Lisa Allardice 

Anne Tyler: a life’s work

Before the publication of her 19th novel, Anne Tyler hadn't given a face-to-face interview for nearly 40 years. She talks to Lisa Allardice about grief, why her male characters aren't wimps and the reason she has shunned publicity for so long
  
  

If you were to pop by Anne Tyler's house in leafy Roland Park, Baltimore, on a Tuesday afternoon, you might interrupt her and five women friends deep into an episode of The Wire. They have seen all five seasons three times, and are discussing how soon they can begin a fourth viewing.

Nearly all of her 19 novels are set in Baltimore, where she has lived since 1967, and she has become so synonymous with the city that they run Tyler tourist trips. But fans will know that her fictional Maryland is a world away from that of detective Jimmy McNulty and co. "It is very true to Baltimore," she says of the series. "It is a very pocketed city. We walk the same streets, the drug dealers are doing their business and I'm doing mine, and we almost don't see each other." There's no swearing in Tylerland, never mind narcotics.

Today, Tyler is in London. In the literary world this is news. Before the publication of her latest novel, The Beginner's Goodbye, she hadn't given a face-to-face interview for almost 40 years – and before that she gave only two. Her reluctance to submit to the demands of today's publicity machine means that any newspaper feature (there are remarkably few) inevitably compares her to the reclusive Salinger.

But when we meet, on a sunny spring morning in Kensington, it's hard to imagine anyone less like the irascible Salinger; with her silver fringe, upright posture and smiling eyes, she radiates equanimity, friendliness and goodness, if that doesn't sound too Tylerish. Literary editors and journalists had given up even inquiring if she might grant an interview – why has she agreed now?

"It's sort of whimsical. I'm 70. And I thought, why not?" The same answer she gave to her husband when he asked her to marry him.

Like the equally prolific John Updike, Tyler's subject has been the everyday lives of middle-class America over more than half a century, her writing an attempt, to borrow Updike's phrase, "to give the mundane its beautiful due". With its gently melancholy portrayals of family relationships, affectionately drawn misfits and redemptive storylines, Tyler's fiction is as distinctive as the opening credits of The Wire, and has just as fervent a cult following, and a longer-established one. Since Updike set her on her way in an early New Yorker review, pronouncing her "not merely good, but wickedly good", novelists and critics have outdone each other in their praise. Eudora Welty, whom Tyler calls "my crowning influence", wrote: "If I could have written the last line of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I'd be happy for the rest of my life." Even the New York Times's much-feared critic Michiko Kakutani has given her rave reviews. One of her most outspoken champions (perhaps surprising, given the "blokeishness" of his own work) is Nick Hornby, who has said his ambition is to be "the male Anne Tyler" and credits The Accidental Tourist as the inspiration to begin writing himself, describing her as "the best line-and-length novelist in the world".

In outline, The Beginner's Goodbye, the story of a man coming to terms with the death of his wife, reads like a Tyler inventory: the Baltimore setting; the limp (literally) male narrator, with a slightly eccentric job in publishing; the uneasy marriage between two opposites; a random tragedy that propels the protagonist towards self-knowledge and change.

Her usual process for beginning a novel is to turn to an index box in which she has written ideas or snatches of conversations and left them to ripen for years ("and I mean years"), often passing the same card over and over until she feels she can make something of it. The planning stage always takes her "exactly a month" before her subconscious tells her "OK, enough is enough."

In this instance, however, Aaron, the main character, spoke to her – something that usually happens when she is much further along. "Yes, I know how fey that sounds," she says, grimacing. "I was still in the very beginning, the month of looking at that sheet of white paper and saying what can I possibly do? And I heard a voice say in my brain very clearly: 'The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted.' A few minutes later the voice said: 'I have a couple of handicaps. I may not have mentioned that.'" She loved the slight duplicity of his tone, which told her it had to be a first-person narrator, something she usually considers "a bit of a cheat".

In this way, she says, the subject of grief was "sort of visited" upon her, although it is one she has returned to throughout her work. She is adamant that none of her fiction is taken from real life."Writing is all about getting to do more. It would be very boring for me to have to live my life over again, I just want to live somebody else's," she says. But she did draw on her feelings following the death of her husband Taghi Modarressi, an Iranian psychologist and novelist, 15 years ago. "When it happens you think this is unbearable, and it is unbearable. But of course every body bears it." He was 10 years her senior and they married when she was 21. "I had a wonderful marriage, and I miss him still," she says simply. The quasi-ghost-story stems from the bereaved's sense of bewilderment. "The main thing I thought after my husband died was 'Where did he go?' You can't have that much vitality and exuberance and joyfulness and it just comes to nothing. No! It's got to be somewhere. I'm not religious, but I really did sit very still and think, say something to me. He never did."

Being married to a psychiatrist might seem an asset to a novelist, especially one as character-driven as Tyler. But she says he never discussed his work. "I think novelists ideally do the opposite of what psychotherapists do. They are saying there are all these mingled colours and shades. I'm not just going to give a name to your neurosis." One thing he did bring home was a copy of a book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, by Erving Goffman, which she found to be "the most valuable book a novelist could read. We are always trying to decipher gestures, or as writing teachers say, how to show rather than tell."

Creative writing programmes were unheard of in Tyler's day, but she had wonderful teachers, including the writer Reynolds Price, who, in her final year at Duke University, recommended Tyler to his agent. She went on to study Russian at Columbia, because "that was one of the most outrageous things you could do in America in the 1950s", and while she can't remember any of the language, she loved the literature, "the purity and clarity" of both Chekhov and Tolstoy, and regularly rereads Anna Karenina.

But she believes that growing up, the eldest child with three brothers, in a Quaker commune in the mountains of North Carolina, had the most profound influence on her as a writer. Her father was a chemist, her mother a social worker, both idealists, pacifists and civil rights activists, "so disenchanted that there had been a world war that they looked for places to go to start living separate from the world". This unorthodox upbringing gave her "that slight distance, so that I can look at the world as if I were a sociologist a little bit – I have that extra inch away from it."

Tyler legend, spun from snippets of biography, has it that she didn't wear shoes or go to school until she was 11; in fact, she went to the tiny schoolhouse that the mountain children attended. In the afternoons, she and her brother would knock on any of the doors in the commune and say they had come to learn something. There weren't many books available, and it won't surprise readers to learn she read Little Women 22 times.

Although her parents were believers, she gave up on religion when she was seven, the age she feels was in some ways "the climax of my life, when you finally know who you are. I started thinking very seriously about God and I thought I just can't do it, so that was sort of that." Her 1992 novel Saint Maybe was an attempt to inhabit a character the most opposite to her she could think of – "and that was a concretely religious person".

She graduated at 19, wanting to be an artist, but instead fell into writing, publishing her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, when she was 23. With uncharacteristic vehemence, she says she wishes she could destroy her first four books. "Just wipe them out. I didn't know what I was doing. I was just finding my way." Her ninth, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, was published when she was just 40. Many, including Tyler, consider it to be her best novel ("it is the one that came closest to what I envisaged at the beginning"). She followed it up three years later with The Accidental Tourist, which won the Book Critics Circle award and was made into the Oscar-winning film starring William Hurt and Geena Davies. Both these novels were finalists for the Pulitzer prize; she won it with her next, Breathing Lessons, in 1988.

During this time she had two daughters, and wrote about the difficulty of balancing writing with motherhood in an essay called "Still Just Writing": "Women writers who have raised children probably have different looking brains by the time they are through, they've learnt to compartmentalise so well." Her daughters are both artists – one a painter, the other a children's illustrator, for whom Tyler wrote a children's book for her to illustrate, "to get her started". She has two grandchildren.

She says that over the years she learnt "just to go to my room and plug away. It doesn't take very long for most writers to realise that if you wait until the day you are inspired and feel like writing you'll never do it at all."

On the wall of her study are two poems, one by Updike on "marching through" a novel, the other called "Walking to Sleep" by Richard Wilbur, which could also be about writing, she says. She can quote the first lines: "As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there, / Or a general raises his hand and is given field glasses, / Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind. / Something will come to you."

For a writer who is so protective of her privacy, she is unusually open about her routine, which is so exacting that it might have been devised by one of her characters. A "very mechanical process", it involves revising tiny sections in "quite small and distinct handwriting – it is almost like knitting a novel" (she insists on white paper, no lines, and swears by "the miraculous Pilot P500 gel pen"). When she is happy with each section she types it up, then writes the whole manuscript out in longhand again. She then reads it into a tape-recorder to listen out for false notes or clumsiness. "You think a character would never say that, but you only know it when you speak it out loud." To avoid typing it all out again, she ingeniously plays it back to herself on a stenographer's machine with a pedal to pause so she can put that comma exactly where she wants it. One of the reasons she doesn't like her first novels is that at the time she felt that to revise them was unspontaneous. "Spontaneity is not always a good thing."

Before she starts, she says she feels very sure how a novel is going to end, but is often wrong. She writes detailed background notes on each of her characters, most of which she doesn't use, and she has to like them. Every so often in the plotting stages, she says, "I have come up with a character, looked at him closely and said 'he's out'. I can't stand him for that long." (How did she manage to sit through all those episodes of The Wire?) Her "good characters have serious flaws, and quite base motives, but none are evil". She even likes Cody in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, whose sibling rivalry leads him to steal the love of his brother Ezra's life. "I don't think he's admirable, but I feel a little sorry for him as clearly something has gone very wrong."

Her favourite is the pathologically forgiving Ezra (who makes walk-on appearances in several later novels, she reveals). Many of her books can be read as studies in the rather unfashionable virtues of gentleness and goodness, the question of "how to live" (also addressed in Carol Shields's Unless and Hornby's How to Be Good). In person there's no glint of that little shard of ice, to be found in the most benign of writers. Even on this she has wry insight: "Cody hated the radiant, grave expression that Ezra wore sometimes; it showed that he realised full well how considerate he was being. 'What do you want for Christmas?' Cody asked him roughly. 'World peace?'"

The title Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant captures the dichotomy on which her fiction rests: nearly all the characters are homesick in some way – either longing for home, or completely sick of it. This conflict between security, inheritance, love, and their corollaries independence, solitude and freedom, drives many of her narratives: characters are always running away from, or returning to, the marital or childhood home. Kakutani has argued that for Tyler these represent "the two imperatives in American life". "This is why I don't read reviews," Tyler laughs. "I'm not thinking at all about what it means to be American."

For some it seems Tyler's work is just too darn "homely" to be a contender for Great American Novel status – adjectives such as "homespun", "heartwarming" and "cosy" pop up alongside the superlatives in reviews – even though books by male contemporaries are meditations on the same theme (Franzen's latest bumper family novel isn't called Freedom for nothing), and twice as long. There's not enough sex for a start. "I would never be in bed with my characters," she says. "I try to show them respect."

And if she doesn't follow Updike into the bedroom, it sometimes seems she doesn't venture outside the house either. Tyler rivals Austen in her myopic focus; in an oeuvre spanning the whole of postwar American history, only the second world war and the 70s counter-culture get due mention. "I mind even in a historical novel if every dinner conversation involves Napoleon and what he was doing," she says unapologetically. "That's not the way the world works." But she does admit to "sticking a rather clumsy reference to the war in Iraq and Hillary Clinton into The Beginner's Goodbye, so we'd know what era we were in".

The passing of time, on a personal scale, is one of her most affecting themes; her observations on human motivations and relationships are so wise and finely nuanced that they make those of most of her peers seem callow and strained. But it's true that some of her novels fall the wrong side of sentimental. One critic in the Chicago Tribune crowned Tyler "our foremost NutraSweet novelist"; another compared her fiction to Quaker instant oatmeal: "Though the product may be bland, it is nevertheless warm and comforting." And in a 2004 review the Observer's Adam Mars Jones felt that The Amateur Marriage suffered through its plot similarities with American Pastoral: "Alongside Roth's paroxysms of rage and understanding, his astonishing display of piss and vinegar, Tyler seems to be offering milk and cookies."

Isn't there something a little bit patronising about all these food metaphors?

No, she says mildly. "For one thing I think it is sort of true. I would say piss and vinegar for Roth and for me milk and cookies. I can't deny it." She does however stress that there's more "edge under some of my soft language than people realise. I don't think I'm like one of those little old ladies where everything is so sweet that there's no traction there." She thinks Franzen is "an amazing writer", but also "a little bit cruel to his characters. I didn't like Patty and I wonder if I could have lived with her for however long it took him to write Freedom. It is probably that I just want to be with nice people, which sounds very milk and cookies, I know."

Another criticism levelled against her is that her male characters are not just lacking in piss and vinegar, but testosterone too. And they are a fairly forlorn bunch. Think of Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist, reluctant to step out of his front door; Ian Bedloe in Saint Maybe, who spends 20 years atoning for a teenage mistake, renouncing everything from sex to sugar; and poor old Ezra, who spends his life trying to get his family to finish one meal together. Barnaby Gaitlin in A Patchwork Planet, Jeremy Pauling from Celestial Navigation and the hero of her more recent Noah's Compass could all be added to this list. Defined by passivity, their lives have drifted along until something, usually tragic, jolts them out of their stupor. Aaron, with his leg-brace, stutter and bossy sister in The Beginner's Goodbye is no exception.

"Oh that always bothers me so much. I don't think they are wimps," she says. "People are always saying we understand you write about quirky characters, and I think, isn't everybody quirky? If you look very closely at anybody you'll find impediments, women and men both."

Why does she think her novels have such a strong male following? "Maybe it is because I really like men," she ponders. Growing up in a male-dominated family, "amazing grandfathers, father, brothers and husband", she felt more comfortable with them. "It's as if the view given me of men was so positive. I got to know them well, because I was so interested in them and liked them." For this reason she feels confident adopting a male perspective, but as a novelist she is attracted to the challenge posed by the fact that men "are almost forced by society to hide their feelings. When I'm writing from a man's point of view, particularly if it is first-person, all of a sudden I'm aware of how confined I feel, how I can't use that word because it is emotionally charged, too gushy. I feel I'm walking this narrow path with high walls on either side of me. The first time I realised I was so surprised, I thought, well here we are always worrying about women's liberation, but how about men?"

Although feminism, like other external forces, seems to have passed Tyler's fictional worlds by, the women conforming to traditional roles, her work is full of strong, believable female characters: the formidable, if not very likeable, Pearl Tull, or well-meaning Maggie in Breathing Lessons. And she is one of very few contemporary novelists unafraid to place mothers – and even grandmothers – at the heart of her books. For a writer "the post-marriage stages are so much more interesting. Year after year, grating along together, adjusting to each other's foibles and flaws." All marriages, she says, "are mixed marriages", and one of her favourite narrative ploys is to put two opposing elements – usually a prissily fastidious man and a scatty, demonstrative woman – together and chart the reaction as minutely as a chemist. "You were ice and she was glass," Michael and Pauline's daughter observes in the Amateur Marriage.

Despite the determined sunniness of her novels (her only clearly unhappy ending, in Celestial Navigations, was unplanned), every so often the melancholy refrain in the background can be heard with plangency. The opening description of Rebecca in Back When We Are Grown Ups might stand for any of her lost souls. "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." Or this, from the broadly cheerful Breathing Lessons: "Sifting through these layers of belongings while Ira stood mute behind her, Maggie had a sudden view of her life as circular. It forever repeated itself, and was entirely lacking in hope."

The milk and cookies are laced with something a little stronger. "I'm worried about human beings and the state of the world," she agrees. "I don't have an optimistic feeling in broad terms, and I think I take comfort for myself in creating a tiny world where things work a little better, a sort of alternate universe."

Did she ever expect to have written 19 novels? "No – it worries me a little. When I look at a book and in the front there's a long list of titles I tend to think less of them for it, they must just be spewing them out." But she adds with a hint of mischief, "I know that Joyce Carol Oates will always beat me."

She toyed with the idea of The Beginner's Goodbye being her last novel ("the title seemed a good way to end"), but realised she is "really happiest" when she is working; her idea of heaven is to be midway through a novel. And she has already begun her 20th, a sprawling family saga, which she hopes will take a long time. "If I write it backwards through the generations, then it could end whenever I died."

This will, however, be the last Tyler novel for her career-long editor Judith Jones, who has just retired. Although she will be "greatly missed", in true Tyler style they have only met four times. And apart from a bit of "to-ing and fro-ing" after each book was submitted (she often objected to Tyler's titles, apparently) they spoke only once or twice a year on the phone. So no lunches or launches at all? "Oh no, no," she says emphatically. "What would we have to say?"

Why is she so strict about avoiding publicity?

"The simple answer is that any time I've spoken at length in an interview, I really can't write afterwards for a long time. My mental image, which again is so fey, is that the Writing Elf has gone off in a sulk." The secret of writing "is to pretend to yourself that no one will see it, ever", an illusion which is shattered by talking about it. "We'll see. When I get home again, how long will it take me to write? I'm curious to know. Will the Writing Elf understand?"

He almost certainly will. But to appease him, maybe he should have the final word. Here is the last sentence from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant that Eudora Welty admired so much: "And high above, he seemed to recall, there had been a little brown airplane, almost motionless, droning through the sunshine like a bumblebee."

 

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