Wednesday 2 August 2023

Tan Twan Eng discusses The House of Doors

Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng’s latest novel The House of Doors has just been included on the longlist for the Booker Prize. Devika Misra recently attended An Evening with Tan Twan Eng in Singapore and here paraphrases some of the conversation.

The House of Doors is a multi layered yet very readable work of historical fiction. The narrative explores Tan Twan Eng's  characteristic themes of love, loss, longing and betrayal, and is set in colonial Malaya, as are his previous works, The Gift of Rain (2007), and The Garden of Evening Mists ( 2012). But this time Tan Twan Eng has taken the arguably audacious step of fictionalizing legendary writer Somerset Maugham. Maugham had in fact himself fictionalized the tale of crime and scandal that is narrated to him by the female protagonist in The House of Doors. She is part of the expatriate community in Penang; he portrays her, and her community, with subtle criticism and nuanced sympathy. 

Tan Twan Eng was inevitably asked: what was the genesis of The House of Doors?

TTE : "Well, actually there are two origins for this novel. One of them is Somerset Maugham and the other one is Dr. Sun Yat- Sen…I first read Somerset Maugham's short story The Letter when I was in my teens. I loved it very much. I found it very gripping and exciting. I was even more intrigued when I found out that he had based The Letter on an actual murder trial, which had taken  place in Kuala Lumpur in 1910. The murder trial of Ethel Proudlock, who was accused of murdering a man she claimed had tried to rape her. The only problem with her justification of killing him was that she shot him five times, … six times, and four in the back as he was running away. So there was all this scandal about Ethel Proudlock. I felt that this would make a very interesting novel about how Somerset Maugham came to write and hear about this one. That's how it started. So I had Somerset Maugham, except I didn't know what to do with him, because obviously the story isn't substantial enough for a full-length novel."

This led Tan to his second historical character in The House of Doors, Dr Sun Yat-sen.

TTE: "I decided to look at another person here, which was very interesting to me as well. I first heard of Dr. Sun Yat-sen when I was a child. From my father, he grew up in Armenian Street (in Penang)  in the 50s. And when I was a child, he was always telling my sister and I, oh, you know … somebody who is famous … used to live in Armenian Street, and he was Dr. Sun Yat-sen. I had no idea who Dr. Sun Yat-sen was, because I first thought he was just some Chinese sinse  (traditional Chinese medical practitioner)  practicing medicine somewhere down the road. But imagine my amazement when I finally found out who he was, also in my teens. To realise that the revolution in China, which was one of the most cataclysmic global events ever in the 21st century actually had its origins in this little shop house, in this little street on this little island...That was magical.”

But just having a kernel, gem though it might have been, was only the beginning of an arduous journey. So arduous in fact, that The House of Doors may never have seen light of day. Was it difficult to write?

TTE: “It was. ….when I published The Gift of Rain, some experienced writer told me, Oh, the first book is the easiest. It's going to get easier now. And he was such a liar because he was so wrong! The Garden of Evening Mists was so hard to write. And this one was even worse! I dread the next book that I … write. It doesn't get easier. Every book is different. The challenges are different. So you are actually coming to the writing experience cold and fresh. So it was very hard. Nothing worked. None of the story lines gelled. Everything was a mess. It was confusing. I mean, my first reader, he read the first draft and he said, He said, you can't publish this….It's awful. It's confusing...You have to listen to what people are saying. Eventually, my agent and I decided that we needed a fresh pair of eyes. Because at that stage, I'd been working on it for more than six or seven years. So I had no idea or concept of what was good in it. I'd lost all objectivity...Yes, I would really wish it (on)  my worst enemy. But what you've done is, you've finally achieved the possible outcome. I'm more relieved than anything else and I'm very grateful that we have always been well received. There are a lot of times when I still find it difficult to believe.”

And what of his fictitious female protagonist the introspective and mysterious Lesley in whose voice much of the story is told? Did he choose to write in a woman’s voice? Apparently not. 

TTE: "When I finished writing the manuscript, I said to myself, I didn't realize that I had written a very feminist novel. It was a very strongly feminist novel, a very anti-marriage novel in many ways. It doesn't show marriage in a good light, especially for women. For many women, marriage was not an institution, but a prison. That's part of the colonial society. Maugham talks about it...It wasn't intentionally done, but if you're writing about characters and situations like that, you're going to be bogged up against the social conventions of the time…that are quite completely wrong and unfair to half of the world's population.”

And herein lies the essence of what drives Tan Twan Eng. He says he has no particular agenda. He is above all a master story teller, focussed on  the craft of story-telling; for all his prose's elegance and complexity Tan says his aim is simply to tell an authentic tale.

TTE: “My main goal is to improve as a writer with every book. Every book has to be better than the previous one in terms of the writing quality. So, that's the goal as I set myself and push myself towards it. It's so hard to come up with descriptions that are original but at the same time so apt and when you read it, you say, yes, that is exactly what it looks like or sounds like. Why hasn't somebody else mentioned this before? That's the goal that I have in mind...It's very hard work. Sure you bring your own background and interest to any piece of work...So every aspect… has to work. It comes down to the nitty gritty of all these things. It's not just great literature or art if it's nebulous and drifting about. You really have to come down to the nuts and bolts and build the whole thing right from the first step.”

An Evening with Tan Twan Eng was a public event organised by NTU’s (Nanyang Technological University) Asia Creative Writing program on July 30th 2023, at the Arts House, Singapore.

The House of Doors is published in hardback by Bloomsbury (UK) priced in local currencies.