The harrowing early life of her mother, Daisy, inspired Amy Tan's novel The Kitchen God's Wife. In China, Daisy had divorced an abusive husband but lost custody of her three daughters. She was forced to leave them behind when she escaped on the last boat to leave Shanghai before the Communist takeover in 1949. Her marriage to John Tan produced three children, Amy and her two brothers.
Tragedy struck the Tan family when Amy's father and oldest brother both died of brain tumors within a year of each other. Mrs. Tan moved her surviving children to Switzerland, where Amy finished high school, but by this time mother and daughter were in constant conflict.
DeMattei, an attorney, took up the practice of tax law, while Tan studied for a doctorate in linguistics, first at the University of California at Santa Cruz, later at Berkeley. By this time, she had developed an interest in the problems of the developmentally disabled. She left the doctoral program in 1976 and took a job as a language development consultant to the Alameda County Association for Retarded Citizens, and later directed a training project for developmentally disabled children.
With a partner, she started a business writing firm, providing speeches for the salesmen and executives of large corporations. After a dispute with her partner, who believed she should give up writing to concentrate on the management side of the business, she became a full-time freelance writer. Among her business works, written under non-Chinese-sounding pseudonyms, were a 26-chapter booklet called "Telecommunications and You," produced for IBM.
Amy Tan prospered as a business writer. After a few years in business for herself, she had saved enough money to buy a house for her mother. She and her husband lived well on their double income, but the harder Tan worked at her business, the more dissatisfied she became. The work had become a compulsive habit, and she sought relief in creative efforts. She studied jazz piano, hoping to channel the musical training forced on her by her parents in childhood into a more personal expression. She also began to write fiction.
Her first story, "Endgame," won her admission to the Squaw Valley writer's workshop taught by novelist Oakley Hall. The story appeared in FM literary magazine, and was reprinted in Seventeen. A literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra, was impressed enough with Tan's second story, "Waiting Between the Trees," to take her on as a client. Dijkstra encouraged Tan to complete an entire volume of stories.
Just as she was embarking on this new career, Tan's mother fell ill. Amy Tan promised herself that if her mother recovered, she would take her to China, to see the daughter who had been left behind almost 40 years before. Mrs. Tan regained her health, and mother and daughter departed for China in 1987. The trip was a revelation for Tan. It gave her a new perspective on her often-difficult relationship with her mother, and inspired her to complete the book of stories she had promised her agent.
On the basis of the completed chapters, and a synopsis of the others, Dijkstra found a publisher for the book, now called The Joy Luck Club. With a $50,000 advance from G.P. Putnam's Sons, Tan quit business writing and finished her book in a little more than four months.
Upon its publication in 1989, Tan's book won enthusiastic reviews and spent eight months on The New York Times bestseller list. The paperback rights sold for $1.23 million. The book has been translated into 17 languages, including Chinese. Her subsequent novel, The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), confirmed her reputation and enjoyed excellent sales.
In the following years, Amy Tan published two books for children, The Moon Lady and The Sagwa, and two more novels: The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) and The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001).
In 2003, she published The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings, an autobiography in which she disclosed her experience with Lyme disease, a chronic bacterial infection contracted from the bite of a common tick. Amy Tan's case went undiagnosed for years before she received proper treatment, and she suffered intense physical pain, mental impairment and seizures. For years, Lyme disease made it impossible for Amy Tan to continue writing. With medication, she has been able to control the worst symptoms of her illness, and has resumed writing, but she also spends much of her energy raising awareness of Lyme disease, promoting its early detection and treatment, and advocating for the rights of Lyme disease patients.
With her illness under control, Amy Tan has completed two works of fiction. Her novel Saving Fish from Drowning appeared in 2005. In 2013, she published one of her most ambitious books to date, The Valley of Amazement, an epic saga told from the point of view of a part-American girl raised among the courtesans of Shanghai in the first years of the 20th century.