Amy Tan has built a reputation on novels like “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife” that explore the immigrant experience and deep personal relationships. In the spring of 2011, while circulating a two-page proposal for her new book, she was searching for a defining relationship of her own.
“I finally realized I needed an editor,” she said.
From the publication of her first book in 1989 onward, Ms. Tan, 61, worked closely with Faith Sale, a well-known editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, now part of Penguin Group. When Ms. Sale died of cancer in 1999 at age 63, Ms. Tan was suddenly left without her longtime reader, editor and friend.
For years, she was “unable to really find a replacement. I just couldn’t—I couldn’t bear to,” says Ms. Tan, who also lost her mother a few weeks before Ms. Sale’s death.
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She stayed at Putnam through the publication of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” in 2001, and her last book, “Saving Fish From Drowning,” in 2005, but she felt less of a connection without Ms. Sale there to read her work.
“There was somebody there, but nobody really sat down and read the book and said ‘Here’s what you should do,’ ” she said. “They would have given me an editor, but I just couldn’t make up my mind. And I just thought, I can never replace Faith.”
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By 2011, with the central idea of “The Valley of Amazement” in mind, Ms. Tan said she was ready to look for a new editor. “I told my agent…I don’t care what the amount of money is, I want an editor. I want the best editor for myself,” she said. Ms. Dijkstra sent out a short synopsis of the idea to select publishers.
Daniel Halpern, editor and president and publisher of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, was among the interested parties. A poet himself and editor for writers including Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates, Mr. Halpern had been friends with Ms. Tan’s previous editor and had long admired the author’s work. When “The Valley of Amazement” proposal came his way in 2011, he jumped at the opportunity.
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When Mr. Halpern met Ms. Tan in person in New York, along with her husband and her Yorkie, he gave her a mocked-up jacket of the book. He called her agent repeatedly to check in on the decision. “My husband thought I had a lover,” said Ms. Dijkstra.
“I just felt such rapport with her, and you put a lot of emotional energy into these auctions,” said Mr. Halpern. “If you end up not getting the book, it’s really like a punch in the stomach.”
He was “like a guy who wants you out on a date and you say, well I don’t know,” says Ms. Tan. “I was so uncertain—it’s kind of like getting married.” Ultimately, his enthusiasm prevailed and they signed a one-book deal. They have since signed a contract for a new novel and a book of essays.
One of the first things Mr. Halpern did when he received the full draft of “The Valley of Amazement” was make a timeline of the entire novel, with notes on each individual character. He also made comments on the story and chapter-by-chapter notes.
He suggested altering the opening, so that the story began with the characters in the courtesan house in the early 1900s, instead of later in the plot. He worked with Ms. Tan on developing the narrator, Violet, who seemed “thin” to him in the beginning. “I remember saying to her, ‘You’ve got to add flesh onto this woman,’ ” he said, “I mean, who is she really?”