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Author Amy Tan Finds Solace in Nature Journaling

Tan’s new book, ‘The Backyard Bird Chronicles,’ gave her peace of mind in a troubling time

spinner image Amy Tan against teal ombre background
Nicholas Latimer

Amy Tan, 72, found literary fame in 1989 with the publication of her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, an absorbing bestseller centered on a group of Chinese immigrant mothers and daughters in San Francisco. The story later became a film that she cowrote and coproduced. Tan — who, like some of her characters, is a Bay Area-raised daughter of Chinese immigrants — went on to write other acclaimed novels, including The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Hundred Secret Senses.

Now she’s turned to birds. Her new book, The Backyard Bird Chronicles, out April 23, is similar to an old-fashioned nature journal, with written descriptions and drawings documenting the birds behind her home near San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, Lou DeMattei, a retired tax attorney. Tan shares with AARP how the birding book came to be, how her life perspective has changed with age, and how she’s always game to learn something new.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What brought you out to your backyard?

spinner image Book cover with words The Backyard Bird Chronicles, A Nature Journal, Amy Tan, Foreword by David Allen Sibley; pictures of birds on cover
“The Backyard Bird Chronicles” is a witty account of birding, nature and the beauty around us that hides in plain sight.
Enmei Tan

Around the time of the campaigns for the [2016] presidential election, there was a lot of racism that came out, and it was just so open — it was so ugly, all the divisiveness and the hatred, and I felt it personally. I just had to go somewhere to find some peace in my mind, to find something beautiful, and decided that the way that I could do that was to go nature journaling. It required me to focus my attention toward what was so wonderful about nature.

Did you begin the journal with publication in mind?

I didn’t know it would become a book. I was just doing something I loved, and my editor said, “How would you feel if we published your journal?” And I told him that it’s not really a book — it’s a lot of scribbles and notes that I’ve made, and it’s all disorganized. But he asked for about 20 pages, which he presented to the publishing house, and they said, “Yeah, we’ll publish that.”

You’re a dog lover as well. Do your dogs scare away the birds?

I have a Yorkshire Terrier, Felix, who’s just four pounds, and a rescue dog, Tux, who’s now around 19 years old and can’t see or hear. But when [my goddaughter’s little dog, Bobo, who lives next door] comes over, the birds slowly rise up and fly to the top of the fence. Then they just look at him, and after a while they come down again. They’re not threatened by him at all. They know he can’t fly.

You’ve noted your struggles with Lyme disease. How are you feeling these days?

I’m doing really great. I do personal training three times a week. I hike a lot. I just finished a three-week trip in Ecuador, where we got up at 4 in the morning and walked all day long. I do very active vacations. For our 50th wedding anniversary, we’re going to Yosemite, where we backpacked when we were very young. We’ve rented two houses with friends, and we’re going to hike and look at the stars at night.

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You’ve been married a long time! Any secrets to a good marriage?

I was lucky in finding a person who, it turned out, was going to be compatible with me for life. And a lot of that has to do, in retrospect, with the values we share ... values of giving and generosity and kindness. If you have common interests, that’s good. But Lou, he doesn’t draw. He’s fine with birds, but it’s not his passion. I think it’s important to allow for one’s independence, so you don’t feel like you’re smothered in a relationship, having to have a shared identity at the sacrifice of your own very personal identity.

How has growing older changed your outlook?

I do find that it does shape my decision-making a lot, because I’m very aware of mortality and time, and I see that time is a percentage of something that I have [left] — not with any grimness, but it just makes me aware. Do I want to spend that percentage of time doing x instead of y? I also think about the amount [of money] that I spend on things, because our money goes to charity at the end of our lives. We don’t have children. So we think about our money in terms of being able to give more at the end of our lives. Somebody once thought for sure that I traveled first class everywhere I go, but no way. Yes, I could afford it. But that’s money that could have gone to charity.

What’s the status of Rock Bottom Remainders, the band you used to play in with Stephen King and other authors for charity?

I don’t know whether we’d ever do that again. I mean, we’re all getting older, so it’s different now, getting on airplanes and getting on stage and jamming all night with people. But it’s been fun. We’re all friends, and it’s great to be around all these people that you’ve known for the last 35 years.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading a fiction book right now called Yellowface, by R.F. Kuang. [And for nonfiction] I’m reading Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. It’s about emotions in animals, which really fascinates me. And there’s another book that’s on my nightstand — Eve, by Cat Bohannan, about how women’s bodies have affected human evolution over the last 200 million years.

What else do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I’m always learning something new. I want to learn French, so I’ve done it in my own self-taught way, reading French newspapers and writing in French and having French friends. Same thing with Spanish. The next thing that I want to do, in terms of learning something new, is to start writing music — not anything complex, just a little theme for myself that I could do variations on, and that would just be something very private, for myself. I look for something that I think I can do without getting too crazy about it — but then often I do go crazy over it. Like with birds; I kind of went over the top with that one.


Discover More of Amy Tan’s Work 

Chinese-American author Amy Tan’s best-known novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published in 1989 and adapted into a 1993 movie starring Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao and Kieu Chinh. Her children’s book The Chinese Siamese Cat was also adapted into a PBS animated series that ran from 2001 to 2004.

Other books by Tan include:​

  • The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991)​
  • The Hundred Secret Senses (1995)
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001)​
  • Saving Fish from Drowning (2005) ​
  • The Valley of Amazement (2013)​

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