Anne Tyler: ‘You want to be someone else if you’re writing fiction’

The Baltimore-based writer on interviews, multiple drafts and cultural appropriation

What better author to read than Anne Tyler in these extraordinary times of social distancing and self-isolation. Reading a Tyler novel is like a welcome into a brand new family. It is comfort reading of the best sort – emotionally intelligent, finely detailed prose that leaves you feeling richer by the end of it.

The Baltimore-based author has many accolades to her name, among them the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons (1988), a Booker shortlisting for A Spool of Blue Thread (2015), the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Sunday Times Award for literary excellence.

Tyler is best-known for being a master documenter of ordinary lives. Handily enough for this confined world we live in, she is also prolific. Her new book Redhead by the Side of the Road is her 23rd novel. That’s a treasure chest of quality fiction for readers who have yet to discover her, though long-time fans can take solace in the fact that her character-driven books lend themselves well to multiple readings.

But who does Tyler herself turn to in times like these? Maybe she just sits at home going through her back catalogue. “No way,” she says, laughing into the phone. “That would be like lying awake at night and staring at the ceiling that I had painted myself and thinking, oh, I made a mistake there.”

For many years Tyler didn’t give interviews, but she relented as she felt publishers were becoming increasingly worried about whether people would read at all. “Publishers don’t put this as baldly as I’m putting it, but there’s more of an attitude of, ‘What are you doing to pull your own weight here?’ I used to say, well I wrote the book so that should be enough. Now I see that I need to do my bit, but it’s an uncomfortable feeling for me because any time I talk about writing then I can’t do any writing for the next bit after that.” [At which point I resist the urge to hang up the phone.]

At the moment the 78 year old is staying at home, “sheltering inside” following government advice on Covid-19. She downsized a few years back to a smaller house in a development close to Roland Park, where she lives alone. Her husband, the Iranian psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi, died in 1997, and her daughters live at opposite sides of the country, one in San Francisco, the other in Philadelphia with a husband from Donegal.

In her typically considered and understated way, Tyler, who does not like to travel, says she’s content where she is: “It’s quiet and there are trees and birds and I like my neighbours and I have a nice life here.”

She is reading more than ever in the current climate. “I had already been re-reading Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apple, a book of linked stories from the 1940s about a single imaginary town in Mississippi. It gives me comfort right now because it reminds me of the many kinds of crazy, funny, touching ways people interact with each other. So if you’re sitting home alone, it’s a good book to read.”

What is the mood like in the States? “Well, everybody’s very lonely, all of my friends say they are, but of course then you’ve got people who are too unlonely if they’ve got six small children at home in their workspace. You know, we’re coping well, I think. We feel no confidence in our government, at least the people I talk to don’t, but you know, human nature seems to be good.”

'I think it's going to be a hard time, and I hope that everybody starts reading anything they can to comfort themselves'

Ever the interested party, Tyler asks about us here in Ireland. There is the sense throughout the interview of a woman who cares about the world at large, and yet some of her most famous characters choose to cut themselves off from society. Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist, Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and her newest protagonist, Micah Mortimer in Redhead, a man who is remarkably self-contained and a slave to his own routines.

In many ways, Micah is well cut out for these extraordinary times. “I know exactly what you mean,” she says. “I don’t think Micah would be objecting much if he was told he had to self-quarantine.” The new novel, like most of her books, evolved from a single idea or sentence: “I started with zero. I always have to work for my books. I’ve written enough books now that I think I’m able to just sit back and trust that something will happen.

“I always walk in the woods before I start my day. There’s a certain hill I cross and the first time I crossed it, I saw what looked like a round, reddish head in the distance, but no, it was a fire hydrant, so I adjusted to that – I don’t have very good eyesight anyway – and then a few days later I noticed I saw a round, reddish head again and it was the same fire hydrant and I knew right away that I’d made a mistake. I just started thinking about how as we get older we should be making no mistakes, that we’ve got it all down pat, except somehow we tend to make our same mistakes over and over, and I thought that was what my character would be doing too.”

Micah does indeed make many mistakes. A self-employed computer technician who loses his long-time girlfriend because of his apathy, he is, in typical Tyler fashion, saved by the intervention of his family, and by a chance encounter with a teenager on the run.

As the literary queen of family relationships, does she have any tips to stop us from killing each other in the coming weeks? “Right now I’d love to have some loved ones close enough to want to kill them,” she laughs. “But really, I can’t imagine how hard it is for families. I’m watching my daughter and her husband in San Francisco with a college kid and a high school kid at home, neither of them happy to be suddenly back in childhood this way. I think it’s going to be a hard time, and I hope that everybody starts reading anything they can to comfort themselves.”

There is also plenty of time for writing these days, though Tyler herself takes a few months off before starting something new. Her writing process is famously rigorous. An interview in the New York Times in 2018 cites 83 drafts per book. She laughs at the figure but admits she can be obsessive. This involves writing a draft in longhand, typing it up on the computer, editing sections, then rewriting the draft in longhand before reading the entire book out loud to a stenographer machine.

“Besides the smaller edits, the hearing of my own words makes me see if a character says something inauthentic. Or if I’ve used the same word three times on one page. Things like that, which you can’t catch if your eyes are just looking at it.”

The novel she is most proud of is the Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread. Her favourite character is Ezra Tull from her brilliant family epic, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. “He has stayed with me for years of my life,” she says. “He’s just a dear heart and I love him. Sometimes as a little gift to myself I stick him in a later novel and nobody knows he’s there.”

She writes because she wants to be able to live other lives, and has little time for those who accuse writers of cultural appropriation. “It drives me crazy,” she says. “I mean, what else is writing? You want to be someone else if you’re writing fiction, and the reader wants to be someone else, that’s why they’re reading.”

So she disagrees with the recent uproar over Jeanine Cummins’ immigration novel American Dirt? “They’re piling on her for no good reason. I think we [writers] should all be speaking up. I think American Dirt is very powerful writing and at the moment I’m being asked what books I’d recommend for summer, so I try to mention it whenever I can.”

For someone who doesn’t like to give interviews, Tyler is refreshingly candid on both the writing industry as a whole and her role within it. In Baltimore, you can now take an Anne Tyler tour, something which she only heard about recently. In her lightly self-deprecating way, Tyler laughs off the notion that she is a celebrity. “But I do wonder where they go,” she says, “because I go nowhere.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts