A Phone Call Changes Everything In Anne Tyler's 'Clock Dance'

Jul 7, 2018
Originally published on July 8, 2018 4:42 am

Anne Tyler's latest novel is about a woman in her 60s who marries young, has two children and is widowed young, remarries — and finds her life truly changed, late in the game, by a phone call asking for help, that was probably made in error. (Though that doesn't make it a mistake.)

The new book — Tyler's 21st — is called Clock Dance. It has a saguaro cactus on the cover, but Tyler's novels almost always lead to Baltimore, which is where she was when we spoke.


Interview Highlights

On the creation of Willa, her main character

First, I've been thinking about how we decide at certain points in our lives who to be. What kind of grownup we're going to be, for instance, when we're children. And much of the novel is set at different points in her life, when she's 11, when she's 21, when she's 41, before it ends up at 61. And I think each of those moments is a sort of pivot for her in some way or another.

On that phone call

She's a woman at what she imagines to be the end of the road. Everything is settled, nobody much needs her, she would love to have grandchildren, but that doesn't seem likely to happen — her sons live far away, and it's a cool relationship. So of course she's just very vulnerable to this kind of thing of, the person who calls literally says, "we will be be waiting with our noses pressed to the window for you to get here and help out." How could you resist?

On her portrayal of the difficulties of widowhood

I remember when my husband died, having the thought that Willa's father talks about, when he was talking about his wife's death. I thought, I don't know how I'm going to get through the rest of my life without him. And then I thought, well, okay, but at least right now, I'm drinking this cup of coffee, and it tastes good, and it's a nice sunny morning, and I'll just get through this ... and I do think that most people who lose a wife or a husband stumble across that approach to it.

On her association with Baltimore

People don't know this, but in spite of its reputation, Baltimore is a very kind-hearted city. People are genuinely warm to each other, they mean well always. It's not what people imagine. And you learn this after you've been here a long while ... It also has a lot of color and grit, we have to say. Things going on in it — I always wonder if I could set a novel in another city and have it be the same kind of writing, and I'm not sure I could.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Anne Tyler's latest novel is about a woman in her 60s who married young, had two children and then is widowed young. She remarries and finds her life truly changed by a phone call that was probably made in error. But, of course, that does not make it a mistake. Her latest novel, her 21st, is called "Clock Dance." It has a saguaro cactus on the cover. But Anne Tyler's novels almost always lead back to Baltimore, and that's where she was at member station WYPR when she spoke to WEEKEND EDITION'S Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: What led to the creation in your imagination of this woman in her 60s - Willa Drake?

ANNE TYLER: Well, I think several things. First, I've been thinking about how we decide at certain points in our lives who to be, what kind of grown-up we're going to be, for instance, when we're children. And much of the novel is set at different points in her life, when she's 11, when she's 21, when she's 41, before it ends up at 61. And I think each of those moments is a sort of pivot for her in some way or another.

SIMON: Willa gets a phone call from a stranger one day saying I need your help. Now, she has every practical reason in the world to say, it's not me you want, right?

TYLER: Yes. She's a woman sort of at what she imagines to be the end of the road. Everything is settled. Nobody much needs her. She would love to have grandchildren, but that doesn't seem likely to happen. Her sons live far away, and it's a cool relationship. So of course she's just very vulnerable to this kind of thing of the person who calls literally says we will be waiting with our noses pressed to the window for you to get here and help out. How could you resist?

SIMON: We should explain. It's the next-door neighbor of a woman who was briefly involved with one of her sons.

TYLER: Yes, a very tenuous connection, and she has never met the woman. But the neighbor who calls imagines that she is the woman's mother-in-law, so that's how it all gets started.

SIMON: May I ask about your own childhood?

TYLER: Well, it was very isolated. I was raised in something that people call a commune for a long time. And so I think that helped me, as a writer, look at things from a distance a little bit now when I look at the world.

SIMON: Quaker commune - and I was reminded of the phrase from Quaker Meeting in the world, but not of it.

TYLER: Oh, yes (laughter). I suppose that's still true in a way. It's funny - I left that commune when I was 11, but I really think the first 12 years of your life are the most important, and for me, the most clearly remembered. I swear almost every moment of those first years I remember.

SIMON: I'm trying to think - I cannot think of another novel I've read that let you know directly and bluntly widowhood is rough.

TYLER: Yes, it's unbearable basically.

SIMON: Yeah. And this is something you know in your own life.

TYLER: Yes. I remember when my husband died having the thought that Willa's father talks about when he was talking about his wife's death. I thought I don't know how I'm going to get through the rest of my life without him. And then, I thought well - OK, but at least right now I'm drinking this cup of coffee and it tastes good. It's a nice, sunny morning, and I'll just get through this. This is OK. I can do this. And I do think that most people who lose a wife or a husband stumble across that approach, too.

SIMON: You are as associated with Baltimore as much as I'm going to say Cal Ripken Jr., John Waters and Ira Glass (laughter). Three pretty...

TYLER: Oh, my - well, I'm in good company (laughter).

SIMON: So what are your books doing in Baltimore, Anne Tyler?

TYLER: Well, people don't know this, but in spite of its reputation, Baltimore is a very kind-hearted city. People are genuinely warm to each other. They mean well always. It's not what people imagine. And you learn this after you've been here a long while.

SIMON: I mean, 20, 21 novels set in Baltimore.

TYLER: Well, it also has a lot of color and grit, we have to say.

SIMON: Yeah.

TYLER: Things going on in it that - I always wonder if I could set a novel in another city and have it be the same kind of writing. And I'm not sure I could.

SIMON: Well, you've won so many awards, the most respected one, save for the Nobel, and of course your name is often mentioned. Do awards mean anything to you?

TYLER: It sounds fake to say they don't. And, of course, I like to be noticed, but I - it's funny. It's all really about what you think yourself. You know, it's - a prize doesn't have much to do with whether I think the book deserved the prize or not.

SIMON: You were in your - I don't want to be ungallant, but, well, maybe you can...

TYLER: I'm 76.

SIMON: All right. God bless. Have two or three novels working?

TYLER: Well, I'm already writing a novel actually. I like to be writing a novel at least in the beginning stages when the latest novel is coming out because then that makes me not focus particularly on the reception of the latest novel. I'm thinking more about the story I'm telling myself right now - the new one.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Can you - you wouldn't want to broach a sentence to describe that with us, would you?

TYLER: It's about a man who's an IT guy.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, if there's anything less promising than writing a book about a woman in her 60s, it's about an IT guy.

TYLER: (Laughter) Yeah, sometimes I think I might be challenging the reader actually (laughter).

SIMON: Anne Tyler, her novel, her 21st - "Clock Dance." Thanks so much for being with us.

TYLER: Oh, I enjoyed talking with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: That was our own Scott Simon speaking with author Anne Tyler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.