Anne Tyler: ‘I am not a spiritual person’
February 15, 2015
“I decided I could not manage to believe in God. I sometimes think I was smarter at seven than I ever have been since.”
In her second floor writing room in her Baltimore home, the novelist Anne Tyler likes to keep the windows open to hear ordinary life outside. She writes in longhand, then types her words out, then records her words, listens to them, and then adds to and edits the words on a computer.
As Tyler does this, she listens to parents and children, cars parking and daily chatter. She particularly likes to observe workmen, she says: the way they talk and work, their solid capability. On the wall are printed a few lines from Richard Wilbur’s poem Walking to Sleep:
As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given the field-glasses,
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you.
“I see those words as about getting an idea and making a book,” says Tyler. “I don’t get anxious. It will come to you, let it come in.”
This suburban house feels an odd place to find a modern-day literary superstar, but it is also utterly apposite. The stuff of family life – love, disappointments, estranged children, loss – is found in Tyler’s 20 novels, including the latest, A Spool of Blue Thread, which is set in Roland Park, the smart neighbourhood in which Tyler has lived since 2008.
She won the Pulitzer prize for Breathing Lessons (1988), a portrait of a marriage ageing and warping, while the curious relationship tangle of The Accidental Tourist (1985) was made into a Hollywood movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. Writers as diverse as John Updike, Eudora Welty (who features on a postcard on a mood-board on the writing room wall), Nick Hornby and Jonathan Franzen have professed themselves fervent fans, which “thrills” the 73-year-old Tyler.
Spool is familiar territory for Tyler fans: a middle-class family trundles along with tensions and secrets beneath its surface, before a surprise death changes its dynamics forever. Then she takes the reader back through the dramas of the family home’s past.
Critical reaction to Spool has been mixed. The presence of familiar characters and plots elicited a stinging review in the New York Times, whose critic Michiko Kakutani said it “recycles virtually every theme and major plot point she has used in the past and does so in the most perfunctory manner imaginable”. However Alex Clark, writing in the Guardian, praised its power deriving “from the restless depths beneath its unfractured surface.”
Before writing Spool, Tyler had said she wanted to write a multi-generational family saga that never ended, which her children could choose to publish or not after she died. Some people took this to mean that this would be her last book.
“I wrote it backwards so I wouldn’t use up the generations before I died,” she says. “It’s not that I said I’ll never write again, I said this book will never be done, which is a subtle distinction. I don’t blame people for misunderstanding.”
Retirement is not an option? “Not to me. Unfortunately I never developed any hobbies, which was very shortsighted of me.” She laughs. Witty, direct and modest, Tyler speaks expansively but not extraneously.
“I’ll carry on writing because that is what I do,” Tyler says. But she is not on autopilot. “When I finish one book I never think, ‘Oh, there’s another one.’ It takes a little while to refill. My happiest moment is to be in the middle of a book. The characters are talking to me. Sometimes, one will make a joke I haven’t thought of and I’ll laugh.”
The “refilling” between books takes nearly a year. “I always said if you asked a woman who’s just given birth, ‘When are you going to have your next baby?’ she’d say, ‘Whaaat?’”
In these non-writing periods, Tyler the domestic demon cleans all her dresser drawers and throws dinner parties. She seems, in many respects, like her own Anne Tyler character. Her house is spotlessly clean and comfortable. (I ask, joking, if I can employ her cleaner. “Sure, it’s me,” Tyler says.) Her guest room contains her grandmother and grandfather’s rocking chairs.
The latest novel’s title refers to a spool of thread that presents itself to a character at a key moment, just as it did for Tyler. After her mother died, she was mending a shirt for her father when, opening a closet, a spool of blue thread rolled into her hand. “It was almost as if she handed me the spool,” says Tyler.
Mortality is a thrumming theme. How does she feel about her own? “When my grandparents were ageing I thought it must be awful approaching the end of life. Now it seems natural. I don’t want to go on living forever and that’s not an upsetting thought.”
Abby, Spool’s matriarch, is losing a grip on her mind: mini-strokes, Tyler says. Members on both sides of Tyler’s family have died from Alzheimer’s (her mother died of Alzheimer’s a year ahead of her father who died of a heart condition). “Alzheimer’s is something I’m always alert for. I think it’s very possible considering my heritage. If I forget so-and-so’s name in the grocery store, I think, ‘Is this the beginning?’”
Tyler’s Quaker parents were “the original commune dwellers”, moving, when Tyler was six, to a community in the Appalachians. Her father was a chemist and her mother a social worker. Tyler was mostly home-educated by her mother. She was sent to a regular school, which she welcomed, at 11. “I’m not a believer in home-schooling. If your mother is teaching you, and you don’t get something, she takes it personally and I missed other kids.”
It was a close family, though Tyler’s mother was unpredictable. “She had a temper. I think I relied more on the steady presence of my father.” In the same way as people talk about secular Jews, she says, she feels like a secular Quaker. “I’m not religious, but I like the ethics of Quakerism, the peace, equality and all they stand for.”
When she was seven, Tyler “decided I could not manage to believe in God. I sometimes think I was smarter at seven than I ever have been since. I remember thinking, ‘Who would watch over you?’ I’m not a spiritual person. I’ve no interest in finding out the meaning of life.”
She wanted to be an artist, “although the world did not lose a great artist when I decided not to do it”. At graduate school (Columbia University), she studied Russian, “the most outrageous thing I could have majored in. It was the cold war and the head of department told me, ‘I probably have an FBI agent following me around and you probably will too.’ I was thrilled at the idea.”
Tyler “thought it would be fun to be a translator or interpreter”, but the Russia she admired, she concluded, was Dostoevsky’s rather than the grim Soviet incarnation. She worked in a library, which was “humdrum. I realised my mind needed to take a little more wing”. At night, she tried to write a novel.
She published her first book, If Morning Ever Comes, aged 23. Her novels are not autobiographical, she insists, but influenced by the stages of her life: having children, growing older. “I don’t have murder mysteries, suspense or real events. I rely on time to do my plotting: people having babies, marrying, dying, just normal things that happen.”
Tyler met her husband, Taghi Modarressi, an Iranian-born child psychiatrist and author, when she was 21 and engaged to someone else (“I was always getting engaged”), and he 30, “which seemed ancient”. She wasn’t friendly when they first met. “Taghi’s first complete sentence to me was, ‘It wonders me why you are so hostile.’ I can’t say it was love at first sight, but we got married seven months later.”
The relationship flourished. “I was in a sedate nine-to-five job. He was completely different from me. When he asked to marry me, my actual thought was, ‘Why not?’ It was pure, astounding good luck that it turned out to be the right person. I was saying, ‘What can I do that is most outside the mould of a librarian puttering around?’” She has never been rebellious, “but every now and then I say, ‘Wait, I don’t want to go gently here. I’d like to take a sharp right-hand turn.’”
The couple occasionally faced “pretty mild” racism: one neighbour, when drunk, would shout out “Iranians, go home”. Modarressi was very proud of his Iranian heritage and Tyler’s 2006 novel, Digging to America, features a vector of culture clashes around an American-Iranian family and an all-American family adopting Korean children.
Tyler would translate his books, written in Persian, into English and together they would polish the prose. “That was a rich experience. I miss that now. Everybody says of their husband, ‘He was my best friend’. It’s a cliché, but true.”
Modarressi died of lymphoma aged 65, in 1997. Initially, grief proved “unbearable”, Tyler says. “The deaths of parents, while terribly sad, are what is supposed to happen. For a while I thought, ‘How do people stand this? How will I go through the rest of my life?’ It was a great comfort to know that people had lost people before me. I looked around to see little old ladies walking little lapdogs, thinking, ‘They’ve lived through this and they’re cheerful, and it’s going to be all right.’ I still miss him, it’s still unbearable, but I’ve gone on. I’m sad for him more so now. He didn’t see his daughters married or his grandchildren.”
When a character dies in Spool, it is with the proclamation, “And that was the end”. “I think that must be what dying is like,” says Tyler. “Part of me has a wonderful time inventing heavens and thinking I could see my husband and parents again and one brother who has gone. But I don’t have any feeling that I will. I believe you see the car coming at you and nothing. That’s the end.”
Spool has supplanted Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as her favourite novel because while the latter featured a fundamentally unhappy family, her latest novel features a functioning, happy one. Still, both are emblematic of Tyler’s domestic focus. “I start every book thinking, ‘This one will be different’ and it’s not,” Tyler says. “I have my limitations. I am fascinated by how families work, endurance, how do we get through life?”
“We’re endlessly striving and keeping going. How many times we hurt each other in families or drift apart or do harm – and then we come back together and try over again. It’s very heartening and touching.”
Critics say Tyler’s men can be vague and victim-y, although in Spool they vary from a rock-solid patriarch to flaky sons. “I had a really good father and brothers. I don’t feel it’s a stretch if I write as a male character. I feel I know what men are feeling, as much as I know what women are feeling.”
She says she doesn’t read reviews but she knows if a stinker has come out: friends will nervously say: “There, there, Anne, I don’t think you’re sentimental.” She laughs. “What can I say? I probably am sentimental. There is such a thing as feeling as you go through life and I write about it. I am not excusing my limitations. I feel as if I will never be Tolstoy. I have my little, tiny world that I seem to have to deal with.”
The Tyler constant is Baltimore: she and Modarressi moved here in 1967 when he got a job at the University of Maryland. “I was living among old ladies in a musty, upper-middle-class neighbourhood,” says Tyler. “I thought, ‘Basically, this is a time machine’ and I started to write about it.”
Observations and overheard phrases are placed in a special box: “The other day, my accountant told me her grandmother told her that if you lose something and you can’t find it, just take an onion out of your pantry and put it on the kitchen counter and you will find it. How can you not write that one down? You start to think, ‘How can I use that?’”
Tyler is a close friend of another of Baltimore’s famous citizens, the Hairspray and Pink Flamingos director John Waters. “I don’t go to biker bars with him. Once a year, he comes to mine for dinner and once a year I go to his. He’s a very sweet man.” Tyler laughs, recalling the lunch she once had with him and one of her daughters when, as a teenager, she wanted a tattoo. Waters, who one would think would be hustling her to a tattoo parlour, told Tyler’s daughter: “Don’t do it. Think how it will look on your wrinkled skin when you’re 65.”
Tyler is a huge fan of The Wire: she has watched all five seasons of the Baltimore-set epic twice with her film group and they are preparing to watch it for a third time. “I don’t agree with the mayors here who have torn that show down,” she says, praising its insightful portrait of the city.
As for her own fame, “Being a writer isn’t like being a movie star,” Tyler says, “and you realise being famous is not what you imagined it to be. To have somebody ring your doorbell and say, ‘I have to talk with you. May I come in?’ It hasn’t happened very often, but it’s unsettling.” People approach her, very politely and non-intrusively, she says, “but I can’t be anything but a disappointment when I say something back not sounding like my book”.
Next, she is working on The Taming of the Shrew, as one of a group of famous writers recasting Shakespeare plays as modern novels. “I hate it,” Tyler says of the original. “It’s totally misogynistic. I know it thinks it’s funny, but it’s not. People behave meanly to each other, every single person.”
Has Tyler had another partner since Modarressi? She sighs. “I tried having someone else in my life. It seemed very clear to me there’s a stage when you can make allowances for people, where you can adapt and change and a stage where you feel, ‘I’m beyond adapting.’ I gave it a chance. Now I’m on my own.”
And staying that way, it sounds like. “I would absolutely like to stay that way,” Tyler says, laughing. “Years ago John Waters told me it would be nice to have somebody in his life, but he thought that after about two days [his partner] might say something like, ‘How about I hang this one picture of mine over on that wall?’ and that would do it. Out you go.”
She laughs merrily. “I kind of feel that way. I don’t want to move over and make room for somebody else. I’m good on my own. I have good friends and daughters and sons-in-law and grandchildren. It seems like a full life to me.”