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Anne Tyler, still making it up
Author of 19 novels finds deepest truth in fiction
BALTIMORE — In Anne Tyler’s living room, you could shelve virtually all the books under a single heading: fiction.
Eudora Welty. John Updike. Vladimir Nabokov. Reynolds Price. A rare brush with fact is “More Matter,” a collection of Updike’s essays and criticism. Otherwise, don’t expect any works of history or politics. Biographies? What’s the point? She knows how the story will end.
“It would be a better book if they just wrote a novel about that person,” Ms. Tyler reasons during a recent sunny morning, a mug of coffee in her hands, her gray-dark hair pulled back in a bun.
For nearly 50 years, Ms. Tyler has been making it up - and telling the truth - about love, family, work and death while leaving current events for the nonfiction writers to handle. Readers and critics have welcomed her inventions. She is a consistent best-seller. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for “Breathing Lessons,” and this spring, she is receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Sunday Times in London. Many remember her for “The Accidental Tourist,” adapted into the movie of the same name that featured Geena Davis in an Oscar-winning role as a quirky dog trainer who wins over an emotionally damaged travel writer played by William Hurt.
“Among our better contemporary novelists,” Katha Pollitt once wrote in the New York Times, “Ms. Tyler occupies a somewhat lonely place, polishing brighter and brighter a craft many novelists no longer deem essential to their purpose: the unfolding of character through brilliantly imagined and absolutely accurate detail.”
She not only has succeeded in art and commerce but has kept her private life off the market. Her longtime rule has been that if something happens to her, she won’t put it in her books. So we’ll have to assume she never swallowed a yellow marble thinking it was a lemon drop (“Searching for Caleb”) or faked her own death (“Morgan’s Passing”) or carved a rock star’s name on her forehead, not realizing that by doing so in a mirror she had filled in the letters backward (“A Slipping-Down Life”).
Meanwhile, Ms. Tyler has not talked to the media in person for decades, sharing through written correspondence her thoughts with reporters, but not her ready smile or warm, slightly husky voice. But at age 70, encouraged by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, she figures it couldn’t hurt. Wearing dark slacks, a purple sweater and a white turtleneck, she sits comfortably on a couch looking out on the small yard in back of the attached brick house where she has lived for the past few years, since her two daughters grew up and her husband died after more than 30 years of marriage.
Her new novel is called “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” and its opening line appeared to her as if from the spirit world: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” The narrator is named Aaron, and his wife, Dorothy, was killed suddenly when a tree crashed through their roof. Forced to move in with his overbearing sister, Nandina, he looks back on his marriage and remembers its bonds and strains and wonders “whether we find out what our lives have amounted to.”
No plot will be spoiled by revealing the novel’s conclusion: “We go around and around in this world, and here we go again.” Ms. Tyler has long left questions considered but unanswered and lives transformed but not completed. The titles themselves - “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” “Breathing Lessons,” “The Amateur Marriage,” “The Accidental Tourist” - suggest that life is a job assigned without warning, a body of water into which we’re thrown, fully clothed. Parents and children, men and women. Everyone is winging it, including the author.
“My daughters always tell me that with every book I say, ‘This is not going well, and nothing is going to come of it,’ ” she says. “In that sense I’m still unsure. I think, though, an almost opposite problem is I get to have written so many books I’m worried about the temptation to, I love that phrase, ‘phone it in.’ “
The people change, but a constant is Baltimore, her residence for 45 years and the setting for virtually all of her 19 novels, in which the street names have been changed but a real hardware store or grocery is likely to appear. Baltimore, a city of tradition and acting out, of roots and displacement, where characters might argue whether they belong to the South or the North.
“It’s a city with grit and sort of a feisty spirit to it. I think it’s a very funny city, and I love it,” she says. “But I always feel that I’m an impostor when people talk about ‘Baltimore writers’ and feel I can pronounce upon Baltimore. Any Baltimorean can tell you I’m not a real Baltimorean.”
But her friend John Waters, a native Baltimorean, insists she is a proper citizen. The director notes that they present very different parts of the city - you won’t read about drag queens and serial killers in an Anne Tyler novel - but both have an affinity for outcasts and oddballs.
“We concentrate on the eccentrics,” says the creator of “Hairspray” and other Baltimore-based films. “I always am interested in people who think they’re normal and yet are totally insane. She writes about people who think of themselves as normal, and are normal, but also eccentrics who don’t know it.”
Her books are not inspired by her own life - never! But she does acknowledge an indirect influence, how having children might have helped her write about parenting or the death in 1997 of her husband, Taghi Mohammad Modarressi, added to the insights of her new book. “The preoccupations of certain stages of life - child-rearing, adolescent-rearing, empty nest, aging, death of a spouse - are clearly mirrored by the novels I wrote at the time I was going through those stages,” she says. “Or shortly after I went through them, since things often seem to need to settle in my mind before I can write about them.”
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