Anne Tyler has had a very active imagination all her life. When she was a young girl, she would spend an hour or two after being put to bed every night fantasizing that she was a doctor. She imagined conversations with patients, and pictured their lives as she did so, considering both their illnesses and the intricacies of their backgrounds. She constructed little mental plays around these characters that she would whisper to herself in the dark -- much to the chagrin of her brother, with whom she shared a room. "[H]e used to call out to our parents, ‘Anne's whispering again!'" she once told Barnes & Noble.com. As much as she may have vexed her brother, she also believes that these fantasies helped her to develop into the beloved, award-winning novelist she is today.
Tyler's work is characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, a genuine love of her characters, and a quirky sense of humor. Her public persona is characterized by its own quirks, as well. She refuses to grant face-to-face interviews. She has never publicly read from any of her books. She does not do book signings or tours. All of this has lent a certain mystique to her novels, although Tyler has said that her reluctance to become a public figure status is actually the result of simple shyness, not to mention her desire for her writing to speak for itself. Fortunately, Anne Tyler's work speaks with a clear, fully-realized voice that does not require unnecessary elucidation by the writer.
Tyler published her first novel If Morning Ever Comes in 1964, and that singular voice was already in place. This astute debut that tracks the self-realization of a young man named Ben Joe Hawkins displayed Tyler's characteristic wit and gentle eccentricity right off the bat. Harper's declared the novel "a triumph," and Tyler was on her way to creating an impressive catalog of novels chronicling the every day hopes, fears, dreams, failures, and victories of small-town Americans. Having come of age, herself, in rural North Carolina, Tyler had particular insight into the lives of her characters. Each novel was a little shimmering gem, winning her a devoted following and public accolades that more than compensated for her refusal to appear in public. Her novel Earthly Possessions, the story of a housewife who is taken hostage by a young man during a bank robbery, was released the same year she won an award for "literary excellence and promise of important work to come" from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The book also went on to become a television movie starring Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff in 1999.
However, the most well-known adaptation of one of Tyler's novels arrived more than a decade earlier when The Accidental Tourist was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Geena Davis and William Hurt. Consequently, The Accidental Tourist is viewed by some as Tyler's signature novel, covering many of the writer's favorite themes: the push and pull of marriage, the appearance of a romantic eccentric, personal tragedy, and the quest to escape from the drudgery of routine. The Accidental Tourist won the National Book Critics Circle Award and hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list.
Three years later, Tyler received the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, which further explored themes of marriage and self-examination. Despite having won the prestigious Pulitzer, Tyler still refused to allow herself to be drawn into the spotlight. Quietly, contemplatively, she chose to continue publishing a sequence of uniformly fine novels, including Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, and The Amateur Marriage.
Anne Tyler's latest novel reexamines many of her chief obsessions, while also possibly drawing upon a personal triumph -- her marriage to Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi -- and the tragedy of his death in 1997. Digging to America follows the relationship between two families, the Iranian Yazdans and the all-American Donaldsons, as they become closer and closer and affect each other deeper and deeper over a succession of years. Digging to America is arguably Tyler's deepest and most profound work to date. It also delivers more of her peculiar brand of humor, which will surely please her longtime fans, thrilled that she continues spinning tales with the trademark attention to character that has distinguished her stories ever since she was a little girl, whispering to herself in the dark. Tyler may have decided to remain in the dark and out of the public eye, but the stories she has to tell have shed more than their share of light on the lives of her readers.
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Tyler first began writing stories at the innocent age of seven. At the time, most of her yarns involved, as she has said, "lucky, lucky girls who got to go west in covered wagons."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Anne Tyler had to say:
I figure that for summer, you need books at two opposite extremes: small, lightweight volumes to slip into your bag for trips, and fat, heavy volumes for long days at the beach.
Two novels by Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, manage to be small in size but large in spirit, packing a wallop at the end in a very satisfying way.
Another small-but-large book is the paperback edition of The Collected Stories of William Trevor, the man who can say more in a short story than many writers say in whole novels.
Short stories are perfect, in fact, for trips of the stop-and-start variety, and if space is no concern I'd vote for two rather hefty collections: Stories from the New Yorker, 1950-1960 -- in my opinion the best short-story anthology ever published, and John Updike's The Early Stories, a wonderful window onto a quarter of the twentieth century.
As for fatter books, I would choose something by Jane Austen.Pride and Prejudice is my favorite, but any one of them would do; they are subtle and slyly humorous and meticulously observant, the perfect thing for unhurried reading.
And then there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its descriptions of hot, dusty, magical Macondo, and Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples, a portrait of a small Southern town, and William Humphrey's The Ordways, in which a group of neighbors from long ago comes touchingly alive. All three just have the right atmosphere for summer; I can imagine reading them in a hammock.
Finally, the book I used to reread every June for some seven or eight years running: Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. How did that tradition begin? I can't remember. In tone it's a rather wintry book, to be honest. But the story is so absorbing, so convincing and so vivid even today; there seems no better time to read it than on a series of leisurely summer afternoons when you can pay it proper attention.
In the winter of 2003, Anne Tyler took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It was a short story -- Eudora Welty's "The Wide Net." When I read about Edna Earle, who could spend all day pondering how the tail of the C got through the loop of the L on the Coca-Cola sign, it was a kind of revelation: I knew dozens of people like Edna Earle -- small-town, ordinary. I just didn't know you could write about them.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, because it's so fresh and immediate and heartbreaking that it might have been written yesterday.
Oh, that list would change almost daily. But for the moment, I'd say:
The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty, because it is such a kind book, and it so warmly welcomes the reader into its small community.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- a book I turn to in times of flu or the doldrums, so that everyone in it is an old friend by now.
The Time of Her Life by Robb Forman Dew, for its subtle, deft exploration of the dark side of family life.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, because it has literature's best last line.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which really was an entirely new and astonishing kind of book, back before magic realism had been seized upon by imitators.
The Ordways by William Humphrey -- an old-fashioned, absorbing story, gently written and deeply satisfying.
I Wish This War Were Over by Diana O'Hehir, because it's as sad and as startlingly funny as real life, and I love its depiction of wartime Washington.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which seems to me as nearly perfect as a novel can be -- so economical that its entire effect, finally, rests upon four words.
A Word Child by Iris Murdoch, because it has the plot-line I most envy.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
My current favorite is Spellbound (the recent documentary). It shows such a wonderful cross section of America. And I have a longtime affection for a French movie, Dear Detective (not the American remake) because of a hilarious car chase that takes place entirely in first gear.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I think listening to music while I wrote might affect me too much -- I'd write something sentimental or overdone. My favorite sounds while I'm writing are the overheard sounds of an ordinary urban neighborhood -- children playing, mothers calling them home, dogs barking.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, because people either love it or hate it so passionately that it always starts a lively discussion.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Even at my age, I like to be given children's picture books. They can pack so much into so few words. And picture books are always what I give new babies. My lifelong favorite picture book is Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House. I must have bought several dozen copies of it. I think it says everything possible about change and loss and the passage of time.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
On my desk I keep a little antique lap desk that my husband and daughters gave me many years ago. It has just the right slant for writing on in longhand, and it's positioned so it faces a window looking out into a dogwood tree, in a room that's so minuscule it must once have been a baby's room.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
My first novel somehow managed, during its two-mile trip in a mail truck to my agent, to get completely chewed up. I don't mean just ruffled a little; I mean that every single page had been wadded into a little ball. I had to spend the next several weeks retyping it on my manual typewriter. Now I think it might have been a message from heaven: that novel never did sell.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
My favorite almost-new writer of the moment is Mark Haddon, who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The parents in that book make such terrible mistakes, and yet they're convincingly presented as loving and well-meaning and good at heart.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't "look" to be discovered. Just keep writing for all you're worth.
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