Julia Gets Wise with Amy Tan

Subscribe to Lemonada Premium for Bonus Content

On this episode of Wiser Than Me, Julia sits down with 71-year-old author Amy Tan. Amy tells Julia how she’s learned to deal with the expectations following her successful debut novel The Joy Luck Club, the power of an apology, and the practical ways she’s preparing for getting older. And Julia and her mom Judith recall the disastrous first time Judith met Julia’s future husband Brad.

Follow Julia on Instagram and Twitter @officialjld. Keep up with Amy Tan @AmyTan on Twitter and @amytanwriter on Instagram. You can find out more about our show @lemonadamedia on all social platforms.

Joining Lemonada Premium is a great way to support our show and get bonus content. Subscribe today at bit.ly/lemonadapremium.

Wiser Than Me is brought to you by Hairstory. Use code WISER at checkout for 20% off your purchase, and Hairstory will donate 10% of proceeds from this code to water preservation efforts.

Wiser Than Me is brought to you by Evereve. Check out Evereve’s latest curated styles and get 20% off your first online order when you use code WISER.

Apple Books has teamed up with Lemonada Media for an audiobook club. The May pick, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer, is a highly topical and blisteringly smart examination of whether we can separate artists from their art, asking: what are the responsibilities that come with being a fan? For more details, visit http://apple.co/lemonadabookclub.

Sleep better at night with Boll and Branch sheets. Get 15% off your first order when you use promo code WISER at bollandbranch.com

Click this link for a list of all Wiser Than Me sponsors and discount codes: https://lemonadamedia.com/sponsors/.

For additional resources, information, and a transcript of the episode, visit lemonadamedia.com.



Amy Tan, Judith Bowles, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  00:00

This episode contains themes of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call or text 988 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline. My mom and dad separated when I was about a year old. Shortly after that my mother’s father died by suicide. So it was not an easy time for my mother who was such a new mother. She and I were living in New York, and it was just the two of us. Although I know it was difficult for my mom, and even though I was just a little baby, I think our connection was a bit of a lifesaver for her at this difficult time. And of course, she was my whole world. We were a duo. Sometimes my grandma DD was a part of the scene, she helped my mother to take care of me, though, in a way Didi needed taken care of too, but that’s a story for another time. My grandmother whose real name was Grace was one of five sisters including Myrna Frances, Dorothy and Little Joe. I know it sounds like I’m confusing my family with Little Women or something. But those are their actual names. The mother of these five girls was my great grandmother Bessie, that is a big load of fabulous old timey lady names, right, Bessie, Dorothy, Myrna Francis grace, and Little Joe, I mean, Jesus is fucking Grapes of Wrath over there. And from all accounts, Bessie wasn’t the greatest mother. So Myrna, the eldest daughter kind of took over in that regard. And in my mind, it’s always been this kind of village of women scraping it together in the 1920s with Myrna as a surrogate mother. So I’ve been thinking about the mother daughter bond in its many, many guises, birth mother adopted mother, foster mother, surrogate mother, because you have to be stepmother. I have a stepmother, whom I completely adore. By the way, it is a unique and fascinating bond, even when it isn’t working particularly well. And it’s somehow different from the Mother Son bond, the one that I have with my two beautiful sons. It’s not better at all, but it is distinctly different, perhaps Perhaps because built into the mother daughter connection is that shared female experience. My mom somehow against the odds, by the time she became a mother already had certain instincts that proved to be correct, nurturing, and, well, just nurturing and correct. And hey, if you’ve been listening to this podcast thing here, you know my mom a little, she has persevered and overcome a lot to become the person that she is. And I think I’ve talked about it on the show, but she’s a poet. And later in life, she’s become like a real poet with books published and everything and a lot of her poetry springs from her family experience. Everybody’s family experience is unique, of course, but my mom’s has been filled with all of these women. My mother have three daughters, including me, and all three of us are mothers ourselves now and my sister Phoebe on my dad’s side is a mom as well. So there’s just like a shit ton of moms and daughters around here. Anyway, my mom really knows her stuff when it comes to being a mother and when it comes to poetry, and she sent all of us her daughters that is this poem. It’s by Maggie Smith. The poet by the way, not the actress is called first fall. And I think it speaks beautifully to the connection between a mother and a child. It goes like this. First fall. I’m your guide here in the evening, dark morning streets. I point and name. Look, the Sycamores. They’re modeled paint by number bark. Look the leaves rusting and crisping at the edges. I walk through Schiller park with you on my chest. Stars smolder well into daylight. Look, the pond, the ducks, the dogs paddling after their prize sticks. Fall is when the only things you know because I’ve named them begin to end soon I’ll have another season to offer you. Frost soft on the window and a port whole side there. Ice sleeving the bare gray branches. The first time you see something die, you won’t know it might come back. I’m desperate for you to love the world because I brought you here. I get goosebumps from that poem. Isn’t that a good Home, I think it’s spectacular, to put into words the beginning of the journey of being a parent, and the connection between parent and child Lordy, that is a subject that is just giant to me. And just endlessly fascinating. How fabulous then that I get to connect today with someone who explores these relationships so profoundly in her own writing. So yeah, today, I’m talking to Amy Tan Hi, I’m Julia Louie Dreyfus. And this is Wiser Than Me podcast where I get schooled by women who are wiser than me.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  06:02

One of the great discoveries for me doing these podcast conversations with seasoned fascinating women is that there are patterns, life patterns, life experiences that many if not all, of these women share. One thing that they share is boundless energy, extraordinary amount of energy. Another thing they share is generosity. They’re all out there doing good all over the world. And they’ve all shown extraordinary personal resilience, overcoming huge obstacles and challenges in their youth. So today, I’m going to be talking to a woman who checks all of these boxes and then some, in addition to being the author of powerful stories depicting identity family, and the immigrant experience. I mean, she wrote The Joy Luck Club for Christ’s sake. Amy Tan is the founder of the Amy Tan Foundation, which provides resources for literacy and educational programs, environmental conservation and social justice initiatives in underserved communities. She is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of humanities, woohoo, and a winner of the Commonwealth award. She’s done everything from writing screenplays and opera librettos. To visual art, you should see the birds that she draws with colored pencils. And her latest adventure will be the much awaited and I am so awaiting it. 2024 book The backyard bird Chronicles. So yeah, everybody knows that Amy Tan is a rock star. But did you know that she is an actual rock star? Yeah, she’s the lead singer of a rock band that has performed with Bruce Springsteen and Stephen King and add groupies and just crazy bass cool tour bus. She’s as vibrant and fearless and dedicated to her craft as ever, and she just won’t slow down. Except maybe to have a chat with us. I’m so happy to welcome a woman who has so much wiser than me. Amy Tan, Hi, Amy.

Amy Tan  08:02

Hi. Wow. An Introduction?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  08:06

Yeah, about it. But it’s all true. Okay, first of all, for our the people who are listening, I have to explain that Amy and I met in Washington, DC because we were both blessed to have received the AMI received the National Medal of humanities. And I received the National Medal of Arts and these are metals that are given out by the National Endowment for the Arts and President Biden. And we sat together the night before the actual event at the White House, they gave a dinner for the metal recipients. And it was really lovely. And Amy was my seatmate and her wonderful husband, Luke, too. And, you know, I have to be honest with you. It was also overwhelming. I don’t know what your experience was with this. I can’t remember any of the details of those, like 48 hours in DC, like the dinner that night. I mean, I was so excited to be talking to you. I can barely remember what we talked about. Except birds. Of course, we talked about birds. And you’re drawing, right?

Amy Tan  09:06

Yes, right. Yeah. It was the same. I think it was the same. It’s just overwhelming trying to process why I was there. For one thing. Yeah. And then who else was there and what good things they did. And maybe I didn’t do things that really does. You know, we’re deserving of the metal, you know, but that’s the kind of thing that always goes through my head. Do I deserve all these wonderful things that come to me?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  09:32

Well, I think you do. I think it’s long overdue. You should have a number of these metals. And then I looked on your Instagram, Amy and I saw that there was a picture of you getting the medal from Biden and you said I thought I was being so cool and calm. And you’re like your head is back.

Amy Tan  09:49

Yeah, my mouth is wide open. My teeth are exposed. I look like I’m either drunk or you know having a dance moment. Right about two dance with him.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  10:01

Totally. And I have to say, first of all, it’s a charming photograph. I love it. But I had the same experience because I have to tell I, when I went up there to get it, I was so overwhelmed. And he put the metal around my neck and I thought I would do a joke that the metal was too heavy. And I sort of did this thing, like I was collapsing. And of course, all the people took pictures of that moment. So it’s so bizarre. I’m making a face on hamming it up. And I had and then I’d happened also quickly, and then afterwards, I forgot to stand there and take a picture with him. Because I was so overwhelmed. I was like, I can’t get back to my seat at all. So crazy. Wasn’t it?

Amy Tan  10:43

It was, I was glad I was not wearing high heels that I think the combination of the excitement and getting up there would have been too much for me, too. And I remember where were my feet were the heels were going up the steps.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  10:58

I was wearing high heels, and I was very nervous. That was it was it was truly an unforgettable experience. And anyway, I was I was delighted. Hey, listen, are you comfortable? If I say your real age?

Amy Tan  11:14

Oh, absolutely. I’ve been giving my real age since before I was this real age. I’m actually now 71. But I started saying I was 70 when I was 69. I just get used to it. No, no, I kind of forgot. It was like, what what age? Am I 70? And nothing? Oh, no, no, no, I’m going to be 70 next year. So that’s how much it doesn’t really bother me what my age is I like to say what my age is? Yeah, you know what’s bad, though, if you say your age, and I have this Chinese Chinese gene. So you know, you tend to have better cheeks and so you don’t show the wrinkles as much. And I’m waiting for the day I say I’m 71 and somebody doesn’t nobody says Oh, you don’t look your age? And then how will I feel about that? Or?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  12:05

Well, you certainly don’t look your age. I’d love to say fat cheeks, you have this incredible bone structure and gorgeous skin. And I wouldn’t I wouldn’t say it’s fat cheeks, do you? How old? Do you feel like inside? How old do you feel?

Amy Tan  12:21

You know, I think it really depends on the context. There are times that I feel like I’m five still. Or maybe I’m nine or I’m 21 Or I’m 24. Or it goes back to different periods in my life that I think are significant. But I definitely feel my my age, in a mental way. But Emotionally, I think it bounces around in different ways. Oh, good. And I’m not not terrible ages.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  12:49

Got it. So since you wrote the Joy Luck Club, and here you are, you’re about to have your I don’t know which number book is coming out in 2024. I honestly cannot wait for this book. And I have to ask you about in the backyard bird Chronicles. And this may be an unfair and sort of ridiculous question. But can you talk about how your writing has evolved? Since those early days?

Amy Tan  13:13

Yeah, you know, this may sound ironic. But the more I write, the more difficult it is really in the beginning in the beginning. And then the key difference is that when I started writing the Joy Luck Club, I was unknown, completely unknown. I’d never been published not even a short story or anything, or one short story in a very tiny circulation magazine. And after Joy Luck Club, suddenly it just felt like everybody was watching. And there were the reviews, good and bad reviews and people saying all the time, it can’t wait for the next one. And suddenly it wasn’t a private undertaking. Yeah, it was no longer private. And I had all these expectations weighing on me. And it’s taken a long time to undo those expectations. And I try to get back into that place where nobody is watching over my shoulder. So that makes it difficult. The other is that you want to grow just like anybody else. And there’s this feeling that maybe I’m not growing as much as I should. Or maybe my my freshness that I had when I was first writing is no longer there because I I have assumptions now. I’ve learned too much. And I use that as a fixed way of seeing things and so I have to break out of that as well. Because fiction writing what I do in fiction requires me to discover things for me to find out what this is about at the same moment, in essence that you would reading it later You’re not going to know what’s going to happen, I can’t know what’s going to happen next, as I’m writing it, in terms of feelings in terms of emotional resonance. So that’s not to do with plot, it has more to do with. How does this all accumulate into this one big emotional boom at the end.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  15:23

How do you enable to free yourself from those expectations that you that you’re discussing? And also, how do you free yourself? From? What you know? Do this? I mean, I’m guessing it’s quite hard.

Amy Tan  15:38

Yeah. One is that I stopped reading reviews. both good and bad ones.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  15:44

Oh, that’s so smart. No, real smart. Yeah.

Amy Tan  15:48

I don’t read interviews. I don’t like you know, if there was a televised thing, I don’t look at it again, I don’t read view my life. Once it’s happened, it goes along with this whole thing. Don’t do reruns of your life and look for all the ways that it was terrible. It’s good.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  16:07

You’re not an actor? That’s all I gotta tell ya.

Amy Tan  16:11

We do public thinks, you know, there’s something that’s out there that we have to think about that, that can really affect us and how we perform or write or draw or whatever we do, taking us out of that headspace or that heart space. So I don’t read the reviews. I also told myself, I do something stupid. And certainly I will have said many things I wish I could take back on this podcast. But I’ll say, You know what, Julie is not going to remember tomorrow. And no one’s going to remember tomorrow? Or if she does remember, she won’t remember it 10 years from now. So it doesn’t matter. Or I say, When I die? Who’s gonna greet me at the gates of wherever I go? Is it going to be a bunch of people laughing at me? Or is it going to be my mother? So that that sets things in perspective as well? Yeah, I do a number of things to try to get it out. A lot of it is just head in the sand.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  17:13

When did you start to realize you have to do that in order to move forward creatively? Was that a while ago?

Amy Tan  17:21

Yes, I stopped reading reviews with my second book. And I found because every single bad thing ever said about my books stuck in my head in the middle of the night. It was like cat pee on my pillow. You know, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t get rid of it. So I stopped that completely. And it’s been great. I don’t miss it at all. Some people think well, isn’t that hard not to, to know. And, and I just say, you know, you can just assume somebody has said something negative for their various reasons. And part of it is to realize that nothing they can say, has really anything to do that is important about what I was doing, why I was doing it, they can’t you know, if I if I pay attention to it, that means I have to assess why I was writing something. Was I writing to please somebody? And you know, should I changed my writing now because somebody didn’t want to hear about dogs or hear about, you know, they think my story should go back to being a certain way. Should I do that? So there’s no helpful advice I can get from reading reviews of something already done. So that hasn’t changed.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  18:37

That hasn’t changed since the kitchen God’s wife, right? Y

Amy Tan  18:40

Yeah. Right.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  18:43

You know, I do make the mistake of reading reviews. I I try not to read bad ones. But it is interesting, because when I get a bad review, it has a cat pee like quality. In that it is it’s here to stay in my brain. It takes up some space in my brain and not welcome space, but it’s invaded. And and so therefore the opposite has to be true to you can’t give too much credit to the the good reviews, the ribs, the whatever it is, I have to discard, as well. All of them. Right? And I’m gonna guess you tell me if I’m right. But it seems to me in terms of you’re trying to constantly sort of free yourself from a way of thinking or as you attack your because that was the second piece of this. You are strike me as somebody who does new things a lot. I mean, your drawing is extraordinary. You sing with a rock band, you’d like to, you know, it seems as if I don’t know if you were snorkeling or scuba diving, but with the sharks and the the the and so on and so forth. So, I mean, is that a part of the process for you? Is trying new things?

Amy Tan  20:05

Definitely. Yeah. Yeah, that’s definitely very consciously something that I do. I mean, I don’t sit down and say, Gee, what are the five things I should do in the next 10 years? I’m very conscious of the fact that I should try something new constantly. And it really has to do with things that I, I’ve thought I have, would have wanted to do. As well as attempting things that always scared me sharks used to really terrify me. And I used to be scared of swimming.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  20:45

With good reason I might point out I mean, that was that is not an irrational fear.

Amy Tan  20:51

Actually, there are a lot of sharks that are very harmless in numbers, shark attacks are exceedingly rare. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t go out and deliberately swim with great white sharks, covering myself with you know, steak juice or something. Right. But, you know, a whale shark is the most benign creature out there a curious benevolent creature who was very aware of me and swam next to me the whole time when I tired it would slow down and let me keep up.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  21:22

Where were you? Where were you when you were doing that? The whale shark I did it too once.

Amy Tan 21:27

I was at each […] and the time to go as middle of July, I think, haha, yeah, it was. It was mactac it was life changing

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  21:38

aren’t they the most gorgeous animals? Isn’t the pattern on the skin the most? Yeah, was it. It’s like it’s designed by a designer is designed by designer actually.

Amy Tan  21:49

But it’s, it’s bad to touch it. I learned Sure. And they told us you know, not to touch the whale shark. And don’t get into its space. But the whale shark was coming really close to me. And it was right against me. And I needed to be at least an arm’s length away. So I put my hand my fist against the side of the shark. Just so I would be that distance. And I got out of the boat and I saw there was blood dripping. And I thought what’s this blood? And it was my knuckles. Because this shark skin you remember how they say shark skin very rough. That’s what it is. It’s very rough. Wow, it didn’t feel that way at the time. You know, you’re so excited. You’re not aware that your skin is being taken off. Sandpaper it off, you know, but there there it was.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  22:41

Wow. But the adrenaline kept you probably from feeling it and oh, yeah, yeah,

Amy Tan  22:47

I was just so excited. And you know, other sharks if they’re white tip sharks or they’re not that big, so they’re definitely not going to try and eat something that’s beyond what would normally be on their diet.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  23:02

I was in the water once we were in the waters off the coast of the Bahamas, and this is a long time ago. And I don’t want to scare you off shores but I was in the water. And my husband Brad came to the boat and he and I was far from the boat. I was just paddling around we were doing a thing with dolphins and it was a scientific boat Believe it or not and and I was just paddling around and he comes to the bow of the boat and he says Jules I don’t want you to panic but you need to come back to the boat. There’s There’s a shark in the water. Anyway, I did get back to the boat. I kept my eyes on the ladder. I didn’t take my eyes off and it turned out it was like a 12 foot bull shark that had been in the water. Yeah, getting back to the boat was smart for sure. Yes. More with Amy Tan after the break.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  24:01

Hey, they’re wiser than me’rs. Just a quick note before we get back to the wonderful Amy Tan. I want to tell you real quick about my new movie called you hurt my feelings. It’s a little comedy about the little white lies we tell to the people we love the most. I play a writer who discovers that her longtime adoring husband who said he loved her latest book actually hates her latest book. Can you imagine that? mindfuck it was so superb to work again with Nicole holofcener, who is the writer and director. The entire cast is truly unbelievable. I’m so proud of the damn thing. You hurt my feelings is out this weekend in theaters everywhere. I hope you go check it out. My experience of your writing is that it comes from the most compassionate place feels like you get into the skin Have your people your characters with tremendous empathy?

Amy Tan  25:04

Yeah, I think most writers do that you have to be sympathetic to your characters. But I also think that imagination or fiction, especially is, it’s good practice for compassion, it is the way we exercise that because we’re putting ourselves into the lives of these imaginary characters. And we, we take on their circumstances and their history, their personal history. But before you think that I am this great, compassionate person who’s, you know, got really got it together, I’m, I’m, somebody has a problem with forgiveness. So Oh, yeah, you know, when somebody has betrayed me, I have a hard time with that. And, and I, usually what I do is I just let go of that relationship. And I don’t really give it a second chance. It’s not, though one little thing, you know, it’s not that one person said, I really think her book stakes, that would not be enough for me to, you know, give up that relationship. But it would be something a little bit bigger, and much more hurtful. And I won’t get into those things. But I do sometimes look back and think, Well, maybe I’ve cut off so many relationships, because I know so many people. Or maybe it’s because people see me as a target. And so they will more people will do things like that. I think it’s a not a huge problem. But I think it’s an issue that I have to pay attention to.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  26:50

Well talk about that talk about forgiveness and your family. I’m curious if you don’t mind because I I’m thinking about how your mother and her behavior towards you. And you? You’ve certainly forgiven your mother, it seems.

Amy Tan  27:10

There’s nothing there to forgive. You know, she’s, she did things for certain reasons that I understand now. And everything is, has transformed all those wounds that we’re there have are no longer there. My mother actually did a wonderful thing and, and apologizing for all the things she had done that hurt me.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  27:35

Tell that story. When she was ill, right?

Amy Tan  27:38

Yeah, she had Alzheimer’s and about two or three years into it, she didn’t really speak that much. She certainly couldn’t call me she didn’t know how to call. And I got this phone call from her. And she was panicked. And she was speaking clearly in English sentences and ice. She said, I’m scared. I don’t know where I am. And I said, Oh, you’re fine. We often you know, forget things. No, no, this is different. She went on and on. And then finally she said, I just want to tell you that I know I did things hurt you when you were little. And I and I said no, you you you didn’t it’s and she she kept insisting and then she said I just hope you can forget just as I forgotten and and that to me wiped away every single room that I had since I was little when I was an adult anything she had said it just removed it completely and I was so grateful she had said that I didn’t even have to think about what what all the different situations were with the same kind of pain because she had in that moment come back back into this consciousness just to tell me that.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  29:04

I just I find that so moving and the that is such a blessing that you had that Yeah. Opportunity with her. Yeah, wow. out a blessing in your family, a lot of things were kept secret not talked openly about right. And a lot of family secrets are obviously rooted in shame. And I have in my family, you know, there was a lot of actually suicide in my family. And there’s a lot of shame connected with it. My grandfather died by suicide and my grandmother really talked about it like like as if he had a heart problem. There was a lot of shame around that. How have you broken that to how have you liberated yourself from that feelings that shame trauma? Yeah, trauma.

Amy Tan  29:55

Well, I think that the real danger of I have a secret like suicide in the family is that you don’t understand why people are spinning out of control in the way that they are. Or that this, this urge could somehow be planted in you, without your knowing it because of the way that, you know, people react. My mother’s mother killed herself and my mother saw her do this and was by her side as she was dying for over a couple of days. She overdosed on raw opium, deliberately took raw opium and swallowed it in a New Years. Rice cake. The idea was that it’d be sticky and wouldn’t be able to be extracted. My mother told me when I was growing up, she died accidentally. Later, she died accidentally eating opium, you know, you think that I would question why was she eating opium. Later, she said it was in you know, she didn’t mean to kill herself. She just want to scare the guy later, it became clear to me by the circumstances and the date, she did it and everything that it was deliberate. There was my mother became suicidal, she attempted numerous times was hospitalized numerous times, I found out my sister, one of my sisters was suicidal and made several attempts. And, and I could, you know, I was, I could feel that, in me at times this sense, that was overwhelming, where, you know, I just felt like I needed to escape, I needed to just obliterate everything, so I wouldn’t have to feel this anymore. And that was earlier in life. And, and I was lucky to recognize what that was, that the feeling is equivalent to something like it’s like a charley horse, or it’s like a, you know, it these feelings, these bodily sensations you cannot get rid of. They’re automatic. And, and yet, I recognize that when I had that, I could sense that. And I know, that’s the feeling my mother had. That’s, you know, why she she had no place else to turn to. And I think by being aware of it, that this was a reaction. I could look at it and not let it overcome me. Knowing also, I have these other ways of dealing with that, like writing. I could write what was bothering me, I could I could, I could control my future, I could control what I wanted to do. I had choices. They didn’t. So I was not faced with the same circumstances. But I think it was good for me to recognize that this impulse was something ingrained in me.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  33:01

Right, and it was modeled for you. In addition, yes, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Is that still a struggle for you? Is that something that you still work on?

Amy Tan  33:12

No, no, no, that’s not that that was something that was there in my 20s, for example, and there was a very pivotal moment, experience that happened in my 20s. I was in a doctoral program, then. But our roommate and and one of our closest friends, was murdered. And that murder really changed how I had a look at my life. And I was the one who identified him. And it was a terrible, brutal murder. And had to go through the trial. And but I had dreams every night between his murder and the end of the trial, and they just changed me completely. You know, that, that unpack basically all these insecurities, all these ways that I dealt with things, situations in life, you know, depression, all of that. It just unpacked it in these streams, one by one. And you know, better than paying a psychiatrist.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  34:23

I was dollars an hour, whatever. Just just go to bed and have a dream and work it out. But wait a minute. Yeah, really. So have you never have you been in therapy? Have you ever tried?

Amy Tan  34:35

I went, I went to therapy once for four months, because I was working 90 billable hours a week. And people kept telling me I had a problem. I had workaholism. And I said, No, I don’t because they don’t like what I’m doing. They said that’s why you’re a workaholic. You can’t stop working even though you don’t like what you’re doing. So I went to talk to this guy. In this union psychiatrist and he did the best thing for me, he fell asleep three times. And then I quit. And I decided what I had to do then was not do what I didn’t like I should do what was important to me. And I started writing fiction. So that was great. He offered to help me write fiction. I thought really? Are you kidding me? I think you should give me back the money I paid.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  35:29

First of all, I have to tell you, I can’t believe you’re telling me that because in I’ve been to a couple of therapists in my life. And two of the therapists that I went to both fellas during session.

Amy Tan  35:50

Don’t you feel better, don’t you?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  35:52

I do I feel better now that we have this shared. absolutely bizarre experience. I remember I remember in both circumstances being paralyzed, like, should I just stay quietly. Should I not embarrass him that he fell asleep? Well, I’m mortified. But I don’t want to make him feel bad about himself. Isn’t it a strange reaction? Right?

Amy Tan  36:18

Well, and I also analyzed for him that it happened only when I was happy. When I was crying. When I was really upset. He was there. He was all ears. When I was talking about what a good week I had, that’s when he fell asleep. So I thought he’s gonna reinforce me to be unhappy. And this is very unhealthy. And I told them that, you know, I said, you could really do keep a lot of damage, because the message there is that I don’t count. And also that I’m boring, you know, and that if I’m not miserable, yeah, I’m not interesting. So this is bad therapy.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  36:55

And I love your balls in that situation. I do. I really am admiring of that. Did he hear you when you said that?

Amy Tan  37:04

Well, I wrote it in a letter. But I did what you did is I went back and I realized I had not said anything, because it was embarrassing. And then I said, No, you have to say something. So I wrote it all in a letter, but he never responded. I asked for my money back, too. But he didn’t. He didn’t give me the money back either. This guy died a while back. But I think he’s probably heard me repeat the story that I you know, I started writing after my psychiatrists fell asleep three times.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  37:36

Well, I may be I hope his family has the letter because that’s a that’s a valuable letter to hang on to even.

Amy Tan  37:46

They should have that framed up in there. Not for his legacy, certainly.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  37:51

No, but maybe for their family legacies kind of Yeah, kind of incredible. I think. Just going back to your mom, and maybe this is also an unfair question, but like, what’s the most important thing that your mother taught you? Do you think, Amy? Yeah, were there a couple of like nuggets?

Amy Tan  38:07

Yeah, one that really stands out, is that I could not let other people determine for me, who I was and how important I was. And even though she was the one who did the most intrusive manipulation of who I was, and what my worth was, she did not want me to go out in the world. And if if there was somebody who was condescending that I would believe what this person had to say. And I could see now that she had a real problem with that her her own mother killed herself as a result of her station in life as a concubine and being told that basically, she was worth nothing. She couldn’t not tolerate that idea that her life was determined by somebody else. So my mother would often say this if somebody was you know, in front of us and you could see that they were acting in a disingenuous patronizing way she would say something this person don’t trust them. They are trying to say this to make them selves feel bigger than you are and and that was a constant message in my life. She also said things like about whether I wanted to be a mother because at one time I wasn’t sure. And and I think most mothers would try to make you feel that maybe this is something you really need to be seriously thinking about having a baby. How wonderful it is. My mother said, If you want a baby even if you’re poor, you can you can have a baby you’ll find a way to make this okay. And then she said, but if you don’t want a baby, no one not your husband, not your mother in law, not your friends. No one should ever make you feel you have to have a baby. And she said, I know what it’s like I was raped every night, I had three abortions. And and so she was saying right there you make that decision. She was a feminist.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  40:16

I can say.

Amy Tan  40:21

She was so modern in her thinking about this. She thought women were better than men. She said that she said something to me about that you’re not equal to a man, you are better than a man. She said that the reason why I should get a job, a really good job and study hard so I can get a good job. So I could be independent. And if my husband treated me poorly, I could leave without a second thought about how I would take care of myself. She didn’t have that choice. And so she was building in my mind the strength that I would need to be independent to not be afraid. Fortunately, I married a really good guy. And, and I do have a good job.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  41:17

I mean, she empowered you.

Amy Tan  41:18

She empowered me. Yeah, big time. Actually. Tomorrow’s our 53rd First Date anniversary.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  41:29

And how many years? Have you been married?

Amy Tan  41:32


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  41:33


Amy Tan  41:35

Yeah. I know. I feel so lucky.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  41:38

That is so lovely. I’m so happy you’ve had such a healthy, long marriage. That’s such a another blessing, right? I’ve I’ve been married now. 30. Oh, Lord, it’s gonna be 36. Yeah. So it’s almost 36 years. Jesus Christ. That’s so crazy. Anyway. And it’s amazing to be married to one person for that long, you know, I mean, it’s, that’s a lot of life together, isn’t it?

Amy Tan  42:09

Well, we essentially grew up together. It’s yeah, I was 18. He was 19. We joke that the secret to a long marriage is separate bathrooms in separate closets. Which can be true if one person is really messy, and the other one is it and our presence to each other after being together for so long, and knowing we don’t need anything. Yeah. It’s little pledges to do something like one pledge for years ago, it started with, he would cook me 10 new recipes, you know, and I get to pick the recipes. Or when I want it turned out, I couldn’t drive anymore. Because I have epilepsy, he would take me places without every complaining.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  43:00

What did you pledge to him?

Amy Tan  43:03

I didn’t really pledge that much. Because, you know, I I would pledge you know, we would also pledge things that had to do with certain parts of us personality wise, like, he knows this in me that if I get upset about something, I can’t let it go. And I obsess about it. It’s not that even that I have to be mad. It’s just something that went wrong, or, you know, bad service or whatever. And I’ll just go on and on and on and on. And he’ll say, let it go. A me let it go. Let it go. And so I do this pledge to just let it go. To just say you’re right, to say you’re right, let it go.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  43:48

Let it go. That’s the gift. Yeah, the song.

Amy Tan  43:51

You know, because those are things that can irritate your partner you know, and drive you crazy so, so we don’t need to give each other actual physical gifts, you know, every birthday or anniversary or Christmas. We just have this more on a daily basis.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  44:09

That’s nice. Although with your if you’ve got your 50th anniversary coming up in another year, I think you need a monster pledge. And, and or a good pair of earrings.

Amy Tan  44:24

I actually put a ban on jewelry about 20 years ago.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  44:29

My husband wishes I put a band on. He wishes he’s hearing this and he’s like, Oh my god, I killed for a band.

Amy Tan  44:38

I know well, he would go this one store and he come back with jewelry. I said no more no more. And I know it meant a lot that now what am I going to do?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  44:52

Yeah, well, I mean, you could wear it and enjoy it. For example. After The break my conversation with Amy Tan continues, don’t go anywhere. Now you talked about that you have epilepsy. How is your health? Because I know you had a bad time. Yeah, Lyme disease, right?

Amy Tan  45:25

I still have Lyme disease. It’s i It was caught so late that a lot of things that are just there, and but it’s managed, I managed it really well. So the only thing that is that I can’t do is drive and I never liked to drive. So I don’t feel any limitations there. I have the permanent damage, you know, the epilepsy, the neuropathy. But I also now have this great fascination with the brain. I, I’ve always had this fascination, but what I’ve learned is that when something goes wrong with your brain, that’s when you learn what your brain actually does. You know, it’s miraculous what the brain can handle what it can do for you, and how much you can still get out of your brain. Even if you have this this problem, you can circumvent this problem and try working it out this way. So whether it’s a ride from your husband, or you know whether you can focus on doing something else that is not as limited.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  46:30

Did you ever see that reminds me of that? I think it was even a TED Talk that doctor who study who who was oh, yes, yes.

Amy Tan  46:41

Yes, she had a stroke.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  46:43

She had a stroke. And then she was describing and evaluating her stroke as it was happening. Yes, yes, that’s an extraordinary piece to watch.

Amy Tan  46:53

I don’t have I have had micro strokes apparently. And I’m aware of when I’ve been aware of when that was happening. But also with the seizures. It’s the actually the little micro strokes that led me to have permanent damage in my brain that causes the seizures. But your brain describing what your brain is doing, you know, when it’s going off kilter, and things are getting brighter, you see colors you’ve never seen before you didn’t know existed, real my vision would become like an Eagles or certain things with the sensations of being on a, you know, standing sellin everybody’s on a merry go round around me. Very odd things. And you know, you’re just saying this is what the brain does. It doesn’t allow that to happen when it’s functioning correctly. But it can do this when it’s not. So I have this deep appreciation for everything that the brain does. And it’s a it’s a miraculous organ in your body that you should be grateful for and protect as much as you can.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  48:04

But you seem like somebody who’s fit do you exercise?

Amy Tan  48:08

I do. I started exercising regularly. About eight years ago, I think my personal trainer and I were trying to think of how long it had actually been. It came at a time when I decided to stop dyeing my hair black and letting it go quiet. And then I would dye it colors, different colors if I wanted to, which I have been doing myself. And I started taking personal training. And I’ve discovered that I have to pay somebody to make me exercise. And I used to think somebody would have to pay me to exercise but no, I would have said okay, I’ll forego the money. I don’t need the money. And then not exercise. So pain. Somebody I know I have to pay this person. Yeah, three times a week. And I’ve been doing that for the last eight years. And the pains I used to have and my knees and my hip and my back. My shoulders. I don’t have that anymore. And my body is so much better than it was 10 years ago, or even 20 years ago.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  49:16

So you won’t be asking your money back from this from your trainer. Like you did your?

Amy Tan  49:23

Well, he has to listen to me talk to. So it’s like the psychiatrist, you know, yeah. He knows more about my life than most people.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  49:32

Really? Yeah, that’s fantastic. That’s incredible. I love it. So let me ask you, is there something you’d go back and tell yourself at the age of 21 if you could.

Amy Tan  49:47

I’m trying to think at age 21. What I was most concerned about and that was that I should have a plan for the rest of my life, securely in place. And that if I was not getting everything aligned properly, this would be a disaster. And I would want to say, that is not going to happen the way you think, at age 21, that all these things that are lined up, they probably will fall away anyway, and won’t matter, and that what you’ll end up doing is something that is more meaningful to you, once you really learn who you are. Because that’s what’s happened, I started off thinking, I get a doctorate in linguistics and teach at a university. And I have to get this paper published and make this discovery. And then my friend was murdered. And I realized this was a really selfish way to look at my life, and I should do what he was going to do and work with people with disabilities. So I talked my way into a job to do that. And then it went from there, I’ve had different jobs leading up to my becoming a fiction writer. None of that was planned in a particular way, certainly not the murder of my friend, not the thing that led me to leave that field five years later, or never was planned that I would get published. So many things just came to me. And I would tell myself that there would be there will be things that come to you without your eating, even asking for it consciously, that actually are about what’s important to you, they will come up and that will happen. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say it to myself at age 21. Because I think it was incredibly good practice to go through all those different stages. Because all the even the bad stuff, even the death of my father and my brother when I was young, or even the things that my mother and I went through those were all what made me who I am. Those are the things that I write about. Where I have to look deep inside of me of, you know, what, what’s the meaning of this? That in this narrative of my life, there’s nothing I would take out and say, gosh, if I could have I would have thrown this away.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  52:09

Right? It’s led to this moment.

Amy Tan  52:14

But that ultimately also means that I have to love who I am. You know, if I didn’t like who I am, then I’d say, gosh, if I didn’t have this, if this hadn’t happened, you know, then I could fix it. And I would be the person I would have wanted to be, but I am the person I want to be. So I don’t I don’t have those feelings of going back and changing them. Because I don’t have control over it anyway.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  52:43

That harkens back to Lou saying let it go. Yeah, yeah, go exactly. Is that is there. Is there something although you’re not that much older than me, but is there something you would like me to know about aging that I don’t know?

Amy Tan  53:02

What I did very consciously getting older knowing that I would get old is I built a house that is universal design. It’s designed according to ATA spec, so if I was disabled today, if I couldn’t walk if I was in a wheelchair, if I couldn’t use my arms that well, I could do very well in the house that I’m living in. Because I have level access into the house. Even though there are three storeys it’s kind of a narrow build house. All the bathrooms have grab bars. What looks like a towel bar is a grab bar. We’ve had guests staying in guest studio and they have pulled the towel bars off or ripped off the toilet paper holder trying to get up from the toilet. This is something that happens to elderly people they have a hard time getting up so every single bar in our towel bar is a grab bar, as well as having official grab bars everywhere. But they look nice. There’s their cedar, cedar wood wooden things that great lovers for the water faucets that are if I couldn’t control my hands, I all I have to do it’s preset to a temperature all I have to do is bump it up or down, turn it on, turn it off. So many different things related to that. I mean the kind of self cleaning toilet, I had to take care of my mother’s toileting needs at the end of her life which i i love doing I love that I could be the mom and diaper the child but I thought if I didn’t have Alzheimer’s, I might not want somebody to do that for me. So I have a bidet toilet.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  54:50

I’m so admiring of how you thought all of this through. I think that is I mean it’s astounding. I’ve never heard of anybody doing something like the way you Have and I’m in awe, I am in awe.

Amy Tan  55:02

I’ve had people say to me, don’t be so paranoid, you’ll be fine. I thought out, it’s not paranoia it No, it’s being realistic, you know, it’s helpful actually it being practical, it’s helpful that I will live for a very, very long time. And we’ll actually find some of this stuff useful. So I think of it in those terms. My mother was also a big worrier. And when I was growing up as a kid, I always had 10 worries on my fingers, you know, I’d count them all. And I didn’t want to have to worry. And once I did that, I don’t worry, you know, the worst can happen. I think this house would be good for a lot of whatever the worst could be. End of Life, I could stay here, even have the bed that goes up and down that kind of thing, which is very useful now.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  55:52

Yes, of course, it’s good for watching TV or whatever reading. Well, Amy Tan, I have to say I love your approach to life. I find it very inspirational. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you took all this time to talk with me today.

Amy Tan  56:07

Oh, yes, finally. It’s a lot of fun. I’m glad. I’m glad we had a chance to talk. When she told me more. We should talk more. I’ll tell you the real dirt then.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:19

And I’ll tell you the real dirt. I got tons of it.

Amy Tan  56:24

You always need a girlfriend you can tell her to.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:26

Yeah, that’s the best. Yeah. Yeah, boy. All right. Well, listen. I’ll let you get on with your day and have a happy date anniversary. And give my very best to Lou as well.

Amy Tan  56:38

I will. I will.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:41

Thank you. Bye. Bye. Bye. Oh my god, that woman is impressive. My mother’s gonna lose her mind when I tell her about this conversation. I got a Zoomer. Hi, Mommy. HYes, I just spoke with Amy Tan for seven and a half hours.

Judith Bowles  57:10

So you were young person when it started?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  57:12

I was young. And now I’m ancient enough to be a guest on my own program.

Judith Bowles  57:17

So they’re giving me some wisdom. Wisdom of the ages I want.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  57:23

She’s been married for 49 years. And she’s about to go out on her 53rd date aversary date anniversary with her husband, Lou. And I thought maybe you could tell the story about meeting my Brad for the first time. Do you remember mommy? My Oh, you came? We were in Chicago. And you came to visit?

Judith Bowles  57:51

Well, you were you were in a play. I was I was in Brad’s practical theater. Yes. You were you all were in that. So I had come to see it. And you had been going out with somebody before? Right? Again? Yes. And weighed in here came bread, which I understood that this was Brad and this was no longer was no longer can. And so you spike him. You all picked me up at the hotel. And I came down and you said Oh mom, you look so nice. And I said Oh, thanks, honey, you do too. And so just can so.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  58:26

We were off to a great start.

Judith Bowles  58:28

And then we go to restaurants.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  58:31

I just want to interject here. I wanted to kill you. And I was like, can you imagine? Oh I cannot mom.

Judith Bowles  58:39

I was putting up a firewall. But unbeknownst to myself, I was so pleased, you know, to be there. And blah, blah, blah. But then so go to this restaurant, this fancy French restaurant downtown. That was very few that was just unbelievable. So it can be the name of it just came to me Lapera que para que Exactly, yes. Yes, we’re having everything Yes, do this souffles and bring all the wine and and, you know, the sky’s the limit. There’s no end to the essence. The meal finishes and I brought my Visa card and they say well, we don’t take Visa. And so So Brad’s father had sent him because he was starting the practical theater sent him a MasterCard no no American Express American Express okay to be used for emergencies, you know that you’ve got a business now this to be used. So you looked at me with this, like a fire in your eyes. It’s like, Oh, get out of here. Because Brad says, well, here are happy to pay for this outrageously expensive dinner. I mean, it was outrageous. I’ll never spent more than that for dinner.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  59:50

It was a lot of money.

Judith Bowles  59:51

And then you felt me. You write him a check. Here you go. So fast. So So So Brad. I came through the firewall very well. For game. Well, maybe I’m not sure I’ve never asked him if he ever forgave me. Would you use talking to him? Would you ask him.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  1:00:11

I have a feeling he has mommy. I have. But that was his introduction to you and our family. Wasn’t our first. Our first date was actually, uh, we play tennis. On our first day. Yeah, right. Yeah. And that was that was really fun. And then we went, we got sandwiches. And I remember we were sitting on a curb eating sandwiches or something. And he was talking and talking, and I kept thinking, this guy never stops talking. I don’t know if he was nervous or what but I mean, it was just like, it was a non stop.

Judith Bowles  1:00:49

Anyway, that’s wonderful, by the way, at the event at the White House, which which was just otherworldly was so fantastic. Daddy was sitting down, and he sat down next to a gentleman and and they got to talking. And the gentleman said, Why are you here? And so he said that, that he was he was your dad and, and Julia Louis Dreyfus. And so then the guys nods and nods, and so and so dad says, Well, why are you here? He says, Oh, well. I’m Amy Tan’s brother.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  1:01:19


Judith Bowles  1:01:20

They had a wonderful conversation. This being the you know, that talking about you and you and Amy. Oh, wow,

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  1:01:27

how interesting. Wow, look at that full circle. That’s so cool. Yeah, that’s something else mom. So cool. Yeah, exactly. So cool. So mommy, thank you so much for making time to talk to me for this ridiculous podcast.

Judith Bowles  1:01:42

And please, apologize to Brad and tell him that that I’m bringing you a check next time I see him.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  1:01:50

Feel free to bring us another check. But you did reimburse you did I remember you FedEx did it came like in a quick hot second.

Judith Bowles  1:01:59

I think that your whole future depended on that payment. Yeah, it kind of did, to be honest. Well, think about that. Your mother comes to town and scorches him and the wrong name. And I actually liked him from the time I saw him, Brad. First time I really adored him. But why didn’t quite adore him, but I liked him very much. I came to adore him. Yeah.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  1:02:23

All right. Love you, mommy.

Judith Bowles  1:02:25

Love you, honey.

CREDITS  1:02:42

Thank you so much for listening to today’s episode of wiser than me. Henry Hall who wrote this groovy theme music for the show has a new song out is called suddenly a kiss and people really seriously it’s so freakin good. So check out suddenly a kiss by Henry Hall on Spotify, or wherever you listen to your music, and you can find him at Henry Hall music on all platforms. There’s more WISER THAN ME with Lemonada Premium, subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts. WISER THAN ME is a production of Lemonada Media created and hosted by me Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show is produced by Kryssy Pease , Alex McOwen and Hoja Lopez. Brad Hall as a consulting producer. Our senior editor is Tracy Clayton. Rachel Neil is our senior director of new content and our VP of weekly production is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Paula Kaplan and me. The show is mixed by Kat Yore and Johnny Vince Evans and music by Henry Hall. Special thanks to Charlotte Chrisman Cohen, Ivan Kuraev, and Kegan Zema. And, of course, my mother Judith Bowles. Follow wiser than me wherever you get your podcasts and hey, if there’s an old lady in your life, listen up.

Spoil Your Inbox

Pods, news, special deals… oh my.