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“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon. . . . ” This is how Abby Whitshank always describes the day she fell in love with Red in July 1959. The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate an indefinable kind of specialness, but like all families, their stories reveal only part of the picture: Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets. From Red’s parents, newly arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to the grandchildren carrying the Whitshank legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn house that has always been their anchor.
NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY PEOPLE AND USA TODAY | NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post • NPR • Chicago Tribune • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • The Telegraph • BookPage
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
ANNE TYLER is the author of more than twenty novels. Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Date of Birth:October 25, 1941
Place of Birth:Minneapolis, Minnesota
Education:B.A., Duke University, 1961
Read an Excerpt
Late one July evening in 1994, Red and Abby Whitshank had a phone call from their son Denny. They were getting ready for bed at the time. Abby was standing at the bureau in her slip, drawing hairpins one by one from her scattery sand-colored topknot. Red, a dark, gaunt man in striped pajama bottoms and a white T‑shirt, had just sat down on the edge of the bed to take his socks off; so when the phone rang on the nightstand beside him, he was the one who answered. “Whitshank residence,” he said.
And then, “Well, hey there.”
Abby turned from the mirror, both arms still raised to her head.
“What’s that,” he said, without a question mark.
“Huh?” he said. “Oh, what the hell, Denny!”
Abby dropped her arms.
“Hello?” he said. “Wait. Hello? Hello?”
He was silent for a moment, and then he replaced the receiver.
“What?” Abby asked him.
“Says he’s gay.”
“Said he needed to tell me something: he’s gay.”
“And you hung up on him!”
“No, Abby. He hung up on me. All I said was ‘What the hell,’ and he hung up on me. Click! Just like that.”
“Oh, Red, how could you?” Abby wailed. She spun away to reach for her bathrobe—a no-color chenille that had once been pink. She wrapped it around her and tied the sash tightly. “What possessed you to say that?” she asked him.
“I didn’t mean anything by it! Somebody springs something on you, you’re going to say ‘What the hell,’ right?”
Abby grabbed a handful of the hair that pouffed over her forehead.
“All I meant was,” Red said, “ ‘What the hell next, Denny? What are you going to think up next to worry us with?’ And he knew I meant that. Believe me, he knew. But now he can make this all my fault, my narrow-mindedness or fuddy-duddiness or whatever he wants to call it. He was glad I said that to him. You could tell by how fast he hung up on me; he’d been just hoping all along that I would say the wrong thing.”
“All right,” Abby said, turning practical. “Where was he calling from?”
“How would I know where he was calling from? He doesn’t have a fixed address, hasn’t been in touch all summer, already changed jobs twice that we know of and probably more that we don’t know of . . . A nineteen-year-old boy and we have no idea what part of the planet he’s on! You’ve got to wonder what’s wrong, there.”
“Did it sound like it was long distance? Could you hear that kind of rushing sound? Think. Could he have been right here in Baltimore?”
“I don’t know, Abby.”
She sat down next to him. The mattress slanted in her direction; she was a wide, solid woman. “We have to find him,” she said. Then, “We should have that whatsit—caller ID.” She leaned forward and gazed fiercely at the phone. “Oh, God, I want caller ID this instant!”
“What for? So you could phone him back and he could just let it ring?”
“He wouldn’t do that. He would know it was me. He would answer, if he knew it was me.”
She jumped up from the bed and started pacing back and forth, up and down the Persian runner that was worn nearly white in the middle from all the times she had paced it before. This was an attractive room, spacious and well designed, but it had the comfortably shabby air of a place whose inhabitants had long ago stopped seeing it.
“What did his voice sound like?” she asked. “Was he nervous? Was he upset?”
“He was fine.”
“So you say. Had he been drinking, do you think?”
“I couldn’t tell.”
“Were other people with him?”
“I couldn’t tell, Abby.”
“Or maybe . . . one other person?”
He sent her a sharp look. “You are not thinking he was serious,” he said.
“Of course he was serious! Why else would he say it?”
“The boy isn’t gay, Abby.”
“How do you know that?”
“He just isn’t. Mark my words. You’re going to feel silly, by and by, like, ‘Shoot, I overreacted.’ ”
“Well, naturally that is what you would want to believe.”
“Doesn’t your female intuition tell you anything at all? This is a kid who got a girl in trouble before he was out of high school!”
“So? That doesn’t mean a thing. It might even have been a symptom.”
“We can never know with absolute certainty what another person’s sex life is like.”
“No, thank God,” Red said.
He bent over, with a grunt, and reached beneath the bed for his slippers. Abby, meanwhile, had stopped pacing and was staring once more at the phone. She set a hand on the receiver. She hesitated. Then she snatched up the receiver and pressed it to her ear for half a second before slamming it back down.
“The thing about caller ID is,” Red said, more or less to himself, “it seems a little like cheating. A person should be willing to take his chances, answering the phone. That’s kind of the general idea with phones, is my opinion.”
He heaved himself to his feet and started toward the bathroom. Behind him, Abby said, “This would explain so much! Wouldn’t it? If he should turn out to be gay.”
Red was closing the bathroom door by then, but he poked his head back out to glare at her. His fine black eyebrows, normally straight as rulers, were knotted almost together. “Sometimes,” he said, “I rue and deplore the day I married a social worker.”
Then he shut the door very firmly.
When he returned, Abby was sitting upright in bed with her arms clamped across the lace bosom of her nightgown. “You are surely not going to try and blame Denny’s problems on my profession,” she told him.
“I’m just saying a person can be too understanding,” he said. “Too sympathizing and pitying, like. Getting into a kid’s private brain.”
“There is no such thing as ‘too understanding.’ ”
“Well, count on a social worker to think that.”
She gave an exasperated puff of a breath, and then she sent another glance toward the phone. It was on Red’s side of the bed, not hers. Red raised the covers and got in, blocking her view. He reached over and snapped off the lamp on the nightstand. The room fell into darkness, with just a faint glow from the two tall, gauzy windows overlooking the front lawn.
Red was lying flat now, but Abby went on sitting up. She said, “Do you think he’ll call us back?”
“Oh, yes. Sooner or later.”
“It took all his courage to call the first time,” she said. “Maybe he used up every bit he had.”
“Courage! What courage? We’re his parents! Why would he need courage to call his own parents?”
“It’s you he needs it for,” Abby said.
“That’s ridiculous. I’ve never raised a hand to him.”
“No, but you disapprove of him. You’re always finding fault with him. With the girls you’re such a softie, and then Stem is more your kind of person. While Denny! Things come harder to Denny. Sometimes I think you don’t like him.”
“Abby, for God’s sake. You know that’s not true.”
Oh, you love him, all right. But I’ve seen the way you look at him—‘Who is this person?’—and don’t you think for a moment that he hasn’t seen it too.”
“If that’s the case,” Red said, “how come it’s you he’s always trying to get away from?”
“He’s not trying to get away from me!”
“From the time he was five or six years old, he wouldn’t let you into his room. Kid preferred to change his own sheets rather than let you in to do it for him! Hardly ever brought his friends home, wouldn’t say what their names were, wouldn’t even tell you what he did in school all day. ‘Get out of my life, Mom,’ he was saying. ‘Stop meddling, stop prying, stop breathing down my neck.’ His least favorite picture book—the one he hated so much he tore out all the pages, remember?—had that baby rabbit that wants to change into a fish and a cloud and such so he can get away, and the mama rabbit keeps saying how she will change too and come after him. Denny ripped out every single everlasting page!”
“That had nothing to do with—”
“You wonder why he’s turned gay? Not that he has turned gay, but if he had, if it’s crossed his mind just to bug us with that, you want to know why? I’ll tell you why: it’s the mother. It is always the smothering mother.”
“Oh!” Abby said. “That is just so outdated and benighted and so . . . wrong, I’m not even going to dignify it with an answer.”
“You’re certainly using a lot of words to tell me so.”
“And how about the father, if you want to go back to the Dark Ages for your theories? How about the macho, construction-guy father who tells his son to buck up, show some spunk, quit whining about the small stuff, climb the darn roof and hammer the slates in?”
“You don’t hammer slates in, Abby.”
“How about him?” she asked.
“Okay, fine! I did that. I was the world’s worst parent. It’s done.”
There was a moment of quiet. The only sound came from outside—the whisper of a car slipping past.
“I didn’t say you were the worst,” Abby said.
“Well,” Red said.
Another moment of quiet.
Abby asked, “Isn’t there a number you can punch that will dial the last person who called?”
“Star sixty-nine,” Red said instantly. He cleared his throat. “But you are surely not going to do that.”
“Denny was the one who chose to end the conversation, might I point out.”
“His feelings were hurt, was why,” Abby said.
“If his feelings were hurt, he’d have taken his time hanging up. He wouldn’t have been so quick to cut me off. But he hung up like he was just waiting to hang up. Oh, he was practically rubbing his hands together, giving me that news! He starts right in. ‘I’d like to tell you something,’ he says.”
“Before, you said it was ‘I need to tell you something.’ ”
“Well, one or the other,” Red said.
“Which was it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, it matters.”
He thought a moment. Then he tried it out under his breath. “ ‘I need to tell you something,’ ” he tried. “ ‘I’d like to tell you something.’ ‘Dad, I’d like to—’ ” He broke off. “I honestly don’t remember,” he said.
“Could you dial star sixty-nine, please?”
“I can’t figure out his reasoning. He knows I’m not anti-gay. I’ve got a gay guy in charge of our drywall, for Lord’s sake. Denny knows that. I can’t figure out why he thought this would bug me. I mean, of course I’m not going to be thrilled. You always want your kid to have it as easy in life as he can. But—”
“Hand me the phone,” Abby said.
The phone rang.
Red grabbed the receiver at the very same instant that Abby flung herself across him to grab it herself. He had it first, but there was a little tussle and somehow she was the one who ended up with it. She sat up straight and said, “Denny?”
Then she said, “Oh. Jeannie.”
Red lay flat again.
“No, no, we’re not in bed yet,” she said. There was a pause. “Certainly. What’s wrong with yours?” Another pause. “It’s no trouble at all. I’ll see you at eight tomorrow. Bye.”
She held the receiver toward Red, and he took it from her and reached over to replace it in its cradle.
“She wants to borrow my car,” she told him. She sank back onto her side of the bed.
Then she said, in a thin, lonesome-sounding voice, “I guess star sixty-nine won’t work now, will it.”
“No,” Red said, “I guess not.”
“Oh, Red. Oh, what are we going to do? We’ll never, ever hear from him again! He’s not going to give us another chance!”
“Now, hon,” he told her. “We’ll hear from him. I promise.” And he reached for her and drew her close, settling her head on his shoulder.
They lay like that for some time, until gradually Abby stopped fidgeting and her breaths grew slow and even. Red, though, went on staring up into the dark. At one point, he mouthed some words to himself in an experimental way. “ ‘. . . need to tell you something,’ ” he mouthed, not even quite whispering it. Then, “ ‘. . . like to tell you something.’ ” Then, “ ‘Dad, I’d like to . . .’ ‘Dad, I need to . . .’ ” He tossed his head impatiently on his pillow. He started over. “ ‘. . . tell you something: I’m gay.’ ‘. . . tell you something: I think I’m gay.’ ‘I’m gay.’ ‘I think I’m gay.’ ‘I think I may be gay.’ ‘I’m gay.’ ”
But eventually he grew silent, and at last he fell asleep too.
Well, of course they did hear from him again. The Whitshanks weren’t a melodramatic family. Not even Denny was the type to disappear off the face of the earth, or sever all contact, or stop speaking—or not permanently, at least. It was true that he skipped the beach trip that summer, but he might have skipped it anyhow; he had to make his pocket money for the following school year. (He was attending St. Eskil College, in Pronghorn, Minnesota.) And he did telephone in September. He needed money for textbooks, he said. Unfortunately, Red was the only one home at the time, so it wasn’t a very revealing conversation. “What did you talk about?” Abby demanded, and Red said, “I told him his textbooks had to come out of his earnings.”
“I mean, did you talk about that last phone call? Did you apologize? Did you explain? Did you ask him any questions?”
“We didn’t really get into it.”
“Red!” Abby said. “This is classic! This is such a classic reaction: a young person announces he’s gay and his family just carries on like before, pretending they didn’t hear.”
“Well, fine,” Red said. “Call him back. Get in touch with his dorm.”
Abby looked uncertain. “What reason should I give him for calling?” she asked.
“Say you want to grill him.”
“I’ll just wait till he phones again,” she decided.
But when he phoned again—which he did a month or so later, when Abby was there to answer—it was to talk about his plane reservations for Christmas vacation. He wanted to change his arrival date, because first he was going to Hibbing to visit his girlfriend. His girlfriend! “What could I say?” Abby asked Red later. “I had to say, ‘Okay, fine.’ ”
“What could you say,” Red agreed.
He didn’t refer to the subject again, but Abby herself sort of simmered and percolated all those weeks before Christmas. You could tell she was just itching to get things out in the open. The rest of the family edged around her warily. They knew nothing about the gay announcement—Red and Abby had concurred on that much, not to tell them without Denny’s say-so—but they could sense that something was up.
It was Abby’s plan (though not Red’s) to sit Denny down and have a nice heart-to-heart as soon as he got home. But on the morning of the day that his plane was due in, they had a letter from St. Eskil reminding them of the terms of their contract: the Whitshanks would be responsible for the next semester’s tuition even though
Denny had withdrawn.
“‘Withdrawn,’ ” Abby repeated. She was the one who had opened the letter, although both of them were reading it. The slow, considering way she spoke brought out all the word’s ramifications. Denny had withdrawn; he was withdrawn; he had withdrawn from the family years ago. What other middle-class American teenager lived the way he did—flitting around the country like a vagrant, completely out of his parents’ control, getting in touch just sporadically and neglecting whenever possible to give them any means of getting in touch with him? How had things come to such a pass? They certainly hadn’t allowed the other children to behave this way. Red and Abby looked at each other for a long, despairing moment.
Understandably, therefore, the subject that dominated Christmas that year was Denny’s leaving school. (He had decided school was a waste of money, was all he had to say, since he didn’t have the least idea what he wanted to do in life. Maybe in a year or two, he said.) His gayness, or his non-gayness, just seemed to get lost in the shuffle.
“I can almost see now why some families pretend they weren’t told,” Abby said after the holidays.
“Mm-hmm,” Red said, poker-faced.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation Between Anna Quindlen and Anne Tyler
When readers are asked about the novels of Anne Tyler, few of them will mention the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or the many months her work has spent on bestseller lists. But they almost always mention how much her books have spoken to their hearts. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe: For more than fifty years her work has been a literary touchstone on the subjects of family, love, loss, and resilience. To mark the paperback publication of this, her twentieth novel, she exchanged emails with writer Anna Quindlen, who recalled that when she published her first novel, Object Lessons, Tyler reviewed it in a thoughtful, kind, and teacherly fashion that she still holds dear.
Anna Quindlen: This novel, like so many of your others, is about the alchemy of family. Is there any point in writing about anything else, or is family really where the emotional action is in life, and in fiction?
Anne Tyler: I can’t count the number of times I’ve started a new book with the idea that this one will have nothing to do with families. But somehow, the minute I think of a character, I find myself considering the people he came from. I’ll bet that if I tried to write a thriller, I’d get sidetracked by the spy’s sibling issues.
AQ: This is also, in part, a novel about a love affair, a love affair with a house. “Houses need humans,” Red Whitshank says at one point; the novel also reflects how humans need houses. Do you feel that way about your house? And, by the way, are we really talking about houses here?
AT: Oddly enough, I have no particular attachment to houses. A few years ago I moved out of the house my children grew up in and I never gave it a backward glance. But while I was writing A Spool of Blue Thread I tried to imagine the story from a workman’s point of view, and I felt pretty sure that Red would be upset by the notion of a house abandoned. (Also that—-like a plumber I once knew—-he would roll his eyes at “Harry Homeowner” shortcuts.)
As for whether we’re really talking about houses: When I’m in the middle of a book, I’m thinking very concretely. I really am talking about houses. It’s only afterward that I notice some other, completely unintentional significance, and I believe it’s better that way. I distrust any symbolism that’s been thought out ahead of time.
AQ: As an oldest child, I’m a believer in birth order. How much of the chemistry among and between the Whitshank children is a function of that?
AT: Oh, birth order is crucial! I don’t know how I would flesh out a character without knowing his or her birth order. Firstborn -Amanda’s certitude, secondborn Jeannie’s mildness, lastborn -Denny’s resentment when Stem arrives . . . They all make sense to me.
I’m intrigued that you, like me, are an oldest child, because I have a feeling that a disproportionate number of writers are. I wonder if the parents’ more intense concentration on a child, when there’s only one, fosters a more vivid imagination in that child.
AQ: In the novel, you write of the Whitshanks, “Like most families, they imagined they were special.” I think that’s so profound. It reminded me of a quote from Sir Walter Scott about Jane Austen that I think also applies to you. He wrote, “The big bowwow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.” Did you ever want to be a big bowwow? And do you think those who follow that path are afforded more credibility than their quieter, more domestic colleagues?
AT: During the several times I’ve read War and Peace, I’ve found myself skimming the war parts and concentrating on the peace parts. Which is to say: It’s not Tolstoy’s big bowwow abilities that I envy.
Granted, though, I have often wished for the ability to see the larger scene. I’m like my reclusive artist character in Celestial Navigation: After I leave a room I am usually unable to reconstruct the room as a whole, but I can tell you exactly what the little screws looked like in the electrical outlet in one corner. I would love to possess, instead, the vision to write something like Faulkner’s hilarious panoramic description of the townspeople trying to catch a herd of wild horses in The Hamlet.
As for credibility . . . well, I do think that big bowwow books are widely considered more important, at least than those confining themselves to a smaller canvas.
AQ: Do you therefore agree with the complaint that male writers tend to be taken more seriously than female ones?
AT: Only to the extent that it’s usually the men who write the big bowwow books. I can think of some quieter male writers—-Kent Haruf with his Benediction, Stewart O’Nan with Emily, Alone—-who haven’t been taken half as seriously as I feel they deserved.
AQ: I was going to ask if you consider your work more character than plotdriven, but it occurs to me that perhaps that’s the nature of all really good fiction. Your thoughts? Is character, or characters, where you begin?
AT: Sometimes it’s a character who sets things off—-a stranger I notice on a street corner or someone I overhear speaking in a restaurant. How would it feel to be that person? is what I’m wondering. What would it be like to live his or her life? But other times it’s an idle rumination, like Why is it that families generally seem to cherish just two or three handeddown stories, and discard some others?
The one thing I absolutely never begin with is plot, because the fact is that I am hopeless at plots, and have to rack my brain to come up with the simplest little event.
AQ: I once had the good fortune to sit next to Grace Paley at dinner, and at some point she said, “Think how prolific we would have been if we hadn’t had children.” Now that those years are behind you, do you wonder how you managed to combine mothering with writing?
AT: First I’ll have to quell my pangs of jealousy that you got to sit next to Grace Paley! But while she may have been right that we’d all have been more prolific if we’d been childless, I question whether we’d be writing as well. I think of it as a tradeoff: When my own children were little they certainly derailed my writing life, but then when I was able to pick it up again I had so many more layers to me, and I felt I knew so much more about the world.
AQ: A Spool of Blue Thread moves back and forth in time: We begin in 1994, move forward to 2012, go back to 1959. Does that mirror the way we think about life when we are closer to its end than its beginning? In other words, as a younger writer might you have been inclined to be more linear in your approach to this?
AT: I’ll have to confess to a purely mechanical reason for the times when the novel proceeds backward: I had planned to go on writing it till I died. I positively hate finishing a book! I made up my mind just to describe one generation after another, endlessly. I worried, though, about running out of generations, so I decided to tackle them in reverse order. That way, I could take the Whitshanks back to prehistory, if I lived that long. But then I discovered that the Whitshanks before, say, 1920 were a meagerspirited lot, and I had to end the book after all.
AQ: Much of this novel, like your others, consists of pitchperfect dialogue. Do you read your work aloud before you’ve finished?
AT: I do. I started that after computers came along, because I write all my drafts in longhand and it was hard to catch tiny alterations when I was shifting my gaze constantly between paper and computer screen. So I began reading my final draft into a tape recorder, and then I could follow on the screen as I played the tape back. What I hadn’t foreseen is that hearing my own voice saying the words would point out any false notes, loud and clear. Now my favorite piece of advice for beginning writers is to read their dialogue aloud.
AQ: I once read an interview with the novelist Amy Bloom in which she said that each novelist essentially has one subject, and hers is love. What’s yours, and why?
AT: Endurance, I would say, if I really had to pick just one. I have always been touched and fascinated by how human beings in general manage to just keep on keeping on—-how they don’t give up on each other and how they set out every day all over again, even when they know it won’t be any different from the day before.
AQ: This is your twentieth novel, a sentence I am tempted to write in ALL CAPS. What’s changed in your fictional concerns or technique? And what’s stayed the same, is built inevitably into Anne Tyler’s writerly DNA? Is there something you know now about writing a novel that you would love to confide to the woman working on If Morning Ever Comes?
AT: My essential concern with family has not changed, but much about my approach to the act of writing is very different now. In the early days, I used to think that novels were somehow less authentic if they were revised in any way. They should be spontaneous, I figured—-tossed off without a second thought. These days, I revise and revise; I love revising. I always feel I begin by writing a bad book and then I stretch it and add layers and texture to it so that gradually, over its many incarnations, it grows into a better book.
To my earlier self I would like to say, “Relax. The story will come in due time. Trust your characters. Let them tell you what happens next.”
AQ: I would assume that at this point your routine is set to music. (Is it, literally? I listen to music while I write, but many of my fellow writers say they find that impossible.) Could you talk a bit about time of day, length of stay, size of desk, method of composition?
AT: You must have amazing strength of character! The one time I tried writing to music I fell subject to a wave of sentimentality; I couldn’t seem to separate myself from the music’s influence.
What I do like listening to as I write is the sound of ordinary life out in the street—-children playing and workmen talking. I write at a bare white desk beneath a window that I keep wide open whenever the weather allows. As soon as I’ve finished my morning walk I settle there, whether or not I feel I have anything to say. If nothing comes to mind, I might putter around with notes and such but I don’t push it, and I give up after an hour or so. If something does come, I write it down on unruled white paper with a Pilot P500 black gel pen—-that part is nonnegotiable. I don’t even want to admit how many dozens of those pens I keep in stock in case they’re discontinued someday.
Whenever I feel stuck—-when I come to a moment in a chapter where the characters simply refuse to go another step forward—-I’ve learned that I should just turn back a few pages and start copying those pages onto fresh paper, and eventually the fork where I made a wrong turn will become apparent. It seems merely reading something over allows mistakes to slide past me; actually forming the words again makes the mistakes all at once stand out.
I always feel I’m knitting a novel; it’s practically a handicraft, which is why I need to do it in longhand. If my right hand ever developed arthritis, I’d probably have to change careers.
My writing mind clicks off at about 1:00 p.m. at the latest, which is earlier than it used to be, but I take comfort in the thought that I seem to get more done in the time I do have. Then I put my work completely out of my thoughts and go on with the rest of my life. That’s something I feel most women writers are exceptionally good at—-partitioning—-because many have had to do it so often back when they had young children.
AQ: You are not a writer who has a Twitter account or a Facebook page, who goes on book tour or the Today show. Eudora Welty once said, “Writing fiction is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be put down little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose. Fiction has, and must keep, a private address.” I know Welty is an influence on your work, and I wonder if that sentiment was an influence on your decision to keep a private address.
AT: I hadn’t heard that Eudora Welty said that, although it certainly makes sense to me. But my choice to stay as private as possible hasn’t been so much a conscious decision as a matter of personal temperament: I’m shy out in public, and nervous with audiences.
In recent years, as writers have been pressed to play more of a part in publicizing their books, I’ve undergone more interviews than I used to, and what I’ve learned from those experiences is that whenever I talk about writing, I can’t do any writing for some time afterward. I think it makes me too conscious of the gears creaking behind the curtain.
AQ: Some of your best-known colleagues have retired in recent years—-Philip Roth, Alice Munro. A BBC interview suggested that this would be your last novel. Say it ain’t so!
AT: I think that story got started because people misunderstood me when I said I planned never to finish A Spool of Blue Thread. But in fact there’s already a next novel, because the Vintage Hogarth Shakespeare series will be publishing my modernday version of The Taming of the Shrew in 2016. I’m really not sure how I’d keep myself occupied if I didn’t have a pen in my hand.
1. The novel opens and closes with Denny. Do you think he’s the main character? If not, who is?
2. We don’t learn the full significance of the title, A Spool of Blue Thread, until nearly the end of the book, on page 350. How did this delay make the metaphor more powerful? What is the metaphor?
3. On page 10, Tyler writes, “Well, of course they did hear from him again. The Whitshanks weren’t a melodramatic family.” What type of family are they? Compare the way you see them with the way they see themselves.
4. Chapter 2 begins with the Whitshank family stories: “These stories were viewed as quintessential—-as defining, in some way—-and every family member, including Stem’s threeyearold, had heard them told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times” (page 40). Why are these two stories so important? Why is the story of Red’s sister important to Red’s family?
5. “Patience, in fact, was what the Whitshanks imagined to be the theme of their two stories—-patiently lying in wait for what they believed should come to them” (page 57). Do you agree? Do you think envy or disappointment might also be a theme of their stories? Which interpretation makes the most sense to you? Can you think of another linking theme?
6. How does Abby’s story about the day she fell in love with Red fit into the Whitshank family history? Why isn’t it one of the family’s two defining stories?
7. Much is made of Abby’s “orphans,” which we learn also includes Stem. What does her welcoming of strangers into her home say about her character? How do the others’ responses set up a subtle contrast?
8. Do Red and Abby have favorite children and grandchildren? Who do you think each one favors?
9. On page 151, Tyler writes about Abby: “She had always assumed that when she was old, she would have total confidence, finally. But look at her: still uncertain.” Do you think Abby’s family sees her as uncertain or lacking in confidence? Why?
10. Abby dies suddenly in an accident, just like Red’s parents did. When it came to his parents, “Red was of the opinion that instantaneous death was a mercy” (page 153). Do you think he felt the same way after Abby’s death?
11. Why didn’t Abby tell Red about Stem’s mother? Why didn’t Denny tell Stem? And why, after they learn the truth, does Stem make Red and Denny promise not to tell anyone else?
12. At Abby’s funeral, Reverend Alban speculates that heaven may be “a vast consciousness that the dead return to,” bringing their memories with them (page 189). What do you think of his theory? What do you imagine Abby would say about it?
13. Why did Red’s pausing to count the rings on the felled poplar make Abby fall in love with him?
14. The novel isn’t structured chronologically. How does Tyler use shifts in time to reveal character and change the reader’s perception?
15. What is the significance of the porch swing? What does it tell us about Linnie Mae and Junior? After reading their story, how did your opinion of Linnie Mae change?
16. The Whitshank house, built by Junior and maintained by Red, is practically a character in the novel. What does it mean to the Whitshank family? Why, in the end, does it seem easy for Red to leave?
17. On the train at the end of the novel, Denny sits next to a teenage boy who cries quietly. What is the significance of this scene?