Tag Archives: truth and beauty

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.