Knopf, Diana Walker, Associated Press
BALTIMORE — In the living room of Anne Tyler, you could shelve virtually all the books under a single heading: fiction.
Eudora Welty. John Updike. Vladimir Nabokov. Reynolds Price. A rare brush with fact is "More Matter," a collection of Updike's essays and criticism. Otherwise, don't expect any works of history or politics. Biographies? What's the point? She knows how the story will end.
"It would be a better book if they just wrote a novel about that person," Tyler reasons during a recent sunny morning, a mug of coffee in her hands, her gray-dark hair pulled back in a bun.
For nearly 50 years Tyler has been making it up — and telling the truth — about love, family, work and death, while leaving current events for the nonfiction writers to handle. Readers and critics have welcomed her inventions. She is a consistent best-seller. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for "Breathing Lessons," and this spring is receiving a lifetime achievement award from The Sunday Times in London. Many remember her for "The Accidental Tourist," adapted into the movie of the same name that featured Geena Davis in an Oscar-winning role as a quirky dog trainer who wins over an emotionally damaged travel adviser played by William Hurt.
"Among our better contemporary novelists," Katha Pollitt once wrote in The New York Times, "Tyler occupies a somewhat lonely place, polishing brighter and brighter a craft many novelists no longer deem essential to their purpose: the unfolding of character through brilliantly imagined and absolutely accurate detail."
She has not only succeeded in art and commerce, but kept her private life off the market. Her longtime rule has been that if something happens to her she won't put it in her books. So we'll have to assume she never swallowed a yellow marble thinking it was a lemon drop ("Searching for Caleb"), or faked her own death ("Morgan's Passing"), or carved a rock star's name on her forehead, not realizing that by doing so in a mirror she had filled in the letters backward ("A Slipping-Down Life").
Meanwhile, Tyler has not talked to the media in person for decades, sharing through written correspondence her thoughts with reporters, but not her ready smile or warm, slightly husky voice. But at age 70, encouraged by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, she figures it couldn't hurt. Wearing dark slacks, a purple sweater and a white turtleneck, she sits comfortably on a couch looking out on the small yard in back of the attached brick house she has lived in for the past few years, since her two daughters grew up and her husband died after more than 30 years of marriage.
Her new novel is called "The Beginner's Goodbye," and its opening line appeared to her as if from the spirit world: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted." The narrator is named Aaron and his wife, Dorothy, was killed suddenly when a tree crashed through their roof. Forced to move in with his overbearing sister, Nandina, he looks back on his marriage and remembers its bonds and strains and wonders "whether we find out what our lives have amounted to."
No plot will be spoiled by revealing the novel's conclusion: "We go around and around in this world, and here we go again." Tyler has long left questions considered but unanswered and lives transformed but not completed. The titles themselves — "The Beginner's Goodbye," ''Breathing Lessons," ''The Amateur Marriage," ''The Accidental Tourist" — suggest that life is a job assigned without warning, a body of water into which we're thrown, fully clothed. Parents and children, men and women. Everyone is winging it, including the author.
"My daughters always tell me that with every book I say, 'This is not going well and nothing is going to come of it,'" she says. "In that sense I'm still unsure. I think, though, an almost opposite problem is I get to have written so many books I'm worried about the temptation to, I love that phrase, 'phone it in.'"
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