Amy Tan Talks Family History, Teaching a MasterClass, and Being in a Band With Dave Barry at The Sonoma Valley Author’s Festival

Amy Tan

Here’s something you may not know. Dave Barry and Amy Tan are in a band.

Yep. The beloved humorist and newspaper columnist who kept us chuckling over the years and the incredibly talented novelist famous for bringing to the page and the big screen stories of women in the Chinese American community joined together to offer their musical stylings. This is actually old news; almost 30 year old news. The band, made up of authors, is called the Rock Bottom Remainders, and also includes Matt Groening of The Simpsons, and, as Barry describes him, “one person horror industry Stephen King.”

So, when on a particular sweltering, fire smoke-heavy weekend in August, the pair got together to speak at the Sonoma Valley Author’s Festival’s town square, it wasn’t as random a pairing as it seemed.

Dave Barry. Photos by Scott Chernis.

Authors on the Plaza was launched as a free component of the festival in 2019, aimed at making the event more accessible to the community. Dave Barry opened with his usual silly brand of humor, and poet laureate Billy Collins had the last word. Amy, however, was the star of the show. She was not there to sing, although at one point the 69-year-old joked that she could be heard more easily over the microphone than her interviewer, Jeffery Brown, because: “I’m a rock star!”.

The Sonoma Author’s Festival is a three-day event held in the summer each year, attracting prominent authors from across the county. The festival, created by locals David and Ginny Freeman, debuted in 2018, with the aim of bringing together the community for well-thought-out discussions on literature, current events and advancements in science and technology. Last year the event was held virtually due to the pandemic, but it was back in full form this August, taking place for the first time at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.

Sonoma Valley Authors Festival

Brown, PBS Newshour’s chief correspondent, conducted a fascinating interview with Tan at the plaza event, who recently released a memoir titled Where the Past Begins. She was incredibly candid with the audience, sharing stories of family tragedy and turmoil, her own struggles with becoming an author, and her wisdom about the craft of writing, including tidbits from her recent MasterClass.

“I wanted people to recognize that they already have what they need in them to be a writer, whatever they may want to write about,” Tan explained. “Examine the things you have that are innate: your intuition, your experiences, and how you think the world works. In essence, you, as the writer, and as a person, have a kind of cosmology. I try to help people recognize what they already have.”

She also hoped to convey that writing is no easy task. “For every page that I write I’ve probably revised it about 100 times,” she said. “People think a writer just puts it down and then it’s perfect from page one to 350 – that is absolutely not the case. You write 300 pages and then you throw them away. It’s a lot of work. But the core of what you write comes from places within yourself.”

She talked about her own journey with finding these places. “I was always trying to understand what the story is and what the voice is, which comes first and which determines the other,” she explained. “I know now that the voice determines the story, because only that voice can tell that particular kind of story. Ideas might come together in a surprising way, and you won’t know what the surprise is until you write it. And suddenly there’s a realization, the absolute tearing open of my soul that makes me realize this is my voice, my desire to find the meaning of this story, which is the meaning of my life. There’s a mission in life to understand how I became who I am and what is meaningful to me, and my role in the rest of the world. That often comes through writing and finding that voice. Writing is a wonderful way to find out what you believe.”

Amy Tan
Amy Tan and Jeremy Brown. Photos by Scott Chernis.

Amy delved into some deeply personal family stories that she came across when writing her memoir. “It was very different from my other books because it was naked,” she says. “It was things that happened in my life and there were a number of very upsetting things. I would pick out of a box of memorabilia and find something, a letter or a document, and I would write something related to that. Suddenly this story would come out.” She talks about discovering a lie her parents had told her when she was six that she believed her whole life; coping with her mother’s suicide attempts, dealing with her brother and father’s brain tumors and the abuse she suffered during a religious upbringing. As Brown said, “add tenacity and inner strength to all these requirements to be a writer.”

Tan seems to have resilience in spades, and despite her hard life, has an incredible sense of humor. When Dave Barry talked about her experience in his band, he mentions something Tan said that morning. “One of Amy’s best quotes [about the band] was: ‘I would do this to kill the whales,'” Barry jokes.

Tan later explains, “I was saying that being in a band was the most improbable thing I could ever do — and I’ve gone swimming with whales sharks.” But Barry, always quick to a joke, already had it covered: “I just wanted to express, Amy Tan has never killed a whale. In my presence.”

The Sonoma Valley Author’s Festival’s On-Demand Virtual Festival runs from October 23 to November 20, 2021.

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Jessica Gliddon

Jessica Gliddon is the Group Digital Content Manager for Marin Magazine. An international writer and editor, she has worked on publications in the UK, Dubai and Cape Town. She is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, and is the former editor of Abu Dhabi’s airline magazine, Etihad Inflight. When she’s not checking out the latest exhibit at SFMOMA or searching out the best places to eat and drink near her home in San Francisco, she volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.