State of Wonder

Ann Patchett: How I Write

The Bel Canto and State of Wonder author, whose new collection of memoirs and essays is This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, talks about her friendship with Elizabeth Gilbert and Donna Tartt, the short story renaissance, and owning an independent bookstore.

Marvin Joseph

NC: What’s your favorite thing about Nashville, and where should I eat when I visit?

AP: My favorite thing about Nashville is the parks. We have these amazing parks that were park of the WPA in the 1930s. Great trails through the woods. And you should definitely eat at my house

NC: That’s a great offer. I might take you up on it. Tell me about Sparky.

AP: Yeah, he’s right here napping. We’ve had him a year. We got him out of the humane shelter on September 14, a year ago, and he’s just an astonishing dog. He works at the bookstore. I was just in Miami for a week and two of the managers who work at the store stayed at my house and took him to work every day. He likes all people, all dogs, he never runs out the door and he doesn’t shed.

What breed is he?

I have no idea! But Annie Lamott said he was a Czechoslovakian circus dog. He looks like a dog from an Eastern European circus: a small, scruffy dog who you could imagine balancing on a red ball.

You are one of several writers I’ve interviewed, Louise Erdrich among them, who are owners of independent bookstores. What do you look for in a great bookstore, and what is the future of independent bookstores, like your Parnassus Books?

Maybe I’m just not discerning, but to me, especially these days, all book stores are great bookstores. I can’t remember the last time I was in a bad bookstore. The future of independent bookstores is strong. We need to be small. The day of the 30,000 square foot bookstore is over, but the day of the 3000 square foot bookstore has arrived. I find that our customers, at least in Nashville, are so loyal and happy that we’re there, it’s hard to believe that I’m part of an industry that’s supposedly dying.

You edited Best American Short Stories 2006. I just did a project in which I read a short story a day for 30 days, and wrote responses to them. It seems we’re in a bit of a Renaissance moment for short fiction, suddenly selling well alongside novels. What do you look for in a great short story, and is there one above all that embodies what you look for?

You know, I feel like people have been talking about the “Short Story Renaissance” for a long time. In an “if you build it, they will come” way, if it’s been predicted long enough, it will happen. I think that’s great, we need to just keep doing it. There have been so many great short story collections out there. Andre Dubus III is editing a giant short story anthology right now, and he’s got 100 writers who are writing essays about a short story: one canonical and one that they pick themselves. The two stories that I’m doing are “Sunny’s Blues” by James Baldwin and “The Long Distance Runner” by Grace Paley. There isn’t one thing that embodies a great short story. Well, maybe there is. A short story captures the very specific moment in time when things turn. In a novel, that could be many years. In a story, it pulls those years into a single instance.

Describe your morning routine on a day that you would be writing.

I’m really glad you added “on a day that you would be writing,” because there are so many days when I’m not writing. Always take Sparky for a walk, make Sparky and my husband breakfast. My husband goes off to work and then I go through emails and mail, clean things up. Usually 8:30 or 9 I’m sitting down to work. It just depends on the day, where I’m at in the work and what I’m working on. If I’m working on non-fiction, I can sit down and get right to it. If I’m working on a novel, sometimes I stare out the window and rearrange my pencil drawer for an hour, before I write a sentence. Fiction is a whole lot harder for me than non-fiction. Writing is a whole lot harder than editing. It really varies, depending on what I’m working on. With fiction I feel like Diana Nyad, swimming from Cuba to Florida. It’s all jellyfish and blisters, but you’ve gotta keep going, right? There’s nothing to do but keep going, but it’s a slog. And like Diana Nyad, when you get out of the water you feel unbelievably proud of yourself. That makes it all worthwhile.

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What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Not only do I not have them, I am extremely tough on myself about not having them. Years ago, 15 years ago now, I took computer solitaire off my computer. I had a real computer solitaire problem. I’d gotten to the point where I had to win a game before I could write, and each time I got up to get a cup of water I had to win a game. It was a nightmare. So ever since then, I’ve been very careful not to be ritualistic or superstitious. I want to be someone who can write in an airport, or in the bathtub. I don’t have any talismans.

I like to ask authors if they have a writer friend who helps and inspires them. You’ve written a book, Truth & Beauty, about your writer friend. How did her friendship help your writing in a concrete way?

Well, it’s funny but Lucy and I were not “writer friends.” We didn’t edit each other’s work. We weren’t involved with one another’s writing process. Part of that was that we did very different things, and part of it was that I was a lot more prolific than she was, and that always pissed her off. She really didn’t want to know what I was doing next. At this point in my life, the person I turn to for nuts and bolts help is Maile Malloy. She is such an incredible person, in that I can think of about ten different jobs that, if she had that job, she would be at the top of her field. She does trapeze, and she’s always getting offers to join the circus. She’s the best short story writer out there. Now she’s writing these middle school books, and they’re so good. She’s the best editor I’ve ever worked with. She’s somebody that, especially for non-fiction, if I write an op-ed for the Times, and I send it to her saying “I have to submit this in twenty minutes,” she’ll send it right back, all marked up, and it’s so much better. It’s like somebody’s made the bed so it looks like it was made in an expensive hotel.

In 2012 you were named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. What was your reaction when you learned of your inclusion?

Just laughed hysterically. It’s such a funny, terrific honor, but I can remember when my friend Liz Gilbert was named one of the Time 100. I said to her, My God, I can’t get over this. You’re the most famous person in the world! I can’t believe you’re my girlfriend. Then when it happened to me, I called her and I was like, Oh, they’re just pulling random names out of a hat. She was like, Yeah. When it happens, it’s not like you feel so special—you just realize the whole thing was a fraud all along! But it was the most amazing party.

You get to go to a party?

Oh yeah. It was amazing! Hilary Clinton and Rihanna and Tilda Swindon and Claire Danes. All these people, but it was a small party, and you really got to mill around and talk to all these people.

Did you have a favorite celebrity encounter there?

There was a guy named Raphael Saadiq. He was one of two musicians there, him and Rihanna, who performed at the party. They both were astonishing to me. I of course am too old to be up on Rihanna. I kept saying to my husband, She’s so pretty! And he said, She’s 23 years old, it’s her job to be pretty! But Raphael Saadiq seemed like the messiah. His performance, his band, was so astonishing. I talked to him after. It’s really like going to a concert where afterward you can walk up to the performer. That was a big thrill for me.

I actually just interviewed Liz Gilbert for this series a few days ago.

She and Donna Tartt are two of my best friends. I feel like we’re all lined up in the shoot of book launches. It’s fun to watch your friends in action.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

My dog.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

I don’t really cry.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

I know what my immediate answer would be. I’ll say Lucy. It would be so good to see her. I don’t know if the answer is supposed to be Chekov…but it would be so good to catch up.

Liz said Benjamin Franklin, and then she caught herself and wondered if she was supposed to say a family member.

Love it!

What is your favorite snack?

I’m going through a big graham cracker phase.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

Yes, the day that I typed the last page of my first novel, Patron Saint of Liars. In my whole career, that was the day.

My whole family is a fan of yours, particularly Bel Canto. On behalf of my mom, I thought I’d ask you how music plays a role in your writing process. Did you listen to operas and dance around while writing it?

No, in fact, I can’t listen to anything while I’m writing. I also can’t listen to music when I’m reading. There were moments while writing Bel Canto, that I would play the aria that was being sung in a particular scene… And tell your mom I said thank you.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

How much time do you have? Oh, man. I had a woman come up to me in a signing line in Washington, and she asked me to give her my time and place of birth, because she was an astrologer and she wanted to do my chart. I didn’t know what time I was born, but I said I’d email it to her. This woman and I became friends. Over time she wound up fixing up a friend of mine on a date, and they wound up getting married. I always think, if I had said to her, like any normal person would, Actually no, I’m not going to give you my email, then my friend would never have married this person!

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

After this book comes out, there won’t be anything left. I’m such an open book. What did Liz [Gilbert] say? She’s afraid of seaweed…

Ooh, that would’ve been good. She left that out. She said that people are surprised that she doesn’t meditate.

Okay. Then mine is: “I meditate.”

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read it intelligently. Break it down. Try to figure out how the writer has made you feel the way you feel. Anyone who doesn’t read doesn’t have any business writing.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

Well, this is an interesting question, because I want to donate my body to science. My ultimate goal is to end up at the Body Farm in East Tennessee. Do you know the Body Farm?

I do. Where bodies are planted to study the forensics of decomposition.

Yeah. It’s interesting because my husband is a doctor. He never tells me there’s something I can’t do. But with this, he’s like, No…you really can’t be a cadaver. But my husband’s also sixteen years older than I am…

Ah, I see how it’s gonna go down…

So my plan is not to have a tombstone. My plan is to rot quietly in a field.

Or you could have a tombstone that reads “Here does not lie Ann Patchett.”

Right. “See: the Body Farm.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.