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a life that's stranger than fiction In her airy, elegant apartment, slap bang in the centre of SoHo in New York, Amy Tan is explaining the squirm inducing difficulty of writing sex scenes.

I started this book long before that Fifty Shades of Grey came out. She shakes ray ban rb3293 her head in horror at the notion of her novels being compared with that porn hit. But Tan latest book, The Valley of Amazement, is set partly in a courtesan house in early 20th century Shanghai where women were working as prostitutes and mistresses so the novel inevitably involves a fair amount of bedroom hoopla, and she deliberated, not simply over the deeds but over the language used to describe them. was determined to put certain words in there, words that I thought courtesans really would have used, she tells me, in her soft, slightly sultry voice. didn want to be too coy, and I thought words like 'enter were a little pedestrian, but I was worried that 'f and 'c might be repulsive to some people. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, comprising 16 interlocking stories about four Chinese immigrant women and their American born daughters, was on The New York Times bestseller list for 77 weeks and has been made into a Hollywood film. Her five subsequent novels, including The Kitchen God Wife and The Bonesetter Daughter, have been wildly successful too, translated into more than 35 languages, and she also written children books and non fiction. The American born daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, Tan is credited with sparking the trend for fiction that explores ethnic identity. Her books are set against sweeping historical backdrops; part of the difficulty with her latest work, she says, was that no one had conducted any serious research into courtesan houses of that era. read pornography of the time, I read books on positions, aphrodisiacs, erotica, advice for men on how to behave in a courtesan house but there was really no research on courtesans themselves, how they lived and spoke. Still, her racy reading list sounds rather more fun than most. The dcor of her cavernous loft, rather like her stories, is an exotic odyssey, with tapestries and textiles hung from the high white walls, vast jade and yellow sofas, an elaborate Moroccan bedspread, a grand piano, and a giant red velvet day bed so high off the floor that a family of small stools shelters beneath it. Amy Tan with her husband, Louis DeMattei I am greeted first by Bobo, a tiny, excitable teacup terrier, skittering towards me, followed by Tan, who is carrying a box of Yorkshire teabags she has thoughtfully procured for our meeting. She is petite, sleek and slender, in black leggings, wedge sandals and a chic Vivienne Tam top. She sports a sharp black bob, a blunt fringe and bright red lipstick, a look that might come off as severe were if not for her immediate self deprecating warmth. and I terrible at that, she nods. this book was particularly research heavy. It certainly shows: The Valley of Amazement, a brick of a book at 608 pages, spans 40 years, is set between San Francisco, Shanghai and remote Chinese villages, and is the result of eight years of work. book started off quite differently. It took a huge turn when I came across a photograph at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Tan says. Part of an exhibition about Western influences on Shanghai, the picture, of a group of courtesans, piqued Tan interest. They were wearing the same outfits she had seen her grandmother wearing in photographs. was taken aback to read that the costume was very specific to courtesans. Tan knew some details of her grandmother dramatic life: that she had been raped by her merchant husband and committed suicide by swallowing raw opium buried in rice cakes when her daughter, Daisy, Tan mother, was just nine years old. But no one had ever mentioned her being a courtesan. Tan in concert as a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders in New York, April 2010 (Getty) didn have absolute proof. She could have put on the get up and gone to the photo studio for fun, shrugs Tan. But I ray ban 3269 am not advertising that I am a dominatrix. She smiles. it did occur to me: what if she was [a courtesan]? I saw there were some inconsistencies in what I had been told about her, and for me inconsistencies are where stories lie. As in much of her previous work, the central relationship in Tan new book is between a mother and daughter. In this case they are Lucia, the American madam of a high class courtesan house, and Violet, her spoilt child. And while Tan novels are not strictly autobiographical, she does mine her own life for ideas and inspiration. There are clear parallels between Violet learning that her mother had a wholly different life and another child before her and the discoveries Tan, as a teenager, made about her own mother: that Daisy had been married before, in China, to an abusive husband with whom she had five children, two of whom died. Daisy fled to California and, unable to retrieve them, did not see her three surviving daughters from that marriage for 30 years. I first found out about her previous marriage and the other daughters, it was very shocking. I suddenly felt that I had competition. Tan mother had left Shanghai in 1949, five days before the Communists came to power, following her father, John, who had been an electrical engineer in Beijing. I found out much more recently that since divorce was not permitted, she wasn divorced when she married my father in the United States. Tan aged 12 (Amy Tan) Tan recalls both of her parents studying hard at night school when she was growing up, in California. Her mother became a nurse and her father a Baptist minister. The family also moved around a lot; Tan spent her childhood in 10 different cities in the San Francisco Bay area, which, she has said, contributed to a deep sense of alienation. lose a set of friends and spend months before I find others. Being different was less tolerated then; you be teased with racial jokes. At home, she had a close but volatile relationship with her mother. When Tan was 16, Daisy held a meat cleaver to her throat and threatened to kill her in an argument about her new boyfriend, and the pair did not speak for a year. Tan was also fed a steady diet of stern warnings and strict woe betide yous. mother always emphasised, 'You have to get your own life, your own job. If you ever want to leave your husband, there should be no question that you can take care of yourself, she recalls. had no idea why she was so negative, but of course she did not want me ever to be in the position of being under somebody thumb. She wanted me to be in control. also told me, 'If you don want to have a baby, no one should make you have a baby not your husband, not your mother in law, not anyone. I know what it is like not to want to have a child. Her mother, Tan later discovered, had had three abortions in China, after being raped by her husband. Tan and DeMattei have no children, and she has no regrets. never felt a strong compulsion to duplicate our genetic structure, she has said. in me that I have wanted to pass on is already in the books. Tan at a book signing in California, ray ban wayfarer glasses May 1992 (Getty) Incredibly, Tan did not initially think to write about her family. I grew up in a suburb and my parents had friends who came over to play mah jong, and eat Chinese food who would want to read that? And I was trying to distance myself from all that anyway. Some early feedback on her fiction writing urged her to be authentic, to find a voice. didn know what that meant, Tan admits. then I realised that I was able to take my family past and put that in my stories, without using the specific details. I was so excited by what I was learning about myself that I decided it didn really matter whether I ever got published this, in itself, was worth it. It gave her a desire to hear her mother stories again. I finally sat down to write The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God Wife, I wanted to hear everything she had to tell me: what she ate, where she went shopping, what her bedroom was like, who the neighbours were. I recorded it all on videotape. My mother loved it; she felt I finally understood her, Tan says. always wanted, I think, to have somebody go through her past with her, holding her hand and saying, 'That terrible. Daisy died of Alzheimer in 1999, and having captured those memories was a source of comfort for Tan. she gone, of course, I wish I could ask her more things. It appears that Tan need never search far for high drama. Misfortune seems to sunglasses sale ray ban find her. She has been in two serious car crashes, robbed at gunpoint, almost drowned and, while at college, asked to identify the body of her best friend and flatmate, who had been tortured and murdered by intruders. have survivor skills, she agrees. of that is superficial what I present to people outwardly but what makes people resilient is the ability to find humour and irony in situations that would otherwise overpower you. Her new novel It is hard to know, however, how anyone could find much humour in certain brutal events in the Tan family saga. When she was 14, Tan elder brother died from a brain tumour, then her father died of the same condition within a year.

that happened to a child today, that child would receive counselling. We were told to be good and not cause trouble, she shrugs. And though she appears to be in robust health today, 14 years ago she contracted Lyme disease, an illness that causes neurological damage.

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