I was in college, I think, which would put me in my late teens or early twenties at the time. It was summer, and I was with my mom at a garage sale, and though I didn’t think much of dusty knicknacks or other people’s clothes, I would always make sure to comb through the box of books.
I found a paperback by Anne Tyler called BREATHING LESSONS. It cost 25 cents. I don’t remember what attracted me. Maybe it was the low price. The plot certainly had nothing to do with my life. It’s about Maggie and Ira Moran, on their way to a friend’s funeral. And on their way back they detour to visit an estranged grandchild. That’s about it. Quite a potboiler, eh? And they were a whole generation older than me. What would a teen-ager find to love in that book?
But I did love it. The action of the book takes place in one day only, yet there are flashbacks that range across the whole life of their marriage. It’s a love story between a husband and wife that carries on even through middle age and children and heartbreak. It’s entirely an interior story. Not once is anyone in any physical danger. No one’s going to lose the homestead, no one’s dying of cancer. Yet I found it so compelling I have re-read it over and over again. I loaned out my garage sale copy, never got it back, so I bought a new one.
Anne Tyler made me care about those people as if their lives were my own. I understood exactly why Maggie was so angry at her husband she got out of the car on the side of the road and planned to set up a new life for herself in some tiny random town. And I understood exactly why she got back in the car with him again. I understood Ira, too, how his suffocated ambition to be a doctor ate him alive, but he carried on anyway, loving his family despite all their maddening flaws.
This book taught me that interior stories, in the hands of a talented writer, can be just as compelling as the fate of nations. That’s how it changed my life.
I forgot the lesson, for a time. Or maybe I doubted I was up to this challenge, because before I wrote my debut novel, I was working on a story with so much external plot going on that I forgot to build my characters. I forgot to give them souls.
There are no car chases in REAL LIFE & LIARS. The fate of the free world does not rest with my characters. I won’t kid myself, either, that for my first novel I can achieve the heights of Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. But I could only write LIARS after I decided to write the kind of book I love to read, the kind of book that makes matters of the soul as important as matters of state.
Hearts matter. Anne Tyler taught me that.
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