Q&A with Anne Tyler

Writing 'Noah's Compass' wasn't easy going, but Anne Tyler found her way to the end

January 05, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

You don't so much read a book by Anne Tyler as you read through it.

Her 18th novel, "Noah's Compass" hits bookstores today, and like its predecessors, it is masterful at exposing the mental evasions and compromises that underlie daily conversation. The author delves beneath the "what" "where" and "when" of even the most seemingly banal utterances to reveal half-articulated wishes and resentments, withdrawals and reconciliations.

The main character in "Noah's Compass" is a retired schoolteacher named Liam Pennywell, who looks back at a life that has been under-lived. He's been once widowed, once divorced, and has three grown daughters with whom he has dutiful, cursory relationships. Liam feels about as empty as a discarded peanut shell - until he's knocked on his head by a burglar during his first night in his new apartment.

Liam suffers a complete loss of recall about the event, an occurrence that causes him to explore other gaps in his memory. He seeks the help of an eccentric, younger woman who works as a hired "rememberer" for an elderly executive with Alzheimer's disease.

Though Liam might have trouble with details, Tyler never does. Set in Baltimore, where the author has lived most of her adult life, her novels are rife with such familiar references as Eddie's grocery store and Reisterstown Road.

The author recently chatted via e-mail about the inspiration for her latest novel.

Question: How did you come up with the idea for "Noah's Compass"?

Answer: I was half-asleep one night when I heard the house give an unfamiliar creak. But I told myself, "Oh, well, if a burglar comes upstairs and conks me over the head, I won't know about it anyway." That thought led to another and then another, as often happens near sleep, and when I woke up in the morning, I had the seeds of "Noah's Compass."

Q: I think you might have created a new profession - hired rememberers. What a wonderful idea! Would you employ such a person yourself?

A: When I invented the notion, all I could think of was that I wanted to BE such a person. (It's a way of leading other people's lives, as is novel-writing itself.) But I suppose, at my age, it would be more sensible to hire one.

Q: Do you see Liam and Eunice from "Noah's Compass" as older versions of Macon and Muriel from "The Accidental Tourist"? Some reviewers have pointed out correspondences. Of course, your new novel soon veers off in quite a different direction from your 1985 book.

A: No, I see no similarities, but then what do I know?

Q: How would you sum up Noah's gains and losses by the end of the novel? There are signs of contentment and hope, but the last sentence, in particular, strikes me as more defeat than victory.

A: The final sentence, which was in place from the day I first plotted the novel, simply sums up who Liam is. He has spent his life working to forget certain memories, and he has pretty much succeeded - which has not always been a good thing.

Liam breaks my heart, to tell the truth. But I think he traveled a long way during the course of the book, and I felt happy leaving him where I left him.

Q: Are you aware of the discrepancy between your speaking and your authorial voices? The latter is extremely simple and clear. You express even complex ideas in everyday words of just one or two syllables, which isn't at all how you talk.

A: I would be horrified to hear that my writing voice resembled my speaking voice, because I want my writing voice to be unidentifiable - a clear pane of glass that my characters can shine through on their own.

Q: I have the sense that writing this particular novel was especially difficult for you, a real uphill battle.

A: It wasn't a technical difficulty I was struggling with, but the fact that the book was no fun to write. From start to finish, I found it hard work. Some possible explanations that occurred to me were: 1. It's a bad book, and my subconscious knows it; 2. It's a good book, and good books don't come easy; and 3. I'm getting too old for this. But the real reason, I now believe, is that it was reminding me a little too much of my own situation. Like my central character, I have passed all the major milestones and have no more to look forward to.

Q: There are other similarities: In the past few years, you've moved from the house in which you raised your family into an apartment. You and Liam both have young grandchildren, and you are roughly the same age: Liam is 61, and you turned 68 this past October.

A: My life is most definitely winding down. It's not such a bad thing; it's sort of restful, really. I like being the age I am. But I do miss daydreaming. There's nothing I desperately want anymore - just for life to go on as happily as it has in the past.

Q: How many more books do you still have in you?

A: At the worst moments in my writing of "Noah's Compass" my answer would have been, "None." But I find that I love the act of working too much just to walk away from it, so I have started another book with the idea that I don't have to finish it if I decide I don't want to.

Q: Have you, like Liam, ever kept a notebook full of dangling modifiers you found in The Baltimore Sun?

A: Well, not a written list ...

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