally diagnosed with late-stage neuroborreliosis — otherwise known as Lyme disease.
Seizure medication and antibiotics keep her symptoms under control. "I have a new definition of healthy," Tan says. "If you can do what you want, you're healthy. So I'm healthy."
She's healthy enough to spend part of this month on the road with the Rock Bottom Remainders. Founded in 1992, the band also includes Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow and a revolving cast of other writers who, taken together, have sold more than 150 million books. As Barry has said, "The band plays music as well as Metallica writes novels," but its intent is twofold: to have a blast on stage and to raise money for worthy causes, especially literacy.
This month's Wordstock Tour, with stops in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston, will raise funds for schools and children in Haiti. Tan says sponsors donate most of the money: "Ticket sales alone might cover our beer."
Tan's signature numbers involve her appearing in a little black leather and a lot of skin to perform These Boots Are Made for Walkin' (which she sometimes dramatizes by strutting across the backs of prone band members) and Leader of the Pack. For this tour, she planned to add Blondie's One Way or Another.
"I just got a Blondie wig on eBay," she says. "Actually it's a Lady Gaga wig. I've been asking people what it looks like on me, and I've gotten drowned Chinese ghost, the witches from Macbeth. But the resounding response has been 'Andy Warhol.' "
Tan has been a Remainders member since the start. "I remember thinking, I'm too old for this. Now it's what, 18 years later?" Performances are "a lot about the attitude. Even if I forget the lyrics, it doesn't matter. The band starts laughing, and I'll just keep going, making them up."
She had a very different musical experience in 2008, when the San Francisco Opera commissioned an opera based on her fourth novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter.
Tan loved the idea; a piano student for 15 years and a "huge fan" of classical music, she says, "I go to symphony more often than movies by a long shot." Stewart Wallace, a longtime friend, was slated to compose the opera. But the person lined up to write the libretto got another commission. "So I ended up as the librettist," Tan says.
"The creative part, working with Stewart, was wonderful. Not so good was raising money and being anxious about money and about rehearsals." At one rehearsal, a lead singer suffered a concussion; at another, Tan discovered the director had cut more than 30 minutes of the plot "to make more time for acrobats. It didn't make sense."
The production of The Bonesetter's Daughter was a sold-out, well-reviewed success. But, Tan says, "I'm staying out of the business."
She is working now on a new novel but says she has learned not to talk about what she's writing. She's looking forward, though, to talking about The Joy Luck Club in Tampa. She says that one reason many people responded to the novel when it was first published was "a matter of timing. A lot of boomers were looking at those issues."
The book begins with a character talking about her mother's recent death. "I think people read that and thought, that can happen to me. I could lose someone and never really know who they were or what they wanted for me. And a lot of mothers said, 'Yes! I was too overbearing. We need to talk about this.'
"I'm always moved when someone tells me this was the book a mother and daughter read together before the mother died. That always takes me emotionally."
Tan says she's happy that the novel also seems to connect with young people who may not be confronting the same kind of losses. "But it has those big emotional moments that happen in your teens."
The author won't be reading the book. "The interesting thing about The Joy Luck Club is I have not reread that book. I've read parts, when I'm asked to for an interview or a reading. But I haven't sat down and read through it.
"I get very self-conscious. I start thinking, I should take that out, I should change that. It's painful, so I've never reread any of my books."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.