DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In an era when authors vie for the attention of the reading public with interviews, Facebook postings and tweets, Anne Tyler has maintained a quiet distance, preferring instead to let her books speak for themselves. But with her 20th novel, "The Beginner's Goodbye," poised for release next week, Tyler granted a rare interview request. She met with NPR's Lynn Neary to talk about her life, her writing, and her adopted hometown, Baltimore, where most of her novels are set.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Across the road from the tiny townhouse complex where Anne Tyler now lives is Roland Park, the Baltimore neighborhood where she and her husband first lived as a young couple. The area has an idyllic feel, with winding tree-shaded streets and a mix of beautiful old houses. A small stream and a thin strip of woods runs alongside one road where Tyler likes to walk.
ANNE TYLER: See, this is where I just think I'm in heaven. I never did like to really rough it, but here I can walk in woods on a sidewalk.
NEARY: Those who know Tyler might be surprised to see her walking in public alongside a reporter carrying a big microphone. That's because Tyler is famously shy and hasn't done a face-to-face broadcast interview in years.
TYLER: I did do one about 35 years ago and I don't have that much to say. So you know, I figure about every 35 years I'll do it, right? It does make me very self-conscious when I go back to writing after I talk about writing.
NEARY: Much as Tyler likes to walk through this neighborhood, most of her books take place in other parts of Baltimore. Her new book, "The Beginner's Goodbye," is set a short car ride away from here in what she jokingly calls the wrong side of Roland Park. That's because the neighborhood is just as picturesque but the houses are smaller. This is also where "The Accidental Tourist" was set and the movie version of that novel was filmed.
TYLER: This is the house they used in "The Accidental Tourist" for Macon's...
NEARY: This house right here?
TYLER: I think so.
NEARY: So they were on the wrong side of Roland Park too?
TYLER: Yeah. I don't think I've had anybody on the right side of Roland Park.
NEARY: The right side of Roland Park may be just a little too perfect for Tyler's characters, who often are slightly on the wrong side of some imaginary line of normalcy.
TYLER: OK. I would turn left and we'll go back.
NEARY: OK. Back in her own home, Tyler sits down to talk. We settle in at her dining room table in a room that is elegant in its simplicity, a style that seems to reflect her Quaker upbringing. For most of her childhood, Tyler's family lived in what she says can loosely be described as a Quaker commune.
TYLER: It was very, very rural. So when I came out of it, I did feel like an outsider for a long time.
NEARY: Tyler believes that feeling of being an outsider helped her as a writer, because she saw things in a way that others might not. Tyler's characters also have an outsider's 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.
TYLER: When I finish a book, I send the book to New York to be read by my agent. So I seem to picture them on a train. And my heart is broken. I mean, I'm thinking of how they're often sort of limited people or shy people and they're just so brave to be going up there on their own. You know, and 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.
NEARY: The character at the center of Tyler's latest book, "The Beginner's Goodbye," is Aaron Walcott. Handicapped since childhood, Aaron works at his family's vanity publishing company editing self-help books for beginners. His wife Dorothy is a plain-spoken, no-nonsense woman who doesn't coddle Aaron because of his disabilities. After she is killed when a tree falls on their house, Dorothy comes back to Aaron in a series of visits that eventually help them to come to terms with her death. He also comes to terms with the reality of his marriage, which, though far from perfect, was still rooted in love.
TYLER: It's true that we're no longer had quite the same newborn shine, but nobody keeps that forever, right? The important thing was we loved each other. All I had to do to remind myself of that was to cast my thoughts back to the moment we met, to my lonesome, unattached, unsuspecting self, following the receptionist down the corridor of the radiology center. The receptionist comes to a stop and raps on a half-open door. Then she pushes it farther open and I step through it and Dorothy raises her eyes from her book. Our story begins.
NEARY: Tyler says she had some reservations before she began writing "The Beginner's Goodbye." She says she didn't want to write a ghost story but the idea just wouldn't go away. It is not a ghost story. At the heart of the book is a fantasy shared by anyone who has lost someone they love: the desire to have that person back, even briefly. Tyler's own husband died 15 years ago.
TYLER: The thought that came to me most often was: Well, I just don't understand. Where did he go? He was this exuberant man who was a real enjoyer. And that just gone without a trace - it's just not possible. So anyway, all that was being sort of mulled around, I guess, for 10 or 12 years before I started the book.
NEARY: Does writing help you process that kind of experience, life experience...
TYLER: I don't think so, because I think I have to process it before I write it.
NEARY: Tyler says she thought this might be her last book, but then she realized she enjoys writing too much, not at the beginning of a book but in the middle of it.
TYLER: I always say, you know, 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. So I'm just trying to get there. I have nothing to say. In fact that's always 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 the characters are being moved around like puppets. I'm just pushing them into places they don't necessarily want to go and it's wretched. I hate that stage.
NEARY: Are you working on another book now or are you - what stage are you at now in your process?
TYLER: I thought, well, what I should do is figure out a way to be in the middle forever after. So I'm going to write a book that's a sprawling family saga that goes on and on and on. And the question that occurred to me was, well, if I die and - it won't really be finished, and that's going to be awkward. So you know, how am I going to handle this? And then I thought, well, I'll write it going backwards through generations. Not forwards, because then you wouldn't get to the end necessarily. But backwards, nobody would ever know whether you had reached the end you planned or not. So that's my plan, just be in the middle of a book forever.
NEARY: Anne Tyler lives in Baltimore and is not quite yet in the middle of her next book. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
GREENE: And to explore Anne Tyler's Baltimore for yourself, you can do go to our website, NPR.org. There you will also find an exclusive excerpt from her latest book, "The Beginner's Goodbye."