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The Accidental Purist

Why Anne Tyler Finds Joy in the Unexpected

In Noah's Compass, Anne Tyler's 18th novel since If Morning Ever Comes (1964), 61-year-old Liam Pennywell wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of his head injury—but total recall of his recent humiliating job loss. As others voice strong (and divergent) opinions on what the suddenly unemployed Baltimore schoolteacher should do next, Liam examines the roundabout route that led him to this pivotal point in his life.

Q: Why that title?
A: Noah's Compass suggested itself as Liam and his grandson meandered through a discussion of the biblical Noah—another person without a specific destination.

Q: Your last novel came out in 2006. Was writing this one different for you?
A: It was slower—and much harder—than the earlier books. That may have something to do with age (I turned 68 last fall), but I hope I'm wrong, because what would that mean for the next book?

Q: You and Liam have both lost a spouse. Do you identify with him?
A: I never identify with any of my characters—at least not at the start. I think I deliberately create characters unlike me so I can experiment with being someone completely different. But I do identify with one concern of Liam's: What do people our age have to look forward to once we pass the anticipated milestones?

Q: Liam takes under his wing both his daughter's teenage boyfriend and another daughter's three-year-old son. How did those bonds come about?
A: A joy of writing novels is that such developments often come out of nowhere. I had no special plans for either Damian or Jonah at the outset, but I warmed to them as the story went along. Apparently Liam did, too.