Novelist Anne Tyler has spent most of her 50 years observing from a distance, using her imagination to satisfy her curiosity. In an essay published in 1976— “Because I Want More Than One Life,” Tyler commented:
“It seems to me often that I’m sort of looking from a window at something at a great distance and wondering what it is. But I’m not willing to actually go into it. I would rather sit behind the window sill and write about it. So all my curiosity has to be answered within myself. . . .”
Tyler avoids our contemporary literary marketplace. As Reynolds Price, her writing teacher at Duke University, says, she doesn’t go out on the “good-looking-lady-star circuit,” making public appearances, granting interviews. Tyler stays home and writes and lets her books promote themselves. Publicity seems “artificial” to Tyler. She says, “None of it seems to have any purpose or value. And it has nothing to do with writing.”
Indeed, only a few photographs have been published of this tall, slender, attractive blue-gray-eyed woman who wears her dark hair pulled back in a bun and cuts her straight bangs herself.
Tyler’s lifestyle has led one critic to label her the “Greta Garbo of the literary world.” Nevertheless, Anne Tyler emerged as one of America’s leading fiction writers during the 1980’s. Her novels are published in many languages around the world. Accidental Tourist, published in 1985, and Breathing Lessons, in 1989, received wide critical acclaim and earned her prestigious literary prizes—the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Tyler reached another large audience when Accidental Tourist was produced as a highly successful motion picture. Many of her other novels have been optioned for the movies as well. Tyler’s 12th novel, Saint Maybe, published in the fall of 1991, was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection. A play adapted from Tyler’s 1977 novel. Earthly Possessions, was performed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in the summer and fall of 1991.
Anne Tyler didn’t plan on the acclaim her writing has brought her. She says, “I pictured fame as my entering other peoples’ lives, not their entering mine.” Tyler wrote in an essay in 1980, “Still Just Writing:”
“Why do people imagine that writers, having chosen the most private of professions, should be any good at performing in public or should have the slightest desire to tell their secrets to interviewers from ladies’ magazines. I feel I am only holding myself together by being extremely firm and decisive about what I will do and what I will not do. I will write my books. . . . Anything else just fritters me away.”
Several years ago, as a literary lecturer and teacher, I wrote to Anne Tyler. Thus began a correspondence and literary friendship.
Anne Tyler is reluctant to talk about her childhood. She writes: “for some reason the thought of going back to childhood—even long enough to think of brief information about it—depresses me.”
Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Oct. 25, 1941. Her father was an industrial chemist and her mother a social worker and sometime journalist. Both her parents are members of the Society of Friends, and they have been long-time activists in liberal causes: pro-human rights, anti-nuclear, antiwar. With her parents and three younger brothers, she spent her childhood living in various rural Quaker communes in the Midwest and South. From the age of six until she was eleven, she and her family lived with a community of conscientious objectors northeast of Asheville, North Carolina.
Tyler’s parents, along with other members of the commune, provided the children much of their early education outside any formal school. This was supplemented with the Calvert School Correspondence System. Later she attended public schools outside the commune, graduating from Broughton High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Tyler spent her childhood behind a book, waiting for adulthood to arrive. She read “anything I could get my hands on” and often had to reread books because there weren’t many children’s books available.
Tyler traces the origin of her craft to age three. When sent to bed early, she was faced with having to amuse herself. She told an interviewer: “I pulled my knees up under the blanket and pretended I was a doctor and patients were coming to me with broken legs and arms and they had to tell me how they’d gotten them.” Tyler realizes she’s really doing no more now than she did at age three—”telling myself stories in order to get to sleep at night. Except that now I tell stories in the daytime as well: they’ve taken over my life.”
Tyler wrote her first book when she was seven. It was in notebook form with drawings, “Written and Illustrated by Anne Tyler,” and it was followed by dozens of others in a similar form. She says these were “wishful thinking books— all about girls I wished I were like who got to go west in covered wagons.”
At that point in her life, Tyler thought she would be an artist, but she decided she was not good enough. She still finds drawing helpful as she thinks up characters. She doodles to see what faces emerge that seem to interest her and tries to understand “what’s inside them so I can know more about them.”
The experience of living in a commune made Tyler look at the normal world with a certain amount of distance which she feels is helpful to a writer. From the essay, “Still Just Writing” (1980):
“I know a poet who says that in order to be a writer, you have to have had rheumatic fever in your childhood. I’ve never had rheumatic fever, but I believe that any kind of setting-apart situation will do as well. In my case, it was emerging from the commune . . .and trying to fit into the outside world.”
Tyler was eleven when she and her family left the commune. She had never used a telephone and could strike a match on the sole of her bare foot. Tyler has retained throughout her life the sense of surprise and distance she felt as a child. From the same essay:
“I have given up hope, by now, of ever losing my sense of distance; in fact, I seem to have come to cherish it. Neither I nor any of my brothers can stand being out among a crowd of people for any length of time.”
When Anne Tyler was 14, she discovered Eudora Welty’s books in the school library, and this was a turning point. Welty’s story, “The Wide Net,” influenced Tyler more than any other piece of literature. She told an interviewer:
“I can even name the line. It’s the one where she says Edna Earle is so dim she could spend all day pondering on how the little tail on the “C” got through the “L” in a Coca-Cola sign. I knew many Edna Earles. I didn’t know you could write about them.”
Tyler says that hitherto she thought books had to be about major events and none had ever happened to her. Eudora Welty has been a role model for Anne Tyler ever since.
Phyllis Peacock, Tyler’s English teacher at Broughton High School, also had a large impact on her early development. In a letter, Tyler recalled: “I showed my writing to my parents and my mother, especially, was supportive but Mrs. Peacock got really excited and that made a huge difference. . . . Mrs. Peacock just had something about her that encouraged imagination and experimentation; I can’t explain what.”
Tyler wanted to go north to Swarthmore College. Her parents felt, however, she should go to Duke University, where she had been awarded the Angier Biddle Duke scholarship, because she had three brothers coming along behind her and it was more important for boys than girls to get a good education. That was the only time Tyler remembers being treated unfairly as a female in her family. “I still don’t think it was just, but I can’t say it ruined my life. After all, Duke had Reynolds Price who turned out to be the only person I ever knew who could actually teach writing. It all worked out in the end.”
Tyler entered Duke University at 16 and graduated in three years with a degree in Russian and a Phi Beta Kappa key. Something of a maverick in college, she majored in Russian language and literature because she wanted to “embark on something new and different and slightly startling.” Now, she says, “To my great shame, I have forgotten every last bit of my Russian. Now I couldn’t manage so much as a Dick-and-Jane book.”
At Duke, Tyler took several writing courses, including freshman composition and an advanced short story writing course her sophomore year from Reynolds Price. Tyler was in the first class Price taught at Duke (when he was 25 and she 16). He acknowledges the encounter spoiled him. “I thought the students were all going to be like that!” Price told an interviewer in 1983, “Anne Tyler was almost as good a writer at age sixteen as she is now; and she’s now one of the best novelists alive in the world.”
When Price gave his students an assignment to write about their earliest childhood memory, Tyler could remember back the farthest—to a memory of her mother putting a certain jacket on her and her feelings about it. She later recalled: “My feelings . . .were of frustration, because I thought I was explaining very lucidly to my mother that I didn’t like that coat because it was padded and it didn’t allow me to bend my arms. Actually, as I see now, I couldn’t possibly have been understood because I was somewhere between seven and ten months old and didn’t talk yet; I only thought I could talk.”
Price treated Tyler differently from the other students in his composition class because of her obvious talent. He told me in an interview in May 1990:
“She started out very quickly writing highly finished, skillful prose sketches about the Quaker community she lived in up in the mountains as a very young child. And so I pretty well set her free at that point to write whatever she wanted and not necessarily to write the critical papers that most of the others were writing. . . . Tyler’s pieces were basically about this wide-eyed extremely watchful girl child, who was not so much watching the community itself as watching the mountain people who lived around the community, with whom they would go mountain climbing, or flower picking. My memory [of the writing pieces] is of this outsider child, this very watchful child recording, recording, recording the world.”
During her sophomore year, Tyler wrote a story called “The Saints in Caesar’s Household.” Price says the story, about returning home to see a friend from childhood who has had a psychotic breakdown, “is the most finished, most accomplished short story I’ve ever received from an undergraduate in all my thirty years of teaching.”
Price sent the story to his agent, Diarmuid Russell, who was also Eudora Welty’s agent, and soon Russell became Tyler’s agent as well. “The Saints in Caesar’s Household” became her first published short story. Two other stories Tyler wrote at Duke were published in literary journals: “I Never Saw Morning” (Archive, April 1961) and “Nobody Answers the Door” (Antioch Review, Fall 1964). Anne Tyler twice won the Anne Flexner Award for creative writing at Duke University.
While at Duke, she also acted with the Westley Players, playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Mrs. Gibson in Our Town, and the female lead in an original play by a fellow student.
After graduating from Duke, Tyler, went to New York City for a year to study Russian at Columbia University. While there she became “addicted” to riding any kind of train or subway.
”. . . While I rode I often felt I was . . . an enormous eye, taking things in and turning them over and sorting them out. But, who would I tell them to . . .? I have never had more than three or four close friends at any period of my life; and anyway, I don’t talk well. . .for me, writing down was the only way out.”
Returning to Duke in 1962, Tyler worked as the Russian bibliographer at the Duke Library. At that time she was “vague” about what she wanted to do. She now admits, “Writing was something that crept in around the edges.”
Tyler met and married Iranian-born Taghi Mohammed Modaressi in 1963. His study visa expired in 1964, and they moved to Montreal, where Modaressi continued his medical studies at McGill University.
During her first six months of marriage, to keep occupied while she was looking for a job, Tyler wrote her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes. She left the first half of her only draft of the manuscript at the Montreal airport.
“When I realized later I said oh, well, no great loss, and didn’t bother going all the way out to the airport to get it. I think it was a month or so before Taghi picked it up on his own initiative while he was out at the airport on some other errand. I didn’t have any particular feelings about it then, but I was glad to have it later when it took so long to find work and I needed something to do with my time. Now I wish we’d left it at the airport.”
With the publication of this novel in 1964, Anne Tyler, at age 22 began her literary career. The themes in If Morning Ever Comes are those she continues to focus on in her later novels: family relationships, love, old age, and death. In this book, Ben Joe Hawkes returns home to Sandhill, North Carolina, from law school to help his family during a crisis—as well as to find himself. After a week with his mother, grandmother, and six sisters, he returns to New York with the insight “that sometimes it’s not the same place when a person goes back to it, or not the same . . .person.”
Tyler and her husband had been planning to return to Iran to live, but after he found that Iran didn’t have any fulfilling professional jobs, they moved to Baltimore in 1965. There Modaressi started his child psychiatry practice and Tyler continued writing. [Modaressi also writes and has published two novels in English.] Her career was unexpected:
“I never really planned to be a writer; I just didn’t know what else to do. And writing full-time wasn’t actually a decision at all—I had quit my library job to have a baby, and never went back to it but did go on writing. So you can see it didn’t take much courage.”
Tyler’s second novel, The Tin Can Tree, was published in 1965. Again, this novel centers around a family—each member trying to recover from the death of six-year-old Janie Rose. A brother runs off to regain his mother’s attention and to explore new worlds. Janie Rose had strung together tin cans which she hung from the tin can tree and these cans, rattling in the wind, make her a continuing, powerful presence throughout the story.
In the 1960’s, Tyler’s short stories began appearing in The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, and Harpers. In the more than 40 stories she published, Tyler frequently focused on a single character, writing from an understated third-person voice, presenting a single incident or a single day in a way that symbolizes a whole life. The settings were usually Southern, and the themes—as in her novels—were family relationships, alienation or loneliness, the failure of communication between individuals, and the search for meaning in life. Tyler says there will never be a published collection of her short stories because she only likes about five of them.
In the introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 1983, which she edited, Tyler explored the question—”What are the qualities that separate a wonderful short story from a merely good one?”—and she concluded: “. . .almost every really lasting story . . .contains at least one moment of stillness that serves as a kind of pivot.” To Tyler, the short story writer should be a “wastral. He neither hoards his best ideas for something “more important” (a novel) nor skimps on his material because this is “only” a short story.”
There were five years during the late 1960’s when Tyler did not publish, when she was preoccupied with caring for her two infant daughters. It was a difficult time.
“Everything I wanted to write was somehow coagulating in my veins and making me fidgety and slow,” she later noted. Her life during that period was like “living in a very small commune . . .one member was the liaison with the outside world, bringing in money; another was the caretaker, reading the Little Bear books to the children and repairing the electrical switches. . . . I was trying to convince myself that I really did pull my own weight.”
In summing up that period, Tyler wrote in the 1980 essay: “Since I’ve had children, I’ve grown richer and deeper. They may have slowed down my writing for awhile, but when I did write, I had more of a self to speak from.”
Tyler based the story in her third novel, A Slipping Down Life, published in 1970, on an actual incident involving an Elvis Presley fan who etched Presley’s name across her forehead with a razor blade. She thinks this work is “flawed, but represented, for me, a certain brave step forward.”
In 1972, Tyler published The Clock Winder. In this novel, the newly-widowed Mrs. Emerson finds her life changed when Elizabeth, the “handyman-girl,” appears seemingly from out of nowhere and stays for ten years, involving herself in the Emerson family and its affairs.
From this book on, the setting of Tyler’s work is Baltimore. Tyler told an interviewer: “Baltimore has a lot of gritty character to it that’s good for a novel to have.”
Tyler doesn’t like to claim any books written before Celestial Navigation, published in 1974. By then both of her children were in school. She says, while writing this novel, she learned to rework and rework the drafts to find out more about what her characters “really meant.” Although she says this was the hardest novel to write up to that time, it is her own favorite.
Celestial Navigation is the story of Jeremy, an artist living in a boarding house in Baltimore, who doesn’t like to leave home. While Tyler doesn’t have agoraphobia as Jeremy does, she can identify with him. She says, “Creating Jeremy was a way of investigating my own tendency to turn more and more inward [as I write.]” In the book, Tyler also described another facet of herself through the character of Miss Vinton, a spinster who works in a bookstore and whose favorite daydream is: “I would be reading a book alone in my room, and no one would ever, ever interrupt me.”
Searching for Caleb, appearing in 1976, concerned a Baltimore family’s hunt for a long-missing relative. Tyler told an interviewer: “It’s not my best book but it was the most fun to write. Each morning was like going to a party . . .if I could somehow arrange it so that for the rest of my life all I was doing was writing that book, I’d be delighted to do it.”
Earthly Possessions, published in 1977, is a story about Charlotte, a passive woman who is kidnapped by a bank robber as she is preparing to leave her family. She finds she can only think of the possessions she left behind. Tyler considers Earthly Possessions “the work of somebody entering middle age, beginning to notice how the bags and baggage of the past are weighing her down and how much she values them.” For Earthly Possessions, Tyler received a citation from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1977)—”for literary excellence and promise of important work to come.”
Morgan’s Passing, out in 1980, is about a 43-year-old bearded, overweight man who is always pretending to be someone else. His closet is full of costumes and hats “stacked six deep on the shelf.” Tyler deems Morgan’s Passing as “a story that deals with a situation I’ve been fascinated by for most of my life, and one which probably is not unrelated to being a writer: the inveterate imposter, who is unable to stop himself from stepping into other people’s worlds.”
Again, Tyler seems to be writing about facets of her own character in this novel. Like Morgan, she is not a saver. Her old stone home in Baltimore is organized and spare. The living room and dining room, with oriental rugs and a few pieces of furniture, are uncluttered. Floor to ceiling bookcases are full, but neatly organized. When someone gives Tyler a new book, she gives one away. This is like Morgan who urges his newly-wed daughter, Amy, to:
Morgan’s Passing was nominated for the 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award.
“Take a cardboard box, carry it through the rooms, load into it everyone’s toys and dirty clothes and such, and hide it all in a closet. If people ask for some missing object, you’ll be able to tell them where it is . . .if a week goes by and they don’t notice the object is gone, then you can be sure it’s non-essential, and you throw it away. You would be surprised at how many things are non-essential. Throw everything away. All of it! Simplify!”
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, published in 1982, was the book that made Anne Tyler famous, and it remains one of her best. The story traces 50 years in the life of Pearl Tull, who after being deserted by her husband, raises her three children. It is a story about relationships within a family, pain, attempts at survival, nourishment, and love. This is how Tyler views the novel:
“With Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I just wanted to show both sides of family life—that it can be horrific at times, but that it is the one situation that we are generally forced to go on with, even so, picking ourselves up and trying again in the morning. And that is valuable in itself.”
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1982. The following year Tyler was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award as well.
Accidental Tourist, published in 1985, brought Anne Tyler the National Book Critics Circle Award, after her two previous nominations. This novel concerns Macon Leary, who writes travel books for the business man who doesn’t like to travel. His wife, Sarah, leaves him in the first chapter, in part because of their inability to connect, to help each other. It has been one year since their only child, 12-year-old Ethan, was shot to death in a random killing. Tyler says of Tourist:
“It’s hard to think what I had in mind for this book when I started—it has gone through so many changes. It was unusually difficult to write, maybe in part because I hated to handle even the thought of a child’s dying. In fact I superstitiously made Ethan younger than either of my own children so that I could take comfort that they were already past that danger,”
Accidental Tourist is also about families and about relationships. The most vivid character is Muriel, the dog trainer, who steps into the picture when Macon’s dog, Edward (a Corgi like one Tyler had at the time), seems to have a nervous breakdown. Tyler worried that the brassy, assertive Muriel would put people off or bore readers with her monologues: “Although she was very foreign to me at first I did grow fond of her as I came to know her and I wanted people to see her in the best light.”
The novel is hopeful, full of humor as well as pathos. Tyler leaves the reader with this thought from Macon: “It’s kind of heartening, isn’t it. How most human beings do try. How they try to be as responsible and kind as they can manage.”
While some critics have contended that Tyler’s women are stronger characters than the men in her books, the Baltimore novelist demurs: “I’m not interested in generalizations about the sexes. Men and women can do anything the other sex can do. Macon isn’t passive because he’s a man.”
Watching the Warner Brothers filming of the movie adaptation of Accidental Tourist in Baltimore fascinated Anne Tyler. She confesses, “I never knew movies required so much patience and such attention to detail.” Although she didn’t write the screenplay, she believes that the movie is “very true to the book.”
Tyler worked for three years on her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons, released in 1989 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. It involves one day in the life of a marriage but in actuality describes 30 years of ups and downs in the lives of a middle-aged couple, the Morans, Maggie (48) and Ira (50). The Morans spend the day in their car driving from Baltimore to a funeral of a high school friend 90 miles away. One of the moving scenes in the novel occurs when an old man in the nursing home where Maggie works tells her he believes that once he reaches heaven, all he had lost in his lifetime would be given back to him. Maggie thinks of what she might find in her own gunnysack—misplaced earrings and umbrellas, the 1950’s skirts and her cat, Thistledown, and the mongrel dogs on Mulraney Street whose howls barked her to sleep in her childhood.
“And the summer evening as well, why not—the children smelling of sweat and fireflies, the warm porch floorboards sticking slightly to your chair rockers, the voices ringing from the alley. . . . She pictured Saint Peter’s astonishment as he watched what spilled forth: a bottle of wind, a box of fresh snow, and one of those looming moonlit clouds that used to float overhead like dirigibles as Ira walked her home from choir practice.”
Tyler’s most recent novel, Saint Maybe, a fall 1991 publication, traces the Baltimore “apple pie household” of the Bedloe family from 1965 to 1988. Reminiscent of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, with its longer, more leisurely time span, Saint Maybe draws the reader in deeper, demanding an emotional attachment that brings both laughter and tears. lan Bedloe is only a 17-year-old as the story begins, a “medium kind of guy,” whose life changes when he accepts the self-imposed blame for the accidental death of his older brother and becomes a born-again Christian. lan stumbles into the brotherhood of the Church of the Second Chance and, believing that he must earn forgiveness, he takes on the responsibility for raising his brother’s stepchildren.
“As for the germ of the new book, and of lan—it was as usual all a matter of daydreams,” Tyler later commented. “Nothing more concrete than that. All I knew at the start was that I wondered what it must feel like to be a born-again Christian, since that is a kind of life very different from mine.” According to its author, Saint Maybe almost wrote itself. “It was one of those occasions when the characters’ voices were almost literally audible, so that they would chatter on and I would write it down, wondering meanwhile where it came from.” In Tyler’s sensitive, amusing, touching way, the reader watches the growth to maturity of the three children. Her touch adds a universality to the commonplace, not allowing the reader to escape without an enlargement of his own sense of humanity.
Anne Tyler’s main interest is character. She wants her characters to “shine through.” She says, “As far as I’m concerned, character is everything. I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.” She commented in a 1977 interview:
“The real joy of writing is how people can surprise one. My people wander around my study until the novel is done. It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out. I end a book at the point where I feel that I’m going to know forever what their lives are like.”
Tyler finds her characters almost entirely in her own mind, or in her own words, “Sometimes a news item or the sight of someone standing at a bus stop will set me to thinking, and maybe years later a character will come out of that.” Some of her more important characters are, quite clearly, facets of herself. Tyler knows she’s on the right track with her writing when her characters take on a life of their own and start informing her
“What’s hard is that there are times when your characters simply won’t obey you. I’ll have in mind an event for them—a departure, a wedding, a happy ending. I write steadily toward that event, but when I reach it, everything stops. I can’t go on. Sentences come out stilted, dialogue doesn’t sound real. Every new attempt ends up in the wastebasket. I try again from another angle, and then another, until I’m forced to admit it. The characters just won’t allow this. I’ll have to let the plot go their way. And when I do, everything falls into place.”
Tyler thinks about her characters for awhile once she finishes a book. She worried about Jeremy, in Celestial Navigation, who feared leaving home, having a hard time going by himself in her manuscript to her publisher in New York. She also realizes after she finishes a book “that the day dreams I have been weaving are no longer my private property.”
The novelist regards her characters as populating a town where they would know each other and would become friends. As she wrote in an essay: “Sometimes I imagine retiring to a peaceful little town where everyone I’ve invented is living in houses on Main Street. There are worse retirement plans. After all, they are people I’ve loved, or I never would have bothered writing about them.” Tyler also says she knows that “there are some central preoccupations that keep popping up over and over in my books. I’m very interested in space around people. The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure and second the ones who somehow are able to grant other people privacy . . . and yet still produce some warmth.”
Tyler doesn’t consciously write a novel to fit a theme:
“Any large questions of life’ that emerge in my novels are accidental—not a reason for writing the novel in the first place but either (1) questions that absorb my characters, quite apart from me, or (2) on occasion, questions that may be thematic to my own life at the moment, even if I’m not entirely aware of them. Answers, if they come, come from the characters’ experiences, not from mine, and I often find myself viewing those answers with a sort of distant, bemused surprise.”
Writing novels is, for her, mostly telling lies. “You set out to tell an untrue story and you try to make it believable, even to yourself,” she says, “which calls for details; any good lie does. I’m quicker to believe I was once a circus aerialist if I remember that just before every performance, I used to dip my hands in a box of chalk powder that smelled like clean, dry cloth being torn.”
Anne Tyler’s working habits are precise and productive. There is only one room in her home where she can work—a small corner room on the second floor where she “can hear children playing outside and birds.” One wall of this spare and orderly room has a few family photographs and an inscription by Richard Wilbur, the former Poet Laureate of the United States:
As a queen sits down
knowing a chair will be there
or a general raises his hands
And is given the field glasses—
Step off assuredly
into the blank of your mind
Something will come to you.
A bright blue quilt covers the hard couch where Tyler sits cross-legged and writes with a black pen her first drafts in longhand on an antique writing box, a gift from her husband. An antique oak roll-top desk sits against the opposite wall. The bookcases are filled with almanacs that date back to 1948, Time-Life history books, decade by decade back to 1870, and several photography books, as Tyler puts it, “just to sink into, to fill up on when I feel empty.” She also has dictionaries of slang expressions, lined up by year, so that her characters will have an authentic voice.
Tyler works in this room Monday through Friday from early in the morning until about two in the afternoon, unless she breaks earlier to have lunch with a friend. While she is writing, Tyler doesn’t like to think about her audience. She doesn’t read reviews about her work because she says that would remind her that she has readers. But she does care about the connection she makes with her audience. She hopes for “empathetic readers. . . . They in their solitude and I in mine, have somehow managed to touch, without either of us feeling intruded upon . . . We’ve spent some time on neutral territory, sharing a life that belongs to neither of us,”
It is not easy for her to start her writing day, for she feels that “I’d rather do almost anything than go into my study. The door is so tall and dark; it looms. The whole room smells like a carpenter’s shop because of the wooden bookcases. Ordinarily it’s a pleasant smell, but mornings it makes me feel sick. I have to walk in as if by accident, with my mind on something else. Otherwise, I’d never make it.”
Tyler says it took her years to develop the discipline she requires to write. “I’ve learned to be narrow in what I am willing to do and what I’m not willing to do. Often my books come out of my own confinement.” Reynolds Price says, “Tyler could maintain her lifestyle in a tornado. I’ve never known anyone in better control of her professional life.” She no longer accepts the occasional invitations to be a guest teacher in writing classes. Because, “If I talk about the process I’m working by, I can’t use the process for a while.” This writer says that she is not “driven” to write. Rather, she adds,
“I am driven to get things written down before I forget them. My work goes in two parts. The first part is the story, with my characters talking and surprising. But I still don’t know what it’s about, or what it means. The second part comes when I read it back, and suddenly it seems as if someone else is telling me the story and I say, “now I see” and then I go all the way back and drop references to what it means. I keep telling my husband to burn any manuscript if I die before I get to part two. It isn’t mine until I see what my subconscious is up to.”
Tyler doesn’t wait for an inspiration before she begins writing. She makes writing a routine, reviewing a bit of her previous day’s work and then starting again, following the characters through the plots. “It’s like playing dolls,” she believes. “Writing is a sort of way of disobeying two major rules I heard as a child: stop daydreaming and stop staring into space.” To Tyler, tapping her imagination “is really an extension of day dreaming. I just sit around thinking “What if?” about things.” The process of writing for Tyler is one of continual discovery.
Tyler has been writing thoughts and observations on white, unlined index cards since high school. The cards are eventually filed in a small metal box; divided by chapter number, the box also has “extra,” “general,” “look up,” and “revise” sections.
When starting a novel, Tyler reads through her file of cards and selects ones that bring to mind interesting associations, looking for a story that will tie them together. As characters emerge and develop in her imagination, she explores their personalities. Before she begins writing, she insists on knowing her characters intimately so that she will understand each person’s reaction to the events that occur. Only after this preparatory period is over will she be able to outline the novel, using a single sheet of paper and one or two sentences per chapter.
While she sleeps, she told an interviewer, “some sort of automatic pilot works then to solve problems in my plots; I go to bed trustful that they’ll be taken care of by morning. And toward dawn I often wake up and notice, as if flom a distance, that my mind is still churning out stories without any help from me at all.”
Tyler frequently suffers from insomnia from two to four in the morning, a malady she believes she inherited from her family. She says that half of her family “fights” this condition; the other half gets something done. Tyler uses those wakeful hours to write on index cards.
Tyler dislikes doing research. In a recent letter, she observed, “I wanted to do a fortune teller—Justine—in Searching for Caleb. Haven’t you ever been tempted to have your fortune told? It would have killed it off instantly if I’d ever gone to see one. Instead, I bought a little dime-store Dell book—just to pick up the names of the card formations. It’s a lot more fun to make things up.” But she didn’t do any research for her last novel, Saint Maybe. “I think research of that sort cramps and stunts a novel—and also, with a view to avoid offending any particular religion, I figured it was best to just think up my own imaginary one.”
Reynolds Price mentioned in an interview in 1986 that “Anne Tyler has always spoken of a voice that she hears just above her right or left ear.” Tyler writes:
“The voice I “hear” is that sort of neutral, neuter voice that your mind employs when it’s thinking in actual words; it seems that when I’m really inside what I’m working on, my mind’s voice sometimes begins rolling ahead of its own accord. Most often this occurs with dialogue, or with a character’s internal monologue. I don’t think it’s in any way mystical or even, strictly speaking, a matter of “inspiration”—just momentum.”
* * *
To Anne Tyler, “a serious book is one that removes me to another life as I am reading it. It has to have layers and layers and layers, like life does.” Judged by her own definition, she is a serious writer. As she continues to put her thoughts into books, her characters will continue to “shine through,” giving her readers, as well as herself, chances to lead other lives.