Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist and short story writer. She has written 22 novels, the best known of which are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist. She has lived in Baltimore for more than 50 years and the city provides the setting for many of her novels.
You have often referred to yourself as an outsider. Do you think that is a prerequisite for a writer?
I don’t think it is necessary for a writer but I think in my case it has helped me to write the way I do. If you feel like a Martian, dropping in on the world, then you are more likely to observe people and things, all the small details, in a way that’s off the beaten track.
You used to be reluctant to give interviews, but seem to have softened lately. Why?
I am still reluctant, to be honest, but the world has changed so much. I used to think it was my publisher’s job to get people interested in my books and persuade them to buy copies, but books are suffering. We need to do all we can to encourage people to see books and reading as part of their lives. If we don’t, then someday kids will stop reading and that will be the end.
At the end of your new novel, Clock Dance, one of the characters makes a snap decision to abscond from her life. Have you ever been tempted to do the same thing?
Many times. I think everyone has fantasies of escape from time to time, particularly people who are married. My husband’s dead now, my kids are grown up and I live alone but I still sometimes imagine running away. I love the idea of packing my two favourite sweaters and hitting the road.
Which books would we find on your bedside table?
Well, I have zero books because when I go to bed I read the New Yorker. Since New Yorkers only come 48 weeks of the year, I carefully eke them out over a week — read an article each night then try to sleep.
What’s the last really great book you’ve read?
That’s easy. I’ve been bowled over by Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room [about life in a women’s prison]. It’s astounding — very difficult to read but so beautifully done and with such knowledge, although it doesn’t feel like a “researched” book. Sometimes you have this feeling that writers put something in because they found it out and had to use it.
Which other novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you admire?
I read a whole lot of young writers. They seem to be starting at a much higher level than my generation. I’m particularly interested in stories of immigrants, and I loved Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, about an Indian family living in America. Dipping into the not-so-young group, I just read Julian Barnes’s The Only Story. It’s so sad and so powerful. I was thinking it would be one kind of story but it ended up another.
Do you prefer to read on paper or on a screen?
I have to say that most of my reading is on a screen nowadays: I can have a book instantly, it’s cheaper and it’s downsized. Sometimes if I’m really taken with a book I’ll buy the paper edition after that.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
As I’m sure every writer tells you, I was a very busy, voracious reader. I’ve read Little Women so often I must know it by heart by now — it must be around 27 times.
What book would you give to a young person now?
I’ve been telling everybody about this YA book, which I’d never have thought I’d go for, called Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. The whole book takes place on an elevator in a really poor project building. Different people get on at each stop and it turns out they’re all dead. The point is the endless revenge killings that happen in cities like Baltimore and that somebody should stop the cycle. It’s such vivid, wonderful language that any kid who read it would think twice before picking up a gun and going to avenge someone.
What book might people be surprised to see on your bookshelves?
An unnaturally large quantity of dictionaries because it drives me crazy when I read a novel and somebody uses an anachronism. It happens in movies too — a waitress will put down some food and say, “enjoy”, and it’s supposed to be happening in the 1950s where she would not be saying “enjoy”. So, I pay close attention to these old dictionaries.
Is there a classic novel that you feel you should have read but haven’t?
I have tried several times to read Wuthering Heights but it just strikes me as silly, so I always quit it. I don’t tell any of my friends this because women have very fond memories of reading it when they’re young and I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Is there a book that you expected to like but didn’t like?
Oh, there are so many of those. I have a really strong dislike of the quartet of books by Elena Ferrante [the Neapolitan novels]. I can’t tell you how many people have told me I’m going to love them, and I couldn’t even finish the first one, let alone go on. A couple of times I was rude enough to say so to a friend and we came practically to blows. People feel very strongly about those books. But I just felt everything I was reading was fake. And there are so many other things to read. Having said that, I’m aware that I’m not fascinated by the subject of friendships, it’s not as fascinating as families.
Families are always at the heart of your books...
I never planned to be a writer who only wrote about families, it’s just that I’ll get into a new book I’m writing and think, “Oh dear, it seems to be about a family yet again”.
Is there a book or author that you always return to?
It would have to be Jane Austen. I didn’t discover her until quite late. My mother would always tell me to read her and I would try and think she was very fusty and old fashioned. But in my mid-30s I started with Pride and Prejudice, and I just think her books are wonderful. The last time I reread her was around five years ago and I’m thinking it’s time to do it again, but I couldn’t bear it if I discovered I didn’t like her now.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I am, I like to begin a book before a new one comes out because then I won’t obsess about how it’s doing, I’ll be thinking about the new book.
–Guardian News and Media Ltd