A CONVERSATION WITH ANNE TYLER
Q: You’ve been known to claim Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as the favorite of all your novels. What, in your eyes, sets it apart from the rest? What about it wins it such a special place in your heart?
A: For one thing, this book somehow managed to end up very much like the book I envisioned when I ﬁrst began writing it. That almost never happens. I remember that when I’d ﬁnished, I thought, I’ve done what I wanted to. And then I’m so attached to the characters. I still miss them, even all these years later.
Q: In all of your work, you focus on the romantic and familial relationships that shape people’s lives. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, however, seems almost exclusively interested in family. What made you choose to zoom in so much on family matters, when writing this novel? Did family affairs seem more relevant to your life at the time than affairs of the heart? Which subject interests you the most?
A: I’ve often said that writing a book is like plucking an olive out of a bottle–one of those narrow bottles in which the olives are stacked in a single row. What comes next is what I write, willynilly. I wish I could tell you why! As for whether family relationships or romantic relationships are more interesting: Somewhere in this book, Jenny says that marriage is like the earthquake in a disaster movie; it ﬂings people together and exposes their true characters. I think that’s even truer of family life. Families are almost impossible to get out of, and therefore they make wonderful petri dishes for novelists.
Q: From chapter to chapter, you change narrative voice, giving the reader glimpses of several different characters’ points of view. Did you have fun doing this? Was there a particular character from whose point of view you enjoyed writing the most? Did you ﬁnd yourself becoming angry at one character in one chapter and then defending him or her in the next?
A: Changing the point of view is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s such a luxury not to be imprisoned behind a single set of eyes. And I love the challenge when I think, There’s no way on earth I could know how it feels to be so-and-so, and then I have to come up with a way. Probably one of the reasons I still feel so much affection for this book is that I enjoyed the viewpoint of each person equally, and I hadn’t expected that: Pearl, for instance–my least sympathetic character; Cody, in his continual stew of resentment; and hard-shelled Jenny. In a way, I felt that Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant educated me.
Q: What authors have inﬂuenced your writing style the most? Was there one writer who inﬂuenced Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in particular?
A: My greatest lifelong inﬂuence has been Eudora Welty. This particular book, though, was inﬂuenced by Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, even though I hadn’t a hope of achieving anything like that book’s complexity.
Q: You wrote Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant over twenty-ﬁve years ago. Has your opinion of it changed at all since you ﬁrst wrote it? For instance, do you identify with different characters than you used to do? Do you feel that the book’s themes are as relevant to your life now as they were twenty-ﬁve years ago?
A: My view of this book and its characters both is surprisingly unchanged. I still ﬁnd its themes important to me. I still identify with the same characters–which is to say, with all of them.
Q: Who is your favorite member of the Tull family? Why?
A: Ezra, of course. I’d like to give a less predictable answer, but there you are: I love him. I have slipped him into more than one of my later novels. (A courting couple in The Amateur Marriage, for instance, go out to dinner at an unnamed restaurant and order the gizzard soup.) In the later novels, I pause to think what Ezra would be doing now and I always decide, Oh, well, I guess he’s still plugging away at the restaurant, still unmarried, still alone but basically contented. Although recently I’ve started to wonder if he isn’t the type of man who will suddenly, unexpectedly, fall in love in late middle age and have one of those blissfully happy end-of-life marriages.
Q: Each of the Tull children, whether consciously or subconsciously, seems to spend much of his or her life trying not to make the same mistakes made by either of their parents (understandably!). In some ways, they all succeed in not turning into their parents; in others, they fail. Do you think this is usually the case? Do family traits and character ﬂaws simply repeat themselves generation after generation–for better or for worse–or is there some room for personal development?
A: I’m fascinated by how people’s lives either echo or repudiate their parents’ lives. In a sense, I think we’re all doomed. We can repeat our parents’ mistakes or we can bend over backwards not to repeat them and end up making mistakes of contrariness; but either way, we’re still under their inﬂuence. Of course there’s room for personal development, but I’m not a big believer in the human capacity for cataclysmic change.
Q: A pervasive theme of the novel is one of food and nourishment. The world of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is divided into “feeders” and “nonfeeders” (as Cody calls them), as well as eaters and non-eaters. Is this true of the real world as well? What do you think a person’s attitude toward food says about his or her character?
A: I do think a character’s feeling about food is a wonderful shorthand device for the writer. In place of “feeders” and “nonfeeders,” we could say “givers” and “non-givers,” and in place of “eaters” and “non-eaters,” “enjoyers” and “non-enjoyers”–two very important sets of personality traits.
Q: How did you come up with the title of the book? Ezra–the archetypal “feeder”–gives birth to the idea of the Homesick Restaurant, where people can come for complete nourishment of stomach and soul. Is this an idea that particularly appeals to you? Do you think the Homesick Restaurant would be a success in the real world or not?
A: Long ago I used to wish for a Homesick Restaurant. Or I longed for one in my neighborhood, at least, and then I invented a brand name for it. Yes, it appeals to me enormously, but I am sorry to say that it would probably go bankrupt within two years if it existed in the real world rather than in the alternate universe of “my” Baltimore.
Q: As is the case in many of your novels, there is a strong insider/outsider dichotomy present in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Do you think any “outsiders” ever really manage to penetrate the Tull family circle, to really understand them? In many ways, it seems that they are all outsiders to each other, always feeling shut out of each other’s lives, and seldom really understanding one another’s motives and perspectives. Do you see the world as largely made up of individual outsiders, all trying to get “into” each other’s lives?
A: That’s a wonderful question to ponder, at least on paper (only on paper!). I myself am always trying to get into others’ lives. Is everyone else trying, too? I don’t know. I have a severe allergy to people who are intrusive, who ask inappropriate questions or violate accepted boundaries. And yet here I am trying to decipher– as the most persistent secret agent would try to decipher–what it means when a woman doesn’t take her hat off to cook dinner for her children.
Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of writing for you? Does it vary from novel to novel? Is there a particular life lesson you want your readers to get out of the Tulls’ story?
A: It never varies: I am addicted to the sensation of living lives I would not experience in reality. As for life lessons, I don’t intend for readers to learn any lesson at all from my books. I just want them to feel–even if only for a few hours–that they too are living the lives I’m describing. That’s the best that other people’s books have given me, and it’s what I’m always hoping to pass on.
1. Beck Tull’s leaving was extremely harmful to Pearl and her children, but was it really the root of all of the family’s problems? What problems would have been the same if he had stayed? What would have been different?
2. How does the time period in which the novel takes place inﬂuence the actions of the characters? For instance, if Pearl and Beck had separated during a time when divorce was more common and seemed like a more viable option, would things have turned out differently? Do you think Pearl would have remarried? If so, how would that have affected the children?
3. In the inscription on Pearl’s engagement ring, Beck calls her a “Pearl among Women.” In what ways is this description apt? In some ways, Pearl seems rather oyster-like, with her three children acting as the precious pearl she must protect. Does she succeed in protecting them, or does she fail? How?
4. How would you characterize Ezra’s role in the Tull family history? Would the family have been able to survive without him? Does his family’s need for his peacemaking skills ultimately hold him back? Does Pearl?
5. Despite his ultra-competitive nature and his tendency to be mean to his brother, Cody can be a remarkably sympathetic character at times. What circumstances excuse, or at least explain, his behavior towards Ezra?
6. Why does Cody steal Ezra’s ﬁancée? How would the lives of both brothers have been different if Cody had not married Ruth? In what ways would each of them have been better off? In what ways would each have been worse off? What, for instance, do you think would have happened to the Homesick Restaurant if Ezra had married?
7. Throughout her mothering career, Jenny graduates from violence to humor in her method of parenting. In the beginning, we see glimpses of her beating Becky in the same way Pearl used to beat Jenny when she was a girl; later, we see Slevin accusing Jenny of “always laughing and having fun.” Does she decide that there’s no point in taking life so seriously anymore? How is her rather dramatic transition positive? How is it negative? If Pearl had had the opportunity to “shop around” for husbands, as Jenny did, do you think she too would have made a similar transition? Why or why not?
8. The Tulls’ attitudes toward food seem to say a great deal about their respective characters: Cody manipulates his appetite in order to get what he wants (i.e., Ruth), Jenny becomes a borderline anorexic, and Ezra’s primary way of relating to others is by feeding them. What do you think a person’s attitude toward food says about his or her character? Which member of the family do you think has the healthiest relationship with food? Why?
9. In what ways do all three of the Tull children become excellent providers? What does this common trait say about the Tulls, and about Pearl in particular?
10. Throughout the novel, Anne Tyler writes from several different characters’ points of view. Do you think she is more sympathetic to certain characters than others in exploring their perspectives, or do you think her portrayal of each is fair? How well do the characters really understand what is going on outside the conﬁnes of their own minds? Are their self-concepts consistent with how the rest of the world perceives them? Why or why not? Which character do you think is the most self-aware?
11. Why did Anne Tyler name the novel after Ezra’s restaurant?
12. One of the great tragedies of Ezra’s life is his failure to get his family to actually ﬁnish a meal at his restaurant. What is it that makes the completion of a family dinner at the Homesick Restaurant so important to Ezra?
13. Upon his reappearance, Beck offers very little in the way of explanation or justiﬁcation for abandoning his family. Do you think he fully understands the impact his leaving has had on the entire family? Beck concludes that everything is ﬁne largely because of appearances–the size of the “assemblage” of family members at Pearl’s funeral–but clearly, appearances can be deceiving. Is he right in thinking that his children have turned out alright, despite his deserting them?
14. Why does Anne Tyler set the story in Baltimore? Would the Tulls’ story have played out differently in another town or city? For instance, how would the family have fared in a small town, with a stronger sense of community? Would this have changed Pearl’s mistrust of outsiders, or merely made her guard her privacy and her home even more ﬁercely?
15. Whose fault was the archery accident, really? Each of the two brothers blames himself, Pearl blames Beck, and Jenny appears to have no opinion on the subject. Can blame be assigned at all? Why is it so important to Ezra that he assume the blame for the accident, that he does not get off the hook? What is the signiﬁcance of the incident?
16. How would you describe the ending of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant? Was Pearl’s life a success? Was she a successful mother? How are the Tull children doing at the end of the book? Do you think they will continue to change, or have they all hit plateaus in their personal and emotional development? How do you see them ﬁve, ten, and ﬁfteen years after the book ends?