When a character’s voice doesn’t speak to her, Ms. Tyler turns to her research. She keeps a box of index cards with notes and ideas, perhaps observations about someone she spotted in the dentist’s office or a sentence overheard. Like the retired teacher in “Noah’s Compass,” she studies life “like a language” and remains fascinated by how we live and behave.
The world remains fresh in part because it differs so from her childhood. Born in Minneapolis and raised in rural North Carolina, Ms. Tyler is the daughter of Quakers and social activists who lived for years in communes. The author was 11 before she went to school, where she was stunned when classmates asked if she had a boyfriend. She enjoyed reading but never considered creating her own stories until she came across a sentence in Eudora Welty’s short story “The Wide Net”: “Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the C got through the L in a Coca-Cola sign.”
“I was 14 and read that line,” Ms. Tyler says. “That was the summer I worked on a tobacco farm, handling tobacco, and I thought, ‘Oh, I know people like that.’ But I didn’t know you could write about people like that.”
Ms. Tyler majored in Russian at Duke University but also studied creative writing under Reynolds Price, who died last year. Known for such novels as “A Long and Happy Life” and “Kate Vaiden,” Price inspired her with his enthusiasm and grounded her with common sense. Ms. Tyler remembers a short story she wrote in which a poor black woman looks at her hands and likens them to an India ink drawing.
“And said, ‘That would not happen. She would NOT think about an India ink drawing,’ ” Ms. Tyler says. “That was the first time I had to think about really getting into another life. I may know a lot about India ink drawings, but she doesn’t.”
Ms. Tyler was in her early 20s when her first novel, “If Morning Ever Comes,” was published. She had been signed up by one of the business’s most revered editors, Alfred A. Knopf’s Judith Jones, who also worked with Updike and recently had helped discover Julia Child. Ms. Jones, who retired last fall, says Ms. Tyler is a “great social observer,” part of a tradition dating back at least to Jane Austen.
“There’s something very special about her,” Ms. Jones says. “She has a wonderful sense of humor, but it’s never mean. It’s always very sympathetic and understanding, and she takes risks that an established writer often doesn’t. With the new book, she’s dealing with a new subject for her: ‘Do the dead come back?’ “
Ms. Jones says she “fell in love” with Ms. Tyler’s work from the start and sees continuity to the present. Ms. Tyler is embarrassed by her early novels, which suffer, in her opinion, from an attitude of “Let me tell you what my view of the world is.”
She is so disdainful of “If Morning Ever Comes” that she has forgotten about a passage near the end of the book, in which the narrator, a college student visiting his home in North Carolina, wonders about a girl he knew there and the “myriads of other people” she had been during her life. His thoughts are echoed in her work over the decades, like the wife in “Breathing Lessons” who thinks about a date she turned down and how she might have become a “whole different person.” Ms. Tyler still wonders whether we change entirely over a lifetime or not at all.
“I’m constantly aware of the fact, for instance, if I look back on my children as little people, they basically died. It’s very sad when I think about it. And I’m so happy to have them as grown-ups, but they’re other people, totally other people,” she says.
“It’s paradoxical, too. I often have the feeling that I’m 7, which seems to be the age of reason, when you first start saying, ‘Oh, I’m me and there’s the world there.’ I turned 70 on my last birthday, and I thought, just looking out through my own eyes, not at myself in the mirror, ‘I’m 7, how did this happen?’ “