In a look back at a classic issue of PW, we offer the story of the making of Amy Tan's classic The Joy Luck Club from our July 7, 1989 issue:
In Chinese, you don't tell a story, you say it. Recently, 36-year-old Chinese-American Amy Tan said a story to a group of listeners about how she came to chronicle the mothers and daughters of The Joy Luck Club, published by Putnam on March 22.
Tan spoke of joy, of memories half- lost and recalled to life. She conjured up the early childhood magic of the Mandarin words her mother spoke, magic that lay dormant when, older. Tan fiercely cultivated the American and tried to bury the Chinese part of herself. And she talked about luck and the enabling powers of fiction that allow the transformation of lost memories into universal truths.
Joy, luck and magic are words used often to describe the publishing history of The Joy Luck Club. In these days of "brand name" authors and mega-hype, all three elements were required to catapult a first book about four Chinese women and their American daughters to a sustained presence on bestseller lists and to attract a reprint price in excess of $1.2 million.
The Joy Luck Club, refreshingly, was published with taste rather than hype, and its success was made by both independent bookstores and infectious review enthusiasm. Although Putnam proceeded cautiously at first, with three printings required to reach the publication-date figure of 25,000 copies, there are now over 140,000 copies in print. In sum, the book's performance has gladdened the hearts of many in the industry, including those who bid un-successfully for the title both in hardcover and paperback.
Born in a Writers' Workshop
Like all good fairy tales, Joy Luck had an improbable start. Tan was a freelance business writer whose only previous close encounters of the fictional kind were with "vacation letters written to friends in which I tried to create little stories based on things that happened while I was away." She had always loved to read and harbored secret writing dreams from an early age, but her self-employment had turned into 90-hours-a-week workaholism. Tan began to worry about the lack of balance in her life and, early in 1985, decided to force herself to do another kind of writing. She recalls, "I decided to attend a writers' workshop, read certain books and write a short story within the next year." In fact, she had to write a story to gain entrance to the Squaw Valley program in her native California, and created something she called "Endgame"—a tale about a precocious girl chess champion and her strong- willed Chinese mother that eventually transmogrified into "Rules of the Game" in her book.
Many critics have compared Tan to the Native American writer Louise Erdrich, a comparison that is not entirely accidental. She recalls reading Erdrich's Love Medicine in August 1985 before going to Squaw Valley and being "so amazed by her voice. It was different and yet it seemed I could identify with the powerful images, the beautiful language and such moving stories." At the writing program, she listened to her friend, writer Amy Hempel, "who said to look for the news in my story, and to go for the things that are the most uncomfortable."
Tan worked on the piece and then showed it to the teacher she credits with guiding her "to the end"— Flannery O'Connor Award-winner Molly Giles, who told her, "You don't have one story in these 13 pages— you have a dozen." Giles later arranged for the story to be sent to FM magazine, which published it, absolutely thrilling its author. A little later, even more excitement: Seventeen asked to publish it. Tan took the plunge and sent a second story, "Waiting Between the Trees," to the New Yorker. It was rejected, but kindly—and Tan settled down to more work in a new San Francisco writers' group led by Giles.
But writing for magazines is one thing, publishing books quite another. How was that essential connection made? Via the person whom Tan thanks "for saving my life"; academic-turned-agent Sandra Dijkstra, who operates out of Del Mar, Calif Trawling for leads on interesting young writers, Dijkstra called on Giles, heard about Tan, and got in touch. Impressed with "Endgame," she gave encouraging words. Then in May 1987 Tan got a phone call from a friend congratulating her on her international publishing debut. Stunned and angered to discover that an Italian magazine had translated and published her story with-out her permission, Tan turned to Dijkstra for help. The agent advised Tan to send her anything else she had written. "Waiting Between the Trees" arrived, along with a letter in which Tan mused that the story "was actually written as an experiment to see if it would develop into a novel or series of related short stories about different generations and perspectives of women in balance or out of balance with themselves and each other." The agent signed her up, and a third installment, "Fishers of Men" (the only one that eventually did not find its way into the book), followed. Meanwhile, Dijkstra remembers "getting really excited. I felt the collection of stories as a whole would be much greater than the parts. I told Amy that if she could come up with a synopsis and outlines for other stories, I could sell them as a book."
There was another impetus for Tan's writing. She was suddenly summoned to the hospital one day— it was suspected that her mother had had a heart attack—and she remembered something her mother recently had asked her "If I die, what would you remember?"
Her mother recognized that Tan didn't know much about her Chinese roots. As it turned out, her mother didn't suffer a heart attack, but on her way to the hospital Tan vowed that if her mother lived, she would accompany her back to China and "would remember everything I could about her." The dedication in the book echoes this vow.
An Agent's Persistence
In July, Tan sent a formal proposal for a collection entitled Wind and Water, containing the earlier stories plus details of others that were half- written or in her head. One of these had a title that immediately appealed to Dijkstra, who saw it as a unifying link; she urged a title change. Tan recalls that "it didn't strike me as anything special, but I thought, what the hell." The Joy Luck Club was born.
On October 1,1987, Dijkstra sent a letter, along with Tan's proposal and three stories, to an editor at a literary house in New York, who, although impressed by the material, did not feel it merited the "serious money" the agent was after.
Tan set out with her mother and husband for China, and at the end of the month Dijkstra came to New York. Shemade the rounds, and within two days received an offer of $15,000 from Victoria Wilson at Knopf. She held out for more money, feeling, "If the publisher didn't pay enough, the book wouldn't get the right treatment." Wilson and Pat Mulcahy of Vintage then came through with $20,000 for hard/soft rights, but after consulting with Tan, who was shocked and pleased by the thought that Knopf wanted to publish her work, Dijkstra again declined. She felt that "an offer had to come that would allow Amy to give up her business and be able to write for a year." Interest started to come in from Harper & Row, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, S & S and from a very interested Faith Sale at Putnam. Dijkstra made it clear to Sale that she was looking for $50,000 as a pre-emptive offer. "Most of the pub- lishers thought the kind of money I was looking for was insane."
Then two publishers jumped. Susan Moldow and Jackie Farber called, on behalf of Delacorte/Dell with a hard/soft offer of $30,000. And Doubleday's Nancy Evans and Lo- retta Barrett came up with a two- book offer for hardcover world rights for a not inconsiderable $135,000. Dijkstra was interested, but her faith in Tan's future was such that she preferred not to lock her second book up. Meanwhile, Phyllis Grann was away from Putnam and, unusual for her, unreachable, and Faith Sale, then-publisher Chris Schillig, v-p and executive publicity director Marilyn Ducksworth and former rights director Janis Vallely had fallen in love with the book. Sale remembers that she and Schillig "agonized. It was a Friday, and the pressure was very great—$50,000 on the basis of just three stories. In the end, Chris told me to go ahead. We persuaded Sandy to part with first serial rights, and the contract was formally signed on December 28,1987."
The Push by Putnam
Tan recalls being absolutely amazed, and then, once telephone contact was made, greatly bolstered by Faith Sale. "She was very nurturing, but left me alone to keep writing. There was no pressure. Most of her advice came after I had finished all the drafts. I asked her which was the weakest story, and she singled out one that was about a man and a woman rather than a mother and daughter. I knew in-stantly that she and her assistant, Jennifer Barth, had hit on what was bothering me instinctively. Faith also helped a great deal in giving the stories their final order."
For Tan, the editing process was something magical. She had a routine: "I'd light incense, put on certain music and start to imagine myself in another world. I conjured up people to come and tell me their stories. Then I'd enter that other world and hours would go by and I'd forget everything else."
According to Sale, two typewritten copies of the manuscript, "clean as anything you've ever seen, in perfect white boxes, imprinted with the 'Joy Luck' chop Amy's mother had encouraged her to have made while in China and tied with red ribbon— the Chinese color for good luck—arrived on time by the middle of May." And the word of mouth on the book, from all the publishers who had competed for it, was such that Marty Asher, recently installed at Vintage, offered a paperback floor of $100,000 for the collection.
Putnam's rights operation got further into gear with a book club sale to BOMC and QPBC (the Literary Guild had also bid) in September. Rights director Diane Gedymin reports that serial rights were sold the following month to the Atlantic, Ladies' Home Journal and San Francisco Focus. Audio rights were sold to Dove in September (which issued a cassette of Tan reading the stories earlier this summer).
Also critical to building excitement for the book within the industry were foreign sales. Even before the ink was dry on the Putnam contract, Maria Campbell had bought Italian rights for Rizzoli, and Mildred Hird was able to sell foreign rights to many countries, including France, Holland, Japan, Sweden and Israel. U.K. hardcover rights have been sold to Heinemann, offers have been received from Germany, Norway and Spain, there is interest in Taiwan, and a great deal of paperback interest in the U.K., where an auction is imminent.
The magic of the book was such that every publicist at Putnam was vying to work on it, but Jill Bernstein was chosen to see it through. She recalls "reading the manuscript in one sitting and receiving a reminder of why I got into the business. From the beginning, we felt the book was a strong contender for wide review attention, 'literary' print features and serious readings at good bookstores in targeted markets. We also knew that Amy would be good for electronic media: she had borrowed a video camera and filmed scenes of herself and her husband and mother at a real Joy Luck Club meeting and in Chinatown. We used it at our sales conference in December, and the reps were incredibly enthusiastic." Sale set about getting good prepublication quotes from people like Alice Walker, Alice Hoffman and Louise Erdrich.
Putnam sent out 458 bound galleys with a cover specially illustrated by Tan's friend Gretchen Schields; and on Sale's suggestion, no back cover "ad" trumpeting paperback floor, bookclub sales, etc., appeared on the galley. Everything was to appear tasteful, without hype. A PW boxed review, calling the book "a major achievement," appeared on December 23. In February two mailings of 500 copies each of prepublication postcards, graced by Schields's illustration, were mailed; half of them had the PW review on the back, while the other half featured Alice Walker's blurb. A lavish press kit was assembled, and a publishing party at Phyllis Grann's Manhattan apartment was planned.
Meanwhile, a new member of the Putnam staff made his presence felt in carrying out the strategy for the book. Joy Luck was the first manuscript to be sent to Dan Harvey after the longtime Harper advertising and publicity director joined Putnam as an associate publisher. Grann comments, "Dan championed the book. He has a tremendous credibility throughout the industry and he helped to ensure the timing and the number of reviews the book got." Harvey simply says he "reinforced the mailings that had already been done with calls and visits and letters to people I knew. But really, so many reviewers had already decided to treat this book in a special way. There seemed to be such a natural, instinctive partnership between the reviewers and the house. Over the years I have worked with many very talented novelists, but I never saw the kind of unanimous positive response to a first work of fiction that this book got."
Looking back at the lineup of post- PW reviews, everything seems to have fallen into place, like a perfectly positioned deck of cards. Grann feels that Putnam, with only 85 or so new hardcover trade titles a year, was in an advantageous position to be able to pull off the intense coordi-nated effort necessary to get the pack of cards to fall into place. And perhaps the piece de resistance that put the excitement level within the industry over the ordinary threshold was the 12-hour paperback auction on April 13, with Avon, Berkley, Dell, H & R, NAL, Pocket, St. Martin's, Warner, Zebra and the floor-holder, Vintage, all bidding. In the sixth and final round, Avon bid $1.1 million; St. Martin's put in $1,125 million and then Vintage exercised its topping privilege to obtain the reprint rights for $1.2375 million. Marty Asher feels that in the long run, the book will be able to sell a half million copies in trade paper and might also be able to take mass market treatment somewhere down the line. (As PW went to press, discussion was underway within Random House on whether the mass market treatment should precede the trade edition. With more than three months on the national bestseller charts, the publishers, agent and author are deciding whether the book should debut next spring under the Ivy mass market-imprint, followed by a Vintage edition.)
The Joy Continues
Feature interviews with Tan have appeared or have been scheduled to appear in over a dozen periodicals, including People, Esquire, Fortun and an early, influential one in the Los Angeles Times on March 12, a day that many insiders see as the turning point for the book, given the number of reviews that occurred si-multaneously on that date. Tan has been interviewed three times on National Public Radio, once each on CBS radio and the Voice of America network, and on various local stations and syndicates across the United States and Canada. In May and June she undertook speaking engagements, and has appfeared on television in California, not to mention on the nationally televised Today show of May 24.
Works in Progress*
And what of the future for Amy Tan? Putnam has gone on to sign her for two more books, with sums undisclosed. She has three different story ideas floating around in her head; one is set in San Francisco's Chinatown at the turn of the century and involves a father and daughter; one concerns the present day and "things I have been thinking about with respect to my sister coming to this country, as well as certain aspects of my mother's life"; and the third is set in Manchuria between 1933 and 1945. Tan already has pages of notes written on each, and whichever does become the next book, it is due to be delivered to the publisher in March of next year.
But what, in the end, has been the special attraction of Tan's first literary effort? Faith Sale muses, "This is Storytelling on a pure level, about mothers and daughters, with universal appeal. Second, the book gets in so very close to people; it's so intimate, it seems as though Amy is telling the story just to you. And finally, the appeal of the exotic is not to be discounted."
Reflecting, though, on the seemingly charmed life of this book, joy and luck would perhaps not have been enough if there had not been a special blessing besides. Tan has two half-sisters, one of whom now lives in America. Once upon a time, this last sister told her that she, too, had had a childish head full of magic and stories. But growing up in China, her mind had become too rusty, too burdened by politics and upheavals, so that her magic had died, Tan's Chinese name, Anmei, means "blessing from America," and in recent weeks particularly, she has become acutely aware of the difference the geographical accident of her birth made in her life.