Anne Tyler, Author Of 'A Spool Of Blue Thread', On Writing Her Prize-Winning Books 'Completely Without Inspiration'

29/05/2015 11:08 | Updated 29 May 2015

Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and the literary genius behind titles including The Accidental Tourist and, more recently, A Spool Of Blue Thread.

This year, Tyler has been shortlisted in the Bailey's Women's Prize For Fiction, which recognises the achievements of great female authors.

The 73-year-old had her first book published at the tender age of 23 and has since gone on to write a grand total of 20 novels.

Her latest book, A Spool Of Blue Thread, unravels the lives of the Whitshank family, who, despite coming across as a wholly together family unit, have their problems - namely "jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets".

anne tyler

Tyler has often been praised with her ability to make characters come to life. And it is this skill which has helped her to join the likes of Sarah Waters, Rachel Cusk and Laline Paull in the prestigious shortlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction.

But, ironically, Tyler doesn't actually believe that this kind of recognition even needs to exist. Speaking to HuffPost UK Lifestyle, she reveals: "I'm not sure that there is a need for any literary prize."

For Tyler, if she's asked to comment on a book or writer which she considers to be the best, she believes that she's only telling a half-truth because "there are so many different kinds of best".

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Growing up, Tyler didn't always want to be an author.

"I thought I wanted to be an artist," she reveals. "Although, believe me, the art world did not suffer a great loss when I changed my mind."

Luckily for the literary world, Tyler was encouraged by her teachers to write, which she credits as being incredibly helpful in getting her up and running. Or should we say, up and writing.

Throughout her childhood, Tyler says that she experienced gender discrimination once, in her own home. But back then it was almost normal.

"I was choosing between two colleges, one of which had offered me a full scholarship while the one I preferred had not, and my mother reminded me that our family was short of money and I had three younger brothers waiting in the wings," says Tyler.

"She said it was more important for boys to get a good education than for girls.

"I remember feeling an initial inner pinch of protest, but then I reflected that really she was right, which wasn't all that unusual a conclusion back in 1958."

But she adds that, for the most part, her parents treated her and her brothers equally. She also explains that her father was "extremely kind and fair-minded", which helped to contribute to her "complete unawareness" of gender inequality growing up, and later on in life.

"Surprisingly, I've grown more conscious of the issue with my granddaughter, who at age twelve does not have anywhere near the same sports opportunities as her brother even though she's just as athletic," explains Tyler.

"Maybe I'd have felt more discriminated against if I'd been athletic myself."

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Inspirational Female Authors

Tyler's books are often based around middle-class family relationships, which she says act as the "perfect opportunity to see how people behave when they have almost no choice but to stick together and get along somehow".

When asked if this is reflective of her own personal relationships with family, she says no. The only time her novels have touched on anything from her own life was in a short story called 'Your Place Is Empty', which describes the interaction between a fictional American woman and her Iranian mother-in-law.

Tyler says that the character "was very loosely based on my own Iranian mother-in-law".

Likewise, Tyler says that her personal experiences are never replicated in her novels. "But," she says "they can give rise to flights of 'what if?' thoughts that do appear in my novels."

In terms of how she goes about writing, the 73-year-old reveals that she's often "completely without inspiration".

"The only reason I begin a book is that I love the act of writing. So for the first month I sit at a bare desk beneath a large window - always in the morning, my mind shuts down by early afternoon - and I force myself to come up with something to write about."

"I'll think, 'maybe this could be a book about an old person at the end of his life' or 'maybe it's about someone who thinks his wife has returned from the dead'.

She says it's "mechanical" at the start and likens it to pushing puppets around a stage.

"But eventually I'll have manufactured a skeleton of a story, and then I begin thinking about exactly who my characters are. That's the important part. I get to know them intimately - are they spenders or savers? Enjoyers or non-enjoyers? How do they feel about their siblings?

"Most of these details will never be mentioned in the novel, but knowing them helps me figure out what the characters are likely to do in any given situation," she adds.

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For Tyler, rewriting is the key to a successful story.

"When I begin the actual writing I have a plot outline on paper of no more than a single page, which I divide roughly into chapters. I write on unruled paper with a Pilot P-500 black gel pen. And I rewrite. And I rewrite again.

"I love rewriting, because that's when the story springs to life."

Once a novel has wrapped up, Tyler reveals that she misses all of her characters "intensely".

"I'm as anxious about them as a mother sending her children off into the world," she says. "But later, once it's accepted and published, I can barely remember what the book was about."

So how does a Pulitzer prize-winning author immerse herself into the real world again after an intense period of writing?

"Mostly it's a matter of just paying more attention to the real world again. It's as if I've been off on a long trip - even, let's say, a space voyage.

"I'll get more outdoorsy, more active, I'll clean out all my bureau drawers, I'll do a lot of small suppers. Then one day none of that seems quite enough anymore, and I'll think, 'Shouldn't I be writing something?'

"And it starts all over again - bare desk, large window, total lack of inspiration..."

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