An Interview With Anne Tyler About Patchwork Planet
protagonist in this novel, Barnaby Gaitlin, has been described as an average,
ordinary man. Is this how you would describe him?
I think Barnaby is
average and ordinary only to the extent that most people are average and
ordinary--that is, not very, if you look carefully enough.
Barnaby is, among other
things, a man struggling to cast off the weight of his past. How successful is
he, and indeed any of us, in doing so?
I do believe that
Barnaby is at least largely successful in getting out from under the weight of
his past--that's where the plot derives its movement.
At the close of this
novel, we are left wondering just exactly who is Barnaby's angel. How would you
answer this question?
Barnaby has not just
one but many angels--the network of people he lives among who see him for the
good man he is and wish him well and do what they can to ease his life.
You delightfully skewer
class pretensions in this novel, most notably in the form of Barnaby's mother,
Margot, and explore the cost and meaning of class mobility in America. Why is
this such a central theme in your work?
I've always enjoyed
studying the small clues that indicate a particular class level. And I am
interested in the fact that class is very much a factor in America, even though
it's not supposed to be.
You have been credited
by reviewer James Bowman in the Wall Street Journal with creating fictional
businesses with great potential, Rent-a-Back being the most recent and best
example. What was the inspiration for Rent-a-Back?
inspiration was pure wishful thinking. I would love to have such a service
available to me.
reviewers have commented upon your powerful, realistic, and humane portrayal of
elderly characters in this novel as well as the relative lack of sustained
exploration of old age in contemporary American fiction. Do you agree with this
assessment of the state of the field?
There are a number of
good novels about old people--I don't see a lack.
Why did you choose to
create such a wide array of elderly characters and make the often painful
process of aging a central focus of this novel?
Time, in general, has
always been a central obsession of mine--what it does to people, how it can
constitute a plot all on its own. So naturally, I am interested in old age.
had to choose one of the family units in this novel as your own, which would you
choose and why?
For my own family, I
would always choose the makeshift, surrogate family formed by various characters
unrelated by blood.
Barnaby is a character
who lives very much in his own head. Was it difficult to bring this loner to
such vivid life on the page?
I had trouble at first
getting Barnaby to "open up" to me--he was as thorny and difficult
with me as he was with his family, and we had a sort of sparring, tussling
relationship until I grew more familiar with him.
presented the greatest challenge to you as a writer?
Sophia was a
challenge, because I had less sympathy with her than with the other characters,
and therefore I had more trouble presenting her fairly.
How did you come to
choose writing as your life's work, and what sustains you in this often solitary
I didn't really choose
to write; I more or less fell into it. It's true that it's a solitary
occupation, but you would be surprised at how much companionship a group of
imaginary characters can offer once you get to know them.
does the writing process work for you? Has it changed over the years?
I never think about
the actual process of writing. I suppose I have a superstition about examining
it too closely.
What advice would you
give struggling writers trying to get published?
I would advise any
beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read
them--without a thought about publication--and only in the last draft to
consider how the work will look from the outside.
your own experiences impact (or not) upon your work in terms of subject matter
and themes and so forth?
None of my own
experiences ever finds its way into my work. However, the stages of my
life--motherhood, middle age, etc.--often influence my subject matter.
themes do you find yourself consistently addressing in your work?
I don't think of my
work in terms of themes. I'm just trying to tell a story.
you are an author with a substantial body of work, reviewers and readers alike
cannot resist choosing their favorite book. Do you have a favorite among your
My favorite of my
books is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, becomes it comes closest to the
concept I had when I started writing it.
writer who is frequently cited as an important influence on your peers, what
writers and/or works have most influenced you?
A major influence on
my writing was reading Eudora Welty's short stories at age fourteen. It wasn't
till then that I realized that the kind of people I saw all around me could be
fit subjects for literature.
What books would you
recommend reading groups add to their lists?
Books that cause
fiercely passionate arguments, pro and con, seem to me the best candidates for
reading groups. For instance, I would recommend Christina Stead's The Man Who
Loved Children. No one is ever neutral about that book.
would you most like your readers to get out of this novel?
My fondest hope for
any of my novels is that readers will feel, after finishing it, that for awhile
they have actually stepped inside another person's life and come to feel related
to that person.
next for you? Are you working on a new project?
I am in the very beginning stages of a novel whose central character
is sixty-five years old.
Reproduced with the permission of Random House Inc.