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Anne Tyler: “I am a seat-of-the-pants reader”

The American novelist Anne Tyler on writing ordinary men, researching on YouTube, and what’s wrong with her first three novels.

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Born in Minneapolis in 1941 to Quaker parents, and raised in North Carolina, Anne Tyler studied Russian literature at Duke and Columbia universities, and began publishing fiction in 1964. Although her psychological acuity, powers of description and gift for comic portraiture were immediately recognised, her breakthrough came with Celestial Navigation (1974), a widely praised novel that derived details from the life of the artist Joseph Cornell. Since then, Tyler has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (the first year it was open to American writers) and the Man Booker International Prize (back when it was given for a body of fiction in any language). She is both a readers’ writer and a writers’ writer – a regular presence on bestseller lists who has been praised, sometimes in superlative terms, by John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Eudora Welty, Reynolds Price, Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle, Tessa Hadley, Hanya Yanagihara and Julie Myerson. 

Tyler’s novels, 23 in all, most of them set in her adopted hometown of Baltimore, have frequently been concerned with families with a black-sheep son (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – her masterpiece; Breathing LessonsSaint MaybeA Spool of Blue ThreadClock Dance) or a nervous man with intrusive (often numerous) siblings, as in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes; her best-known novel, The Accidental Tourist; and her latest novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, which depicts the week or so during which an IT expert, Micah Mortimer, learns to relax – if only a little – his finicky habits and obsession with routine. Micah is explicitly presented as an ordinary man. In a recent email correspondence, I started by asking Anne Tyler about this component of her work.

Leo Robson Your epiphany when reading the stories of Eudora Welty was that you could write about the type of people you knew growing up. What was the version of literature from which reading Welty served to free you?

Anne Tyler In school most of our reading assignments featured characters who were impossibly lofty and fine-spoken. Even the books I read on my own were not about the kind of people who lived in North Carolina tobacco country. Then I read my first Eudora Welty story and looked up from it to see the very person she was writing about walking past on the road. I remember the experience as a revelation – almost literally a flash of light. 

LR You studied Russian literature and have mentioned Chekhov as a favourite author. Were there particular stories you can remember having an impact or influence, or was it his implicit world view?

AT The Chekhov stories I read in college and those I’ve read since – or reread – are pretty much blended in my mind now, so I can’t name any in particular. I think what first struck me about his work was its simplicity and economy, the fact that he trusted us to understand, from just a few lines, the greater story underneath. So much of the literature we were assigned in school was wordy and ornate and overstated. “Trust your reader” is something I’ve come more and more to respect.

LR Are there contemporaries who you identify as doing a similar kind of writing?

AT I hugely admire William Trevor’s short stories, as well as Alice Munro’s. Do I link them in my mind with Chekhov? Not consciously, but it’s possible. Nor do I link their writing with my own writing. (William Trevor, to my mind, is a miracle worker: one short story of his may imply more than another writer’s entire novel, and I wouldn’t even dare try to accomplish that myself.)

LR You stopped publishing short stories almost 40 years ago and have never collected the ones you wrote. How do you view this element of your career?

AT I once thought that short stories were all I ever wanted to write. I liked the quick in-and-out of them, the setting up of a situation and then letting it go. But my agent told me (back in the early Sixties) that publishers would buy short-story collections only if the writer was first established as a novelist. So I gritted my teeth and set to. The gritted-teeth effect is pretty clear in my first three novels, which I don’t even like to claim now. I was under the impression back then that revision killed spontaneity, so I just wrote them lickety-split and sent them off. Then by the fourth novel [The Clock Winder] or so, I started discovering the pleasure of losing myself in a project over months or even years, so that the characters became people in their own right who surprised me with what they took it into their heads to say and do. After that, I was hooked. I’ve never been tempted to write a short story since, and I don’t view the ones I wrote in the past with any sense of pride – certainly not enough to consider a collection of them. 

LR You have mentioned the social psychologist Erving Goffman as an influence on the way you write about characters’ gestures. Did any writers or thinkers have a similar impact on your sense of how people are formed?

AT I am such a seat-of-the-pants reader – I devour someone’s writing, admire it or even envy it, and then toss the book aside and pick up the next. When I was younger I couldn’t read fiction while I was working because I would unconsciously imitate it. (In my first college fiction course, every one of us wrote in the voice of JD Salinger, I’m embarrassed to say.) Now, that’s not a problem. It seems I’m influenced more by what I overhear a cashier say in the grocery store.

LR Apologies – I meant, have there been any psychologists or psychoanalysts who had influenced you the way that Goffman did?

AT I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. But it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had, since I don’t think I’ve read another sociologist or psychologist or such in my whole life. Or another piece of nonfiction, almost!

LR You have used the first person quite sparingly (in “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” “A Patchwork Planet,” “Celestial Navigation," and “Earthly Possessions”). Does the third person simply have a greater malleability for your purposes?

AT It has always seemed to me that a book just is first-person or is not, by its very nature; it’s never something I make a conscious decision about. But I notice I feel some disappointment when I realise that my next one is going to be first-person, because first-person books feel less rewarding to me as a reader. I think it has something to do with my suspicion that a character who talks about himself for the length of a whole novel must be the least little bit self-centred.

LR Micah’s job as the so-called Tech Hermit is a central feature of the novel. Did you do any research?

AT I like to say that I worry research might cramp my style, and I’m only half joking. I prefer to make it all up. Generally, though, I’ll add one detail so ridiculously precise that readers start assuming I must know what I’m talking about over all. (In Micah’s case, I cribbed from a YouTube segment: a tech guy describing how he’d removed the porn sites from a teenager’s laptop.) 

LR Recurrent in your work from “If Morning Ever Comes”, to “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is the male figure brought back from university, or prohibited from going, or held back in the period afterwards, by family duty and inherited hardship. Why is there such a strong emphasis on men not being able to realise their dreams?

AT Possibly it has to do with my feeling that it must be very hard to be a man – hard to become a man, when you’re young and not very sure of yourself but you’re expected to be in charge now. 

LR One of the most memorable passages in your writing is the ten-page scene at the Pimlico Race Track in “Breathing Lessons”. Does a bravura set-piece with a number of moving parts require more redrafting? Have you ever confronted a technical challenge that has given you particular trouble?

AT Since my process involves a kind of sinking into an event, rather than orchestrating it, I don’t consider the technical aspects of a scene. Right now, for instance, I’m describing an Easter dinner with 12 people in attendance. I’m proceeding inch by inch: just get them in the door, to begin with. Figure out who arrives first, and who next. Then it’s only logical that one will say such-and-such, and another one will answer… and then I may quit for the day. But the next morning, as I’m coming back from my walk (not having given the scene a single conscious thought since), I suddenly think, “Wait! That brother who just showed up – his family hasn’t seen him in ages. It’s only natural that the sister who’s observing this should have some thoughts about what he looks like now.” So I’ll go back and insert an extra chunk to cover that. If the passage were a picture it would be a collage, with rags and tags and bits of string pasted on to it here and there. But eventually I’ll have the great happiness of rewriting the whole thing, from beginning to end, and seeing it come together as a single whole. This is why I worship the notion of a subconscious.

LR A persistent theme in your work is the idea that things cannot be learned in a direct or abstract form. It occurs in relationship to Maggie and Fiona in “Breathing Lessons”, Ezra in “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”, Aaron in “The Beginner’s Goodbye” (who cannot find any “household hints” to offer a more recently bereaved acquaintance), among others. Have you been conscious of the novel as embodying the kind of wisdom that can only be gleaned from experience?

AT I don’t see my novels as anything but “Here’s what it feels like to be so-and-so” – an education for myself, although I would love it if my readers, too, enjoyed finding out what it felt like. The theme of longing for instruction (which I’d never considered before, in fact) is probably so persistent because I believe that almost all of us go through life desperately hoping that we get at least some of it right. I suspect it’s an even more momentous question for men, precisely because of that issue of how much is expected of them, but women are not immune. I remember once having the thought – which I think I donated to someone in one of my novels [Maggie in Breathing Lessons] – that while I’d had to take an entire course of instruction and two sets of tests to be allowed to drive a car, I was handed my first-born baby without a single admonition.

LR Could you settle the dispute between Cody and Pearl Tull in “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”: is Baltimore in the “North” or the “South”?

AT Ha! That’s still under discussion. Baltimore was so bitterly divided during the Civil War that the entire city was ordered to the sidelines for the duration. Sent to its room, you might say. For me, raised in the South, Baltimore originally seemed northern, but now that I’ve been here for 50-odd years, I have to say it strikes me as more southern.

“Redhead by the Side of the Road” by Anne Tyler is published by Chatto

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.