Pulitzer-winning novelist Anne Tyler, whose 20th novel, "A Spool of Blue Thread," was published last week by Knopf, was interviewed in the summer of 1992 by the Virginia Quarterly Review. She talks about not relying on inspiration, on what makes a routine and how sleep often solves her writing problems.
Tyler doesn’t wait for an inspiration before she begins writing. She makes writing a routine, reviewing a bit of her previous day’s work and then starting again, following the characters through the plots. “It’s like playing dolls,” she believes. “Writing is a sort of way of disobeying two major rules I heard as a child: stop daydreaming and stop staring into space.” To Tyler, tapping her imagination “is really an extension of day dreaming. I just sit around thinking “What if?” about things.” The process of writing for Tyler is one of continual discovery.
Tyler has been writing thoughts and observations on white, unlined index cards since high school. The cards are eventually filed in a small metal box; divided by chapter number, the box also has “extra,” “general,” “look up,” and “revise” sections.
When starting a novel, Tyler reads through her file of cards and selects ones that bring to mind interesting associations, looking for a story that will tie them together. As characters emerge and develop in her imagination, she explores their personalities. Before she begins writing, she insists on knowing her characters intimately so that she will understand each person’s reaction to the events that occur. Only after this preparatory period is over will she be able to outline the novel, using a single sheet of paper and one or two sentences per chapter.
While she sleeps, she told an interviewer, “some sort of automatic pilot works then to solve problems in my plots; I go to bed trustful that they’ll be taken care of by morning. And toward dawn I often wake up and notice, as if from a distance, that my mind is still churning out stories without any help from me at all.”
Tyler frequently suffers from insomnia from two to four in the morning, a malady she believes she inherited from her family. She says that half of her family “fights” this condition; the other half gets something done. Tyler uses those wakeful hours to write on index cards.