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

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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