2015-02-15

Anne Tyler's Perfect Sentences

An interview with Anne Tyler appears this week in The Guardian UK. Time with this author is always time well spent and interviewer Tim Teeman uses his well.

Tyler resides in Baltimore, the city where the eccentric characters in her novels make their way. She's the local hero to those of us who have called the town home at some point, especially those of us who were writing diction.

Two aspects of Tyler's writing have always deserving more note than is usually taken.

The first is the vivid way she portrays the inner lives of her characters at different stages of their development. The novel Saint Maybe, for example, moves into the head of a different character with each chapter.  Whether the character is five years old or thirty-five, the voice and the reasoning at work are flawless. The author seems to have well availed herself of the professional resource in her own home; her longtime husband, Taghi Modarressi, was a child psychiatrist.

Another is the unassuming perfection of her sentences. Joan Didion once said of Hemingway that he taught her 'how sentences worked.... I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.'

Readers learn the same from Tyler. They launch into unadorned, straightforward prose and within second find a vivid world taking shape around them. Only upon re-reading do most notice how little they have really been told. Tyler's words have been thoroughly combed through. Only the most telling details remain. From those points of launch readers' imaginations do the rest. 

Having admired this for years, I found it fascinating to get a glimpse of her methods in the opening words of Teeman's article:
In her second floor writing room in her Baltimore home, the novelist Anne Tyler likes to keep the windows open to hear ordinary life outside. She writes in longhand, then types her words out, then records her words, listens to them, and then adds to and edits the words on a computer.

As Tyler does this, she listens to parents and children, cars parking and daily chatter. She particularly likes to observe workmen, she says: the way they talk and work, their solid capability. 
Tyler's latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is set in the Baltimore neighbourhood where Anne Tyler listens at her window.

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