Robert Gottlieb on his career as an editor and publisher, and a life spent among many of America's greatest writers.
For her latest novel, Anne Tyler says she wanted to write a book that starts from the present and goes back in time so she’d never have to finish. That’s because, for Tyler, the best part of writing is when she’s in the middle. But even this book had to end and the result is her 20th novel. Set in Baltimore, “A Spool of Blue Thread” explores three generations of the Whitshank family. Over time, they’ve come to define themselves by certain family stories — and buried many others away in secret. In her first live radio interview, Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Tyler joins Diane to discuss her new book and long career writing about matters of the family.
- Anne Tyler Pulitzer Prize winning author. Her latest novel is "A Spool of Blue Thread".
Submit Your Questions For Anne Tyler
Q&A: Anne Tyler
After giving her first live radio interview, Anne Tyler sat down with us to answer some questions submitted by listeners ahead of the show. Here's what she told us.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Anne Tyler has written 20 novels over her long career. The themes she continues to return to involved marriage, sibling relationships, growing old and dying. She sets her stories where she lives, in Baltimore. Her latest titled, "A Spool of Blue Thread," is no exception. Through three generations of one family, Tyler explores the stories families tell to define who they are and the painful ones they leave out but bubble just beneath the surface.
MS. DIANE REHMPulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler joins me to talk about her new book and her long career as a writer. I know you'll want to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Anne Tyler, it's a great pleasure to meet you.
MS. ANNE TYLERWell, thank you. It's good to be here.
REHMSo glad to have you here. The cover of this book is a spool of blue thread. Tell us why this title.
TYLERWell, it's a very tiny moment in the book when one of the sons of the family has a sort of realization about the fact that forgiveness works two ways and it's such a tiny moment and it does involve a spool of blue thread and I was afraid readers might miss it altogether if I didn't sort of accent it with the title.
REHMWell, it's a lovely moment in the book, which is really all about the Whitshank family. Tell us about them.
TYLERThey come from somewhere that they're not quite sure of themselves. There's sort of a mystery in their background. There are only three generations that we know of and who knows before that what's going on. And they are a family of construction workers, basically. They have a contracting company. And like all families, they have a couple of stories they like to tell about themselves that are passed down and some other stories that are not passed down and are kept a little bit under the surface.
REHMThe house in which they live is really a major part of the story.
TYLERWell, thank you. I think of it as a character in the story, as a matter of fact.
REHMYeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
TYLERIt didn't start out that way. What I was thinking is that the workman who's the patriarch of the family cares deeply about detail and would be building this house with this and that, little detail. And I got all caught up in it and all of a sudden, it seemed the house was as real to me as any of the people in it.
REHMAnd he was, actually, building the house for someone else, but he loved the property and he came to adore the house.
TYLERIt's true and he coveted the property and finagled his way to owning it so it's sort of a theme in the Whitshank family, I think, that sometimes they do want to be a little above where they started out or to have what somebody else might have, they wish they had.
REHMI was particularly interested in Abby who is the mother in the Whitshank family. She has really sort of a little ways into the book, she begins to experience memory problems. As people age, I mean, we all forget things and she is forgetting things that her family begins to worry about.
TYLERYes. I think probably my private explanation for what's going on with Abby is that she's having little tiny transient strokes. She says herself that she still has a good memory and she does. It's just that there are these gaps suddenly where she can't tell you what happened five minutes ago.
TYLERJust gaps, like skipped -- I think she says, at one point, skipping a groove in a record.
REHMSkipping a groove in a record. There is a son, Denny, about whom there seems to be a great mystery, both to us as readers and within the Whitshank family itself. Tell us about Denny.
TYLERWell, don't you think that in every family, there's one sort of outlier, you know, he's just -- he's not a bad person, but he might be difficult in the family. There's something that's not quite clear about why things aren't working out just the way they should be for him. And I think sometimes they're very appealing people, too. They have a special pull to them. And I just wanted to explore somebody like that.
REHMWell, he's curious, because you open the book, he calls home and he's talking to his father and he announces, I'm gay, or something, that's at least what the father, Red, hears. And then, he turns to Abby and says, he says he's gay. And she says, well, can't you call him back. He hung up. So we don't know if Denny is gay or not. He's had girlfriends. We don't know if he's married or not until a little later in the novel, we find out that there are connections that Denny has had, but we don't know what kind of work he does.
TYLERYes. Well, he does so many different kinds of work. He's all over the place. He's -- and I do -- I sort of explain to myself why he made that phone call, which is, as the book goes on, you're never sure. Well, what was that? You know, but several editors pointed out to me that there's such a thing of over-explaining and I always worry about that as a writer, that I want to make sure I trust my readers enough that I don't tell them every little thing, that they can figure out for themselves.
TYLERSo I listened to the editors and did not dot every I and cross every T about that.
REHMThat's interesting. I wonder if that's how you are in your own private life or is that strictly how you are as a writer.
TYLEROh, about explaining, you mean?
TYLERWell, that's an interesting question. I'm not quite sure, actually.
REHMYou're not sure how open you are...
TYLERI'm not sure.
REHM...or how much explaining you do?
TYLERYes. All I know is that as I look back on my writing over the years and years, I feel as if I ever make a mistake in a book, I think it's about over-explaining. And whether I...
TYLERWhether I translate that to my life or not, I don't know. But I think trusting the reader is important and they are capable of understanding quite a lot, I've learned.
REHMAnd of course, leaving those sort of empty spaces for the reader to interpret or create him or herself is very intriguing. It can draw the reader more and more into the book.
TYLERAs a reader, I feel sometimes almost flattered and honored when a writer does that for me. They say, well, we know you can figure this much out.
REHMIs there one writer that you look at now and think, hmm, that's really just perfectly done?
TYLEROh, there's so many writers I feel that way about. I just -- I'm in awe of some of them. Lately, I've been trying to tell everybody I know about this Canadian writer named Mary Lawson who also writes about families. And her view of families so that they are dear and beloved, but also a burden, that sometimes you have to care for them, take care of them, stay home or go home to look after them and, you know, it's something we can all identify with at some point in our lives.
TYLERShe's written three novels, each one just a marvel. Her latest was "Road Ends."
REHMI'm going to write that down. Mary Lawson, "Road Ends." Okay. The sense of family, where does that come from for you? From your own family of origin or the family you created?
TYLERI think from family of origin. I think that it's always struck me that you cannot leave your family, at least not without enormous upheaval. And you can certainly divorce, you can ditch your friends and all that. So how the family people stay together and get along with each other and overcome awful hurts and pains and injuries and keep going, I seem to just have to keep circling that subject and going back in.
TYLEREvery now and then, I'll say, oh, I think I'll write about something different next time and it never works out. It just sort, whoops, there's the family again.
REHMAnd you know some families don't ever work it out. But you know that as well as I. Anne Tyler, her brand new book is titled, "A Spool of Blue Thread." Short break here, your calls, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. I'm honored to have Anne Tyler with me. She is, of course, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist for her book, "Breathing Lessons," but we're talking today about a new one. It's called, "A Spool of Blue Thread." And Anne Tyler, one of the mysteries about the book or within the book is about the son, Stem. And there's such a beautiful passage about Stem, who is a originally Douglas when he's born. Would you read this for us?
TYLER"I think we should keep him, Abby said. He slapped the paper down on the table and said, oh, Abby. We're the only people he's got, Red, clearly. That mother, even if we managed to track her down, what are the odds she'd want him or take proper care of him if she did want him or stick by him through thick and thin. We can't go around adopting every child we run into, Ab. We've got three of our own. Three is all we can afford, more than we can afford and you were going back to work once Denny starts first grade.
TYLERThat's okay. I'll go back when Douglas starts. Plus, we have no rights to him. Not court in this land would let us keep that kid. He's got a mother somewhere. We just won't tell the courts, Abby said. Have you lost your mind? We'll say we're just looking after him till his mother can come and get him. In fact, that really is what we'll be doing. And besides, Red said, how do we know for sure he's even normal?
TYLEROf course he's normal. Does he talk? He's shy. He's feeling anxious. He doesn't know us. Does he react? Yes, he reacts. He's reacting just the way any child would who's had his world turned upside down with no warning. But it could be something's wrong with him, Red said. Well, what if it were? You just throw a child to the wolves if he's not Einstein? And would he fit in with our family? Would he get along with our kids? Is he our kind of personality? We don't know the first damn thing about him.
TYLERWe don't know him. We don't love him. Red, Abby said. She rose to her feet. She was fully, crispy dressed at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, which was, come to think of it, not her usual weekend custom. Her hair was already pinned up in its topknot. She looked uncharacteristically imposing. He was sitting on the edge of the bed last night in his pajamas, she said, and I saw the back of his neck, his fragile, slender stem of a neck and it struck me all at once that there was nobody anywhere, anyplace on this planet that would look at that little neck and just have to reach out and cup a hand behind it.
TYLERYou know how you just have to touch your child sometimes, how you drink them in with your eyes and you can stare at them for hours and you marvel at how dear and impossibly perfect he is? And that will never again happen to Douglas. He has nobody left on earth who thinks he's special. Damn it, Abby. Don't you curse a me, Red Whitshank. I need this. I have to do this. I cannot see that little stem of a neck and let him go on alone in this world. I can't. I'd rather die."
REHMAnd that is exactly what they end up calling Douglas. They call him Stem.
REHMWhat a beautiful young man.
TYLERWell, I enjoyed writing about Stem. He's -- I think of him as one of those accepting sweet people who go through life calmly and sort of hold everybody else up.
REHMAt the same time, though, Abby's not crazy about Stem's wife, Nora. How come?
TYLEROh, well, she was so much fun to write. She's lovely. She is, for one thing, absolutely beautiful, but doesn't know it. And I guess what Abby's most concerned about is she's a very fundamentalist Christian. She belongs to a little church and it just not what Abby's used to. And it seems that all the way through the book, she's like of looking at her and thinking, what's going on there. She's a very silent, mysterious young woman who just floats through her days ethereally and Abby can't quite explain her to herself.
TYLERBut, you know, I think Nora, too, is holding the family up. I loved writing about her.
REHMThere is a certain sense of acceptance that each person in this novel has to come to with regard not only to other people, but to other situations. Denny turns up at the door. How come?
TYLERWell, he's supposedly coming to help out because he's heard that Abby is having these little skipped gaps and that Red has had a heart event of some sort. But I think it's sort of sad that the family isn't saying, oh, thank goodness you're here. It's sort of, oh, dear. What are we gonna do about Denny. He's arrived, you know. It's very interesting to me that he somehow -- he's not exactly as accepted in his family as he is in the rest of the world. It's just -- he's going to be permanently outside there, but he really wants in.
TYLERAnd yet, at the same time, when he gets in, he's sort of saying, I feel stuck and I'm choking to death.
REHMWell, he comes back and part of the reason he come back is because he's resentful that somehow Stem has been given -- he's in charge. Stem has gone to work for his "dad," Red and so he's kind of in charge of the family and Denny somehow resents that.
TYLERYes. I think it's one of those dynamics you often see where one person in a family feels that one specific other person is getting more than he got, more love, more attention. And this is so clear, I hope, to all of us, to readers, that it's not true, that Denny is very much loved. But it's almost like the patriarch of the family wishing he had the house that somebody else had. It's a matter of coveting.
REHMAnd also, I think, the way you tell this story that is sort of starting now and going backwards is something that informs readers in a certain way. What if you hadn't finished the book? What if, god forbid, you had died before you finished the book? Where would it have been?
TYLERWell, that's -- it's an interesting question because I actually did write that book saying, I never want to finish it. I'm happiest in the middle of a book. I will just do endless generations of a family. And then, because generations do end in the present day, I better turn around and do it backwards. So I began the modern days and I went back to Red and Abby's courtship and then to the patriarch arriving in Baltimore. And I guess I thought I would go back to cave days unless I died and somehow I realized I wasn't that interested in the people before the patriarch of the family so I sort of stopped.
REHMDo you think that the Whitshank family could the stuff of yet another novel?
TYLERNot one I would write. I don't believe in serials of any sort. It seems they're always just a little bit paler than the book that proceeded them.
REHMYou're finished with the Whitshanks.
REHMBut they are such an interesting and intriguing family because of all the little mysteries an all the things we learn as we go backwards that, I think, oh, this is something I didn't know when I started down this path. I mean, you're sort of giving us clues as you go farther into the book about the present.
TYLERYes. It's connected two ways at once, I think, a back and a forth. It was an intriguing book to write for that reason. I was completely caught up in it when I was. There were things I didn't know. I wasn't entirely sure where the family's roots were at the beginning. I looked at the marriage of the patriarch of the family and had this opinion about it, which turned out to be not entirely right. Like most marriages, it's a little different from the inside than it looks from the outside.
REHMMost marriages are.
TYLEROh, absolutely. Yes.
REHMI mean, very, very hard to know what a marriage is from the outside. You were married to an Iranian man.
TYLERYes, I was.
REHMFor how many years?
TYLEROh, my. Must have been 34 years.
REHMTell us about him.
TYLERHe died in 1997. Well, that was the most probably unlikely sort of marriage you could imagine, you know, an Iranian. I didn't -- wasn't even quite sure where Iran was when I met him, but...
REHMHow did you meet him?
TYLEROh, friends brought him along to a evening out where we were all going and I was surprised to see him and hadn't thought there'd be this other person so that explains why his first complete sentence to me was, it wonders me why you are so hostile.
TYLERSo you can see he was irresistible.
REHMThat's a great beginning.
REHMThat's a great beginning. And then, as you got to know him, what was it that so intrigued you about him?
TYLERWell, he was warm and he was an enjoyer. He just truly enjoyed life, as so many Middle Easterners seem to. He was so happy all the time and so quick to react to things. And I was warned by my own mother, in fact. She said, now you know, this is a cross-cultural marriage. And this was probably very naive of me, but at the time, I pointed out to her that he and I had just been to a concert and while everybody else was watching the conductor and the orchestra, Taghi and I had started suddenly noticing the shadow of the conductor on the ceiling of the concert hall, which was a very dramatic shadow.
TYLERAnd the two of us were looking up at it and I said to my mother, you see, we have a great deal in common, which now I think is a naive thing to say about the whole cross-cultural issue, but still I can see my point.
REHMDid she, your mother, come to accept him and...
TYLEROh, she adored him.
REHMShe adored him.
TYLERShe loved him more than she loved me.
REHMIsn't that sometimes the way.
REHMHe must have been a charmer.
TYLERHe really was, yes.
REHMAnd what happened?
TYLERWell, he died of lymphoma in 1997 so that's been a lot of years. I know you know that it never changes, really, but the kids and I like to sit around and talk about him and even talk about his foibles, which makes us laugh so then we don't feel so sad.
TYLEROh, he was always sort of, you know, sort of explosive and, you know, I remember once he told one my daughters that she ought to go to medical school. And she said, well, I'm not interested in medicine. And he said, well, what does that have to do with anything. We like to quote that.
REHMPerfect. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There is one passage in the book that I wonder -- there's been speculation and perhaps you've even said it, beginning on page 135 and going over to the middle of 136, that could refer to your husband. Would you read it for us?
TYLERYes. This takes place when they're at the beach, at a rented beach cottage. "The next door people are back, Jeanie called, stepping in from the screen porch. Next door was almost the only houses unassuming as theirs was and the people she was referring to had been renting it for at least as long as the Whitshanks had been renting theirs. Oddly enough, though, the two families never socialized. They smiled at each other if they happened to be out on the beach at the same time, but they didn't speak. And although Abby had once or twice debated inviting them over for drinks, Red always voted her down.
TYLERLeave things as they were, he told her, less chance of any unwelcome intrusions in the future. Even Amanda and Jeanie, on the lookout during the early days for playmates, had hung back shyly because the next door people's two daughters always brought friends of their own. And besides, they were slightly older. So for all these years, 36 now, the Whitshanks had watched from a distance while the slender young parents next door, with thicker through the middle and their hair turned gray and their daughters changed from children to young women. One summer in the late '90s when the daughters were still in their teens, it was noticed that the father of the family never once went down to the water, spending the week instead lying under blanket in a chaise lounge on their deck.
TYLERAnd the summer after that, he was no longer with them. A muted, sad little group that next door people had been that year when always before they had seem to enjoy themselves so. But they did come and they continued to come. The mother taking her early morning walks along the beach alone now. The daughters in the company of boyfriends who metamorphosed into husbands by and by. And then, a little boy appearing and later, a little girl. The grandson has brought a friend this year, Jeanie reported. Oh, that makes me want to cry. Cry? What for, Hugh asked her. It's the circularity, I guess.
TYLERWhen we first saw the next door people, the daughters were the ones bringing friends and now the grandson is and it starts all over again. You sure have given these folk a lot of thought, Hugh said. Well, they're us in a way, Jeanie said. But you could see Hugh found that hard to understand."
REHMDoes that passage reflect any of your own life?
TYLERIt does. I have had a tradition for many years now of giving my two daughters cameo roles. It might be one sentence. You see a young woman walking by looking for her cat or something, but it's them. And then, of course, they got married and so I had to add the sons-in-law in and then one had two children and they were added. And so this is all of them, plus, for once, Taghi and I, too because that, of course, is the father.
REHMAnd nobody went to medical school.
REHMAnne Tyler, her newest novel is titled, "A Spool of Blue Thread." Your calls, your email when we come back.
REHMWelcome back. Anne Tyler is with me, and she has just told me that for her book "A Spool of Blue Thread," her latest novel, that this is the first live interview you've done in 50 years.
REHMTell me why that is, Anne. Why is it that you have refrained from going out on book tours, as most people do?
TYLERWell, I think the nature of many writers is sort of more introverted. I was never very good at doing that kind of thing, and it always seems to me when people ask you to do it, it's like as if they said, well, you love to roller-skate, so why don't you become a pastry chef. You know, it's completely unrelated.
REHMBut here you are talking and reading, and our listeners are enjoying the pleasure of hearing you in conversation. So you are giving pleasure as you go.
TYLERWell, that's nice to think. I didn't expect to enjoy it so much, to be honest, but, you know, it has been explained to me that the book world is very different now. In the old days, people only heard about a book because of a book review that was printed in a newspaper, and that was enough. And now there are fewer and fewer of those. So it makes sense to talk to people more directly about it, I think, and get the word out about books that way.
REHMAnd you feel relatively comfortable here, I hope.
TYLERWell, with you I certainly do, thank you.
REHMOh good, I'm glad. Here is a wonderful email from Tracy, who says, your writing has helped shape my life and spoken to me. Thank you. I talk to my freshman students about Ian Bedlo's Church of the Second Chance. I thank you for your "Ladder of Years," reminding me that if I run from my life, I will build a new one that looks just like this, and your image of Pearl having a second and third child to hedge her bets in case something went wrong, what a hoot. All of your characters speak to me. I love Baltimore and its people to me. I mourned for you when you lost your husband.
TYLEROh Tracy, that's lovely. I feel as if I've just found the ideal reader. That's nice.
REHMYou were actually born in Minneapolis.
REHMWhat brought you to Baltimore?
TYLERI was only in Minneapolis for about six months, and then my family moved all over, mostly joining various communes here and there. And we ended up in North Carolina, and I grew up in North Carolina.
REHMWhat did your dad and mother do?
TYLERMy father was a chemist. My mother was a social worker when she worked. I mean, she raised the children first and then went back to work.
REHMAnd Abby is a social worker.
TYLERYes, but that's only coincidental.
REHMI see. I see. As Tracy says, she mourned for you when you lost your husband. Over how long a period was he ill?
TYLERFor three years. So he -- it was sort of off and on, but he always wanted to die at home, and he did and while the children were around, too, so...
REHMI'm glad. I'm glad. That's very fortunate for you. Here's another email from another Ann. She says, what I love about Anne Tyler's writing is her ability to take abstract emotions and weave them into cohesive and pure sentences about life's events. I've been through infertility, adoption, disability and loss of loved ones, and I have found comfort and truth in her books throughout. Good writing makes you feel less alone. Thank you for sharing your gift.
TYLEROh my, thank you, Ann, that's wonderful. I think it's often the case that writers say, well, we're not doing anything for anybody, we're just making up our little imaginary stories. So I love to hear that they connect with somebody, and there's somebody at the other end, you know, receiving what's sent out.
REHMBut don't you get letters from readers? Surely you must.
TYLERI do occasionally, yes, I do.
REHMYes, I would've thought so. I would've hoped so. Let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850, to Jenny in Goshen, Indiana. Hi, you're on the air.
JENNYHi, thank you for taking my call.
JENNYAnd I'm so, so honored to be able to speak to Anne Tyler. The main thing I wanted to do was thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the joy and insight you've brought to me and my friends that have read you, my mother. I think we've read all your books. And I've never been to Baltimore, but I feel like I have, and I know it well just from reading about it. And I wanted to tell you how much I love the names of your characters and the jobs that you've come up with for them. It reminded me, just when I heard about the church, the book with the church, I was reminded of the clutter counselor and how much of an important job that would be for somebody to have, and I wish someone I knew actually did that.
JENNYAnd then the book where the woman just walks away from her family, down the beach, and when they give the description to the police that they print out, doesn't it say something in it like she may have been a cat in her former life, or...
REHMAnd that's something you've said, if you ever come back.
TYLERYes, well, thank you, Jenny, I loved your comments. And yes, I did have fun with that description of the -- in the newspaper, that they couldn't even quite say what color her eyes were. Nobody in her family was sure.
REHMBut is there a favorite of your novels that you've written?
TYLERMy favorite has always been "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant."
TYLERIt's really the book of my heart, yes.
REHMI'm so glad we did that.
TYLERI'm so glad you did it, too, and tied it to Thanksgiving and...
REHMAnd did you get to hear that program?
TYLERI did, yes.
REHMOh, how wonderful. I'm so glad.
TYLERAnd I loved every word of it. But just the fact that you -- that you linked the idea of families coming home for the much-looked-forward-to-but-dreaded family gathering, you know, and then to feature that book right then made me laugh.
REHMIsn't that interesting that so many families have that problem, that somehow that Thanksgiving dinner that everybody going home with their various families, various perspectives on life, will then all have to sit at the same table and may have some very negative feelings about what's going on?
TYLERIt's true. I also think that meals in general can be -- if you think back to your family life with children and everything, I mean, if something's going to erupt, it often erupts over the dinner table. I don't know why.
TYLERMaybe just because that's one time when you're really all sitting in one place and looking at each other.
REHMBut that's what you and I did with our families. We sat around the dinner table together.
REHMI'm not sure how much that happens anymore.
TYLERI think it's hard for it to happen now, yes.
REHMBecause people are all over.
TYLERAll over the place, more working mothers, and it must be terribly difficult.
REHMExactly. Let's go to Dan in Lexington, Tennessee. You're on the air.
DANHi, thank you, Diane, I truly enjoy your program, and you are a treasure to your listening audience.
TYLERThank you so much.
DANMs. Tyler, first of all, I just want to say that with your soothing, calm voice and wonderful delivery, you should probably do your books on tape. I really enjoy listening to the excerpts you've been reading, and it's very -- you have a very calming nature to your voice. So, lovely.
TYLEROh, thank you.
DANMy question is about something that you said earlier in the program about you appreciated things that authors did for you. Many books that I have picked up and written over the years, I get totally enthralled with the characters and the storyline, everything going on. And then I abruptly run into the bad endings, the unhappy endings. Do you feel any obligation at all to your readers to provide a happy ending, something that they will be very pleased with when they've completed the reading of your book?
TYLERI always want to have a happy ending for my books, but if I can't do that, just it's untrue to the characters, as I'm thinking of one of my books, "Celestial Navigation," was sort of -- was sort of sad in the sense that people had to keep on going the way they were going, I feel bad about it, but I feel as if sometimes the characters are telling me I can't go there, I can't do this, you're going to have to just accept the fact that it won't be we live happily ever after.
TYLERBut I agree with you that I would rather read a book where at least it's tied up at the end, you know, you don't wonder what was left.
REHMLots of loose ends.
REHMSo does that answer it for you, Dan?
DANYes, thank you.
REHMOkay, thanks for calling.
TYLERThank you, Dan.
REHMLet's go to Mary in Raleigh, North Carolina. Hi there, you're on the air.
MARYHello. This is an especially exciting program for me because you are one of my heroines, and I have had the pleasure of meeting you when you come to Raleigh. And I'm calling because I have a humorous story about Anne's family. I was a friend of both her parents and a close friend of her mother's while she was in college, and I am sure everybody will get a kick out of it like I do that Phyllis would sit on my living room couch and wring her hands and say, Mary, how is Anne ever going to make a living. She is majoring in Russian literature.
REHMNow do you have any idea who this caller is?
TYLERNo, but Mary, I just -- even hearing your accent makes me feel comfortable.
MARYGood. Well, I'm not sure if I ever met you, if we ever met. I was at the house often and met your brothers and everybody coming in and out. And -- but your mother was wonderful. She was a very sensitive woman. I do have to confess that I am uncomfortable reading your books because I can't help but fish them for references to her or your dad or your brothers.
TYLEROh, well, that would be uncomfortable, but I can tell you this. Nobody in any of my books is real. So my mother was not Pearl Tull, you'll be happy to know.
REHMAll right, Mary, thanks so much for your call. Why haven't you put any of your family into your novels?
TYLERPartly it's -- of course you get into whether you want to do that to somebody in real life, but really much more it's about the fact that I'm trying, when I write books, to read -- to lead somebody else's life. I want to be somebody else. I want to see what it's like. Therefore, you know, why would I even think for a second about leading the same life over again, putting somebody who's already, you know, in my life in the book.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Was your mother worried about you?
TYLERI didn't know.
REHMYou didn't know that?
TYLERShe kept it very secret, I must say. I applaud her.
REHMSo you majored in Russian literature?
TYLERYes, I did, not for a very good reason, I'm afraid, but I -- when I set off to college, I thought, I want to do something that's outrageous and different. I want to start a new life. And at that point, in the middle of the Cold War, it was very strange to be learning Russian, the language, and majoring in the literature.
REHMOf course, yeah.
TYLERAnd when I announced that I was going to do that, the head of the department said, well, I just want to warn you that I have had an FBI agent tailing me for years, so maybe that will happen to you, too. And I just want you to bear that in mind. And of course I was thrilled with the idea. I thought, oh, good. But nobody, as far as I know, ever tailed me.
REHMBut, you know, it's interesting, going back to something you said earlier, I just wanted to explore for a moment the idea that you and your family lived in various communes. Tell me about that.
TYLERMy parents were Quakers, and my father was a conscientious objector. And this was right after the second world war that they began sort of looking around. They were very disillusioned with the fact that -- such a warlike world, and they wanted to sort of retreat and have a Utopian, kind of Emersonian community somewhere. And as I'm sure almost anyone who's ever been in a commune will tell you, these things don't last or work out quite the way they plan because everybody brings the world with them when they come.
TYLERSo there were several of them in a row, and the last one was in the mountains of North Carolina. And after that, my father gave up and said I'm going to go get a regular job and live in Raleigh.
REHMWhat was life like for you in those communes?
TYLERThe only one I remember was the one in the mountains of North Carolina, and it was in many ways just idyllic. It was -- we had a goat farm, and it was very much -- we lived on what we grew or could make for ourselves. And it was peaceful. It was also a kind of strange life, and I think maybe, you know, you shouldn't ever leave such a place if you've been raised that way because it's so different outside that it's hard to adjust to.
REHMAnd what about schooling during those years?
TYLERThere was a little, three-room schoolhouse in the mountains that I went to, and it didn't seem like quite enough to my parents. So then my mother also home-schooled us with the Calvert Correspondence School System, which was based in Baltimore, I realized years later. And she sent away for materials, and she would teach us whatever they said, which was, you know, sometimes inappropriate. Like our spelling word one day was hors d'oeuvre.
REHMWhich I still have a hard time spelling.
REHMAnne Tyler, what a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you.
TYLEROh thank you. I've enjoyed it very much.
REHMI'm so glad. Anne Tyler, her latest novel, "A Spool of Blue Thread." And thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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