Author Tan Twan Eng on new book The House of Doors: 'Some people remarked writing about real life figures must be easy'

Author Tan Twan Eng on new book The House of Doors: 'Some people remarked writing about real life figures must be easy'

Aug 27, 2023 - 07:30
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Author Tan Twan Eng on new book The House of Doors: 'Some people remarked writing about real life figures must be easy'

With The House of Doors, acclaimed author Tan Twan Eng returns with a masterful tale of nostalgia, love and reflection. The book which made it to the 2023 Booker Longlist carries all the elements that transformed the author to aliterary superstar – evocative sentences, subtle characterization, an ability to interpret the timeless echoes of the past and a faint whiff of sorrow.

The author’s first since the 2012’s Booker-shortlisted The Garden of Evening Mists, the novel carries forward many of the themes of his earlier works from war and tragedy to circumstantial dissonance and conflict.

The House of Doors is a masterful rendition of the author’s prowess in breathing life into historical settings. Set (mostly) in the Penang of 1920’s it is layered in its depiction of the place, its people and their personas. In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, the acclaimed author opens up on his latest work, his craft and why history is never consigned tothe past

What was the premise for writing The House of Doors, when did you come across the idea and how did the book take shape?

I first read Somerset Maugham’s short story collection The Casuarina Tree when I was young. The last story in it, The Letter, left a deep impression on me. Maugham had based it on the real-life trial of Ethel Proudlock in Kuala Lumpur in 1911. She was charged with murdering a man she claimed had tried to rape her. I was interested in the trial and its ramifications across Malayan society. Furthermore, I’m always curious about the origins of how a writer came to write a story or a novel. I wanted to examine how Maugham heard about the trial, and how he transformed it into The Letter.

Most of your novels are set in the past (most often with a background of the war), what is it about the period that draws you in?

The interplay of power between the colonizer and the colonized. The clash of cultures between Europe and Asia. The shock of the cataclysmic changes wrought by the war. The old giving way to the new after the Second World War, when the colonies began fighting for independence and self-rule. How people dealt with all these events.

It saddens me deeply that a place like Penang, so rich and atmospheric with irreplaceable heritage buildings, has been tearing them down and putting up hideous apartments and condominiums and shopping malls. I suppose my books are, in a way, my attempts to preserve the memory of places and times lost forever.

This book is a departure from your earlier works in the sense that you use an author and his experiences to set a story. What gave you the idea to center the story around Somerset Maugham’s visit to Penang?

Maugham was an inveterate traveller, the perpetual outsider. His modus operandi was to arrive at a particular place on his travels and stir up long-suppressed scandals and resentments among the locals. He was the ideal character to upset Lesley Hamlyn’s carefully constructed equilibrium.

Dr Sun Yat Sen was another person who had long piqued my interest. The Chinese revolutionary spent a lot of time in Penang in the early 1900s, raising money for his revolutionary activities, I couldn’t conceive of a reason to put him in my book, then I had the idea to make Lesley Hamlyn the link between Dr Sun and Maugham and Ethel Proudlock.

I enjoyed writing about Maugham – I could incorporate many of my experiences as a writer – the joys and the frustrations of a writer’s life, at the desk and away from it – into the novel.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book?

On my book tour in the UK there were some people who remarked that writing about real life figures must have been easy, because all I had to do was record and describe them on the page. But in truth I found writing about real-life people restrictive – there were occasions when I couldn’t advance the plot in the direction I wanted, because it would be contrary to the personalities of these characters. To give one example: I wanted Maugham to go out often, to talk to more people, but he was shy and did not like talking to strangers due to his lifelong stammer, so I couldn’t have him behaving like a socialite.

A running theme in your writing is the passion for history, Asia’s past and its relationship with the British. What is the impact these interests have had on you and your writing?

The fact that you and I are communicating in English is surely one of the most powerful impacts of Asia’s relationship with the British. I think, write and dream in English. My books are read by people around the world because I happen, by a quirk of history, to write in English. That is not always the case for a writer working in a different language.

I was one of the judges of the International Booker Prize 2023, a prize which awards novels translated into English. The judges were exposed to a broad variety of writers from all over the world. Translations are the doorways to so many memorable novels that we would not have been aware of. Unfortunately, not every novel gets translated into English and reaches a wider readership.

Since your stories are set in the past, can you share an outline of the research that goes into it?

There’s a massive amount of research for each book. This is partly because I used to be a lawyer. I would read up everything I could on the subject matters of my novel – books and research papers and academic journals. I would study old photographs and postcards of the places I wanted to use in my novel. For The House of Doors I hunted for the transcripts of the Proudlock trial. I eventually found them, not in Kuala Lumpur as one would have expected, but at the National Archives of Singapore. Court reporting over a century ago was not quite as professional as it is today – it took a lot of my lawyerly skills to make sense of the confusing transcripts.

I always felt that your writing was reading poetry in prose. It has a lyrical and tonal quality that is hard to describe. What inspires your writing?

Thank you, that’s very complimentary of you. I work hard at coming up with new and original and striking ways of describing what has become commonplace to us. I like playing with language the way a pianist plays with music.

Do we have to wait for 10 years for another Tan Twan Eng novel?

I hope not. But remember: quality takes time! I haven’t been able to do any writing last year as I was busy judging the International Booker Prize 2023 from August until May this year – we had to read 135 translated novels over that period. And since May this year, when The House of Doors was published in the UK, I’ve been on book tours promoting it. The book will be published in the US in October, and I’ll also be going on a US book tour for it.

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