There’s something unintentionally humorous for author Amy Tan in watching her upcoming PBS documentary “Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” — she got to see herself age over 68 years. The feature — the last completed film by director James Redford, who died in October 2020 of bile duct cancer in his liver — tries to create a narrative while simultaneously examining Tan’s experience of becoming a writer. “It’s uncomfortable, at times, but it seems like the best way to make sense of my life,” she said Thursday during PBS’ panel at the TCA Winter Press Tour.
From an early age Tan was a storyteller, telling tales and illustrating them, starting at the age of six. But in all that time she never thought she’d be a writer because there wasn’t a model, especially not an Asian-American woman. “It wasn’t until I was a business writer…that I thought to do something that was much more meaningful to me,” she said. She started writing short stories for her personal enjoyment and was surprised to discover that she was finding things out about herself that had meaning. “At that moment, I was a writer,” she said.
When Tan first started writing she didn’t believe she would get published. “That meant I was writing in a vacuum,” she said. “That feeling of being alone, alone in a room, was something I had loved since I was a child.” Once she was published, she felt she lost the quiet room. “I had many people watching over me…and that made it very difficult,” she said.
The success of “The Joy Luck Club” was frightening to her because the way she was raised made her believe writing wasn’t practical. “When this book came out and suddenly it started gaining momentum…I thought somebody else was in control of my life,” she said. “When it was [the] publication date, I cried.” The success was so out of control to her it made her depressed. Tan said she did eventually settle into a rhythm by writing down things that were important to her and reminding herself not to get lost in it.
When “Crazy Rich Asians” was released in 2018, Tan was happy that there was finally more representation. “It had to achieve commercial success before we could see more films like this happen in the future,” she said. “‘Joy Luck Club,’ the film, made it apparent that it could be possible.”
Because Tan’s work is so personal it stands to reason that people in her life could have been upset by her writing. Tan, however, said she never encountered people who felt they were maligned. “I had people who thought they were in the books — but were not,” she said. In fact, her mother wanted more books actually about her. “She knew that ‘The Joy Luck Club’ was fiction and not a representation of her real life,” she said.
In the documentary for PBS, the audience doesn’t see a character, but instead uncovers the realities of Tan’s life. Redford used conversations with her to create the narrative and working with the late director was a highlight for Tan. “Jamie was a very special person and I had absolute trust in him,” she said. In the beginning she was very apprehensive and retreated from public life, but during the production she told him she didn’t need to see footage.
“I was very honored because there was a good chance he was going to die; he was aware of that before it was even finished,” she said. Tan told him it didn’t matter, but being with him in the moment and talking about things was more important. It was highly different than writing a book — but it allowed her to be completely open. “It’s all me. You can’t just put all good stuff on there,” she said.
“Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” airs on PBS May 3.