Tyler was in her early 20s when her first novel, "If Morning Ever Comes," was published. She had been signed up by one of the business' most revered editors, Alfred A. Knopf's Judith Jones, who also worked with Updike and had recently helped discover Julia Child. Jones, who retired last fall, says Tyler is a "great social observer," part of a tradition dating back at least to Jane Austen.
"There's something very special about her," Jones says. "She has a wonderful sense of humor, but it's never mean. It's always very sympathetic and understanding and she takes risks that an established writer often doesn't. With the new book, she's dealing with a new subject for her: 'Do the dead come back?'"
But editors and writers do disagree, even ones as close as Tyler and Jones. Jones says she "fell in love" with Tyler's work from the start and sees continuity to the present. Tyler is embarrassed by her early novels, which suffer, in her opinion, from an attitude of "Let me tell you what my view of the world is."
She is so disdainful of "If Morning Ever Comes" that she has forgotten about a passage near the end of the book, in which the narrator, a college student visiting his home in North Carolina, wonders about a girl he knew there and the "myriads of other people" she had been during her life. His thoughts are echoed in her work over the decades, like the wife in "Breathing Lessons" who thinks about a date she turned down and how she might have become a "whole different person." Tyler still wonders whether we change entirely over a lifetime, or not at all.
"I'm constantly aware of the fact, for instance, if I look back on my children as little people, they basically died. It's very sad when I think about it. And I'm so happy to have them as grown-ups, but they're other people, totally other people," she says.
"It's paradoxical, too. I often have the feeling that I'm 7, which seems to be the age of reason, when you first start saying, 'Oh, I'm me and there's the world there.' I turned 70 on my last birthday and I thought, just looking out through my own eyes, not at myself in the mirror, 'I'm 7, how did this happen?'"
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