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Artist Profile: Tan Twan Eng on Excavating Old Stories and Using Writing to Learn

Tan Twan Eng sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss his latest book, "The House of Doors."
Tan Twan Eng sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss his latest book, "The House of Doors." By Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing
By John M. Weaver, Crimson Staff Writer

With the publication of his most recent novel, “The House of Doors,” Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng invites readers to meditate on the collectively shared past through the lens of his birthplace, Penang. Based on the late Somerset Maugham’s short story “The Letter,” the book attempts to reconstruct the historical genesis of Maugham’s own encounter with the legal trial that would later inspire his narrative. After embarking on the ambitious endeavor of exploring the present through historical fiction, Tan Twan Eng reflects on the difficulties of writing and the opportunities for enrichment that the practice simultaneously affords.

In spite of the recent success of “The House of Doors,” Tan Twan Eng encountered many obstacles along the way. Faced with the usual difficulties of writing combined with the struggles of intense research in the pursuit of historical accuracy, Twan took nearly 10 years to write and publish his novel, “The House of Doors.”

“Everything just wouldn’t come together, they [the chapters] wouldn’t cohere, something was wrong,” Twan said.

He ascribes many of these challenges to his lack of a title early on. Even after he had already sent the draft to publishers, Twan still lacked a satisfactory name for his story. Looking back, Twan realized that creating a strong title is vital for the healthy development of any creative work of writing, whether that be a novel or an article.

“The title is like a signpost or a flag waving, where it points you to the direction when you’re getting mired in all this other stuff,” Twan said.

It wasn’t until his editor told him to call it “The House of Doors” — referring to a scene in which Leslie, the protagonist, finds herself surrounded by hanging Chinese doors bearing intricate carvings and ornamentation — that everything clicked together. With a central title, themes, characters, and plot were finally able to cohere.

However, historical fiction also proved to boast a unique array of challenges. Twan found writing about real people especially difficult, as their historical blueprint often worked against his instinct. Twan’s star character, Somerset Maugham, proved particularly troublesome, as the late author’s shyness prevented him from believably attending local parties and demonstrating his relationships with the locals in the book.

“Every time I wanted my story or the plot to move in a certain direction, I found I couldn’t because their personalities [told me] this was wrong,” Twan said.

As difficult as these problems are, they are essential roadblocks to the vision Twan has in mind for historical fiction. His purpose is not only to entertain, but to unearth underrepresented or forgotten stories and breathe life back into them. Doing so offers both justice to the people of the past and insight into the present.

“The more we change, I see that the more things remain the same as well. We’re still scared — in many ways — of expressing our love, our feelings to other people,” Twan said.

In order to ensure he remained faithful to the past while still building a compelling narrative, Twan put strict rules in place defining exactly what he could and couldn’t do with the story.

“My rule was that I can add to them but I can’t subtract, I can’t remove something,” said Twan. “If something is inconvenient for me factually, I have to work around it, I can’t just erase them.”

It is clear that Twan’s rigid framework paid off, not only in the success of his novel, but in its ability to positively impact the families included in his work. A few months ago, Twan received an email from Somerset Maugham’s great granddaughter, thanking him for bringing Somerset back to life in “The House of Doors.” Soon after, Twan found himself meeting with Maugham’s great granddaughter and granddaughter in London.

“It was very warm,” said Twan. “It felt strange to be sitting in the same room with Somerset Maugham’s descendants, very strange, but I felt very privileged and we got along well.”

Twan notes that beyond the heartwarming encounters writing facilitates, the difficulties he faced along the way are also incredibly enriching. Engaging with the past has allowed him to better understand how stories are passed on from generation to generation, adapting over time and revealing more about contemporary attitudes with each iteration.

More than anything, Twan rejoices in the stunning amount of knowledge and learning involved in the writing process. Prior to his work on “The Garden of Evening Mists,” Twan recalls hating gardening. To him, flowers were identified by little more than their colors and trees were just trees. However, the story forced him to immerse himself in the world of gardening. Suddenly, nondescript blues and pinks took focus as hydrangeas, while trees boasted new names and features.

Twan’s work has allowed him to experience the world in ways that were unimaginable before. Twan hopes that readers will learn just as much, if not more, as they move through his novels: His writing reminds us that the past is always worth revisiting.

—Staff writer John M. Weaver can be reached at john.weaver@thecrimson.com

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