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The Book Show #1692 - Anne Tyler

Book cover for "Redhead by the Side of the Road"

Welcome to the Book Show, a celebration of reading and writers, I'm Joe Donahue. Anne Tyler is one of America's very best living novelists, and one of the world's most loved. She has written 23 novels, sold more than 11 million copies. Her 20th book “A Spool of Blue Thread” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her 11th, “Breathing Lessons” won the Pulitzer Prize. Her other bestsellers include “The Accidental Tourist”, “Say Maybe”, “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and most recently, “Vinegar Girl” and “Clock Dance”.

The themes she continues to return to involve marriage, family dynamics, sibling relationships, growing old, and dying. She sets her stories where she lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her latest titled “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is no exception. The novel focuses on routine-obsessed 44 year-old Micah Mortimer, whose life is about to be thrown out of whack. The novel is about misperception second chances and the sometimes elusive power of human connections. Again, the new novel is “Redhead by the Side of the Road” and it is a great thrill to welcome Anne Tyler to The Book Show.

Thank you very much for being with us. I so appreciate it.

Oh, thank you.

Let me get to the idea of this novel and what ultimately popped in your head when it comes to Micah Mortimer, this 44 year-old character, who is a tech guy. He goes home to home He's fixing people's computers. Where was the idea buried in that character?

It was a completely out of the blue idea or, or maybe we can't even call it an idea. I'm used to really working for my ideas for my novels. And it takes sort of mechanical struggles for a while and all that. And in this case, I was just thinking, well, what will I write about next time and this sentence sort of popped out at me. And so I wrote it down, but I was sort of surprised by it. The sentence was, you have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like, and he didn't have a name yet, but that was Micah Mortimer. And I thought, Well, okay, but then what? And then the next sentence came. And then after that I was on my own, but I still can't explain how, how that all began. And I sort of let him tell the story. I think if a book is going well, the characters eventually start talking to you. But in this case, I had no idea what he would do next, and he opened up and began.

Does that make it thrilling or excruciating?

Oh, it makes it thrilling. I always think that when I'm writing a book, the happy part is when they begin talking, and then I'm being told a story. I think nothing is more important to human beings, or at least to me than story. I think for me even more than music or art, it's just a story. So, yes, I wanted to know what he would do next. I donated to him a sort of mistake that I've made in the past. When I take my morning walk, I have a kind of error of vision. And I see what I think is like at the top of some child's red head near the road, and then I realize, oh, it's an old rusty fire hydrant. And the first time I realized that I thought, I probably should start wearing my glasses when I walk. And that was the end of that. But then, for several days after that, every time I saw that little round head popping up, I would have the same thought and then instantly dismiss it. And it made me start thinking about how many mistakes we make in our lives over and over again, some much more important than a mistake of vision. And sometimes we don't even know we're making those mistakes, and I just thought it would be a good thing to write a novel.

What's interesting about Micah on his runs, and seeing this, is that that is a mistake, obviously, and there are many mistakes in his life. But he is such an orderly fellow, everything is in perfect order. He is very much driven by routine. And as he learns, as we learn in the novel, you can’t control everything.

Yes, I feel yes, you've put your finger on it. I think he is the way he is because he's worried about getting out of control. The world is a little chaotic to him and this is his way of trying to keep it under his thumb, and as he says, at some point in the boo,k he thinks that he's only one skipped vacuuming day away from total chaos.

This novel, and correct me if I'm wrong, but there are moments here where you talk about things that are happening out in this world such as a shooting at a temple in Pittsburgh and of course, what's going on at the border with immigration. I don't think of you, and you certainly aren't a current events novelist, but it's also interesting about how those events invade the orderliness of a human life.

Yes, I feel it's, I really don't like topical novels. I don't. I've never tried to write anything about something that happens politically or historically. But in this case I thought it would be almost dishonest not to at least lightly mention that all this is going on because I think that it should weigh very heavily on everybody, and that it should at least cross his mind. It's something he's unhappy really hearing, even if he's not out there being an activist in any way

Two things, big things in the in the novel happen. One is that his friend, his woman friend, he will not call her a girlfriend because that would not be right to call someone in her late 30s a girlfriend, but she is facing eviction. And then almost at the same time, this young man shows up at Micah's door and thinks that that Micah is his father. Those are big things, but they also are taken care of relatively quickly and easily in the novel. But it's the ripples that seemed to interest you.

Yes. Somebody so controlled and controlling, finds there are ripples at all, that's pretty catastrophic for him. I, I was interested, I wondered what he would do about it.

Tell us a little bit about Cass, who is his girlfriend, and the relationship that they have?

I think I would really like her. She’s a teacher of a fourth grade, in a school that you can tell from a couple of little references is probably impoverished and I have a feeling she's a very good teacher. And she's been going along for a number of years now, perfectly content to be a non-demanding woman friend in his life. They don't seem to have any kind of understanding. She’ll spend the weekend at his house, but they have separate living places. And she seems fairly independent. The question is, does this ever move forward? And I think Micah, it's never occurred to Micah that this could move forward.

And then we also meet bring who is the young man who shows up at Micah's door and Brink is the son of a college girlfriend of Micah. So there is a connection, but not the one that that Brink things there is, and that brought him to the door in the first place. Tell us a little bit about brink.

Oh, I think a little bit of prejudice comes out when I talk about Brink in the novel because I'm not particularly sympathetic to spoiled rich kids. I mean, this just clearly this is somebody who's kind of slid through life, and he has all the trappings of it. You know, he's sort of dresses in that way that, and I'm aware that I'm stereotyping and I shouldn't. But anyway, I couldn't help just having him be that way. I thought it would be fun. And I did. I think he'll probably turn out to be a nice guy when he's grown up. He's pretty self-centered right now.

You say early on in the novel when you're talking about Micah that people probably don't even know anything about him. They don't know that he has a family. They don't know that. He just sort of goes in and out and is very anonymous in his in his way. He does have family. And of course you are so associated with writing about family dynamics. Was it something that you really wanted to make him a little more separate from that unit?

I may have. I'm trying to cast my mind back. The fact is that I can't tell you how many now I've begun writing by saying, well, this one's going to be different. And I always end up with a family, I can't resist I think. So, this family is only briefly present, but I certainly had fun with a dinner party that he goes to at one of his sister's houses, and I feel that it explains a lot about Micah, that seeing them explains a lot. They’re such a chaotic, messy group of people. Very nice, very likable. He even likes them. It’s not an estranged family, but it lets you see what he's reacting against in a way.

Anne Tyler is our guest. The name of the new novel is “Redhead by the Side of the Road”. It is published by Knopf. That idea of writing about family and always finding yourself in that, as you say, maybe even if you declare you're not going to do it, you end up doing it. And ultimately owning it. How much have you thought about what it is that attracts you to the dynamic and to what families give us what they deprive us of, then also how it will relate to readers?

Well, I'm very sure why they keep creeping into my books. And that is because I think of families as being about the only people that you really have to stay with. I know there are such things as divorced or the estranged children or so on. But that's, that's not the usual way of family is. They have to get along with each other and they just grate against each other and they, they never want to see each other again. They see each other the next morning for breakfast. It's my version of those disaster movies where there's an earthquake and everybody's thrown together on a little island and has to show their true colors. The family has to show their true colors when they're right rubbing against each other that way.

The fact that you give us so much information about the characters about the family, it makes them so real and so interesting and so fascinating. And I know that I see the word quirky often associated with your characters, which I don't know. I don't know if I agree with that. I don't know how you feel about that use of that.

Doesn't bother me. Okay.

All right. I don't just because we're all quirky. Right? I mean, we’re all a little off.


So I think it's interesting, because when you go in with Micah, again, we find out so much information, even on just on the first few pages, about his posture, about his shaving routine, about his percolator. We weren't so much about him. Do you want to always give us all of that information or do sometimes do you have to rein yourself in saying, okay, there is such a thing as giving too much background on this person?

I'm not sure that that question has ever occurred to me. And maybe it should. I'm thinking, when I delve into a character Well, when I start writing a book at all, it's because I want to see what it's like to be somebody else. I just want more than just my life. And I'm thinking that readers, too, if they're interested in that I want I want them to see what it would be like to be somebody else too. So I'm trying to make it as sort of as visceral of a description as I can, I hope without, you know, going on and on and on. I used to hate those books we had to read in school that began with three pages of scenery description and that sort of thing. I wanted there to be a little detail here and there that will make readers say, oh, I see that person and oh, I'm walking alongside him.

Right. And that's what it is. And it also there's a commonality, and an understanding ,and when you are writing, do you know those attributes of that character? Or do they come to you? Do you have to know that going in?

They come to me. The only exception would be, let's say, if I've gone with a character that I see on the street, and I think, hmm, what was that about? You know, somebody's talking to somebody else, and I catch a bit of their conversation, I think, hmm, well, let me see if I can explain that to myself. Well, obviously, therefore, I have some details already there because there was some tiny basis in reality, but then I have to make up all the rest and I I wait to see if they'll tell me something, or I may force something on them. Who knows?

When you force something on them? Does that always work?


It’s a gamble.

I am a great believer in revising.

Yeah, you have a way of, of working, which involves in going through and revising, that there is a point in the process from my understanding where you actually will record yourself reading the passage reading the novel.

That's true. It started as just for a mechanical reason, which is that because I write in longhand all the time, and even revise in longhand, and yet, from almost the beginning, have the computer version. You know, I'll write two pages and then put them into the computer. So when I revise in longhand, it's hard to compare to my new longhand version. In other words, looking at the screen looking down with a new long hand, looking back, I'm going to miss something. So I thought, well, I'll just read it. Actually in the beginning, it was one of those stenography things where you have a pedal and you know you have it under your desk if you're a typist, and so I had one of those. And eventually, of course, iPhones came along. But in any case, I thought I'll just read it in. And that way I can then play it back and follow what's on the screen. And I can catch any little changes I've made. And I was just flabbergasted to see how much it helped my writing because all of a sudden, I could say, Oh, that is such a wrong word there. He would never say that word. He wouldn't put it that way. Or, you know, sometimes you have the same word three times on one page, and you didn't intend to, I can catch that too. So it's a huge help. I think

Reynolds Price who I know is one of your teachers once told me that in reading his work, that he loved to read it and to almost perform it because he would fully understand it at that point.

Well he was he was such a really powerful reader I mean, that was kind of like hearing poetry when he read. I can't say I’d do that, but I would pay a lot to just see him up there on a stage reading one of his short stories.

Anne Tyler is our guest, the name of the book is “Redhead by the Side of the Road”. When you look at your body of work, 23 novels, and what you have accomplished with them, you had never really set out to be a writer. This was never in the cards early on. You grew up in Quaker communes, and you were going to North Carolina, and then ultimately, it's sort of moving all around and never in one place for very long. And so then you of course, you go to school, and you take the obvious choice, which is a Russian literature class. And that's your major right? That’s what you majored in?

That was my major.

And so when did you start to think okay, I have a novel in me? This is something that I would like to explore.

Well, never actually, I was really lucky to have the teachers I had, a wonderful high school English teacher then Reynolds Price and another teacher at Duke, who they just were very encouraging. And they would say, well, you're good at this, you should, you should do more or as Reynold said, I’ll put you in touch with my agent, and I didn't even know what an agent was. So it's almost as if I was drifting along and they helped guide me. But at every step, it was not plan. In fact, I used to like writing short stories. And I never wanted to write a novel. But my agent said, this was back in the early 60s. He said, oh, publishers will never buy books of short stories, unless you've written a novel first. So people already know your name. So I sort of dutifully wrote a novel and dutifully wrote three novels, none of which are any good I will say straight out. But then by the time I was on my fourth, it's like, I suddenly got the idea of oh my gosh, you can just sink into this. And it's like living another life. The first three were, I had this idea you had to not revise because that would make it not spontaneous. And that was so wrong. So I figured that out after a while, but I still, I'm not exaggerating when I say, I still wonder what I'm going to be when I grow up, and I really did not expect to be here.

So if you aren't grown up, where do you think of where you are in your mind?

I don't know. I've always, I think because of starting out in communes and things, I've always felt a little bit out of place, perfectly happy in my places, but also what is this all about? And where am I going? And I suppose now that I'm 78 it seems like maybe I'll never get the answer to that.

Which brings up Baltimore because there is a city that you've lived in for over 50 years. 52 years, I believe. And you are so associated with that city, but you still and I don't want to put words in your mouth but you would still consider yourself an outsider.

Oh, yeah. I when I first moved here, I had a toddler and a new baby and I was walking down the street and an old woman stopped and wanted to comment on the children, and I don't know how it came up. I said something like, Oh, this this little one is our actually our only Baltimorian. She's the only one who was born here. And the woman drew back and said, Oh my dear, that does not make her a Baltimorian.

But it is a place that you obviously have great affection for. It seems that it is a place that you are, of course comfortable with.

I really love Baltimore. And I think it's, we all know it's going through hard times. But it may be difficult to imagine this, but it is the most kind-hearted city. And I also like the fact that it's a city that has real gritty character. You couldn’t mistake it for another city. I don't think

That idea of a grit. And you know, you think of like a show, like The Wire or something. I mean, obviously, that's a portrayal of Baltimore. But yours is, I guess, gritty, but in a different way, isn't it? I don't know how you would describe it. It is people who are going through life in this place, that that seems to balance them in some way. And yet, they're often characters that are that have a melancholy to them.

Yes. I think that's sort of my view of life. I mean, I think every has a little sadness underneath about something or other and I also think that even in the saddest situation, sometimes very funny things happen.

I've always thought of you as, when I first started reading you back in the 80s, that that nobody did middle age melancholy better than you. And then as I became middle aged and beyond, I thought, well, yeah, but that's just sort of life isn't it? It's the moment where you're sort of the little puppy who comes in with a cat and the cat kind of smacks the puppy around and whaps him upside the head.

That’s a good image.

Yeah, of just what's going on in the world. And it's reading that that is so fascinating of how these characters kind of go through because they have been smacked a little bit.

Mm hmm.

When you approach the next project, how much time do you give yourself to recharge and to work on what is next?

It works out to be you usually between six and eight months.

There’s no I guess, no schedule. That's up to you. But that's just what it works out to be?

Yes. What happens is that first I say, oh, thank heaven, I'm done. I'm gonna dig out the house, you know, and start accepting more invitations. And that's social and all that. And then I one day I just kind of wake up and say, I miss something in my life and it's time to start another, and as I say, usually that's with no idea in my head whatsoever. So that makes it a hard few weeks. It's huge. I'm always amazed that when I sit down and pick up a pen and say all right, write down one idea one thing and think about it all day. I start with that and I have nothing, nothing, nothing day after day, but it always works out to be 30 days. I can't figure that one out.

You are not an author to go out on an endless book tour. You don't do that.

Oh no, no.

You don't you don't have book signings. You very rarely, you don't do many interviews. This is a very rare interview that you're doing with us which I am very appreciative of. Do you ever think you miss something by not interacting more with readers? Or is that something that you would just hate?

Well, my feeling as a reader is that I have no particular interest in meeting the writer. I mean, I if you told me that Tolstoy could come to dinner with me tomorrow, I'd say well, why don't I just sit here and read Anna Karenina? I don't think writers are particularly exciting people. And I know that if in fact. I see it sometimes in people's faces. I'll be in the grocery store and somebody will stop me and say, are you Anne Tyler, and I feel as if almost from the beginning I'm disappointing them because I don't say anything beautifully worded or witty or dramatic. I just say, how are you? And that's like a disappointment for them. So I it doesn't make me want to go out and meet readers.

You know, I, I've wanted to interview you for I believe 31 years, I've tried to interview you, and really have been working very hard on it over the last decade or so. And the only thing I can say about it is of course, well, I'm a little bit different. Yes, I'm a reader, but also I interview authors. So you're someone that I'm interested in talking to, but it is it's fascinating to me because your work more than anyone else, I think. And I realized this, of why this interview was so special to me, was because I had a bond with my mother with you. I remember bringing home this is in, I don't know the very beginning of VCRs, and bringing home the “Accidental Tourist” film and saying I thought my mother would enjoy it and she watched it and, she said, oh, that's very nice. She said, you will you will like the novel better. And I said, well, I've never read the novel. And she said, well, I know. Well read the novel and then let's talk. And then that, a librarian by the way, I should mention that, then we would just read these books together. And now she is, she's been gone for over a decade, but it's still that moment that you have, that very much of a bonding that we had over your books and sort of, as I read them, I thought, oh, well, if mom gets this, I obviously get this because I understand her and hopefully she understands me. So there are those personal connections that people have with art.

I love it that you said that about your mother. That's very kind I it makes me happy.

Well, it's it's it was a beautiful thing for us. And I will say that I remember vividly, one time coming home and saying I was very proud of myself. I gotten an interview with Philip Roth. And I was very proud and I came home and I told mom that I that I had, I was gonna interview Philip Roth and she said, Oh, that's very exciting. Let me know when you get to interview Anne Tyler

Well, darn! I should have done it 10 years sooner I guess.

The new novel is “Redhead by the Side of the Road”. It is published by Knopf. Anne Tyler just a great pleasure and I thank you so much for all the joy that you have given us.

Well, I so much enjoyed talking to you. I liked your questions.

Thank you very much. Again Anne Tyler's new novel is “Redhead by the Side of the Road”. It is published by Knopf. We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at book at WAMC.org, and you can listen again to this or find past Book Shows via podcast or at wamc.org. Sarah LaDuke produces our program. Bookmark us for next week and thanks for listening. For the Book Show, I’m Joe Donahue.


Originially aired as The Book Show #1657.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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