Anne Tyler flies under the radar but loves to eavesdrop

The normally media-shy Pulitzer prize-winning author talks about her new book

Colorful houses on South Ann Street in the Fell's Point neighborhood.

National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy

For 35 years, Anne Tyler answered every journalist’s request to chat with a polite but definite “no.” Reporters would show up at the novelist’s doorstep or try to corner her at the few social events she attended; one even pretended to have a sick baby to get to her through her husband, a child psychiatrist. But as her fame and success grew, the chronicler of domestic unease kept the gate to her own life shut.

So it’s rather wondrous to ring Tyler’s doorbell in a leafy part of north Baltimore and be greeted by a willowy woman with an outstretched hand and the hint of a smile.

In her airy living room, two long couches face each other across a vast expanse of Persian rug—not exactly an arrangement that encourages social interaction. “You tell me where to sit, and I’ll do it,” she says. She has agreed to a handful of interviews to promote her 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, but she’s out of practice: “I don’t know how these things work.” In the end, we perch on opposite ends of the same couch.

At 70, Tyler still looks much like her press photos: they’re taken by a friend, because posing for other people makes her “very stiff and unnatural.” She has inquisitive eyes, a kindly mien, and straight bangs fading from grey to white. She moved here recently—“downsizing,” she says—and lives alone. Her Iranian-born husband, Taghi Modarressi, died of lymphoma in 1997, her children are grown up, and she split some years back from her partner, baker and chef Mark Furstenberg, whom she’d been with since 1998. “It was too much work,” she says, by way of explanation. Although she writes often about tensions and accommodations in marriage and relationships, she professes to be “very much on my own and happy that way.”

A native of Minneapolis who spent her childhood in North Carolina Quaker communes, Tyler has said she felt set apart from the “outside world.” Though she and her husband moved to Baltimore in 1967 from Montreal (where he trained at McGill and she worked at the law library, writing her first novels on the side), she feels she’s still looking at the city “with slightly foreign eyes.” And yet Baltimore suits her: it’s where she has set all of her fiction since 1972’s The Clock Winder, and few people know her as Anne Tyler because, in her day-to-day life, she uses her husband’s last name.

“Most people don’t even think I’m a writer, and if they did, they don’t think much of writers in Baltimore, so it’s okay,” says the author of The Accidental Tourist, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and The Breathing Lessons, which won in 1989. Last year, she was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

According to Judith Jones, her long-time editor who has since retired from Knopf, Tyler’s 1977 withdrawal from the public eye “in some ways added to her image. She was the ‘mystery writer.’ ” What’s more, being incognito has helped Tyler collect the kind of detail she uses in her books.

“I love to eavesdrop,” she says, especially when there are gossiping workmen around. Conversations with grocery store workers can yield gold. “I’ve been told some pretty amazing things by people.” When she visits someone’s house, she’ll gravitate to the kitchen, where she learns about their lives from the notices and pictures plastered to refrigerator doors.

So what is to be learned from her kitchen? “I’ll show you,” she says. In the spotless adjoining room, she throws open the spice cabinet. “There I am. See? Lots of foreign things, because of doing Persian cooking with my husband, and I do seem to need to be orderly, because they are alphabetized.”

And what of the aesthetically pleasing arrangement? “It is important to be happy with what you’re looking at, don’t you think?” That said, she admits, “You can carry it too far.” Her new fridge door is non-magnetic, which is ideal because she dislikes clutter. Then again, there is nowhere for her grocery list. “I can’t put anything on it. Doesn’t that seem short-sighted?”

Sometimes speaking with Tyler is like chatting with one of her characters: she’ll express an opinion, then pull back and undercut it from a different perspective. Her books are strewn with little ironic moments that hint at bigger truths: our best-laid plans tend to screw up because we’re inevitably blinkered by our own points of view. We can better gauge our behaviour through others’ eyes.

For someone with a reputation as a recluse, Tyler is surprisingly open. “Show and tell,” she says, leading the way upstairs to her writing room, where her desk sits under bright sunlight pouring through a dormer window. On it is a pad of paper, a computer (for typing chapters when they’re finished in longhand), and a box of index cards full of ideas and observations.

Framed snippets of verse and photos sit above the desk, both inspirational and ironic. Typed onto fading paper is an excerpt from Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Agent,” which includes the line, “Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.” “I think it’s about writing,” offers Tyler, “although he thinks it’s about sleep.” There’s a picture of Elvis Presley sneering sexily in a diner beside a beaming girl, a childhood friend of Tyler’s. “She said, ‘Nobody knows, as I’m sitting there smiling, that I’m thinking, ‘Why am I here? I hate Elvis Presley!’ ”

Nearby is a poem by John Updike, who once called her writing “wickedly good.” It reads, in part, “Each morning my characters grip me with misty faces willing to muster for another day’s progress.” Is this her experience?

“Well, I’m greeted with a very chilled feeling. My characters aren’t warm to me at that point—I have to break through every morning to get into it again.” Before she starts a book, Tyler will sit in this room, staring at a blank page until something comes to her. As she sat down to write what would become The Beginner’s Goodbye, “There was this sort of voice in my head that said the first line of the book [‘The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.’]. And I thought, ‘What?’ ”

The voice told her he was crippled and had a speech defect. She took this as a challenge, as if a child had asked her to make up a story involving three unrelated things. “Every step of the way, when I was mapping it out, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be doing this. How will I get out of this?’ I don’t believe in people living after death or coming back from the grave, so it was thrust upon me.”

The voice became her protagonist, Aaron, whose wife, in a trademark absurd and sad Anne Tyler moment, dies after she enters the kitchen to get some Triscuits and a tree falls on their house. Aaron sequesters himself at his sister’s house, and though he resists, friends, relatives, and co-workers try to resuscitate his social life.

Aaron’s progress foreshadows Tyler’s tentative re-entry into the public sphere: on April 1, the notorious homebody will be awarded the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in person at the Oxford Literary Festival, where, for the first time, she will be interviewed onstage. “A conversation in front of some people—that sounds doable,” she muses. “I just could never make a speech. I have nothing to say.”

So why has she decided, now, to submit to in-person interviews? “I was kind of like, ‘Oh well, why not? I’m 70 years old; I haven’t actually had a face-to-face interview in 35 years. I might as well try it, and if I don’t like it, I won’t do it again’ . . . The more I talk about writing, the more self-aware I become as I sit down to write, and it doesn’t go so well. So I just think it’s probably better not to blather on about writing forever. I’m taking this week, and then I say I’ll go back to work.”

Tyler’s agent, Jesseca Salky, suggests it was not detachment but, paradoxically, kindness that had stopped the interviews: “She hated to say no. She would get so many requests that she would feel overwhelmed, and rather than say no selectively, it was easier to set a blanket policy.”

And although she isn’t part of a “writing community,” Tyler does recommend younger authors’ works, such as February (2009) by Newfoundland’s Lisa Moore. For her part, Moore praises Tyler’s wit: “Humour can be like a scalpel that cuts through, brings the reader to understand a character and a situation instantly, even when those situations are full of darkness, or missed opportunities, or lives that aren’t being lived and felt,” she writes. “I think Anne Tyler’s work has that kind of humour and humanity.”

Indeed, despite her sense of irony, Tyler is both funny and warm. She may value replenishing the “well of self” by “sitting still and doing nothing for awhile,” but she acknowledges the importance of seeing other people.

“I would be in trouble if I decided I would stay home and commune with myself all day,” she says. “In fact, I make a point of trying to see a living human being every day, which I could avoid in my current life. It’s important to interact.”