I’m thrilled to bits when author Tan Twan Eng asks me to moderate his meet-the author session at Kinokuniya on April 8th. The bookstore is in any case Tan’s home away from home when he is back in KL. I joke with him about which is greater, the amount earned in royalties from his novels or the amount he has spent here over the years. He laughs and agrees it’s probably the latter, and knowing his voracious reading habit, I can well believe him.
Penang-born Tan’s first novel The Gift of Rain has been a success in every meaning of the word – critically acclaimed, it was also longlisted for the Man Booker which is one of the world’s most important literary prizes, and it has also been a very popular novel with readers on both sides of the Atlantic. (A barometer of this is reader ratings on Amazon where it has never fallen below 4.5.) The popularity of the book in the US though, took Tan completely by surprise, he says.
It took Tan three years to write his second novel The Garden of Evening Mists which is set in Malaya during the communist insurgency. It tells the story of lawyer Yun Ling Teoh, who though scarred by her wartime experiences in a Japanese camp, nonetheless decides to fulfill her promise to her dead sister to build a Japanese garden. She becomes the apprentice of a man who was once gardener to the Emperor of Japan, and who has built his garden in Cameron Highlands.
There’s actually a phenomenon known as “second novel syndrome” where writers get terrific performance anxiety about writing a follow-up to a successful novel. Was this the case with Tan?
He agrees: “When you write a first novel you give everything that you have, basically you dry the well, and there’s nothing left for the second novel. Every book, I’m starting to suspect, will get harder and harder to write and it’s not something I’m looking forward to.”
The great American Don DeLillo once said a first novel comes to the writer as a gift and he doesn't necessarily know how he wrote it: it's the second novel that teaches him how to write. Tan feels (and I’d completely agree) that his writing is much more controlled in this second novel, the plot more carefully shaped, and while the descriptions of place are still gorgeous (especially those of the garden) they draw attention to themselves far less .
Tan confesses that he has become more interested in gardening in recent years and the idea for the novel came from when he actually met someone who had been gardener of the Emperor of Japan at a social gathering in Johannesburg. Although they couldn’t really communicate because of the language barrier, the very job title provided the spark of inspiration, and Tan says “I had various elements floating around already and this tied them all together”.
Tan confesses that he has become more interested in gardening in recent years. Because he wanted to work with a Japanese garden this meant that the setting for the novel would have to be one of Malaya’s hill resorts, and only Cameron highlands was sufficiently developed at the time the book is set. He was also fascinated, he says by the myth of Jim Thompson, the Thai silk baron who went missing in Cameron highlands in 1967. (Indeed Thompson makes a cameo appearance in the book.)
Some of the scenes in the novel are so vividly realized, it is like stepping back into the Malaya of that era. Tan described how he researched the novel – drawing on contemporary accounts and on old photographs. He said that one of the toughest jobs in writing a novel is to decide how much research should go in to the novel, and he found that he had to cut out a lot of his material for fear of boring his reader.
I wondered how hard it was for Tan to write from the perspective of a woman. He says that it is difficult because women in the 40s and 50s because they were subject to greater restrictions did not have as much liberty to move around as the men. Tan also said that he found himself looking at women – how they sat, and trying to puzzle out the contents of their handbags!
I pointed out to Tan that in both books he is very generous with plot. There was so much incident packed into The Gift of Rain that I wasn’t sure how to classify the novel when I first read it – literary fiction or thriller? I asked him how important he feels storytelling is to him. He feels that there is a swingback in literary fiction with writers giving storytelling more importance, because “People getting tired of too much self-indulgence from a writer.” “You might have a lot of things to say but you really have to capture the reader’s attention and without story it’s difficult to get the reader turning the pages.”
For me the part of the book I found the most moving was the stunning love story of the historian, Tatsuji, who had been a kamikaze pilot. This part of the novel grew from the Tan’s short story Somewhere Above the Clouds (published in the Asian Literary Review in 2007).
I point out that while Tan never follows his characters into the bedroom but he has some ingenious ways to suggest the quality of their love making. Sex scenes can be notoriously difficult to write and there is of course the annual Bad Sex Award which must scare writers. “If you don’t do it well, it becomes laughable … like the act itself. “ Tan agrees. “I always skip the sex scenes in books. So when I’m writing I have no interest in describing it as well unless it’s really relevant – and most of the time it’s not. You’re more interested in showing the effect.”
There was very active participation from the audience at Kinokuniya – many of whom are fascinated to find out how an author works.
Tan worked previously as a lawyer in KL, and we wanted to know what there is about the job that still influences him. He says that one fall out is that he places great importance on clarity(as all lawyers must). If writing is not clear, the author is really cheating the reader.
His work ethic shows the influence of his former career. He treats writing as a job, makes sure he dresses neatly in a shirt before he begins because, he believes if you’re sloppy, then your thinking becomes sloppy. And he works more or less 9-5. He confesses though that the internet is a bit distraction and says he often has to switch off his wi-fi.
But perhaps the best bit of advice for all of us who would one day like to be sitting signing out own books in Kinokuniya – is to just get the work done!