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Booker Prize nominee Tan Twan Eng talks about his novel 'The Garden of Evening Mists'

Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng: how to write historical novels that are also timeless.

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“I’m not a gardener to start with and I’m not very much into nature,” says Tan. “So when I had the idea for the book, I was reluctant. I had to have the feel of it, so I started some planting too. You have to take your gloves off and feel the soil. It’s very dirty.”

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The crash course has left Tan with a greater appreciation for flora. He says he has surprised friends by suggesting trips to national parks; he recently made a trip up South Africa’s West Coast to witness its famous spring wildflowers in bloom.

In the book, Aritomo’s garden signature is his deft use of borrowed scenes, such as a wall of hedges with a break in it that perfectly frames a view of a mountain in the distance.

“Borrowed scenery is one of the pillars of Japanese gardening. Due to space constraints, you use the neighbor's trees to give depth to the gardens,” says Tan. “You place every stone carefully to achieve maximum effect. With writing, it's the same. You don't just describe the character. You use the past, memories, borrowed locations, to create this character in the reader’s mind.”
 
Tan’s stories usually begin with one character. “I can see the first scene, and I know what happens in the last chapter, but I don't know how I'll get from A to Z,” he says. “I hate the word 'organic,' but I don't plan my chapters.”
 
“I enjoy rewriting tremendously,” Tan, who says that “Garden” was difficult to complete, said of his process. “With the first [novel], nobody knew I was writing. I could write whatever I wanted. With the second, I had my editor's voice in my head. ‘The Gift of Rain’ was a millstone in the early stages. I spent some time second-guessing myself. It was only about halfway through the book that I ignored that. My sense of confidence is stronger.”

Until he moved to Cape Town for graduate school, Tan worked as an attorney in Malaysia. While many students who pursue an MFA in creative writing aren’t able to finish a novel, Tan managed to write his first while studying for a master’s degree in law.

“For an Asian student who had been trained to study, coming here was sort of like a holiday,” says Tan with a smile. “Once I did my work for the course, I had a lot of free time. I told myself, ‘This is your opportunity, don't waste it.’”

Prior to that, he says that his only creative outlet was drafting legal documents. “I always wanted to be a writer. But a lot of people say that.”

Clearly, the focused dedication paid off. Tan now writes full-time, albeit with a bit of a hiatus at the moment due to the keen interest that “The Garden of Evening Mists” has garnered since arriving on the Booker short list. Having just participated at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, Tan heads next to London and Kuala Lumpur for more literary events. Tan notes that South Africa has a longer publishing tradition, while the Malaysian scene is smaller but quite active.

“Here, I'm in a good position of being an outsider,” says Tan. “In Malaysia, I'm a bit of an outsider as well.”

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist based in South Africa and an occasional correspondent for the Monitor. 

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