SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Since it started up in April, the San Francisco digital-publishing site
has specialized in long-form-narrative nonfiction. It has compiled quite an archive - more than 60,000 pieces by more than 4,000 writers.
Now, Byliner has broadened its scope to include fiction, and it drafted novelist Amy Tan (Joy Luck Club) to write its inaugural offering, her 14,000-word Rules for Virgins. This is the first piece of fiction Tan has published in six years, since Saving Fish From Drowning.
Rules is described as "the sensual tale of an aging master courtesan instructing her beautiful young prótegée in the ways of love and business in 1912 Shanghai."
"Almost from the day we launched, we had readers asking about fiction," said Byliner founder John Tayman. "Given reader demand for stories that can be read in a single sitting, we expect [the addition] to be very popular."
Rules for Virgins is available online for $2.99 at Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, and Apple, downloadable to most digital devices.
Tan, who divides her time between the San Francisco area and New York City, spoke by phone from her home in Sausalito, Calif.
Question: You've been busy the last six years.
Answer: I helped raise money for [the San Francisco Opera] and wrote a libretto [of The Bonesetter's Daughter] for it. The publicity and touring were a big undertaking. Also, I went on research trips to China for a novel, and wrote an article on China for National Geographic magazine. It's very hard to write [fiction] when you're involved in other major projects.
Q: You say the idea for Rules came to you when you saw some old pictures of your grandmother's cousin.
A: Yes, the photos were cumulatively persuasive that she was a courtesan. I started [researching the story] by looking at the novel Singsong Girls of Shanghai, written in the 1890s. Mostly, I talked with academic people and read academic books. The historical research on the period was fascinating and fun.
Q: How did you like writing in digital format?
A: This is the first story I've directly written for e-publication, and I found the form liberating, because there was no word-length limitation. I likely will do more.
Q: You've said you had some angst over whether to publish the story after you finished it.
A: I have angst over everything. I am my worst critic. First, I had to be encouraged to write it, then I wrote it and was really happy. But then the angst came, [partly] due to the subject matter. I could imagine a lot of my readers saying, "This is trash. Where are the tender mother-daughter stories?"
This is about human nature in the same way, but the context is different. In that era, courtesans were enviable and had the most freedom of any class. They were business-oriented women who were very strong and who made their own ways in the world by using their smarts.
Q: You're finishing your next novel.
A: It's called Valley of Amazement and was inspired by a painting I saw in Berlin. In the book, [I explore] what the image means to three different people in different generations. It won't publish for another year, but election time isn't a great time to have a book coming out.
Looking at the digital world
It's a digital world, and we're superconnected: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, the Internet, tablets, smartphones, laptops, blogs, text messaging, electronic mail, and electronic books and the e-readers that go with them. Or are we discombobulated with too much meaningless information? Try a trio of related titles (published both digitally and on paper):
Blur, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (Bloomsbury, $16) What poses as "news" on the Internet isn't necessarily so, say the veteran journalists. They detail a step-by-step process that helps readers separate the facts from the fabrications.
The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking, edited by Mark Bauerlein (Tarcher, $17.95 paperback) These 27 essays examine the effects of social media on our biology, personal lives, and culture. Some of the writers laud the digital landscape and its potential, while others raise warnings of the harm it is doing on multiple levels.