Ghost Writer

If you want to know novelist Anne Tyler, you have to read between the lines.

Cover Story

November 18, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | By Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Staff

Go searching for Anne Tyler, Baltimore's Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and this is what you'll find: a recipe for a spicy Chinese dish called Mapo Dofu that feeds six. A schematic diagram of the interior of a fictitious boardinghouse. A log of the weather.

You will learn that it rained overnight in Baltimore on Sept. 23, 1993. But you won't learn it easily.

The woman who explores the bittersweet victories and defeats of domestic life in such novels as The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons and Back When We Were Grownups hasn't granted an interview about her own domestic life since 1977. The only hope of uncovering even mundane details about her is to drive 300 miles south, to Duke University in Durham, N.C., where her personal papers are kept.

Anne Tyler's literary life is contained in 12 bulging boxes in Perkins Library on the Duke campus, each crammed with pieces of paper in no particular order. Here is every book review she wrote from her house in Homeland, every tactfully worded but fruitless letter from an editor suggesting a different title for a novel, every one-line note from an importunate journalist whose request for an interview she has charmingly but summarily rejected.

What's most striking about this collection, though, is what's missing. While the voice of the novelist is much in evidence, the voice of the Baltimorean - the human being behind the books - is maddeningly absent. Seldom have "personal papers" been so impersonal.

And yet, the few fragments to be found are as resonant of a particular life, and as mysterious, as a fistful of debris that washes up on shore. Here are sparkly stones, the bones of long-dead fish, a plastic spoon. It adds up to - what?

Something?

It's hard to know for sure.

Chapter One

Anne Tyler wishes to be anonymous, yet she's published 15 novels. That's just one of many paradoxes about the 60-year-old author.

Here's a second: She participated in this profile within carefully structured limits. She sent a letter granting access to the Anne Tyler Collection at Duke, and she agreed to answer questions posed by e-mail about her novels, though not about her life. But within those confines, she was remarkably patient and generous. She may have spent far more time writing responses than she would have in any sit-down interview.

And here's a third: For someone married for 34 years to a psychoanalyst, Tyler expresses little interest in probing the inner workings of her mind, at least publicly. Her refusal to talk about her life has become one of her defining characteristics. A question about the origin of her desire for privacy was met with typical brevity: "That's sort of a when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife question, because I don't see my desire for privacy as unusually strong."

While Tyler's face might not be ubiquitous, her work is. More than five million copies of her books have been sold worldwide and translated into 15 languages, including Japanese, Croatian, Polish, Portuguese and Turkish. A few have been made into films. After Breathing Lessons came out in Korea under the title Paper Clock, several cafes of that name sprang up in Seoul.

Her admirers range from our culture's gatekeepers (John Updike has written that Tyler "is not merely good, she is wickedly good") to its gate-crashers (Madonna has said she's a fan).

Perhaps that's because the author wears her intellect lightly. You wouldn't necessarily glean from her novels how brilliant she is. Her characters are handymen and hardware-store owners, and her prose style is deceptively simple. Her sentences are short, their quiet melodies made up of everyday sounds. The result is elegant, but the materials she uses are homespun.

"To have staying power, a book has to transcend its time," says Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley. "You can't write a book set in modern, middle-class America without using some artifacts like fax machines that in 50 years may seem mysterious or primitive, but her novels don't depend on that. Anne says wise, compassionate and funny things about the human family, and I can't imagine that future people will be less interested in reading them than they are now."

In this celebrity-obsessed age, Tyler's refusal to promote herself is refreshing. There are no Accidental Tourist T-shirts, no coffee mugs advertising Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. But for journalists, her reticence can be daunting. She has spent most of her life in Baltimore, and her last dozen novels are set here. But try to learn more about her, and it's like being on the wrong side of a one-way mirror; she can see us, but we can't see her.

A reporter approached Tyler in January 1989 outside the Senator Theatre, seeking a comment before the premiere of the film made from The Accidental Tourist. The "pale and surprised" novelist turned down the request, saying only: "I can't. I'm sorry."

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