The people change, but a constant is Baltimore, her residence for 45 years and the setting for virtually all of her 19 novels, in which the street names have been changed but a real hardware store or grocery is likely to appear. Baltimore, a city of tradition and acting out, of roots and displacement, where characters might argue whether they belong to the South or the North.
"It's a city with grit and sort of a feisty spirit to it. I think it's a very funny city and I love it," she says. "But I always feel that I'm an impostor when people talk about 'Baltimore writers' and feel I can pronounce upon Baltimore. Any Baltimorean can tell you I'm not a real Baltimorean."
But her friend John Waters, a native Baltimorean, insists she is a proper citizen. The director notes that they present very different parts of the city — you won't read about drag queens and serial killers in a Tyler novel — but both have an affinity for outcasts and oddballs.
"We concentrate on the eccentrics," says the creator of "Hairspray" and other Baltimore-based films. "I always am interested in people who think they're normal and yet are totally insane. She writes about people who think of themselves as normal, and are normal, but also eccentrics who don't know it."
Her books are not inspired by her own life — never! But she does acknowledge an indirect influence, how having children might have helped her write about parenting or the death in 1997 of her husband, Taghi Mohammad Modarressi, added to the insights of her new book. "The preoccupations of certain stages of life — child-rearing, adolescent-rearing, empty nest, aging, death of a spouse — are clearly mirrored by the novels I wrote at the time I was going through those stages," she says. "Or shortly after I went through them, since things often seem to need to settle in my mind before I can write about them."
When a character's voice doesn't speak to her, Tyler turns to her research. She keeps a box of index cards with notes and ideas, perhaps observations about someone she spotted in the dentist's office or a sentence overheard. Like the retired teacher in "Noah's Compass," she studies life "like a language" and remains fascinated by how we live and behave.
"Nobody does the same thing twice. You keep seeing new variations in people, families particularly," she says. "I think the interesting thing (about families) is that unless you do some kind of violent wrenching you've got to stay together, you don't have a choice. Friendships don't particularly interest me. Lots of interesting things can happen, but you don't have to get along just to get together. The compromises people make for another and the lifelong wounds and all that stuff is just fascinating to me."
The world remains fresh in part because it differs so from her childhood. Born in Minneapolis and raised in rural North Carolina, Tyler is the daughter of Quakers and social activists who lived for years on communes. The author was 11 before she went to school, where she was stunned when classmates asked if she had a boyfriend. She enjoyed reading but never considered creating her own stories until she came across a sentence in Eudora Welty's short story "The Wide Net": "Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the C got through the L in a Coca-Cola sign."
"I was 14 and read that line," Tyler says. "That was the summer I worked on a tobacco farm, handling tobacco, and I thought, 'Oh, I know people like that.' But I didn't know you could write about people like that."
Tyler majored in Russian at Duke University, but also studied creative writing under Reynolds Price, who died last year. Known for such novels as "A Long and Happy Life" and "Kate Vaiden," Price inspired her with his enthusiasm and grounded her with common sense. Tyler remembers a short story she wrote in which a poor black woman looks at her hands and likens them to an India ink drawing.
"And he (Price) said, 'That would not happen. She would NOT think about an India ink drawing,'" Tyler says. "That was the first time I had to think about really getting into another life. I may know a lot about India ink drawings, but she doesn't."
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