Novelist Anne Tyler Is Still on Top of Her Game at 80: 'I Wouldn't Want to Be Younger for a Million Bucks'

Critics are loving her 24th novel, French Braid, out this month, but Tyler only knows that if you tell her

Author Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler. Photo: Candace Dane Chambers

Anne Tyler has been writing beloved, bestselling novels since 1964, so she has a pretty clear sense of her audience. "If you love a good war story, you won't be remotely interested in my books," she says, in a rare interview from her home in Baltimore. "Nothing's going on in them except time passing, and people being who they are."

Her 24th, French Braid, is out this month, and it's no exception. The story of a Baltimore family drifting apart over several generations, it's hardly plot-free. But even the central drama — a wife leaving her husband to live in her painting studio — happens so gradually that everyone, husband and grown kids included, can pretend the marriage is still intact. "I always say families are my version of survivors on a desert island — they're forced to be together," Tyler says. "You can break up with your family but it's not easily done. Family is the ultimate test of endurance."

Critics are loving it, as usual, though Tyler only knows that if you tell her. "I'd be very upset if I got horrible reviews, which is why I don't read reviews," she says. "For several years I thought, 'The world does not need another of my books.' What if people are saying, the woman doesn't know when to quit?" Not that she plans to. "What else would I do?" says Tyler, who's lived alone in Baltimore, her home of more than 50 years, since her husband died in 1997, and has two daughters. "I'm not wildly social and I have no hobbies. I write in order to feel what it would be like to be somebody else. Maybe my readers are the kind of people who want to sink into another life in the same way."

Anne Tyler
The author with her family in 1970.

Tyler first began escaping into her own stories as a child, perhaps partly in response to her "much too emotional, much too unpredictable" mother. "I don't mean to throw her under the bus here, but she just had a very bad temper," she says. "My brother remembers his childhood as, every morning he would tiptoe to the door of her bedroom and peek in to see what kind of day it was going to be. And you know, you are at the mercy of your mother at that age."

The family spent Anne's early years in a Quaker commune in the hills of North Carolina, where her mom homeschooled her and her three younger brothers while her father, a chemist, provided a "stable, kind" counterpart. "He knew how things worked," Tyler says. "I love that kind of man."

French Braid by Anne Tyler
French Braid by Anne Tyler.

At 21, she chose a man of science 21 years older as her husband. Taghi Modarressi, an Iranian immigrant and child psychiatrist, shared her interest in human beings' inner lives. "It's just pure blind luck that I married exactly, exactly the right person for me," she says. She earned a degree in Russian studies from Duke but chose writing as her path. Her first big his was Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in 1982, and — with the exception of a five-year hiatus when her daughters were young — the books kept coming. "Just churning them out, as my next-door neighbor once said," she says with a laugh.

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She found motherhood suited her as much as writing did. "My concern when I had children was, how am I going to stop myself from, you know, flailing out and slapping people and stuff?" she says. "It's like I didn't have that gene after all. It was such a relief. Oh, I loved motherhood. I really did. I would now say what every annoying old lady said to me: 'Oh, they grow so fast.' It doesn't last! Nobody knows how very short a time you're a mother."

She and Taghi made a quiet life for themselves and their girls. Famous for her seeming reclusiveness, Tyler says her avoidance of interviews was more about protecting her craft. "If I'm forced to confront the fact that people are reading my writing, it makes me very self-conscious about the writing I'm doing at the time. I probably speak more openly to you because I'm not busy writing a book right now. In other words, I'm not going to ruin my writing by talking about my writing."

Geena Davis won an Oscar for her role opposite William Hurt in the 1988 film of Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist, about a grieving travel writer and the dog trainer who saves him. Everett

When Taghi died of lymphoma at age 65, it leveled her. "There will never be anything that hard again," she says, her voice tightening. "I never thought I would have to go 25 years without Taghi."

Yet she has managed. She spends most of her time writing, seeing a couple of friends "for a hot cider every Tuesday" now that COVID numbers are lower. Soon she may return to pre-pandemic dinners with Hairspray director John Waters, whom she adores. "He'd probably kill me for saying this, but I find him a very sweet man. The gender-neutral bathrooms at the Baltimore Museum of Art have just been dedicated to him! So very proud of him."

Her daughters (Tezh, 56, a Philadelphia-based artist, and Mitra, 54, a San Francisco area children's book writer and illustrator) and two grandchildren recently visited, a lovely respite from her pandemic isolation. And while she doesn't think of herself as a role model for successful aging ("Oh gosh, no!"), she's inspiring in spite of herself. "I wouldn't want to be younger for a million bucks," she says. "On both sides of my family there has been one person with Alzheimers. I don't want to get too old. There are problems with age, but we're wiser and more accepting, you know? It's falling into place how the world works."

"I'm interested in how people endure," she adds. "Including me."

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