The Art Of The Everyday: The Alchemy Of Anne Tyler

Play associated audio

Authors today vie for the attention of the reading public with interviews, Facebook postings and tweets. But Anne Tyler, whose 20th novel, The Beginner's Goodbye, is poised for release next week, has maintained her distance from the din. Famously shy, Tyler hasn't done a face to face broadcast interview in years, preferring perhaps to let her books speak for themselves.

"I did do one about 35 years ago," she says. "I don't have that much to say, so I figure about every 35 years will do it, right? It does make me very self-conscious when I go back to writing, after I talk about writing."

The Beginner's Goodbye is set in Baltimore's picturesque Roland Park, the community she has immortalized in her fiction — an idyll of winding, tree-shaded streets and beautiful old houses. Of course, Tyler jokingly points out that her characters live on "the wrong side" of the neighborhood — an area no less lovely, but with slightly smaller houses.

The "right side" of Roland Park may be just a little too perfect for Tyler's characters, who often skew to the wrong side of some imaginary line of normalcy.

Tyler herself grew up on a rural Quaker commune, and she believes that her feeling of being an outsider fueled her writing and her capacity to see things differently. Her characters share her perspective. Sweet and sad, funny and flawed, they carve out their own path through a world that can be confusing or disappointing. Their triumphs are small but satisfying, their failures the stuff of everyday life. Tyler says her characters are wholly a product of her imagination, not drawn from her own life or based on anyone she knows. And she says she falls in love with all of them.

"When I finish a book, I send the book to New York to be read by my agent. I picture them on a train, and my heart is broken. I mean, I'm thinking of how they're sort of limited people or shy people, and they're just so brave to be going up there on their own. It's really anthropomorphic. But then, after they get accepted, so to speak, and they're a book on their own, I'm like a mother cat with kittens. I never think about them again. They're gone."

The character at the center of The Beginner's Goodbye is Aaron Woolcott. Handicapped since childhood, Aaron works at his family's vanity publishing company, editing self-help books for beginners. His wife, Dorothy, is a plainspoken, no-nonsense woman who refuses to coddle her disabled husband. She dies when a tree falls on their house, but her apparition returns to visit Aaron, who slowly comes to terms with her death. He also reconciles with the reality of his marriage which, though far from perfect, was still rooted in love.

It's not a conventional ghost story. Rather, it's a fantasy shared by anyone who has lost someone they love: the desire to have that person back even briefly.

Tyler recalls her own confusion when her husband died 15 years ago.

"The thought that came to me was: 'I just don't understand. Where did he go?' He was this exuberant man who was a real enjoyer. And that's just gone without a trace. It's just not possible. All that was being mulled around for 10 or 12 years before I started the book."

And beginning the book, any book, says Tyler, who is frank about the pleasures and pains of her process, is "wretched."

"I have nothing to say. In fact, that's the first thing that occurs to me as I sit down with my piece of paper: I have nothing to say. Why do I think I could do this? And the first pages that I write are just the most mechanical pages where characters are being moved around like puppets."

She thought The Beginner's Goodbye might be her last book, only to realize — not at the beginning of the book but somewhere in the middle — that she enjoys writing too much.

"I always say, when I die and go to heaven, I'm going to have an 11-year-old daughter and a new cat and I'm going to be in the middle of a book. I'm just trying to get there."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

WAMU 88.5

The Music And Legacy Of Motown

Motown founder Berry Gordy and director Charles Randolph-Wright of “Motown the Musical" join Diane for a conversation about the history of Detroit's famous sound.

WAMU 88.5

Will Montgomery County Go "Bottoms Up" On Liquor Laws?

Since Prohibition, Montgomery County has held the purse strings on liquor sales, meaning the county sells every drink from beer to bourbon to local bars and restaurants. But local business owners are pushing back from this system, claiming it lacks efficiency and leaves customers waiting. County officials say they are holding out for alternatives that protect those within the industry. We discuss both sides of the issue today.

WAMU 88.5

Exelon's Chief Strategy Officer On Its Proposed Takeover Of Pepco

Kojo chats with Exelon's chief strategy officer about the company's vision for electric service in the Washington region, and its argument for why its acquisition of Pepco is in the best interest of customers.

WAMU 88.5

Computer Guys And Gal

Another year is coming to a close and the Computer Guys And Gal are here to discuss this year's biggest technology news, including the growth of virtual reality and the "Internet of Things."

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.