Anne Tyler’s 24th novel, French Braid (Knopf, Mar.), opens with a scene set at Philadelphia’s 30th Street train station in 2010. The first line describes how the old information board “clickety-clacked as the various gate assignments rolled up,” noting that the board has since been replaced. It’s an invitation to the past, and a sign that the novel will operate like many of Tyler’s books, reaching through the decades with the feeling of time travel. Indeed, much of the book takes place in the 1950s and ’60s.
“All my life, the thing I’ve wanted to do most in the world was be invited on a time machine,” says Tyler, 80. She’s speaking by phone from her home in the Roland Park neighborhood of Baltimore, which is known for sprawling Victorians, porches, old trees, and public paths designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead that run through people’s backyards. At one point, the battery runs down on her handset, and Tyler pauses to switch to another, a series of beeps triggering memories of landlines. Her voice is clear and crisp, and she answers questions with ease and candor, belying her reputation as one of those private, reclusive writers.
Like much of Tyler’s work, French Braid is set in Baltimore. It follows a family through three generations, tracing its gradual and inexplicable dissolution.
It is happenstance, more than anything else, that keeps Tyler returning to the city in her fiction. She moved there with her late husband, Taghi Modarressi, in the 1960s. She didn’t like it at first. She was a young mother in her early 20s with two books under her belt, and their surroundings felt “very old and sort of patrician,” she says.
Originally from Minnesota, Tyler was struck by Baltimore’s “class-oriented” culture. She wanted to go back to Montreal, where they’d lived for a spell because Modarressi, an Iranian doctor, ran out of time on his U.S. visa. At their new home, a neighbor across the street would sometimes get drunk and yell out the window, “Iranians go home.” But then Tyler decided she’d try to be “philosophical” about it. She realized she was “kind of in a time machine on this street, and I’d better just relax and enjoy it.”
Tyler’s fourth novel, The Clock Winder (1972), was her first Baltimore book. It follows a young woman named Elizabeth who works odd jobs around the house of a “very snooty old lady,” as Tyler describes Mrs. Emerson. Tyler says Elizabeth is as appalled by Mrs. Emerson as Tyler herself was by some of her own neighbors from the period, adding that they’re probably “all dead by now.” She confesses that the main reason she writes so often about Baltimore is that it’s “convenient.” She needed a place, and Baltimore doesn’t require research. “I don’t feel very well rooted in my real life,” she says, “and I have to remind myself to root my stories in some kind of geographical setting.”
The novels often come from bits of overheard conversation on the street or in a grocery store, like Eddie’s in Roland Park, where Tyler’s fans hope to catch a glimpse of her. “The big dream is to see her there,” says Marion Winik, an author and critic who lives in the neighborhood. In fact, fellow Baltimore writer Jessica Anya Blau wrote recently for LitHub about her triumph of standing behind Tyler in the Eddie’s checkout line. But sightings are rare, Winik says, noting that Tyler and the filmmaker John Waters, who also lives in the area and throws a big Christmas party every year, are like the “yin and yang” of North Baltimore.
Tyler is quick to point out that, though she might be struck by things she overhears (“I’ll, think, What was that about? And I sort of invent a story”), her novels aren’t based on real life. “I’m always telling people, if you read it in my book, you can be sure it didn’t happen.”
Of course, some things have changed with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Since we’ve all become so isolated, I miss eavesdropping,” Tyler says. But in six decades of writing books, her process hasn’t changed. She still jots down her stray observations on index cards and writes her manuscripts in longhand. “I do feel it’s almost like a craft. I always say, if I got arthritis, I would have to stop writing. It’s just coming out through my fingers.”
Tyler considers her fifth novel, Celestial Navigation (1974), about a painfully shy man who inherits a boarding house, her creative breakthrough. The previous books, which she wishes she could buy out and destroy, stemmed from her onetime belief in the value of writing spontaneously. Once she began doing more revisions, though, her work took on greater life.
“I didn’t realize that the deeper you go, the more you live the life of another person,” she says. “That’s when I suddenly realized I want to write stories not because I want people to read them, but because I want to see what it’s like to be such and such a person.”
In the ’80s, Tyler’s novels were regularly finalists or winners of major prizes—judgments that only partly reflected her own assessments. “For many years, I would say that the book of my heart has always been in some ways Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” she says, “because I felt like I was scraping my soul to write it, taking off layers of myself and putting them in the book.” Published in 1982, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The Accidental Tourist, which followed in 1985, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and again made the list of Pulitzer finalists. Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer in 1988. “All I could think was, Why that one?” she says. Her work has been recognized in recent years, as well, with A Spool of Thread (2015) selected as a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
In French Braid, a young woman named Serena Drew, while on her way back to Baltimore, thinks she recognizes her first cousin Nicholas in a train station in Philadelphia, but she can’t be certain. Serena’s doubt and lack of explanation for how her extended family came to feel so remote leads to the story of Serena’s grandparents, who raised three children in the 1950s. The grandmother, Mercy, dutifully takes care of the house and children while dreaming of becoming an artist. After the last child leaves for college, Mercy spends most of her time in a rented studio, sleeping there for chunks of the week and making strange paintings of people’s home interiors, each for a modest fee.
Mercy is a quintessential Tyler character. As Winik points out, Tyler’s characters convey a “gentle quirkiness” specific to Baltimore, where people are “hapless, not driven achievers.” In The Accidental Tourist, a man separates from his wife and moves in with his three adult siblings to the house where they grew up. One of the siblings’ quirks is that they never answer the phone, a habit that passes without explanation.
Such unexplained quirks make readers wonder why a person might be a certain way. And in Tyler’s world, even if the endings don’t have big revelations, they offer great insight.
“Every family has things that are there, but they kind of pretend aren’t,” she says, describing the Drews in French Braid. “I mean, the fact that they can go through all those years where basically that couple is separated but not really, and everybody is behaving as if everything’s normal...”
Characters, not stories, drive Tyler’s fiction. “My gosh,” she says, “nothing happens in any of my books if you get right down to it.”