On the July day that The Kitchen God’s Wife crowned The New York Times best-seller list, Amy Tan’s editor called with the good news. ”That’s nice,” the 39-year-old writer said. Then Tan shared some really big news of her own: She had just won a pool tournament. ”Pool is luck and skill that you can control,” Tan explains. ”Success — getting on lists and people buying your books — that’s something that’s bestowed upon you. It would be dangerous for me to believe in that.”
Success startled Tan when her first book — 1989’s The Joy Luck Club, about the remembrances of Chinese-American women — sold nearly 3 million copies and spent 34 weeks on best-seller lists. A gifted storyteller, Tan evoked the universally nettlesome tenderness between mothers and daughters and opened a whole new culture to masses of readers, doing for Chinese-Americans what Philip Roth had done for Jewish-Americans and James Baldwin for African-Americans.
Suddenly, Tan was in public demand. ”I have a diskette on my computer that has something like 100 speeches on it,” she says. ”After I spoke, people always said to me, ‘I can’t believe how much of yourself you revealed up there.’ I started thinking about it: If I was revealing so much in public, what would be left for my writing?” So Tan escaped into the third-floor San Francisco condo she shares with her attorney husband, Louis DeMattei. Sitting at her computer, she shut out the world by playing meditative music by the Japanese musician Kitaro. ”It’s hypnotic,” she says. ”Every day, it puts me in the same place of imagination.”
From that place came her second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, inspired by her mother’s travails in China during World War II. An engrossing tale of slippery self-revelation, it spent 18 weeks this year on the Times list, hitting No. 1 in its second week. (Meanwhile, The Joy Luck Club climbed onto the paperback list for a second run of 15 weeks.) But what thrilled Tan most was closer to home: ”The best thing I did this year was making my mother happy. She gave me a gift, and I gave her a gift-the story of her life. In telling me her story, she was able to let go of anger and sorrow that happened long ago. It was better than 50 years of psychotherapy. She has a lightness now in her heart.”
Next year promises more. Tan’s first children’s book, The Moon Lady, will be published in the fall; she has recently been searching for a studio to film The Joy Luck Club; and she’s developing a pilot for PBS called Every Family, about an ethnically mixed ”typical American family.” None of that distracts Tan from her next novel, The Year of No Flood, about a missionary teaching Western ideas to a young boy in 19th-century China.
But if Tan ever needs distraction, she can take refuge in billiards — as she has done since she first walked into a neighborhood pool parlor to soothe jitters over Joy. Now she doesn’t even have to leave home to play: She recently oversaw the restoration of an ornate 1809 pool table — her one nod to success. ”I didn’t buy a fancy car or anything,” Tan says with a laugh. ”The pool table was my reward.”