Authors today vie for the attention of the reading public with interviews, Facebook postings and tweets. But Anne Tyler, whose 20th novel, The Beginner's Goodbye, is poised for release next week, has maintained her distance from the din. Famously shy, Tyler hasn't done a face to face broadcast interview in years, preferring perhaps to let her books speak for themselves.
"I did do one about 35 years ago," she says. "I don't have that much to say, so I figure about every 35 years will do it, right? It does make me very self-conscious when I go back to writing, after I talk about writing."
The Beginner's Goodbye is set in Baltimore's picturesque Roland Park, the community she has immortalized in her fiction — an idyll of winding, tree-shaded streets and beautiful old houses. Of course, Tyler jokingly points out that her characters live on "the wrong side" of the neighborhood — an area no less lovely, but with slightly smaller houses.
The "right side" of Roland Park may be just a little too perfect for Tyler's characters, who often skew to the wrong side of some imaginary line of normalcy.
Tyler herself grew up on a rural Quaker commune, and she believes that her feeling of being an outsider fueled her writing and her capacity to see things differently. Her characters share her 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.
"When I finish a book, I send the book to New York to be read by my agent. I picture them on a train, and my heart is broken. I mean, I'm thinking of how they're sort of limited people or shy people, and they're just so brave to be going up there on their own. 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."
The character at the center of The Beginner's Goodbye is Aaron Woolcott. Handicapped since childhood, Aaron works at his family's vanity publishing company, editing self-help books for beginners. His wife, Dorothy, is a plainspoken, no-nonsense woman who refuses to coddle her disabled husband. She dies when a tree falls on their house, but her apparition returns to visit Aaron, who slowly comes to terms with her death. He also reconciles with the reality of his marriage which, though far from perfect, was still rooted in love.
It's not a conventional ghost story. Rather, it's a fantasy shared by anyone who has lost someone they love: the desire to have that person back even briefly.
Tyler recalls her own confusion when her husband died 15 years ago.
"The thought that came to me was: 'I just don't understand. Where did he go?' He was this exuberant man who was a real enjoyer. And that's just gone without a trace. It's just not possible. All that was being mulled around for 10 or 12 years before I started the book."
And beginning the book, any book, says Tyler, who is frank about the pleasures and pains of her process, is "wretched."
"I have nothing to say. In fact, that's 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 characters are being moved around like puppets."
She thought The Beginner's Goodbye might be her last book, only to realize — not at the beginning of the book but somewhere in the middle — that she enjoys writing too much.
"I always say, 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. I'm just trying to get there."