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Author Anne Tyler on writing her 24th novel and why she writes about families

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On this day, when so many of us are spending time with relatives, we wanted to revisit a conversation I had earlier this year with the author Anne Tyler. Tyler has returned to family relationships in her work time and time again. In fact, the majority of her 24 books are about just that. And the majority of Anne's Tyler's 24 books are set in Baltimore. Now, if we were talking about any other writer, you would be excused for wondering if they might be stuck in a rut. But Tyler's gift is that each story, each character is distinct, even as she builds on themes from one book to the next. The novel we spoke to Tyler about is her most recent, "French Braid." It is set, you guessed it, in Baltimore. And it tracks one family, the Garretts, across decades and generations.

Anne Tyler, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ANNE TYLER: Well, thank you.

KELLY: I got to start by asking, are you stuck in a rut? Or what is it about writing about families and Baltimore families that keeps bringing you back there over and over in your work?

TYLER: Well, I am stuck in a rut.

(LAUGHTER)

TYLER: I mean, actually. I say - every time I start a new book, I say, well, this is going to be different. And it generally is not. I think that what I love when I'm writing about families is that you get to see these people grating along together that can't very easily leave each other. And they have to show their true colors like - as I always say, like people on a desert island or in a burning building, where their real selves come out. Sometimes people do split up. Families do split up. But generally, it's a matter of endurance, which is, I think, the quality in human beings that interests me the most.

KELLY: Yeah. Describe this family, the Garretts of Baltimore. The dad is Robin. The mom is Mercy. They've got three kids, two daughters and a son. What do we need to know about this family?

TYLER: Well, at the beginning, all we know about them is that although they have no great cataclysmic disruptions in their relationships with each other, they just aren't connected anymore. So much so that at the beginning, somebody who sees her cousin in the train station is not exactly sure that he is her cousin. She just thinks he looks sort of familiar. And the question is - how did that happen? What leads families to get to this stage?

KELLY: Yeah. Well, speaking of not being connected, I don't think I'm giving too much away if I share that the mom, Mercy, moves out of the family house when the last kid goes to college. But she never divorces her husband, Robin. The two sisters, Alice and Lily - they call each other; they talk to each other, but they don't actually seem to like each other that much.

TYLER: Right.

KELLY: I wondered - in a way, you're showing us how they are not connected, but you're also maybe - am I right in thinking you're showing us that love can be expressed through the things we choose not to say, through the places we choose not to be?

TYLER: I think you're putting it very well. That's exactly the case, I think. For instance, the mother who basically is separated from the father as time goes on and leads more and more her own life, she knows the thing he's been scared of all his life is divorce. And she's very careful never, ever, ever to mention the word divorce. And everything is just fine as far as the outside world knows, even as far as the two of them know.

KELLY: Yeah. But to your point that that's the thing he's always been scared of, when she tells him she needs some space, she's going to be sleeping somewhere else, he says, I couldn't bear it if you left me. And she says, I'm not going to leave you, ever. I promise. Does she keep that promise?

TYLER: Well, in a way, yes - in a way, no. I enjoyed writing about her. Sometimes I was so mad at her. Weirdly enough, I think the time I was maddest was just her general behavior toward a cat.

KELLY: The cat got me, too. Can we just explain what happened with the cat? She inherits this cat.

TYLER: She inherits it. She doesn't want it. But she's being kind to somebody who desperately needs his cat taken care of. And as time goes on, the cat and she develop a relationship, but she always thinks he's going to go away finally. And when he doesn't, when it turns out, oh, no, this cat is just going to have to stay with you - well, the first thing I did when I was writing this was that I thought, all right, that's going to be one situation in which she does sort of stick with an obligation to another being. And every way I wrote it, it just didn't work. And finally, I had to say, well, I think she's going to get rid of that cat. And I just - I was just heartbroken about it. But there you go.

KELLY: She does promise the cat's owner, yes, I'll take care of it. Don't worry at all. And then the second he leaves, she drives it up to the animal shelter...

TYLER: Yes.

KELLY: ...And dumps it in the crate in the parking lot. And I felt - I'm not surprised to hear that you were mad as heck at her because somehow that betrayal felt more infuriating than leaving the husband.

TYLER: Yes. I don't know why that is. It's odd (laughter).

KELLY: May I say something that strikes me as I listen to you speak? You're talking about your characters as though they're real people that you can't control, like...

TYLER: Oh, I can't.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: You could make Mercy, the mom, nicer. She's - you invented her.

TYLER: Yes. I know. I'm just trying to make you not blame me for what she did with the cat.

KELLY: (Laughter).

TYLER: But no, I've always felt when I begin a book, it's so artificial, and I am so clumsy. And it's a manufactured lie I'm telling. And usually, about a chapter and a half into it, I'm sort of pushing these people around on the page. And it's a matter of dialogue sometimes, but I'll think of a sentence - one sentence - and then it just seems very natural that the other one would say such and such, although, in fact, I didn't invent that. It's just that the characters suddenly just take on their lives. And then I do feel as if, oh, I'm getting to know so-and-so. I had no idea that she had such and such in her life.

KELLY: Yeah. You said that "A Spool Of Blue Thread" was going to be your last novel. And that, if I'm not mistaken, came out seven years ago. And you've - this is your fourth that you've written since then. What changed?

TYLER: Oh, yes, yes. Well, I always feel I have to explain that I didn't mean that I was never going to write again. What I was thinking is, I am going to just write this same novel forever because I'm happiest when I'm in the middle of a book. So at the time that I was saying this, I was writing "A Spool Of Blue Thread," and I thought, there's really no need for any more books from me. But I'm so happy writing this one that I will just endlessly revise it. I'll keep on going. I'll add generations - which is why, by the way, that book basically runs backwards. And what I didn't bargain on is that finally I was just done. I lost interest in the - an earlier generation that didn't have a lot of depth to it. And then, of course, what am I going to do with the rest of my life but write another novel?

KELLY: Well, Anne Tyler, I hope that you continue writing the same novel over and over so that we can continue reading it.

(LAUGHTER)

TYLER: Well, thank you. That's a very nice wish. I really like that one (laughter).

KELLY: Well, I really loved this book. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TYLER: Oh, I enjoyed talking to you. Thank you.

KELLY: Anne Tyler - she is the author most recently of "French Braid."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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