What luck! Just the other day, I saw that the wonderful author Amy Tan was going to be at a Barnes & Nobles talking about her newest book, The Valley of Enchantment. So I hopped on a train to Manhattan to catch her presentation. Though it was crowded, I managed to grab a seat. And better than that, I had a chance to ask her a question about something I’m wrestling with right now — so all in all, it was a great evening! Here are some takeaways that might prove helpful:
Story ideas often hit unexpectedly: Amy Tan writes with pictures of her grandmother and mother in front of her — she considers them her muses. At an exhibition and in a book she happened to see a photograph of 10 Shanghai courtesans, one of whom had on an outfit almost identical to that of her grandmother. This started her thinking about what if… Somewhere between her grandmother and these unknown women, a space opened up. Suddenly, she felt compelled to start reading everything she could find about courtesans and their history and a story began emerging. “Ambiguity leads me somewhere….In contradictions — that’s where stories lie,” she said.
Use whatever works to keep going: “Reading other books that inspired you a long time ago can go a long way….They remind me of the urgency of writing stories.” Reading a book by Louise Erdrich that she admired greatly motivated Amy to keep pushing herself to finish her own novel. She also likes to listen to movie soundtracks as she writes — they provide mood music that’s also background music, so it’s not intrusive. When she writes one day and then puts on the same soundtrack the next day, she finds that she can more easily enter the atmosphere of her story. Sounds like it’s worth trying, doesn’t it?
Openings are tricky: During a brief Q &A, I said that I was a writer working on a YA novel and that I was struggling with two kinds of openings: an action-packed beginning and a quieter, world-building opening. I asked how she found the gateway to her story. And lo and behold! She said that she had exactly the problem with her novel. She tried jumping into the action, but saw the reader would have no idea who her main character was. Then she started from the point of view of the mother of the protagonist, but that didn’t work. Ultimately, her editor came up with some suggestions that led to the approach she finally used. Whew! What a relief to know that even an experienced novelist has faced the same problem I’m facing. Did she give me a solution? No. But at least I know that she ended up with an opening that worked — now that’s encouraging! Write on.