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Q&A With Ann Patchett, “THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE”

Last week, Ann Patchett came to my local indie, Politics & Prose, for a reading and Q&A around her new collection of essays, This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage. Patchett’s talk was smart, irreverent, and very entertaining. From what I learned of Patchett by reading Truth and Beauty, I was expecting someone shy and retiring. Not so – she’s feisty and funny and confident.

Here is a writeup of the talk and the questions from the audience.

AP: Here is how This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage came about. In my house in Nashville, I had bins full of hard copies of essays I have written over the years for various publications. A young woman that I had worked with before [and who now lives in Nashville and is the head of events and marketing at Patchett’s bookstore, Parnassus Books] decided that it was time to digitize them. She scanned them all, and then decided that I should put out a book of essays. I said no, but she’s a bossy type and said yes.

I don’t read my own work. I can’t read my own books, nor do I read interviews with me. But every time something important happens to me, I write about it, and then I put the article in the bin. It took me a long time to read through this collection of essays, and when I did, I hated it. I took out everything that was bad, and then thought about what I wanted to include. So even though I thought I couldn’t do it, I worked on the book. I had published articles in such random places that I figured no one could see all of them, and now here they were in one place. Put together, it all seemed embarrassing, exposed.

What changed everything for me was opening Parnassus Books. I went from being an indoor, private, controlled person to an outdoor person. All of a sudden, I was doing a lot of interviews and speeches about the importance of independent bookstores. I was reluctant to open the bookstore, but now I know that it has been good for me. I have a lot of friends at the store; I see a lot of authors there on book tours; my dog hangs out there; and I get to force people to buy the books I love. I’ve been doing that to friends for a long time, and now I am doing that to strangers. People are scared of me, so they buy what I tell them to buy. I take books out of their hands and say, “Can we talk about this?” I have become a spokesperson for independent bookstores. The lowest price may not necessarily be the best value.

This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage should read like a novel – it is about all the things I am married to: my dog, my store, my husband, writing.

Q: Why Nashville?

AP: I am from there!

Q: How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?

AP: It was easy with this book of essays, which I could start and stop. There is a novel I want to write when I get home. But the reality is that everything changes – my life has changed, and this is where I am now.

Q: When did you know you wanted to write?

AP: Before memory – age 4 or 5. There is a long essay in this book, “The Getaway Car”, which contains all of my advice about being a writer. Whenever someone is referred to me for advice about writing, I tell them to read that essay. It’s all in there. It’s the smartest thing I have ever written, because no one comes back with questions. It’s the “anchor store” of my essay collection.

Q: Was Truth And Beauty the hardest book you’ve written? Did you decide not to write any more non-fiction after that?

AP: It was actually the easiest book to write. What was hard was that the book caused a lot of hurt feelings and I got a lot of flack for it. There are friends of Lucy [Grealy’s] who are not in the book. I have had to overcome and forget.

Q: How did your Catholic background affect you?

AP: It affects everything. I follow a nice brand of Catholicism. I disagree with pretty much everything the Catholic Church stands for, but it is still my religion. It is all about taking responsibility.

Q: You have said that writing a book is like pinning down a butterfly.

AP: Yes. When I have an idea for a book in my mind, it is the most beautiful, perfect novel in the history of the world. When it’s completely in my imagination, it is full of movement, color, and dimension. As soon as I write it, it becomes flat. Writing is “a death of dreams”.

Q: Bel Canto is one of my favorite books. How did it come about?

A: Like most of my books, Bel Canto is about a group of strangers thrown into confinement. I write about this theme over and over. This was my fourth book. It came out in May 2001, and after September 2001, people were very interested in terrorism. A lot of people thought I set out to write a book about terrorism – not true. Like The Kite Runner, the stars were aligned.

Q: Which books are you recommending in your store?

A: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra,  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The All of It by Jeannette Haien.  A book of essays that is better than mine is A Day at the Beach by Geoffrey Wolf. Books are like lemmings – they are always being pushed off the shelf by other books. I try to save the ones that I love.

TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Ann Patchett

Late last year, I read Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, a memoir of the author’s first thirty or so years of life with a facial disfigurement from childhood cancer. I called it a “somewhat harrowing” book, with Grealy an interesting narrator who was “deeply self-absorbed and pretty cold”. I read Autobiography of a Face as the first of a two-parter, with Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty as the second half.

Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face
The two women, acquaintances in college, became fast friends in graduate school in Iowa. Truth and Beauty tracks their lives after graduate school, with Patchett working for years in relative obscurity before becoming a household name (thanks to her brilliant Bel Canto), and Grealy’s achieving success with Autobiography of a Face while pursuing surgery after surgery to reconstruct her scarred face. While Grealy’s book focuses entirely on herself and how others’ reactions to her affected her, Truth and Beauty is about Grealy’s impact on Patchett. This ying-yang, push-pull is emblematic of the two women’s friendship: Patchett’s constant giving and Grealy’s constant taking; Patchett’s mothering and Grealy’s demands for comfort; Patchett’s constancy and Grealy’s capriciousness; Patchett’s conservatism and Grealy’s recklessness. Patchett herself likens the two to the tortoise and the hare, with Patchett the slow, plodding tortoise to Grealy’s flashy, undisciplined hare.

Upon reflection, I am not sure why Patchett wrote Truth and Beauty, or if it succeeded. Was she trying to explain what she got out of such a one-sided friendship? If so, I didn’t really get it. Grealy was so infuriating, so demanding of the energy of others around her, that I couldn’t ultimately understand why Patchett was so devoted. Did Patchett write it mostly to make herself appear saintly? I don’t think so, although there was clearly something in the role of savior that she craved. (She even offered to write a book that Grealy could publish in Grealy’s name – the ultimate sacrifice for an author.) Did she just need to talk about it all, once Lucy was gone, for its therapeutic value? Whatever its purpose, I ultimately found Truth and Beauty somewhat exhausting, and sadly not all that interesting. It was a bit of a slog to get through.

Patchett didn’t have the last word on the Grealy-Patchett friendship; that honor was left to Grealy’s sister Suellen, who wrote a scathing (and scattered) column about Patchett in The Guardian a few years after Truth and Beauty came out. She expressed her anger at Patchett, an inferior author, for writing the book, for excluding Grealy’s sisters from the process, and most of all for “hitching her wagon to my sister’s star”. Ouch.

Between the two books, I enjoyed Grealy’s more, despite my admiration for Patchett. I just couldn’t understand her motivation for writing it, given that Grealy didn’t change throughout the course of their curious and one-sided friendship. I respect her grief over the loss of her friend, but didn’t find the literary expression of it to be as compelling as I’d hoped.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE by Lucy Grealy

Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett
I am a big fan of Ann Patchett, whose Bel Canto is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I have long wanted to read her 2004 book Truth and Beauty, which is about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a fellow writer whom Patchett befriended at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Grealy wrote her own memoir in 1994, and I have heard people say that it is helpful to read Truth and Beauty and Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face in tandem, as one can get a much fuller picture of the friendship through both books rather than through Patchett’s memoir alone.

I opted to start with Autobiography of a Face. Lucy Grealy, an 8 year-old living in suburban NJ with her Irish immigrant family of mom, dad, two sisters and two brothers, was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a type of cancer, in her jaw. This led to many, many surgeries on her face before she was even ten years old, plus almost three years of chemotherapy and radiation. The surgeries and radiation caused significant disfigurement to her face, and Autobiography of a Face is about Grealy’s attempt to find happiness and human connection in her life, despite the alienation she felt growing up with a physical deformity.

Grealy was a smart, introspective girl who was forced to unimaginable levels of stoicism due to her parents’ lack of support and empathy for her situation. She seems to have spent many of her treatments, surgeries and recoveries alone in the hospital, facing immense pain, fear and boredom. Throughout, she challenges herself over and over again to find ways to “please” those around her – doctors, parents – by not complaining and silently enduring the endless discomforts and indignities brought upon her.

After the initial spate of procedures, Grealy went through several unsuccessful reconstructions in her late teens and twenties in an attempt to make her face look “normal” again. Most of the time, the surgeries proved unsuccessful, as her face reabsorbed the newly grafted tissue and bone and reverted back to the way it looked beforehand.

How does one go on, faced with this constant cycle of dashed hopes, physical pain, and extreme self-consciousness? In Autobiography of a Face, Grealy is always searching for the answer to this question. At one point, she writes, “Now I knew that joy was a kind of fearlessness, a letting go of expectations that the world should be anything other than what it was. And I felt I’d at last discovered the means with which to actively seek out this kind of being, this kind of beauty.”

Autobiography of a Face is a somewhat harrowing book, without much joy to it. Grealy is an interesting woman, to be sure, and what she went through was beyond awful. But she’s also self-absorbed and pretty cold, with very few mentions of her family and how her illness affected them. She seemed to care only about how others reacted to her (and what reactions they caused in her), and not at all about what life was like for those people.

I am eager to read Patchett’s side of the story, to get another perspective and for the chance to read her lovely writing! Will report back once I’ve read Truth and Beauty.

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

Patchett One of the books getting a lot of acclaim this summer – and there are many – is State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I was a huge fan of Bel Canto - it is one of my top 5 favorite books – but I was disappointed with Patchett's later novel Run, which I reviewed here. Given the amazing reviews of State of Wonder, though, I jumped at the chance to read it.

When State of Wonder opens, Marina Singh, a 42 year-old pharmacologist for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, learns from her boss, the head of the company, that Anders, her co-worker and officemate, has died in the Amazon. Anders had been sent by the company months earlier to check on the progress of a fertility drug under development in the Amazon by Marina's former mentor, Dr. Swensen, an ob/gyn who has left her practice to research a tribe in the Amazon in which the native women give birth into their 70s.

Anders' widow begs Marina to follow Anders' path in the Amazon and find her former mentor, in order to learn more about how Anders died. Meanwhile, her boss begins to pressure her to go as well, so that she can finish the investigation that Anders started on the trip.

Some have compared State of Wonder to Heart of Darkness. Marina's trip to the Amazon is one in which she must confront many of her fears, from the physical (snakes, natives, malaria) to the emotional, as Swenson still deeply affects Marina and her self-confidence. Patchett's writing is beautiful, as always, and she expertly creates narrative tension that is almost unbearable at times. Her teasing of information at key junctures through the story is masterful, especially in retrospect.  There are a few times that the story seemed to lag a bit, but looking back now that I have finished, I realize that those sections were necessary to the overall framework of the book.

I've been a bit vague in my description of the plot of State of Wonder because I don't want to give anything away. What I enjoyed most about the book were the moral questions Patchett raised in the book, about fertility, parenthood, and responsibility for actions that affect individuals and society.

I read and listened to State of Wonder, whose audio version is narrated by actress Hope Davis. She is an excellent narrator. She conveys a range of voices perfectly – from Marina's terror brought on by drug-induced nightmares to the infallible tone of Dr. Swenson.

Overall, a very good read. Not as good as Bel Canto, but that's a nearly impossible standard to meet. Thank you to Harper for the review copy.

RUN by Ann Patchett

PatchettThe EDIWTB book club pick for September was Run, by Ann Patchett. Run is the story of the Doyle family, a former mayor of Boston and his three sons – Sullivan, Tip and Teddy. Tip and Teddy, African-American brothers, were adopted by Doyle (I am not sure we ever learn his first name) and his late wife Bernadette when they were very young. Bernadette died of cancer when the boys were still young, and they were raised by Doyle in a large old house in Boston and afforded all of the benefits of affluence.

When the book opens, Tip and Teddy are late to meet their father for a lecture by Jesse Jackson at Harvard. Much to Doyle's chagrin, neither boy is interested in politics, and they reluctantly attend the lecture only out of loyalty to their father. It's a snowy Boston night, and a freak accident after the lecture brings the threesome into contact with Kenya, an 11-year old girl, and her mother Tennessee – two people that, it turns out, are intimately connected to the family. The book follows the next 24 hours, with Tennessee in the hospital due to injuries sustained in the accident and the Doyle family coming to terms with her and Kenya's existence.

In an interview in the back of the edition I read, Ann Patchett said that to her, the book was about politics. To me, it was about identity. In Run, there are children whose mothers have died, children who never knew their mothers, and children who believed their mothers were someone other than who they really were. The book explores how these kids – grown or not – established their sense of belonging and self based on who raised them, and whom they gravitated toward as family.  It also conversely examines the notion of parenthood – what constitutes a parent? Is it simply genetics, or a history of nurturing and love? What role does race play in parenting and familial identity? There are clearly nature vs nurture issues at play here, which are interesting to trace and analyze.

I am an Ann Patchett fan, so I had high hopes for this book. I thought that Bel Canto was about as close to a perfect novel as I have ever read. However, I just didn't love this book, for a couple of reasons. First, I found the plot somewhat contrived and the characters bordering on stereotypes – the Irish Catholic politician, the wayward rebellious politician's son, the noble single mom, the African-American track star. Tip and Teddy were a little more interesting to me, probably because as the black adopted sons of a white politician, they could have turned out a number of ways. Their strong bond despite their innate differences was compelling. In the end, though, the other characters were pretty predictable and one-dimensional.

I also found the book kind of exhausting. A friend of mine who recently read Run commented to me that she doesn't like books that take place over a single day. I have to agree with her. I find them arduous and unrealistic. That doesn't really make sense, given how much does actually take place in a given day of anyone's life, but as a reader, I find the tension uncomfortable when there is no break in the action and the day endlessly drags on.

Like in Bel Canto, Patchett displays her wonderful writing in Run. My issues with this book lie less with the way she writes and more in what I perceive to be a lack of trust in her reader. If the characters had been less stereotyped and the plot a bit less contrived, I think the book would have been more powerful.

Book Club Girl did a radio show with Ann Patchett last night in which she answered a lot of questions about the book – check it out here. Also, there is a wonderful interview with Ann Patchett at the end of the paperback version of the book – here is a link to that interview.

I'd love to hear what everyone else thought of Run. Please add your comment!

Happy Birthday, Ann Patchett

Belcanto2Saturday was the birthday of Ann Patchett, the author of Bel Canto, one of my top 5 books of all time. (There may be six in the top five, depending on the day).  The book is about a hostage situation in an unidentified South American country in which all of the members of an elegant dinner party, including a famous opera singer who has been hired to perform, are held captive for 4 months inside the host’s house.  Bel Canto explores the relationship between the captors and their hostages, humanizing the criminals and imagining how these groups might find common ground — even love.

Bel Canto is perfectly paced, with the plot developing and unfolding naturally and evenly, like a precisely peeled onion . I read it a few years ago, but remember telling to my husband that it was the most perfectly written novel I had ever read. I have a minor quibble with the ending — there is one plot development that seemed a bit forced — but it’s a small complaint that takes the book from an A+ to an A in my estimation. 

But don’t take my word for it.

The New York Times (subscription may be required) calls the book "elegantly alluring," and notes, "one of the delightful things about the way Bel Canto unfolds is the way Ann Patchett uses the ordeal of entrapment to locate unexpected resources in her characters, like [the singer’s] new leadership potential. Another surprising quality to emerge, in a book that works both as a paean to art and beauty and a subtly sly comedy of manners, is the flair that the host shows for running the household, once he realizes that being taken hostage has ruined his political career."

The San Francisco Chronicle calls it "blissfully romantic."

It won the 2002 Orange Award for fiction as well as the Pen/Faulkner award.

Here is an interview with Ann Patchett from her website about the writing of Bel Canto.  Also, the book is apparently being made into a movie to be released next year… can’t wait.

Happy Birthday, Ann Patchett!