Excerpted from A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Your protagonist in this novel, Barnaby Gaitlin, has been described as an average, ordinary man. Is this how you would describe him?
AT:I think Barnaby is average and ordinary only to the extent that most people are average and ordinary--that is, not very, if you look carefully enough.
Q: Barnaby is, among other things, a man struggling to cast off the weight of his past. How successful is he, and indeed any of us, in doing so?
AT: I do believe that Barnaby is at least largely successful in getting out from under the weight of his past--that's where the plot derives its movement.
Q: At the close of this novel, we are left wondering just exactly who is Barnaby's angel. How would you answer this question?
AT: Barnaby has not just one but many angels--the network of people he lives among who see him for the good man he is and wish him well and do what they can to ease his life.
Q: You delightfully skewer class pretensions in this novel, most notably in the form of Barnaby's mother, Margot, and explore the cost and meaning of class mobility in America. Why is this such a central theme in your work?
AT: I've always enjoyed studying the small clues that indicate a particular class level. And I am interested in the fact that class is very much a factor in America, even though it's not supposed to be.
Q: You have been credited by reviewer James Bowman in the Wall Street Journal with creating fictional businesses with great potential, Rent-a-Back being the most recent and best example. What was the inspiration for Rent-a-Back?
AT: Rent-a-Back's inspiration was pure wishful thinking. I would love to have such a service available to me.
Q: Many reviewers have commented upon your powerful, realistic, and humane portrayal of elderly characters in this novel as well as the relative lack of sustained exploration of old age in contemporary American fiction. Do you agree with this assessment of the state of the field?
AT:There are a number of good novels about old people--I don't see a lack.
Q: Why did you choose to create such a wide array of elderly characters and make the often painful process of aging a central focus of this novel?
AT: Time, in general, has always been a central obsession of mine--what it does to people, how it can constitute a plot all on its own. So naturally, I am interested in old age.
Q: If you had to choose one of the family units in this novel as your own, which would you choose and why?
AT: For my own family, I would always choose the makeshift, surrogate family formed by various characters unrelated by blood.
Q: Barnaby is a character who lives very much in his own head. Was it difficult to bring this loner to such vivid life on the page?
AT: I had trouble at first getting Barnaby to "open up" to me--he was as thorny and difficult with me as he was with his family, and we had a sort of sparring, tussling relationship until I grew more familiar with him.
Q: Which character(s) presented the greatest challenge to you as a writer?
AT: Sophia was a challenge, because I had less sympathy with her than with the other characters, and therefore I had more trouble presenting her fairly.
Q: How did you come to choose writing as your life's work, and what sustains you in this often solitary vocation?
AT: I didn't really choose to write; I more or less fell into it. It's true that it's a solitary occupation, but you would be surprised at how much companionship a group of imaginary characters can offer once you get to know them.
Q: How does the writing process work for you? Has it changed over the years?
AT: I never think about the actual process of writing. I suppose I have a superstition about examining it too closely.
Q: What advice would you give struggling writers trying to get published?
AT: I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them--without a thought about publication--and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.
Q: How do your own experiences impact (or not) upon your work in terms of subject matter and themes and so forth?
AT: None of my own experiences ever finds its way into my work. However, the stages of my life--motherhood, middle age, etc.--often influence my subject matter.
Q: What themes do you find yourself consistently addressing in your work?
AT: I don't think of my work in terms of themes. I'm just trying to tell a story.
Q: Because you are an author with a substantial body of work, reviewers and readers alike cannot resist choosing their favorite book. Do you have a favorite among your own works?
AT: My favorite of my books is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, becomes it comes closest to the concept I had when I started writing it.
Q: As a writer who is frequently cited as an important influence on your peers, what writers andor works have most influenced you?
AT: A major influence on my writing was reading Eudora Welty's short stories at age fourteen. It wasn't till then that I realized that the kind of people I saw all around me could be fit subjects for literature.
Q: What books would you recommend reading groups add to their lists?
AT: Books that cause fiercely passionate arguments, pro and con, seem to me the best candidates for reading groups. For instance, I would recommend Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. No one is ever neutral about that book.
Q: What would you most like your readers to get out of this novel?
AT: My fondest hope for any of my novels is that readers will feel, after finishing it, that for awhile they have actually stepped inside another person's life and come to feel related to that person.
Q: What is next for you? Are you working on a new project?
AT: I am in the very beginning stages of a novel whose central character is sixty-five years old.
1. "I am a man you can trust." Barnaby begins and ends the novel with this statement. How has Barnaby's understanding of this characterization of himself changed over the course of this story?
2. "Just because we were related didn't mean we were any good at understanding each other," says Barnaby after yet another frustrating conversation with his mother. Communication problems abound within the families depicted in this novel. Discuss the nature and source of these problems. Why do we often have so much trouble talking to the people we love?
3. Even as adults, many of us, like Barnaby, still view our families through the eyes of a child. How does this blind us? How do we heal the old wounds? Can we?
4. During a family dinner for his birthday, Barnaby asks himself, "How come I always got the feeling that somebody was missing from our family table?" What do you think Barnaby was missing? And why is his mother so insistent upon including his childhood friend, Len Parrish, in the festivities?
5. How does Barnaby's understanding of and relationship with his daughter change over the course of this story? How does it mirror his relationship with his own parents?
6. Barnaby's daughter is upset upon meeting some of his clients, and Barnaby is criticized for this. Do you think he was wrong to bring Opal with him on his rounds?
7. While Barnaby tells us a great deal about his marriage to Natalie, we learn little about her views of things. How do you think Natalie would describe their relationship, and how would it differ from Barnaby's account?
8. "And I was beginning to suspect that it made no difference whether they'd married the right person. Finally, you're just with who you're with. You've signed on with her, put in half a century with her, grown to know her as well as you know yourself or even better, and she's become the right person." Discuss the meaning of this summary of marriage according to Barnaby. Do you agree or disagree?
9. Barnaby's brief career as a juvenile delinquent involves snooping in other people's personal effects and "collecting" their personal mementos. What do you think motivated him to do this? Have you ever felt the compulsion to look in other people's private things? Why or why not?
10. Have you ever encountered a stranger on a train who intrigued you as Sophia intrigued Barnaby? Have you ever done anything about it as Barnaby does?
11. Barnaby seems surrounded by smug and self-satisfied people--his mother, his ex-wife, his brother, to name a few--who he never seems to measure up to. Barnaby feels much less comfortable in his own skin. Do you think this is a trait only he possesses?
12. What motivates Barnaby to re-pay his parents, and why does his mother try to give the money back?
13. This novel explores the bittersweet struggles of older people to maintain their dignity and independence in the face of advancing age. What do you think about the fact that Barnaby knows more about the lives of his clients than many of their own families do? What does this novel suggest about the treatment and place of elderly people in our society?
14. Barnaby's clients deal with the indignities and problems associated with aging--e.g., failing health, isolation--in many different ways. How do their approaches vary, and what accounts for this?
15. Do you think Sophia was actually Barnaby's guardian angel? Why or why not?
16. Why is Barnaby able to overlook attributes in Sophia that infuriate him in other people for so long? How does his attitude change and why?
17. Which character(s) did you find to be the most compelling and why?
18. What is the significance of the title of this novel?
19. Why did your group choose to read this particular work? How does this novel compare with other works your group has read?