Anne Tyler publishes her 24th novel and discusses the pandemic, her writing process and the breakdown of family ties – The Virginian-Pilot

Baltimore—

About five years ago, loved ones began vanishing from novelist Anne Tyler’s life like vanishing ink. They disappeared so gradually and silently that she hadn’t even realized they were gone, leaving only faint traces of relationships from long ago.

A friend compiling a pedigree chart told Tyler that she discovered that two aunts had died: the author’s mother’s sister, Marjorie, and Rose Ann, who had been married to Tyler’s uncle. The aunts were elderly, but how she heard the news left her puzzled and shaken.

“I had always loved them, but they lived further away,” said Tyler, who is 80. “There had been no breakup. The idea that we could lose contact like that was such a shock.

“I said to myself, ‘How can a family break up?’ ”

Since then, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author has pondered this question.

Some sort of answer can be found in her 24th novel, “French Braid.” Partly set in the Cedarcroft and Hampden neighborhoods of Baltimore, where she lives, the novel follows three generations of the Garrett family from a family vacation in 1959 through the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although Tyler has lived in Baltimore for 55 years, this was the first face-to-face interview she gave to the Baltimore Sun. For nearly four decades, she refused to sit down with any reporter – a policy that may have wrongly earned her a reputation as a recluse.

Tyler may be introverted, but she’s not shy or lacking in confidence. But she said discussing her writing process hinders her ability to build imaginative worlds. The interviews don’t just delay Tyler’s writing process; they put it back in place.

“Every time I talk about writing, I start noticing the whole process and it stops working for me,” Tyler said. She makes an exception now, she said, because “I’m not actively involved in writing a novel these days.”

But once she agreed to chat, she didn’t hold back. The extensive discussion touched on Tyler’s creative process, why his novels don’t address Baltimore’s racial divide, and the hard lessons learned from the pandemic.

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The woman answering the door is tall, thin, and fine-boned, and wears her long gray-white hair piled behind her head. Long bangs shield her eyes, which emit a beam of curiosity so concentrated it’s tempting to imagine they might light up a street corner at night.

Many critics consider Tyler one of America’s finest living novelists. Fans cite his National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989, and the 1988 film based on Tyler’s ninth novel, “The Accidental Tourist,” which was filmed primarily in Baltimore and starred William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Geena. Davis.

More recently, Tyler was twice nominated for England’s Booker Prize, arguably the second most prestigious literary prize in the English-speaking world after the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Booker, now in its 54th year, was only open to American authors in 2014. Tyler has come close twice, as a finalist in 2015 for ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ and as a running back. -finalist in 2018 for “Redhead by the Side of the road.”

Fans praise his expertise in dissecting the tensions of family life in exquisite, excruciating detail. Like a soft-handed dentist, she probes beneath the surface, gouging out areas of decay with such skill that those reclining in the large chairs aren’t fully aware that they’ve just been through an ordeal.

The author knows that despite its many pleasures, reading is hard work. She makes it as painless as possible by filling her novels with clear and simple sentences, even when it comes to meeting life’s great challenges.

“If a book I’m reading is very obscure or experimental,” she says, “I always think, ‘Talk to me. I’m sitting right here. ”

Despite the praise Tyler’s novels have received, she’s acutely aware of their limitations.

In 2019, author Jess Row publicly denounced Tyler in her book “White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination” for neglecting to address Baltimore’s racial divide in her fiction. His criticisms of Tyler were summarized in a New York Times book review.

Row described Tyler as “a writer (like many other white writers of his generation and time) who typifies what I call a posture of racial silence: not talking about race, and probably, for the most part, wish the conversations about race didn’t happen.” it has to happen. …Baltimore has such an extreme, obvious, and seemingly inevitable history of racial discrimination and violence, and yet, from reading his novels, one will never know.

Tyler acknowledges that his novels aren’t about race — or world hunger, climate change, and the war in Ukraine. Sweeping, problem-oriented novels are not his medium.

“I will never write a big novel, something imposing,” she said. “I can’t write about race or war and peace. I get very impatient with myself, but that’s not what pulls me. My talent is for small things. This small domestic space is what is mine.

It’s not that she doesn’t care about the people who live in the Sandtown-Winchester or Middle Eastern neighborhoods. But Tyler doesn’t think he has the right ears to do them justice.

“There have been black characters in my books, but none that I’ve seen from the inside,” she said. “For me personally to presume to write from inside a black person’s mind would be disrespectful.”

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Despite Tyler’s desire for privacy, over the decades the broad outlines of her life story — she’s now a grandmother of two — have emerged.

She was born in Minneapolis in 1941. As a child, her family lived in a series of Quaker townships, eventually settling in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anne first attended public school when she was 11 and believes the culture shock instilled in her a lifelong sense of being an outsider.

“I had never used a telephone and could strike a match on the soles of my bare feet,” she wrote in her 1980 essay, “Still Just Writing.”

“All the kids at the new school seemed very special to me,” she said, “and I certainly had to seem special to them.”

Tyler met her future husband, Iranian psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi, when she was a student at Duke University. In 1967, the couple moved to Baltimore and settled in the Homeland neighborhood.

Although Tyler raised two daughters, she made time to write, but not without difficulty.

Every few years she publishes a novel. Critics praised them and prestigious awards piled up. In 1989, a Sun reporter knocked on Tyler’s door and told her she had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “Breathing Lessons.”

“I’m writing a sentence so I can’t be interrupted,” Tyler said as he closed the door, “but I’m very happy.”

This pattern of productivity continued even during a period in the late 1990s when the novelist was hammered by personal tragedies: her husband’s untimely death from lymphoma, Tyler’s diagnosis of breast cancer and a double mastectomy, and a girl’s brain surgery to remove a benign tumor.

Both women made full recoveries and Tyler continued to publish novels: “A Patchwork Planet” in 1998 and “Back When We Were Grownups” in 2001.

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So, two decades later, when the pandemic hit Maryland, Tyler expected to ride through it. Accustomed to spending long periods alone, she was certain that the enforced isolation would not be a problem for her.

Except it was.

Tyler found herself so distracted that she couldn’t read deeply. Worse still, for the first time in her life, she can’t start another novel after she’s been trying for over a year.

“Nothing worked out this time,” she said.

“Granted, I’ve been distracted throughout the pandemic. What I don’t understand is why. Honestly, I’m not scared of COVID. So what am I so worried about?

“I do not know.”

Tyler may not be working on another novel, but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped putting pen to paper. Not writing is not an option for her.

If she couldn’t write, she wouldn’t fully grasp the taste of food. Sounds wouldn’t be as crisp or colors as vibrant. She didn’t really know what she was thinking. Not to write would be a condemnation to a vaguer, more approximate life.

So, instead of a novel, she writes short stories “just for the cartoonist”, although she insists that they are not intended for publication.

“I can’t sit at home all day,” she said.

“I go in and out of my characters’ lives for three weeks and then I’m done. I’m not going to send these stories to my agent.

“But it kept me going.”

Tyler hopes his writer’s block will ease as life returns to normal after the pandemic.

She wonders if COVID-19 hasn’t dried up her sources of inspiration by abruptly stopping the superficial encounters of everyday life: jury duty, weekly movie nights, walking around without crossing the street to avoid approaching pedestrians. .

“I never write from real life,” she said, “but I love to listen while I’m in line at the grocery store.”

For decades, Tyler has jotted down overheard remarks on index cards she keeps in a file. A map from 1965 can later inspire characters, scenes, a novel.

“A lot of things during the pandemic have surprised me,” Tyler said. “I didn’t realize how much I relied on random contact with humanity. Half the stuff on my files is what these two people were arguing about. All of a sudden I was deprived of it.

“COVID-19 has taught me that I want a little more human connection than I thought.”

Scott R. Banks