My Anne Tyler Moment, by Jennie Walters

Christchurch College, Oxford
My favourite author in the whole world is Anne Tyler, so when I heard she was giving her first interview for 37 years at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, I was first in line to buy my ticket. At the last minute, I suddenly worried she wouldn't live up to my expectations, that for some reason I'd be disappointed, and my devotion to her books would be tarnished as a result. Anyway, surely an author's work should speak for itself; what she's like as a person is immaterial. Why did I want to see her, when what mattered to me was her writing? I was curious, I suppose, and wanted my own personal image of Anne Tyler, some mysterious essence not divulged in her books. Maybe I also wanted to make an impression on her myself, try to communicate some of the pleasure her books have given me over the years. Walking into the Sheldonian shortly before the talk was due to begin, I passed a slim, grey-haired woman waiting outside who glanced at me briefly. I looked into her expressive, intelligent dark eyes - and that was it, my Anne Tyler moment. She was probably thinking about the interview ahead and hardly noticed me but, for a few seconds, we connected. That image of her is all mine. I still can't work out why it should be so significant, but it is, and I'll keep it in my head when I re-read her books.

For other Anne Tyler fans, here are a few more mundane facts I learned about her from the interview:

She's an obsessive reviser. She has a box file of index cards with character notes and situations and when she's starting a novel, she sits with these cards and a blank sheet of paper for a month (always a month) before she starts to write. She writes her first draft in longhand, then types the novel on to a computer, expanding every paragraph ('like knitting a novel'). She then prints it out and revises it all over again in longhand. She records this revised draft on to a tape which she reads aloud, in front of her computer screen, correcting the computerised version and making even more revisions as she goes along. She loves being in the middle of a novel, rather than beginning or end.

Her favourite character is Ezra, from 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant', which is her favourite book.

She doesn't want to do too much promotion because she feels there's a writing elf inside her which goes into a sulk if she talks too much.

She has two poems on the wall of her study, one by John Updike on writing and 'Walking to Sleep' by Richard Wilbur, which begins:
'As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given the field glasses,
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you.'

She's had the same ('non-intrusive') editor for all of her books, who's just retired.

She has completed all these laborious writing and revising steps for one novel and then not released it for publication, on the advice of her agent.

She has no life beyond writing.

One of the most interesting questions after the interview came from a woman who summed up what many of us seemed to feel when she said Anne Tyler's books had been such a solace to her over the years, and she'd frequently had to stop reading to consider a particular thought that helped her by its truth to deal with life. Had the author herself been consoled by formulating and expressing these truths? To which the answer was no, not rea.

I needn't have worried - I liked Anne Tyler tremendously. If I hadn't, I would still love her books, but how could the person who'd written them be anything other than thoughtful, humane, wise and compassionate? I'll remember this weekend for a long time. It's been perfect: on Saturday, Gavin Stamp talking about Lutyens country houses and William Boyd discussing his new novel, then overnight with an old and dear friend in her cottage (complete with Lab in front of the Aga - see above) in the idyllic village of Blewbury (see below); on Sunday, Oxford sparkling in the sunshine - and my Anne Tyler moment. Who could ask for anything more....

Have you met your literary idol? And if so, how was it for you?

Jennie Walters



Stephanie Zia said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephanie Zia said…
Would have loved to have been there. Reading your post the next best thing. Thank you!
Jennie Walters said…
You're wlecome, Stephanie. It really was quite special. There were lots of people in the audience who'd come a long way to be there - including Americans from Baltimore and PA!
CallyPhillips said…
I wish. Emily Bronte and George Orwell for dinner. Now that would be a moment!
Thanks for the post, I'll have to rectify my ignorance of Anne Tyler by checking her out! It makes me wonder (and worry) how many of US live up to (or down to)the expectations of our readers... the virtual world can protect us a lot in that respect.
Rosalie Warren said…
Jennie, I am envious too. Anne Tyler has been a great favourite of mine for many years. The writer I would most love to meet is Hilary Mantel. She was kind enough to sign a couple of her books and post them back to me, and also wished me luck with my writing, which was wonderful.
Isn't it interesting how authors are expected to do the all-singing, all-dancing publicity thing, and yet really we just want to put all we have to say into our books?

Talking about my books is hard for me, too, because:
(a) it's always so long after the initial excitement of the writing, and I've often forgotten the finer points of the plot,
and (b) I'm usually in the middle of something completely different (that I daren't talk about, because if I do I know I won't want to finish writing it!)

But lovely that you have met your idol, and I do love that cottage...
Debbie Bennett said…
I asked Stephen King to dance once...I was a bit drunk at the time and fortunately his minder wouldn't let him, so I saved myself some embarrassment there!

I'm lucky enough to have met, eaten and/or got drunk with most of my literary idols - one of the rewards of all the hard work that goes into many years of organising conventions.
Susan Price said…
Would Emily Bronte and George Orwell have got on?
Jennie Walters said…
Cally, you have a treat in store! And Rosalie, how lovely that you have a Hilary Mantel connection too. Debbie, I'm not sure I could handle getting drunk with my literary idols - that's taking it to a whole new level of cool... Ad Katherine, yes, I agree, Anne Tyler clearly felt the writing was her main thing, and while she enjoyed the interview, she wouldn't need to do another any time soon. Clearly everything she has goes into her writing.
I don't know Anne Tyler's work either - but I'll definitely investigate! I've met a few literary lions but mostly found them a bit disappointing, but maybe I wasn't enough of a fan. I overheard one visit from a grande dame of literature described (by one of her hosts, not by me!) as 'like a visit from the Queen Mother, but without the fun.' Sadly, he was spot on. However, I would LOVE to have met E F Benson, because I think he couldn't possibly have written such funny, humane, insightful and brilliant books without being that kind of person himself. I bet he was great company.
I once saw (but never met!) Robert Graves, disappearing into the distance in Krakow, of all places, with a beautiful young man on his arm...
What an interesting post this is - fascinating to hear and to think about these things.
Jennie Walters said…
Catherine, I feel sure you would love Anne Tyler! And what a marvellous vision of Robert Graves...
Unknown said…
Ted Hughes gave a lecture to us when I was at university. I didn't meet him, but sat about six feet away from him, totally captivated. He looked as if he'd walked to Manchester straight from the moors.

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