A Conversation with Anne Tyler
Michelle Huneven lives in California and is the author of
Round Rock and Jamesland.
Michelle Huneven: Was this your first book? Had you
written fiction before? In 1964, creative writing was
barely a college-course subject let alone a major or Ph.D.
degree. That said, did you study writing in college?
When did you first think of becoming a writer?
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes was the second book
I wrote but the first to be published. (I’d written an earlier
novel toward the end of my last year in college.) My
major was Russian, oddly enough. Writing was just a
sideline, something I indulged in purely for fun while I
waited to see what I was going to do with my life.
MH: Where were you when you wrote If Morning Ever
AT: I was newly married, working as a Russian bibliographer
at the Duke University Library, when I wrote the
first few chapters. Then we moved to Montreal, and after
our plane landed, I forgot to claim the suitcase I’d packed
my manuscript in. I realized it about a week later, but I
decided it wasn’t worth the cab ride to the airport. Some
time after that my husband went to the airport to meet a
friend and thought to reclaim the suitcase from lost luggage,
and then because I couldn’t find work for six
months, I ended up finishing the novel just to entertain
MH: What were the first seeds of this novel? How did you
come to write it from the stance of Ben Joe, a twentyfive-
year-old male? How long did it take you to write?
AT: My husband used to talk about a friend he’d made
when he first came to this country from Iran—a young
hospital orderly who was the head of a household of
many, many rather feckless sisters for whom he felt
personally responsible. I enjoyed fantasizing about that
Adopting a male point of view was an act of defiance,
in a small way. One of my teachers claimed that men
could write from a woman’s viewpoint because they’d
been raised by women, but women couldn’t write from a
man’s viewpoint because they didn’t have the same intimate
association with their fathers. I thought he was
wrong, wrong, wrong.
It’s my recollection that the book took me nine
months to write. In those days I didn’t rewrite—didn’t
even seriously think, it seems to me now, and that’s why
it was such a short process.
MH: There are, it seems, many themes and concerns in
If Morning Ever Comes that you’ve continued to explore
and build on in the fifteen other novels you’ve written in
the last forty years. What, to your mind, are some of
these? What are the themes and concerns you’ve left
AT: I guess I do see some continuity in the issues of
insider/outsider, of rootedness in a certain place, and of
how much right we have to intrude in others’ lives
or attempt to change them. But the fact is that If
Morning Ever Comes almost seems to have been written
by a stranger; I’ve moved so far away from most of its
MH: If Morning Ever Comes feels more Southern to me
than many of your more recent Baltimore-set novels;
there are African-American characters, and it has more
of a small-town feel. It reminds me of Eudora Welty. Was
she an early influence? Who were other early influences?
Were any other of your early novels set deeper in the
AT: Now I am astonished by how very Southern the
book is, or “Southron,” as a writer friend and I used to say
derisively whenever we thought a novel’s Southernness
seemed to be its main quality. I don’t believe the South
is still so distinct a culture nowadays, although the book
seems to me a faithful portrait of the way things were at
Eudora Welty was an enormous influence. I thank her
for giving me the idea that the world I was living in—
a world very similar to hers—was a fit subject for literature.
And I believe that some of the tone of voice in
If Morning Ever Comes owes a clear debt to the world’s
best writing teacher, Reynolds Price. His style was very
contagious. When I was his student, back in 1958
through 1960, every last one of us wrote short stories
that sounded like a combination of Reynolds Price and
J. D. Salinger, if you can imagine.
My first three novels were set in North Carolina—this
one plus The Tin Can Tree and A Slipping-Down Life. My
fourth, The Clock Winder, described a young woman in
transition from North Carolina to Baltimore. By that
time I’d been living in Baltimore for several years; I guess
it took me awhile to make my own transition, internally.
MH: What was it like to be such a young novelist? How
did you cope with reviews—which, from what I’ve
found, were largely positive, but several still had that
penultimate paragraph of complaint? What early habits
and stances adopted as a young novelist have lasted your
AT: I was so naive; I don’t remember thinking much at
all about being a young novelist, and I didn’t understand
for years how lucky I’d been to land with Alfred A.
Knopf and my wonderful editor, Judith Jones, who is still
my editor to this day. I think I just assumed that everyone
who wrote a novel would be published sooner or
The reviews I don’t remember, except that one person
said the book was “about as exciting as a cucumber
sandwich,” which hurt my feelings at the time but now
I had no work habits, no discipline, no system at all in
writing my early books, and I believe it shows. All of that
MH: What are your feelings about If Morning Ever
Comes now, as you look back at it after writing so many
other books? Have you reread it in recent years?
AT: I reread it just so I could answer these questions, and
I’m amazed that it was ever printed. It’s a book by someone
who doesn’t yet have anything to say.
MH: The psychology of the Hawkes family is beautifully
understated yet accurate and timeless in its insights.
Which to you are the most intense/devastating/memorable
moments in the book?
AT: I was touched by Shelley and intrigued by Joanne,
who, I see, is not an entirely virtuous character; I’m surprised
I was capable of that much complexity. But I wonder
if I liked Ben Joe’s mother back then as much as I do
now. Now she seems strong and admirable and dignified,
while back then, I believe, I meant for her to seem
unnaturally cold. (Funny how that works. Now that I’m
grown, I find Melanie in Gone with the Wind much more
likable than I did in my youth.)
MH: The title comes from a passage in the novel—but
why did you you choose this specific title and passage?
Did you have any other ideas for a title?
AT: I always planned to use that title somewhere, after
hearing a family friend tell the story that introduces the
phrase. I don’t think it has much relevance to this particular
novel, to be honest.
1. Why does Ben Joe go home to Sandhill? What is the
triggering incident that makes him get on the train?
What are some of the other underlying reasons that send
2. One reviewer described the Hawkes family home as
“loveless.” Do you agree? In what ways is the family conventional?
In what ways is it unconventional?
3. What are the things that you’re not allowed to talk
about at the Hawkeses’ house? Who enforces the no-talk
4. How do you think Ben Joe feels being the only man
in the house? How do his sisters treat him? His mother?
His grandmother? What is Ben Joe looking for in his
5. Who was Dr. Phillip Hawkes? What do we learn about
him over the course of the novel? How does Ben Joe feel
6. Who is Jamie Dower, and why is he in the book at all?
Why does his death affect Gram so deeply? What does
her reaction to his death say to her family?
7. This book is about alcoholism, love, family, adultery,
divorce, money, and grief—and yet it is not at all heavyhanded
or lugubrious. How does Tyler keep the pages
turning? How does she use humor and quirkiness? What
does she have to say about all these “issues”?
8. Why does Ben Joe go to visit Shelley? Do you think
he knows why at the time? How do you feel about
Shelley? What is troubling about Ben Joe’s relationship
9. Why do you think Ben Joe’s father left his wife and
family? Do you have sympathy for him? How do his
children feel about his lover, Lili Belle, and their half
brother? What does Lili Belle have to offer them?
10. In some psychological circles, it is said that children
act out their parents’ relationship. If this is true, how is
Ben Joe “acting out” his parents’ relationship. How is
Joanne? Jennifer? How do the siblings do it as a group?
11. This is a book by a young novelist; Anne Tyler published
it when she was twenty-two—three years younger
than her male protagonist. Does it read “young”? How do
you think she was able to embody the thoughts and language
of her hero?
12. Joanne has left the family to marry—and returned
after seven years with her daughter, Carol. Why do you
think Joanne comes home? What are the possible problems
in her marriage? Do you think she will stay married
13. Anne Tyler is the author of sixteen novels, all of
which are thematically related and address character and
story in not-dissimilar ways. If Morning Ever Comes is her
first novel—for those who have read some or all of the
author’s other novels, in what ways is it a true Anne
Tyler novel? In what ways is it unique and different from
some of her other books?
14. When Ben Joe leaves North Carolina for New York
again, how has his life changed? How has it stayed the
same? How do you feel about Shelley and Ben Joe leaving
together? Is Ben Joe realistic in his assessment of
their potential life together?
15. Would you classify this as an optimistic novel? A