Anne Tyler: ‘I am not a spiritual person’

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?’”

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