A Conversation with Anne Tyler
Interviewer Michelle Huneven lives in California and is the author of Round Rock and Jamesland.
Michelle Huneven: Breathing Lessons came out in 1988 . . . so, what do you remember about writing this novel? What inspired it? What did you set out to do in it?
Anne Tyler: As near as I can recall, I began with the thought that it might be interesting to cover twenty-four hours in the life of a marriage. (Although literally speaking, it ended up a bit less than that.) I can easily imagine why I chose the subject of marriage– there’s no better mirror of character–but I forget how I arrived at the notion of twenty-four hours. Maybe I was setting it up as a sort of challenge to myself: How much could be revealed about two lives upon such brief acquaintance?
MH: Was this your ﬁrst novel constructed with such a short time frame? What were the constraints of a one-day frame? What were the freedoms?
AT: I’ve never before or since set a novel within such a limited time span. In one way, I found it easier, almost like coloring a picture in a child’s coloring book. There are only so many hours; only so much can happen; the story has a natural ending point and presents no sticky decisions about how far to continue with the narrative. But I have to say that as I went on I felt a little claustrophobic. I’m not an action-oriented writer, so I often depend on the passage of time (births, weddings, aging, deaths) for my plot. And here I no longer had that crutch.
The novel I wrote next, Saint Maybe, covers years and years of time. Clearly I was making it up to myself for the deprivations of Breathing Lessons.
MH: Flashbacks are tricky to write–they can slow down or stall out a narrative. Yet the ﬂashbacks in Breathing Lessons supply vital information when needed and thus have their own urgency. Do you have speciﬁc ideas about ﬂashbacks–when to use them, when to avoid them, and ways of making them work?
AT: My private feeling is that a ﬂashback is a sign of failure. It’s bad storytelling; it’s like those tiresome people who stop in the middle of recounting some experience and say, “Oh, wait, what I should have said is that just before that . . .” On the other hand, sometimes you just have to go ahead and admit to the failure. There really wasn’t any way I could get in everything I wanted to say about the Morans’ past without saying, “Oh, wait . . .”
MH: I was also struck by what a classic journey narrative Breathing Lessons is. It’s a physical trip, however modest, that also embodies a major emotional transition: Maggie, facing an empty nest, is on a kind of quest–conscious or not–for meaning in the rest of her life. Out of curiosity, how much did you intentionally work with elements of quest and journey narratives (and “road novels”!), and how much did your story simply ﬁnd its own archetypal patterns?
AT: I never think about other books when I’m writing my own, or about models for what I’m doing. Probably I’m worried I might accidentally plagiarize something. I believe that the decision to make this a “road-trip” novel had the same roots as the decision to make it a twenty-four-hour novel: It provided a rigid frame that I was forced to work within. I also liked the idea of ending it with the mention of another trip that would take place the next day. The journey of their marriage goes on, I wanted to say.
MH: Maggie is a layered comic creation, one of ﬁction’s great meddlers, who is at once maddening and big-hearted, generous and shortsighted, oblivious and unintentionally cruel. What made you create her? Was she a lot of fun to write? Did you model her after a living person?
AT: No life models at all, thank heaven. I’ve often thought that I would be much less tolerant of some of my characters in real life than I am on paper, and Maggie is a prime example of that. She would drive me crazy! Intrusiveness and truth-bending: two qualities I can’t abide. Although I’m also very fond of her, and yes, she was enormous fun to write about. I think she came to my mind because, having decided to focus on a marriage, I wanted to show how the two people in a marriage sometimes accommodate each other to an astonishing degree. Also, without Maggie’s machinations, how would the novel have any action? Jesse and Fiona would have sat in their separate spots in the universe forever.
MH: You have said in another interview that you take notes for a long time before you start writing. What kind of notes did you take for Ira? For Fiona? For Jesse? Did any of your characters defy you and speak or behave or hijack the novel in ways you didn’t expect?
AT: With Ira, I remember beginning with his looks. He had a closed, private face, I thought, and then I thought he might give away more than he realized whenever he whistled a song at random. And I remember that Fiona and Jesse came to my mind when I saw a teenaged couple walking in a shopping mall each with one hand in the back pocket of the other’s jeans. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a basis for a character, but it’s funny how some little detail like that will set everything else in motion.
The more extreme of the characters–Maggie, Fiona, Fiona’s mother–ran away with the novel a dozen times over just in the outrageous things they said. I had no idea, for instance, that Maggie would insist on being let out of the car along the road! And I kept trying to think of some convincing way to make Ira sing with Maggie at the funeral until I realized I just couldn’t. He wouldn’t do it, period, and I would have to work around that.
MH: Ira and Maggie both seem to be very caring people. Ira takes care of his mentally ill sisters and grouchy father; Maggie works in an old age home where most of her kindnesses are instantly forgotten. They have a strong, loving marriage in which they take their differences for granted. Yet they are also a little volatile and have, to some degree, alienated their children. Do you consider their family life happy, typical, typically unhappy . . . ?
AT: I think their marriage is a very happy one, even though you or I might not want it for ourselves. And I think their relationship with their daughter is happy as well, considering her about-to-take-wing stage of life. Jesse, well, that’s another story. He certainly has reason to chafe at Maggie’s intrusions, but he is a problem in himself–the kind of person who always blames the other person, not a good sign–and I don’t see that as a situation with much hope.
MH: The episode involving Mr. Otis seems to me like the whole novel reﬂected in a tiny mirror. Also, in Mr. Otis, Maggie has met her match–someone who accepts and insists on her reality. Where did the marvelous Mr. Otis come from?
AT: Mr. Otis was one of those gifts that make writers think, oh, well, maybe they’ll go on slogging away at their trade after all. He took root initially from a real-life moment–I was once so mad at another driver that I pointed out a supposed problem with his wheel as I passed him, and then regretted it when I saw how old he was–but everything Mr. Otis said from moment one, every little bit about his wife and his wife’s dream and his nephew, the whole works, just landed in my lap by magic. I almost wonder if there really is a Mr. Otis, and if so, I thank him wholeheartedly.
MH: In this book, almost every character sees the world through a scrim of prejudice and preconceived ideas–“projections,” as psychologists say. This makes for great comedy on the one hand, and yet over and over again, these blind spots prevent the characters from moving forward in life and into possible happiness. If we’re all operating under these false assumptions, how do we ever get through to one another? And what actually does hold us together?
AT: The fact that two different people can view the same situation in two wildly different ways is a huge joy to me as a novelist. I love the luxury of being able to embrace two opposite slants of vision–to tell you in Chapter One what happened, and then to say in Chapter Two that no, according to so-and-so it happened a whole other way.
But I enjoy it only as a novelist, not in real life, where it causes us, often, not to get through to one another at all, and to have nothing at all holding us together.
MH: If I picture Maggie and Ira from their children’s point of view, I ﬁnd them neurotic, judgmental, and borderline unbearable. I would want to get out of the house and as far away as possible! If I view them as peers in the parenting world, they seem like another couple muddling along, still ﬂawed and neurotic, but forgivably human. Where do they sit with you these days?
AT: It’s been a long time since I read Breathing Lessons, so when I look back on Maggie and Ira they seem a little smaller and dimmer, the way people from the past often do. But I do still feel great affection for them. Of Maggie I think, “Honestly, that Maggie!” and I smile and shake my head. She doesn’t think before she acts, it’s true, but she never acts out of selﬁshness or meanness. Just look at the way she views her son–a loser in so many ways, and yet she is remarkably understanding and forgiving in her perceptions of him. And Ira I still ﬁnd intriguing. I know he must be an exasperating husband, but there’s something about his self-containment that continues to endear him to me.
MH: Today, perhaps twenty years after the action in Breathing Lessons, Leroy would be in her late twenties. How do you think she would remember that day? How do you think she would see her parents and grandparents?
AT: What a fascinating question! I’ve never thought about that. Okay, here’s what I would suppose: Heading back home from that day, Leroy had to listen to her mother complaining nonstop about Jesse, about Maggie and Ira, about everything that had gone wrong with her marriage from the start. But all Leroy was thinking was, here she’d come this close to her fascinating father and then her mother had to go and ruin it all! Besides which, her grandmother was so much warmer and cozier than Fiona’s mother and made fried chicken from scratch, to boot. Not to mention her grandfather, who loved her in spite of himself, she could tell. The memory may have taken a backseat for a time, beaten down by Fiona’s interpretation of events, but in Leroy’s adolescence (when she and Fiona were predictably at odds), it reemerged. And after one spectacular battle at home, Leroy decided to go look for Jesse and his parents. Jesse, well, he didn’t quite work out. He did for a while but not in the long run. Her grandparents, on the other hand . . . A whole new story, I guess.
MH: I’ve asked you a similar question before, but as you look at all of your sixteen novels, do they fall into any groups? If so, where would you put Breathing Lessons? Did you address any concerns or interests that arose from other books? Did it feed ideas into any future books?
AT: It’s one of the novels I do still claim, I’m happy to say. (I’d like to disown my ﬁrst four.) It has in common with some of my other books an interest in the warm-vs.-cool issue–the mutual attraction between impulsive, open people and aloof, cautious people. And I suppose that its subject matter puts it on a continuum with The Amateur Marriage. That was another close examination of a marriage, but a marriage that was unhappy, which made it an even better mirror of character.
MH: Forgive me for this question, but . . . what was it like when Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize? Was this the book you yourself might’ve singled out for the honor?
AT: I was ﬂabbergasted. In fact I had no idea Breathing Lessons was in the running. And no, it’s not the book I would have expected to win. I think Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was more deserving.
From the Trade Paperback edition.