Novelist remains wary of her quick success


June 30, 1991|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- This time, her name is above the title on the book jacket. She's being feted at splashy publishing parties, and her promotional tour will take her not just across the country but over the Atlantic. The transformation of Amy Tan from surprise discovery of 1989 to established commodity of 1991 is complete.

Which has netted her, to date, fame, fortune and two cracked teeth, the result of the nocturnal gnashings of an author who hit the top her first time out and now faced the dreaded sophomore jinx that has bedeviled other promising writers.

But if early reviews are to be believed, Ms. Tan's teeth were needlessly martyred. "The Kitchen God's Wife" is receiving mostly warm accolades that, if not as uniformly adoring as those that greeted its predecessor, "The Joy Luck Club," would elate most authors.

Except, perhaps, Amy Tan.

"I'm very wary of this kind of success," the tiny and tempered Ms. Tan said in a recent interview. "I want to judge for myself . . . and not see success measured by the number of books I sell, or the reviews I've gotten. All these numbers, all these things -- as if someone gives you a certificate of success."

Ms. Tan's own definition of success is "not something concrete. It means having a focus in life and a goal. To learn what questions to ask, to do the most to discover what that focus means." And by this definition, she grades herself as "not 100 percent, but fairly much so."

Readers and critics are somewhat more generous in their assessment. "Joy Luck," a poetic and gemlike story told through the distinctive voices of four elderly Chinese women and their Americanized daughters, has sold more than two million copies since it unexpectedly burst on the market in 1989 and turned a free-lance technical writer from San Francisco into a literary celebrity around the world.

And now, "The Kitchen God's Wife" -- the story of a woman's struggle to escape both an abusive marriage and the war-bound and tradition-strangling China of the 1930s and '40s -- seems destined to add to Ms. Tan's repute. Calling it "a harrowing, compelling and at times bitterly humorous tale in which an entire world unfolds in a Tolstoyan tide of event and detail," novelist Robb Forman Dew predicts in the New York Times Book Review that "none of Ms. Tan's fans will be disappointed. 'The Kitchen God's Wife' is a more ambitious effort and, in the end, greatly satisfying."

Dressed in yards of flowing gray -- a silky pants outfit topped by a voluminous kimono-style jacket (the same one she's wearing in the "Kitchen God" book jacket photo) -- Ms. Tan's interview persona also registers in the neutral zone. Neither outgoing nor diffident, neither confessional nor secretive, Ms. Tan, 39, in person is as evenly keeled as her novels are wildly evocative.

Still, her wry wit occasionally peeps through the same remarks you've seen or heard in interviews past (the result, perhaps, of her going on automatic pilot in the presence of the press and/or unimaginative reporters asking the same questions over and over).

Arriving late for this particular interview, she confesses she lost track of time during dinner. "The Occidental," she says, naming a restaurant near the Washington hotel she's staying at, "not the Oriental."

Now writing her third novel, she's also working on a movie version of "The Joy Luck Club" with the respected independent director Wayne Wang. In addition to writing the screenplay, she jokes, she'll be in charge of keeping the numerous Chinese actresses in line, especially those cast as older, less attractive characters.

"I can see them saying, 'Oh, I don't think that's how my character would be. I think she would be a very fashionable lady,' " Ms. Tan says with a laugh, vogueishly patting her own glossy black hair.

Like the daughter characters in her novels, Ms. Tan was born in the United States (Oakland, Calif., in her case) and went through the push-pull conflict familiar to children of immigrants, trying to reconcile their own worlds with those not entirely left behind by their parents. Also like the daughter characters, she is married to American -- a tax attorney named Lou DeMattei -- but she's been quick to point out he is not the insensitive clod that his counterparts may be in her novels.

And, finally, like the daughter in "The Kitchen God's Wife," Ms. Tan's father died of cancer when she was a teen-ager -- in Ms. Tan's case, just months after the death of her older brother, also of a brain tumor.

Perhaps it is understandable, then, that Ms. Tan's books focus on mothers and daughters. A mother's secrets, a daughter's independence and, in between, a massive wall of generational and cultural tensions. These are the themes of Amy Tan's books and, seemingly, Amy Tan's life.

Her novels are such familial romans a clef, in fact, that she says her mother, Daisy Tan, has asked her, "What are we going to write next?"

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