A Baltimore house is the anchor for four generations of the Whitshank family. This is the tale of those four walls and the moments they have seen. Unsentimental yet poignant.
Anne Tyler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 20 brilliantly imagined and astute novels including The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland where most of her novels are set. Her latest novel A Spool of Blue Thread is published this month.
The starting point for A Spool of Blue Thread came when I was listening to a friend talk about a family we know whose members take an almost comical pride in being special, even though they're as ordinary as breakfast cereal. I started thinking,
"But really, doesn't every family think it's special, in some way? Aren't we all inordinately proud of some eccentric uncle, or some quirky ancestral trait?"
I'm interested in how families cling to a certain few inherited stories about themselves that they keep retelling over the years?only two or three of them.
Why select those stories and not others? Are the choices significant in some way? One side of my own family could discuss forever the sad tale of my grandfather, who was sent as a four-year-old to borrow coffee from a neighbor because his mother was dying in childbirth and only coffee could save her?or so his elders told him. Of course that was only a ruse; they wanted to get him out of the house at a difficult moment. But he always thought she had died because he couldn't run fast enough, and he told that story all his life and we are still telling it to this day. As the Whitshanks tell theirstories; who knows exactly why?
I never identify with any of my characters, because the whole reason I write novels is to experience what it's like to be different people who bear no resemblance to me.
But the Whitshanks' patriarch, Junior, is the one who most fascinated me as I was writing A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD. When he finally came on the scene in person, after being much talked about, I felt a little thrill, as if somebody famous had arrived. "There he is! At last!" I liked the fact that he had unexpected inner qualities, and that the balance of power in his marriage was not what it first seemed.
When I started writing the novel, I did know the ending, but not the exact particulars of the family's disreputable origins.
That was fun to explore?almost as if someone were tellingme the story and I was just waiting to hear how it would turn out.
It occurred to me after my last book that I'm happiest in the middle of a book but miserable when it's finished, when I have to expose it to the world.
So I thought my next book should just go on and on until I died, and how better to do that than to cover many generations? The reason I chose to work backward through time instead of forward is that I worried I might run out of generations. Reversing the process, I could travel back endlessly through the greats and the great-greats for as long as I lived. But eventually it dawned on me that I wasn't all that interested in writing about the years prior to the twentieth century?and certainly not informed enough?so the book came to an end after all.
Something like the blue-thread episode happened to me after my mother died, and I made a note of it on an index card.
"Spool of blue thread" was all the index card said, just to jog my memory; and when I saw the card years later as I was going through my file box for ideas, the phrase jumped out at me. I used it as the title because the actual blue-thread incident in the novel is so minor, I wanted to make sure people noticed it when they came upon it. To me, it's very important that Denny and his mother needed to forgive each other; the forgiveness shouldn't all flow in one direction.
I began keeping an index box because I kept forgetting the thoughts that came to me in the middle of the night.
And always, of course, I imagined that I'd forgotten something earth-shattering and priceless. So I figured I should start writing those thoughts down.
Some of the index cards have just a single word?a name I've run into that I'd like to use someday, a colloquialism that strikes me as interesting?and some have whole plots, such as "What exactly was the relationship between those two people I just passed?" or idle ruminations set in motion by some newspaper story. I fantasize I'll use the cards up one day, but more always seem to keep trickling in.
Do I have a favourite of my novels?
I find I've developed a special attachment to this new book, but only time will tell whether it will permanently replace my longtime favourite, DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT. I've always had a warm spot in my heart for Ezra, the Homesick Restaurant's owner.
I write in an upstairs room that overlooks my street, because I like to have some sense of the rest of the world as I'm writing.
If it's good weather, I'll open the windows. I enjoy hearing children's voices, and there have been several times when conversations among workmen have woven themselves into my novels.
I'm a firm believer in just showing up every morning?climbing the stairs to my writing room at roughly the same hour, right after my morning walk, and sitting down at my desk.
Beyond that, I require nothing more of myself, no specific word count or minimum amount of time. Usually just sitting there with nothing better to do will eventually get me going.
My next book will be a modern-day retelling of The Taming of the Shrew for the Shakespeare Hogarth series.
So far, it's been a lot of fun, and certainly very different from anything I've tried before.
Buy A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler