A Conversation between Anne Tyler and Robb Forman Drew
Robb Forman Dew is the American Book Award–winning author of several novels, including Dale Loves Sophie to Death and Being Polite to Hitler, as well as the memoir The Family Heart. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Robb Forman Dew:
I was trying to recall how on earth we got to know each other, since we’ve been in touch—mostly on the phone, and sometimes on a daily basis—for at least thirty years. But we didn’t actually meet each other until about ten years ago, I think. I remember explaining to my third in a long line of literary agents that yes, I did know you, it was just that I’d never met you. She was a horrible woman and clearly thought I was being coy, but it was absolutely true. Do you remember how we’ve come to know each other so well?
I do remember. The New Republic asked me to review your first novel, Dale Loves Sophie to Death, which means it must have been 1981 or so. I was bowled over by that book, and one of its many virtues that I mentioned in my review was its respect for the significance of food. (I think you and I believe equally that someone’s attitude toward food reveals reams about character.) As I put it, I could have fixed the shish kebab your heroine served just from reading your novel. You instantly sent me a letter saying please not to rely solely on what the heroine did, since that recipe had been abbreviated; and you enclosed the full-length version. That tickled me no end. The shish kebab was delicious, by the way. But it wasn’t until we were serving together as judges for a fiction prize that we actually spoke together on the phone—the first of many phone conversations over many years. What surprises me when I look back on those conversations is how seldom we’ve actually discussed writing. (Once we spent a solid half hour analyzing a bathing-suit model in an Orvis catalog.) And yet, why is it that whenever I end a phone call with you, I somehow feel that we really were talking about writing all along?
You’re right. I come away with the same feeling, although we talk about books pretty often. Not our own books, of course. But maybe—at least in my case—our conversations are so satisfying because they reinforce my idea that our lives are not shaped by huge events—not wars, not even peace. The lives that interest us are more mapped out by . . . oh, getting the chimney repaired! Well, for instance, the Orvis catalog is hardly of universal importance. I don’t know anyone who’s ever bought a bathing suit from Orvis—unless you have. It’s mostly a catalog aimed at fly fisherman who own golden retrievers. Maybe I count on our friendship and our conversations for the same reason that I found one of the most revealing moments in The Beginner’s Goodbye to be when Aaron wonders why most men “viewed their military service as the defining event of their lives.” Do you know very many men to whom military service is their definition of who they are? Or of who they aren’t? Your father? Your brothers?AT:
Well, in a Quaker family that wasn’t a big consideration! But the reason I’m aware that many men do feel that way is that my parents’ retirement community had a weekly men’s group where every new arrival was invited to give a speech about a central experience in his life. My father reported, with some bewilder- ment, that almost invariably these men talked about their military service, although it had generally happened more than half a century before.
As for huge events vs. small events: I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me—and you too, I suspect. But I am guiltily aware that in my books, I tend to avert my eyes from the huge events, especially from those that are confrontational. For instance, in The Begin- ner’s Goodbye I did not show the tree actually falling on Dorothy, and in The Accidental Tourist I did not show the moment when
the hero’s little boy is shot. That isn’t something I’m proud of; I believe it’s a kind of shirking. In fact, in the book I’m writing now I just described a fistfight, because I told myself I had to face these things more squarely. (Lord knows how it will read to someone who’s actually been in a fistfight!)
It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful. To get back to the all-important matter of the Orvis bathing-suit model: I think we were both interested that a woman who was actually a bit dumpy, with the beginnings of a tummy, posed so confidently. It called up all kinds of questions about where our attitudes about ourselves come from—why one person with a less-than-perfect figure would be strutting while another shrinks. See why I say that our meandering conversations may really be about writing after all? Character: I think that’s what preoccupies both of us, and dominates our books.
Oh, yes. That’s exactly right. The circumstances of my books are universal, but the people are particular. But you know, I don’t have the courage to think of them as possessing character— that sounds worrisomely like a moral judgment. I like to think of myself as being interested in various quirks of personalities. That’s the way I manage to shirk my responsibility. I know how odd this will sound, but when I finished The Beginner’s Goodbye, it seemed to me that it was a story I had already known. I don’t mean word for word—I don’t mean that I had any idea how it would unfold. But it seemed intensely famil- iar and also inevitable, even though it often surprised me. Finally I realized that over the years of reading your books I’ve taken up dual citizenship, here and in an entire world you’ve established. Readers always wonder not only why a writer writes, but how and why a writer chooses his or her subject. When you first began writing, did you feel the need to translate your particular world for a larger audience? Were you already certain of the perimeters of your fictional landscape? Oh, I apologize for this rambling question. Can you tell me why, for instance, your first novel didn’t happen to be your version of War and Peace?
It doesn’t seem to me that I am ever completely free to choose my subject. Do you feel that way? I’m always saying, for instance, “My next book is going to be bigger. More eventful. It really will be War and Peace! But set in Baltimore.” And then that book is done and I think, “Uh-oh, it’s the same book as the last one.” I seem constitutionally committed to looking through a microscope rather than a telescope. When I first began writing, I did feel the need to tell people something, to put my world across to a larger audience. That’s probably why I no longer like those earlier books. What arro- gance, really! My reason for writing now is to live lives other than my own, and I do that by burrowing deeper and deeper, quarter inch by quarter inch, till I reach the center of those lives. But I’m not content to do it alone; I want other people to come into that center with me. It’s something like when a child finds a secret spot in the woods and immediately wants to show her best friend.RFD:
Anne! I don’t think you’re capable of arrogance. In fact, I don’t even think I’m capable of arrogance. I think, though, that what you’re describing is what I think of in my case as my innate bossiness. Even these days I want my reader to say to himself at some point, “Oh, right! Finally someone has explained the way I feel! Not only that, but she understands every thought and emo- tion I’ve ever had in my whole life!” My idea is that if I can just persuade the reader to pay attention, I can then explain how he can mend any unsatisfactory bits and pieces of his existence. I’m still amazed that I never succeed. I find I’m still grieving over Aaron’s realization of the nature of his marriage. It’s just about unbearable to me that he may think that he didn’t love Dorothy. Or that she didn’t love him. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that’s what he eventually concludes. But when The Beginner’s Goodbye came together in your mind as a book, did you consider what Aaron and Dorothy’s life would be if that tree had never fallen? Was that your first notion of what you were going to write about—their marriage? Are your char- acters full-fledged before you begin? Do you already know them, and your main chore is to represent them accurately, or do they surprise you? I know you and I come at our writing in different ways. You’re far more organized. I always envy you your index cards.AT:
Oh, Aaron never doubts for one second that he loved Doro- thy. (Does he know how much she loved him? Maybe only toward the end of the book.) And immediately after his statement that their marriage was unhappy he backpedals, you notice, to say that maybe it was not so much unhappy as merely difficult. Which is true: These two are awkward together, and hopelessly unskilled at revealing their feelings. But if that were the death knell for a marriage, we’d have a lot more divorces in this country! If the oak tree had never fallen, I think Aaron and Dorothy would have gone on as before—staying married and experiencing a measured bit of happiness together, though with something a little bit stunted in their relationship. Aaron needed that shake-up to become his better self, I think—more open and more flexible. In any case, their marriage in itself was not what I set out to write about. My first inkling of my subject was the book’s exact
first line, which arrived as clearly as if Aaron had spoken it to me. It baffled me. I thought, “I’m supposed to write about someone who’s returned from the dead? That’s ridiculous! I have no inten- tion of doing that!” But ideas come slowly to me, if at all, and that seemed to be the one I was stuck with.
Besides, what Aaron said to me a few minutes later was, “I have a couple of handicaps. I may not have mentioned that.” Isn’t “I may not have mentioned that” always such a dead giveaway? You have to wonder what the person is trying to hide. Or, in Aaron’s case, why he’s trying to hide it.
I do make a point of writing down every imaginable facet of my characters before I begin a book, trying to get to know them so I can figure out how they’ll react in any situation. Most of what I write down the reader will never hear about. Still, I can be surprised from time to time once the book is in progress, and I enjoy those surprises in the same way that I enjoy discovering an unexpected trait in an old friend. I wonder if our approaches are all that different, though. I have the sense that we’re just writing down those facets in differ- ent places—I in my preliminary index cards, you in your actual manuscript, which you revise as you go.
I didn’t know it was Aaron who told you that! Were you in your study? Were you wondering about your writing? And what a remarkable gift! To read the first line of The Beginner’s Goodbye is a little like receiving an electric shock: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” We’re hooked in that single moment. And to my surprise I’ve discovered that a good many people who’ve read The Beginner’s Goodbye are even more perplexed than Aaron when no one else acknowledges what would normally be a remarkable event. Did you realize that some of your readers would assume Dorothy was literally there? Often the reaction of those readers seems to be a kind of horror at the fact that there’s no etiquette to cover the situation. Am I right to think that the peculiarities of manners and courtesy are particularly interesting to you?
I made up my mind when I sent the book off to my pub- lisher that I wasn’t going to be evasive about this: No one sees Dorothy but Aaron. She’s not there. Or more accurately, she’s there only for him. What he interprets as his friends’ awkward- ness in acknowledging her is really their awkwardness in speaking to someone whose wife has just died. But because Aaron is the narrator, we have to see events through his slant of vision, even if that vision is flawed.
And yes, I am more than interested in the peculiarities of man- ner; I’m riveted. I just love it that a little sideways slip of the eye, a little compression of the lips, can reveal so much. I always tell beginning writers that they should run out and buy the works of Erving Goffman, the sociologist who studied the meaning of gesture in personal interactions. I have cause to think about Erving Goffman nearly every day of my life, every time I see people do something unconscious that reveals more than they’ll ever know about their interiors. Aren’t human beings intriguing? I could go on writing about them forever.
1. Aaron is handicapped on his right side as a result of a child- hood illness. Why do you think the author chose to give her main character such a handicap? Is it significant—a symbol or metaphor—or entirely coincidental? In her conversation with Robb Foreman Dew, Tyler comments that Aaron may be trying to hide his handicap and suggests there is a reason he does so. What do you think the reason is?
2. Does the way that Aaron’s mother and sister treated him when he was growing up impact his character as an adult? Or explain why he might have married Dorothy?
3. In Aaron’s recollections of initially meeting Dorothy and falling in love with her, he portrays himself as having been immediately besotted, though Dorothy herself seems less than scintillating. Is Aaron aware of this discrepancy?
4. After Dorothy’s death, does Aaron fully grieve for her, or is he reluctant to accept what has happened?
5. Why does Dorothy reappear so many months after her death? And why does she appear only to Aaron?
6. Aaron states early in the book (pages 11–12) that he is an atheist. Does this (lack of ) belief shed any light on Dorothy’s appearances?