By her own admission, Anne Tyler’s no longer a writer ambitiously looking forward to literary “milestones” — many of them can be glimpsed in the rearview mirror. Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for 1988’s Breathing Lessons, the 68-year-old author of deceptively graceful fiction has also been honored with the National Book Critics Circle Award (for The Accidental Tourist, 1985), and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983 for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Like most of her novels, that work was set in her hometown of Baltimore — also the setting for her latest, Noah’s Compass, which relates the story of 60-year-old Liam Pennywell, a philosopher by training who spent the better part of his career teaching history to fifth-graders, and who now finds himself “downsized” from a prestigious boys’ school and facing no new milestones himself.
In a set of email conversations that took place in December 2009, Tyler discussed her fear of memory loss (a theme in her new book), her labor-intensive style of writing — it includes a tape recorder and multiple handwritten drafts — and why she wishes you wouldn’t read her first four novels. — Cameron Martin
Barnes & Noble Review: In the beginning of Noah’s Compass, the protagonist, Liam Pennywell, is assaulted during a home break-in and loses his memory of the event. For a time, he’s consumed by this gap in his life. What was the inspiration for this conceit and for the focus on memory? Do you think you’d be more or less concerned about losing a memory such as this? Or is Liam’s experience the relative equivalent of how you think you’d handle that?
Anne Tyler: One night after I’d gone to bed I heard the house creaking downstairs, but I was too sleepy to investigate. Then I started thinking about how if it were a burglar intent on beaning me, I wouldn’t know anyway till I woke up the next morning. And so: no psychological trauma! Except I’d probably try for days to figure out what had happened. (Though perhaps not for as many days as Liam.)
Why that thought gave birth to a whole novel, I’m not sure. I do know that I have been fascinated by the subject of memory all my life. Now that I’m in my sixties, with instances of Alzheimer’s disease on both sides of my family, my biggest fear is that I’ll end up with no memory whatsoever. Yet I agree with Liam that there is such a thing as remembering too much, and I half admire his resolute refusal to dwell on his past.
BNR: Before he became a school teacher, Liam had trained to be a philosopher, and it’s mentioned that he’s fond of Epictetus and Arrian. If you had to boil it down to a few key tenets, what’s Liam’s philosophy on life? And how successful is he at adhering to his beliefs?
AT: I suspect that Liam would be uncomfortable at the thought of spelling out his specific philosophy of life. I chose Epictetus and Arrian as his favorites for a most literal reason: they were Stoics, and Liam is, in another sense of the word, a stoic himself.
I do think he is an honorable man-as shown by his decision toward the end of the book. The “compass” of the title is a moral one, as well as a physical one.
BNR: The book is told from the third-person point of view, hewing closely to Liam’s perspective. At what stage of the writing did you settle on this POV — as opposed to the first person, which you’ve employed in other works? Is it more fun to write from a male angle? More taxing?
AT: Point of view is not something I consciously decide. Almost always, when I come up with a plot I find that the point of view has automatically arrived with it, part and parcel of the story.
The first-person viewpoint is more enjoyable to write, because it lets me meander more freely, and it can reveal more of the character’s self-delusions. Really all the advantages are with first-person, so I’m sorry I don’t get to pick and choose.
There’s surprisingly little difference between writing from a male angle and from a female angle, but I feel more restricted in my language when I’m writing as a male character because males tend to sound less emotionally expressive than females.
BNR: Has this attitude toward point of view — that it comes part and parcel with the character — always been the case, even with your earliest novels? Or was it an observation you arrived at only after a lot of hand-wringing with a particular work?
AT: Yes, as far as I can remember that has always been the case.
I have to work doggedly for my plots, but then a few days after I’ve figured one out, the first sentence will simply float into my hearing. For A Patchwork Planet: “I am a man you can trust.” Or for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: “While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.” That’s how I learn what the viewpoint should be.
BNR: The title of the book, Noah’s Compass, refers to the Biblical character who built the ark and survived the great flood. At one point in the creative process did you settle on the title? Were other titles considered? In your experience (18 novels), how much influence does the title of a book (and when you pick it) have on the finished product?
AT: The title evolved organically. Liam and his small grandson were discussing the Bible story and they just grabbed the conversation away from me, as characters sometimes do, and came up with the reference to Noah’s lack of a clear destination. It seemed appropriate to Liam’s own situation; so that was it, and I didn’t look any further.
Titles are hugely important to me, but they arrive in all sorts of ways. Celestial Navigation existed before the book did, and the book was cooked up to go with it. I was dissatisfied with The Accidental Tourist as a title-it seemed to me too obvious-so I offered a $100 prize to my daughters’ schoolmates if they could invent something better. And a number of my titles have been vetoed by my editor, Judith Jones, which means I’ve had to scramble for a new one long after the book was finished. That’s no fun at all.
BNR: The private boy’s school in the book, St. Dyfrig’s, does not actually exist in Baltimore, and St. Dyfrig is a rather obscure Christian saint from the mid-6th century. Is there a particular significance to the name in the context of this novel?
AT: None whatsoever. I just leafed through a book of saints for a name, and when I came across “Dyfrig,” it made me laugh. Words that use Y as a vowel often strike me as funny.
BNR: How many drafts did you make of Noah’s Compass? Was that more or less on par with the number of drafts you’ve made for other novels? Did any of your books come relatively easy, from beginning conceit to finished product?
AT: It all depends on how you count, but I’d say the book took four drafts. That’s three longhand drafts before I entered it in the computer, and then I copied the computer version into longhand again. I read that fourth version into a tape recorder and then listened to the tape recorder while I followed along on the computer screen to pick up any minor changes I had made.
Ridiculous, I know. But it’s more or less the way I’ve always done it, except for the three or four earliest books which I wrote without revising, under the mistaken impression that revising was a form of cheating. Nowadays, I love revising. I think of Draft One as work and the revisions as play.
My easiest book was Searching for Caleb, which felt like attending one long, merry party. My hardest was Noah’s Compass. I didn’t know why at the time, but now I think it was because it reminded me too much of my own current stage of life: no new milestones to look forward to.
BNR: Your 2004 novel The Amateur Marriage was 60 years presented in 10 chapters. Noah’s Compass covers a single summer, from the end of one school year to the beginning of the other. In your experience, which type of canvas is easier to work with and why?
AT: Longer periods are easier for me. That’s because when you don’t have an action-filled plot, the mere passage of time can provide one. People get born, they marry, they die: there you go.
I felt very confined with Breathing Lessons, which covered only a single day. The one after that, Saint Maybe, took place over years and years-deliberately.
BNR: You’ve written numerous short stories, though none have been collected for publication. Do you plan to publish a collected works? When was the last time you wrote a short story for publication? And how has your attitude towards the medium perhaps evolved since you began writing?
AT: I think my short stories shirk a little bit, as if I’d told myself while I was writing them that they don’t matter as much as novels. There are only five or six that I feel like claiming now, and that’s not enough to form a collection.
I haven’t written a short story in decades. I can imagine, though, that I may eventually have to go back to them, because writing novels requires a good memory. You have to keep so many balls in the air. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to do that endlessly.
BNR: Do you have similar reservations about any of your novels? Are there particular works that, if given the option, you’d change? I’ve read that you consider Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant to be the favorite of your works. Which novel stands out as your least favorite, and why?
AT: I would like to buy up the rights to my first four novels (If Morning Ever Comes, The Tin Can Tree, A Slipping Down Life, and The Clock Winder) and remove them from circulation. Those are the books I wrote in the days when I thought it would be cheating to rewrite. They feel blurry to me now-not well enough defined. I think it was only with Celestial Navigation that I began to know what I was doing.
BNR: You’ve been the guest editor for several short story collections, including the most recent Best of the South, published in 2005. Who are some contemporary short story writers whose work strikes you as particularly strong or inventive?
AT: I believe that the owner of the short story form nowadays is William Trevor. A relatively brief story of his accomplishes more than most people’s novels. It was William Trevor’s writing that made me realize that my own stories gave short shrift to the reader.
BNR: Reading your manuscripts into a tape recorder would seem to give you an ear for the rhythm of your prose. Among other writers, whose work stands out for you as rhythmically beautiful?
AT: I used to read aloud to my husband in the evenings, and I learned from that to appreciate the work of William Faulkner-someone I’d never much liked until then. Reading any piece of writing aloud is an acid test, particularly when it comes to dialogue. There were other writers I’d always admired who suddenly rang false when I spoke their words in our living room.
BNR: What are you working on now? What can you tell us about the plot, setting and characters of your next novel?
AT: I’m writing a novel about a man whose wife returns from the dead. The setting will be Baltimore, as always.