Interview with Anne Tyler

Posted by Goodreads on April 2, 2012
Anne Tyler's body of work, spanning 19 titles and almost 50 years, is rich with sharply observed characters and the everyday details of middle-class American life. Her first book, If Morning Ever Comes, was published in 1964 (though Tyler tells Goodreads that she'd rather you not read her early efforts). The now best-selling and much-decorated author often uses her long-term home of Baltimore, Maryland, as the setting of her novels, including her 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winner Breathing Lessons and her best-known work, The Accidental Tourist. Tyler's latest novel, The Beginner's Goodbye, also takes place there. The new work delves into the grief of Aaron, a middle-aged self-help guide publisher whose wife dies when a tree falls onto their house. He begins seeing her around town and has conversations with her as he learns to move on. Tyler spoke with Goodreads about the many characters lurking in her subconscious and the possibility of an afterlife.

Goodreads: You are noted for your skill in writing character-driven novels. Do you consider yourself a student of human behavior? When working on character, do you turn to people watching or daydreaming—looking outward or inward for inspiration?

Anne Tyler: I figure we're almost all students of human behavior. That's how we get along in the world—by trying to make sense of the people we have to deal with.

When I'm working on character, I search my memory for telltale traits or gestures that I may have noticed in some random passerby. For instance, the other day I met a delightfully scatterbrained woman who was wearing a plastic bracelet the size of a giant bagel. When she tried to write a note, her bracelet was so thick that her fingers couldn't reach the pad of paper she was resting her wrist on. I loved that; I thought it said reams about her.

GR: Goodreads member Catherine writes, "I am interested in the seed that initiates a new book. For example, Alice Munro has said that the seed for her stories often is an image, say the image of a man with an ax coming over a hill. What tends to be the starting point for your novels? Can you talk about the seed for The Beginner's Goodbye?"

AT: I have known a book to start with an image, certainly, or an overheard remark. With The Beginner's Goodbye, the remark was one I heard only in my imagination. I heard a man's voice speaking the book's first sentence: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead..." I found the sentence baffling and decided to ignore it. But then a while later, the same man announced that he had a few handicaps. And a while after that, he added that he also had a little speech problem. That's when I began to pay attention.

I know how insane it sounds to talk about characters speaking to me. I suppose it's really my subconscious letting thoughts surface that I didn't know I was thinking.

GR: The Beginner's Goodbye is told from Aaron's first-person perspective. The reader gradually learns certain traits: his height, his handicap, his relationships. What vital attributes do you need to know about a character before you can write from his or her point of view? How do you begin?

AT: Before I start the actual novel, I write as much as a page of "back story," as actors call it, for each major character. What the character's childhood was like, how he feels about food and clothes and social occasions, his enthusiasms, his anxieties—any detail that occurs to me, I'll write down. Most of this will never make it onto the printed page, but it helps me know how that character will react within a given situation.

GR: The Beginner's Goodbye touches on the notion of an afterlife. What inspired you to write about this topic, and is the afterlife an important concept to you personally?

AT: Side A of my mind says, "There isn't any afterlife," while Side B says, "But if there isn't, then where does all that energy and character go when someone we love dies?" With The Beginner's Goodbye, it was Aaron's imaginary voice in my head, speaking the book's first sentence, that inspired me to write on the subject. I couldn't have been more surprised to find that that was what my next book would be about.

GR: Goodreads member J. Hennessey writes, "Many of your characters are written as 'average joes' with quirks. There are quirky deaths involved as well. If you had a choice, what kind of ending would you foresee for yourself? A novel one, I hope."

AT: I'll have to disappoint you, because my preferred mode of death is pretty unexceptional. I'd like something quick and relatively painless, like a heart attack, but with about half an hour's warning so that I could phone both of my daughters first and tell them how much they have added to my life.

GR: After 19 novels, what is your reaction to your body of work? What do you do differently now as a writer?

AT: If I had the means, I would buy up every copy of my first four books and destroy them. I didn't yet know what I was doing when I wrote those—I just wanted to write a novel, and it shows. For the others, well, I view them the way a mother cat views her grown kittens. They seem very distant to me, although I nourish a special affection for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

What I do differently now is that instead of pronouncing on a situation, I try to step inside it. I try to listen more to my characters, or even to become them, for a while.

I've read small parts of my past books from time to time because when I'm writing, I'll occasionally think, "Wait, didn't I say that in an earlier book?" It always surprises me to see how the same themes and observations seem to pop up over and over in my work, completely unintentionally.

GR: Goodreads member Sukey asks, "Anne, if you were asked to write a nonfiction piece on any current event going on in the world today, what would the topic and essence of your article be and why?"

AT: I would like to write a profile based on an in-depth interview with a major terrorist—ideally, Osama bin Laden, if he were still alive. I'd like to say, "Just explain, is all I ask. I don't understand what's gone wrong here." And then I would listen for as long as he talked, hoping that after he'd delivered the expected rant, he would quiet down a bit and start telling me what really, really the issue is.

GR: Goodreads member Peg Bachenheimer writes, "I would like to ask Anne Tyler how aging has influenced her writing. I'm an artist and am 67 and feel that my age influences what I paint and how I feel about creating in a positive way."

AT: I agree with you; I feel aging has done only good things for the creative part of my life. I'm more trustful of my characters, I'm more willing to take risks, and I'm more patient with myself. It surprises me that although I tire sooner, which means I've had to cut down from six or so hours daily to more like three, I seem to get the same amount of work done.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AT: My first writing teacher in college, Reynolds Price, used to say, "The creative urge is like a small child; it craves routine." I'm a great believer in the powers of routine. Every single morning I take a walk through the woods, and although I may begin my walk thinking about a recipe or a house-maintenance problem, by the time I'm on the homeward loop my characters are all at once talking in my mind, and I go directly upstairs and start writing down what they've said.

I suppose it's unusual in this day and age that I work in longhand. I use a Pilot P-500 black gel pen on unlined white paper, and I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite before I finally type a section up. At the end, I rewrite the whole book in longhand all over again, and then I read it into a tape recorder. This was originally so that I could follow along on the computer screen and see where I'd made any changes, but I've found it has the added benefit of showing me when something sounds unnatural, particularly in dialogue.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

AT: My single lifelong influence has been Eudora Welty, whose short stories first gave me the idea that the small-town Southern life all around me could be a fit subject for literature. Beyond that, I've been subtly influenced by more books than I can count. I don't know how many times I've thought, "Darn! I wish I'd written that!" about some pivotal moment in a plot or some leap of language, and then eventually, in my own different way, I try it myself.

GR: What are you reading now?

AT: I've just finished Russell Banks's new book, Lost Memory of Skin. I was dreading it, because it's about a hard subject—a convicted sex criminal living under an overpass—but I found it touching and absorbing, and I learned a lot from it.

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Pugliese I have just started reading THE BEGINNER'S GOODBYE, so far I love it. I consider Anne Tyler my favorite author. In 1997 I wrote her a long long letter about her newest novel and about the children's book she wrote that was illustrated by her daughter, titled Molly The Messy. She had the grace to actually reply. I have a framed postcard from Anne Tyler in which she wished me luck with my own "Molly The Messy". Forty years ago I lived in Baltimore and in many ways I still consider it home. When I read AT it is like a great visit and a trip back in time. I love the characters in her books, it is like coming across an old friends in places you've almost forgotten. I hate that I read them so quickly. My dream is to sometime read all of her books again, that sounds like such a lush thing to do!

Barbara Pugliese

message 2: by Carol (new)

Carol Anne is my favorite author of the past 50 years. I am so excited when I find out she has published a new book. Thank you for publishing this interview with Anne.

message 3: by Donna (new)

Donna Lawson I am so excited to just now learn that Ann Tyler has written another novel! Barbara, she is my favorite author, too. I started reading her books after a friend told me about Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I thought the book sounded a bit weird, but read it and loved the characters! I don't think I have a favorite; I like them all as members of my diverse and odd family. My book group has read several of her books, usually my choices. After Ann's husband died I considered writing her a sympathy letter. I really felt compassion and sorry for someone I feel nearly a friend. I plan to announce The Beginner's Goodbye as my book pick for next year's schedule! Donna Lawson

message 4: by Tom (new)

Tom Holehan Anne Tyler remains one of the most witty and humane contemporary writers in the country. I've loved everything she ever wrote. More, more!

message 5: by Erma Jo (new)

Erma Jo I will look forward to her book. I have a few to read first. Sounds so good.

message 6: by Cooper (new)

Cooper Salmon I listened to an NPR interview with Ann Tyler a few weeks ago, and it got me interested in reading some of her books. Thanks for posting this!

message 7: by Rose (new)

Rose Have always loved Anne Tyler and wish she could crank out books faster but, after all, masterpieces take time.

message 8: by Mysia (new)

Mysia Anne Tyler has a rare gift for creating quirky but fully human characters who leap off the page and make themselves at home in the minds of her readers (my mind, at least). Last year, during a freaky hurricane in NJ, a tree fell on our house, stopping within heart-stopping inches of crashing through my 'tween-age daughter's bedroom window. I can't wait to read The Beginner's Goodbye and welcome its characters to stay for awhile.

message 9: by Sid (new)

Sid My Dear Anne Tyler,

I am Sid Harth.

I wish you did not write that novel,"The Beginner's Goodbye."

You belong to the American culture. To some degree, I too. I am, what they call us in India a "Desi." Born in India and moved away, for better pastures, wherever they may be. US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and such.

I am not Desi, now, in the past or any time in the future. So help me God. I hate Desis.

Getting back to your theme. A Man, a husband, gets upset over her wife's death.


Answer my question, truthfully.

I am awaiting your answer. I ain't going nowhere, in particular. 24/7.

...and I am Sid

message 10: by Jessica (new)

Jessica This is a really good interview and I look forward to reading Tyler's new book.

message 11: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Herren I look forward to reading her new book as well; she is one of my all time favorites. I actually liked If Morning Ever Comes pretty well and never realized it was her first book. The only Tyler that I didn't love was Celestial Navigation, but even in this one I would say the writing was great; I just didn't connect with the characters. I need to start looking...I don't think I've read all 19! Great interview.

message 12: by David (new)

David For years I have been squirreling away Anne Tyler's novels, but I've only read (listened to an audiobook) one of them, which is absurd because the one I listened to was delightful. This started about 30 years ago when my wife and I became friends of Anne's brother Ty (an M.D. / Ph.D.), a charming man with a lovely wife (also named Anne, or perhaps Ann; I no longer recall) through our respective children (our son Nick was born in 1979) who played together in a small suburb west of Pittsburgh. As soon as I learned Ty's sister was a novelist, and not just any novelist but Anne Tyler, I began looking for her books. I collect books avidly and always have more on my plate than I can devour, so Anne Tyler ended up on a bookshelf underrepresented and unattended to. I'm beginning to think she needs to come down from that bookshelf and onto my night table. My wife and I moved to Denver on New Year's Day, 1986 and gradually fell out of touch with Ty and his family, to our regret.
I think the time may have come to renew relations with the Tyler family and begin collecting (and reading, of course) signed first editions of Anne Tyler's novels. It won't bring back our friendship with the Tylers we knew and were most fond of, but I already know Anne Tyler is a writer of the first rank and holding her books in my hands while I read them will remind me of her brother, his wife, and their entire family, wherever they may be today.
-- David W. Nicholas, Sr., Centennial, CO
-- Kathleen G. Nicholas
-- David W. ("Nick") Nicholas, Jr.

message 13: by Linda (new)

Linda I have read them all. Many I have re-read. "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" breaks my heart every time. I was so happy when Ezra popped up in a later novel, still at his restaurant. "Oh, good!" I thought, this dear man is ok." So, here is my "quirky" confession. All of your characters stay with me. I think about them often, and wonder how they're doing. I once met Jane Smiley and inquired about the children in "Barn Blind". "Oh, they're finished, they're nothing", she sort of snapped at me. All I wanted was reassurance that they survived their terrible mother!

Thank you Ms. Tyler, for hours, days, years of pleasure.

One more note. I often recommend "St. Maybe", John Irving's "Owen Meany", and Robertson Davies' "Deptford Trilogy" to be read together. They all have that, "because of one thoughtless moment, the world has changed" theme for me.


message 14: by Sadetin (new)

Sadetin Limani Thank you very much for the information. I would be very interested for reading the books of Anne Tyler and also a lot of other authors, but I haven't any possibility to get them. My interest would be also for translating them. Unfurtanetly is much difficult to get books through internet in Albania (credit cards?!..),I would prefer to get them directly through post or by downloding them. Would that be possible?

message 15: by Joy (new)

Joy Kephart I am just starting The Beginner's Goodbye - and maybe I need to read further, but his age has to be only 35 - at least at the beginning of the book - so it is making me somewhat crazy that the book reviews talk about "a middle aged man." !! (His wife died at 43, he is 7 years younger..)

message 16: by Sadetin (new)

Sadetin Limani Dear Anne,

I’m really exited reading the comments regarding to you and to your books. I wanted a lot to read your novels, but there is much difficult for me, because of high cost of money transferring through the banks. I transferred once 70 dollars for paying my fee of a membership in an association in Canada and I paid the double. Having a credit card is also not so easy, especially for them who want to spend money by using credit card, perhaps, only for buying books. There is a very good Bookshop in the center of Tirana, called “Adrion”, and perhaps that may be an opportunity to send your books there. So I would say that exist any possibility how to get your books. I’m also a writer and I would be connected with any writer outside Albania, to exchange the opinions regarding to the literature and to the arts in general. Albania is really an open country but not yet an open society.
I have translated into Albanian language some very good books as for example “Hannibal” from Thomas Harris, “The Open Society” of Carl Popper, and I’m correcting the translation of “The Western Philosophy” of Bertrand Russell. The books of Thomas Harris, I liked also so much. I have read all of them that I could find in Albania, may be the completed serial of Hannibal. There are also some other authors that I’ve read in English as for example Night Fall (Nelson Demille), I’m OK, you’re OK, etc., and a lot of other books in the field of social and economic development.
Please, if I don’t bother you, let me sent a copy of your book “The Beginner’s Goodbye”, on the version Read only. So I would have the possibility to read and then to discuss about it.


Sadedin Limani

message 17: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Reed I found Ms. Tyler's books twenty years ago on a bottom shelf in the library. It was like finding buried treasure. I own a copy of every book, although most of them are raggedy paperbacks (fingers crossed for Beginner's Goodbye for Mother's Day!). I have just recently started reading all of her books again...including the first 4, and highlighting as I go the little surprises, oh-so-interesting turns of phrase & picture-perfect descriptions of her characters. I live in a Baltimore suburb, and certain that I pass some of her folks in the grocery line or in the dr's office. Looking forward to getting my hands on The Beginner's GoodBye.

message 18: by Kamille (new)

Kamille An interview with Anne Tyler--this is a delight!
She so rarely allows interviews.

But Beginner's Goodbye is so sad to me that I'm having trouble moving forward with it. I've never felt this saddened by an Anne Tyler book before.

Note to self: someone needs to do some comparative analysis of Eudora Welty and Anne Tyler.

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