Anne Tyler Biography

Anne Tyler was in charge—until the cows came home! Tyler’s parents valued a rural lifestyle and settled in the hills of North Carolina in a Quaker community. The principal of the local school often had to go home in the afternoons to feed his cows, and he would leave Tyler in charge of the school during his absence.

Often humorous and always smart, her stories were influenced by these early Southern memories and by Eudora Welty’s writing, despite the fact that many of Tyler’s own books are set in Baltimore, Maryland, where she now resides. She is most famous for writing The Accidental Tourist, which was made into a film in 1988, and Breathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

Facts and Trivia

  • Tyler graduated from Duke University at the age of nineteen. Later, she was a bibliographer at Duke and worked in the law library at McGill University.
  • Tyler did graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University before becoming a full-time author.
  • Tyler loves the rewriting process and often rewrites her novels in longhand.
  • Tyler’s newest novel, Digging to America, was inspired by her witnessing a family adopting a new baby at the airport. It’s also taken from her experience with her late husband’s Iranian family.


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Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 25, 1941, the oldest child and only daughter of Lloyd Parry Tyler, a chemist, and Phyllis Mahon Tyler, a social worker, who later became the parents of three boys. During Anne’s childhood, the family moved frequently, living in Quaker communes at various locations in the Midwest and the South and finally settling for five years in the mountains of North Carolina. As the oldest child and only girl in a large, active family, Anne Tyler recognized the feminine capacity for leadership, which is emphasized in many of her novels.

Furthermore, both within the family and within the larger context of the commune, she became aware of the tension between two human needs—one for privacy, solitude, and personal freedom, the other for membership in a group, as a defense against indecision and loneliness. By nature, though warm and sympathetic, Tyler has defined herself as an extremely private person. During childhood, she became aware of the difficulties encountered by people such as herself when groups of which they are members demand their full allegiance.

After graduating at sixteen from a secondary school in Raleigh, Tyler entered Duke University, majoring in Russian. When she picked up the enrollment card for her freshman composition class, she became the first student of a new English teacher, Reynolds Price, who at twenty-five was already a promising novelist, experimenting with new ideas and new narrative techniques. Price recognized Tyler’s talent and helped her with her writing. The importance of this early tutelage, from a novelist whose The Surface of Earth (1975) would later be called by some critics one of the major American novels of the twentieth century, cannot be overestimated. Tyler, however, was not yet ready to commit herself to a writing career. Instead, although she continued to write, she concentrated on her studies in Russian.

In 1961, after only three years, she graduated from Duke with a Phi Beta Kappa key and moved to New York City, where she spent a year taking graduate courses in Russian at Columbia University. The following year she was back in North Carolina, where she had accepted a position as Russian bibliographer for the Duke University library.

In 1963, Tyler married Taghi Modarressi, a psychiatrist from Iran. While she was looking for a job in Montreal, Quebec, she wrote her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964). Although critics found it unsatisfying as a whole, lacking in character and plot development, they did see evidence of considerable talent in the book, pointing out Tyler’s comic gift and her effective handling of dialogue, both of which may well have derived from her reading the works of Eudora Welty, who, along with Price, was a major influence on her work. Tyler’s second book, The Tin Can Tree (1965), was much like the first—promising, interesting, but somehow unformed.

During her time in Montreal, Tyler held her last outside job, as assistant to the librarian at the McGill University Law Library in Montreal. In 1967, she and her husband moved to Baltimore, Maryland, which was to be their permanent home and the setting of many of her works. At this time, she developed her highly disciplined work habits, dividing her time between writing and her family, which by now included two daughters, Tezh and Mitra.

With the publication of A Slipping-Down Life in 1970, it was clear that Tyler had discovered how to combine realistic scenes into a novel whose complex characters would grow and change as the story progressed. This novel and The Clock Winder , which followed it in 1972, were praised...

(This entire section contains 880 words.)

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by critics; however, it was not until the mid-1970’s, when the best-selling authors Gail Godwin and John Updike publicly called attention to her works, that Tyler began to attract a large following. At the same time, her plots were developing the complexity that critics had found lacking in her early works. InCelestial Navigation (1974), Tyler skillfully moved from one point of view to another, interweaving the stories of a half-dozen characters, all of whom form part of the novel’s thematic pattern.

The steadily increasing importance of Tyler’s works is indicated by the fact that Morgan’s Passing (1980), her eighth and perhaps her bleakest novel, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award and the American Book Paperback Fiction Award and received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. The novel that followed, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), received the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle fiction award, the American Book Award for fiction, and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize.

The works that followed added to Tyler’s reputation. In 1985, The Accidental Tourist was given a National Book Critics Circle fiction award. Tyler won a Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons (1988). Her continuing popularity is evident from the fact that her works are consistently best sellers and that several of them have been made into films or adapted for television. In 1993, Tyler broke out of her usual pattern with her children’s book Tumble Tower, which was illustrated by her daughter Mitra. However, instead of teaching, lecturing, or making public appearances, Tyler chose to continue living quietly in Baltimore, publishing a novel every three or four years and spending her spare time with her family. Her husband died in 1997.


Critical Essays