February 16, 2004
The Accidental Literary Star
nne Tyler is that rare writer who has literary stature and a wide public, and she has earned that position without self-promotion. For many years she has declined all face-to-face interviews. She has avoided book tours and public appearances, and she continues to do so with the publication of her new novel, "The Amateur Marriage."
Because of Ms. Tyler's reluctance to be interviewed in person, I sent questions to her by e-mail, and she answered the same way. In our exchange we discussed her approach to writing, her themes and motifs, and how distant her books are from her life.
Ms. Tyler was born in Minneapolis in 1941, grew up as a Quaker in rural North Carolina and studied at Duke, where she was encouraged to write by Reynolds Price. When she was 21, she married Taghi Modarressi, a psychiatrist, who died in 1997. She has two daughters. She lives in Baltimore, which is the setting for most of her books.
In her 16 novels, from "If Morning Ever Comes" in 1964 to "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" in 1982 to "The Amateur Marriage," she has created a world of imaginary people who are as tangible and as real as one's own friends and relatives. With luminous prose she has followed the undercurrents of marital discord and the bonds that hold families together ó and that tear them apart ó as she studies, in the critic Benjamin DeMott's phrase, "the costs of parental truancy."
"The Amateur Marriage" has a wider canvas than many of her books, moving from the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor to its 60th anniversary. At the heart of the novel are Pauline Barclay and Michael Anton, who meet by chance, fall in love ó or think they do ó and marry. As they learn more about each another they realize how unsuited they are as partners. The gradual erosion of their marriage is the drama of the novel.
What provokes Ms. Tyler to begin a novel: an image, a character, a setting?
She replied: "I have a box of index cards with decades' worth of notes, mostly idle conjecture. (What if such and such happened to such and such a type of person?) One day I'll look at a card that I may have flipped past for 20-some years, and it will all at once start unfolding in my mind; I'll see all the possibilities in it."
What inspired her to write "The Amateur Marriage"?
"While I was casting about for my next book idea, I realized that what interests me most is very different characters grating their edges together. And surely the best way to show that is an unhappy marriage ó the kind where there's not a right person and a wrong person, but just two good people who are bad for each other. I suspect that marriage is like parenthood: every last one of us is an amateur at it, and Michael's only mistake was thinking that he and Pauline were alone."
Pauline and Michael are brought together by a chance encounter. What role does chance play in life, and in her novels?
"I love to think about chance ó about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe. When I see an opportunity to use chance in one of my books, I always feel I'm sort of gleefully rubbing my hands together in anticipation."
Ms. Tyler has said, "The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure, and second the ones who somehow are able to grant other people the privacy of the space around them and yet still produce some warmth." Who are the heroes of "The Amateur Marriage"?
"Both Michael and Pauline have their heroic moments certainly. To me there's something brave about Pauline's unflagging verve, and I think Michael plodded along admirably for a lot more years than many men would have in his situation. I also think they are both sad failures ó but in ways that I can sympathize with."
What words would she choose to characterize her work?
"I'd like `truthful.' "
What is the appeal of Baltimore?
"I like the city's gritty, comically feisty personality. It makes writing a lot easier if your characters live in a place that has its own sense of itself. I don't travel very much these days, but when I do, Baltimore always seems so staunch and dear when I come back to it."
Food plays an important role in the books. What is it about food, family dinners, sharing a meal?
"I'm amazed at the number of times someone says, describing how some crisis began, `Well, we were just sitting around the supper table.' Surely it can't all be coincidence. And people's attitudes toward food reveal so much about them. Are they feeders or hoarders? Enjoyers or self-deniers? Food is a very handy tool for any writer interested in character."
Saul Bellow has said: "You're all alone when you're a writer. Sometimes you just feel you need a humanity bath. Even a ride on a subway will do that." Does she feel that she has to get out, to see, to observe other people?
"No, most often it seems to me that seeing people in real life interferes with my powers of observation."
How important is Eudora Welty to her?
"The quality in her that I still draw upon, it turns out ó even more than her regard for the small things ó is the attitude she showed toward her characters: her sympathy, her kindness, her keen and amused but forgiving eye."
For many years Ms. Tyler reviewed books. Does she still read contemporary fiction? And besides books, what are her primary cultural interests?
"I read contemporary fiction nonstop ó particularly the newer writers, who seem to me to be starting out at a higher and higher level. For months I've been touting Mark Haddon's `The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.' I was bowled over by Monica Ali's `Brick Lane.' And my favorite this week is a fresh, funny, quirky book called `The Sleeping Father,' by Matthew Sharpe.
"An influence both literary and personal has been Reynolds Price, my very first teacher. I'm sure that my years of faithfully rereading `Anna Karenina' must have been for some purpose, even if it's not immediately apparent. And I think that everyone I read in the present has an influence on me whether I'm aware of it it or not. Really, we're all standing on other writers' shoulders.
"I see the occasional play (I loved `Anna in the Tropics,' and have practically buttonholed strangers in the streets about `Retreat from Moscow'), but my heart lies in movies, maybe because they're so up close that they can more easily convince me I'm actually inside the lives they're showing."
Does she have an ideal reader in her mind? Seamus Heaney has said that the "excitement of something coming out right" is "its own reward." Does she feel that excitement?
"I write for the moment when I begin to know how it would feel to live the totally other life I'm writing about. And then when the book is published, I hope against hope that some reader somewhere is going to have that same experience ó that he or she will be pulled into that life, too."
Are her characters anything like her? Does she ever draw from life, or do the characters spring whole from her imagination?
"None of my characters is anything like me, except I believe that I once donated my geographical dyslexia to one of them. In fact, I'm so averse to drawing from life that whenever I see something wonderful happen in the real world, I'm plunged into despair because that means it can't happen in one of my books."
Could we meet ó for lunch, tea, a conversation?
"No, I'm sorry, but thank you for asking."