NEW YORK -- After more than 20 books, Anne Tyler still finds ways to challenge herself.
Her new novel, “Redhead By the Side of the Road,” is, of course, set in her longtime home of Baltimore and features the family and romantic entanglements and other narrative touches Tyler fans know well. But the story's main character, a self-employed tech consultant/repairman confronting the fallout of decisions made years before, pretty much came out of nowhere.
“This is the first book I’ve written where I began with no idea,” Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist known for “The Accidental Tourist,” “Morgan's Passing” and “Breathing Lessons,” told The Associated Press in a recent email. "I was wracking my brains for something to write about, and a single sentence popped into my head: ‘You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like ———— ————.' (I didn’t have a name for him yet.) I was baffled. Why should I have to wonder? I thought, and then up popped the next sentence: ’He lives alone; he keeps to himself . . . '”
“The rest of the book was up to me, but at least I was on my way.”
The computer man's name is Micah Mortimer. He lives alone and wonders if he's meant to be that way as he alienates his current girlfriend and unexpectedly reconnects with the woman he loved — and drove away — back in college. Tyler tries to minimize politics and topical references in her books, but is quite specific about locations, placing Micah in north Baltimore, in a three-story home near York Road, with an “incongruous front porch” and a “splintery front porch swing that nobody ever sits in.”
During her recent AP interview, the 78-year-old Tyler discussed the mind of Micah, the book's tricky title, Baltimore and her life during the coronavirus outbreak.
On Micah, whom she describes in one passage as “narrow and limited” but still aware of the world's horrors, whether the 2018 at a Pittsburgh synagogue or the tragedies along the U.S.-Mexican border:
“I found it easy to ‘be’ Micah, so to speak, throughout the book, but especially in that passage. We all have lonesome moments, after all; it’s no stretch to imagine those. But also the events that he’s reflecting upon here — the synagogue shooting, the plight of immigrant children — weigh so heavily on my mind these days, as I imagine they do on everyone’s, that I felt even Micah would have to be affected by them.”
On the book's title, based on a recurring hallucination of Micah's:
“Several times I mistook the same object for another on my morning walk, although you’d think I would have learned after the first time. The experience started me thinking: How many other mistakes, more serious mistakes, do we repeat in the course of our lives? How often do we fail to realize that they were mistakes, even? I thought it would be fun to explore the issue.”
On life in Baltimore:
"I guess it’s no secret that Baltimore is going through a hard spell. And yet it’s such a kindhearted city, paradoxical though that sounds. Just about everyone here, across all classes and cultures, behaves with grace and patience. Watch some trying episode in, say, a supermarket checkout line — a customer taking too long counting coins or a cashier who doesn’t know his produce codes. Baltimoreans stand by quietly, or they try to help out if they can. Not even an eye-roll! I think this has an influence on my writing. In such surroundings, how could I possibly invent a mean-spirited character?
On how Micah would handle social distancing?
“I think he would have handled it the way I have. First I thought, `Oh, well, never mind; I basically shelter in place anyhow, and I already know about working from home — how you have to be sure and change out of your pajamas.' But then after a few days I thought, `Oh. Wait a minute. I’m surprised at how often now I feel the need to step out on my front stoop and start a conversation with a passing neighbor.'
On how the book, completed well before the pandemic, might read now:
“I haven’t read the book since the virus began. A friend asked recently, though, how I’d known to write pages 94-95, so I checked to see what she meant. Lo and behold, there was Micah on his early-morning run fantasizing, briefly, that the empty streets were due to some global disaster and he was the last person left alive. Then he comes upon two women talking up a storm together, and he’s extremely pleased to see them. I relate to that scene now much more than when I wrote it.”
On writing while sheltering in place:
“For the first few days, I seemed to keep writing the same three pages over and over again. I just had a general feeling of distractedness. Eventually, though, I did sink back into my work. I happened to be writing about an Easter dinner with a lot of people attending, some of them behaving a bit snarkily with each other. I thought, Oh, now I remember why I write. I write because it makes me happy.”
``As for whether the virus will turn up in my next book: Well, generally I don’t think current events make for very good literature. They have to mellow for a while. We need a little distance to see them for what they are."