Ann Patchett: Hi. Hi, hi.
Steven Winn: You seem to have a few friends out there.
Ann Patchett: I have a few friends. Yeah, I know people. I know people in San Francisco. These are my cousins.
Steven Winn: I want to start by asking you about an episode of your grad school days when you were at the Iowa Writers Workshop. It’s a quest or a caper that you went on. A bunch of you piled into a car and you were going to drive to Wisconsin. Can you tell that story and what that was about?
Ann Patchett: Yeah, that was a story that I hadn’t thought about in a really long time until–I don’t remember the person’s name who wrote that interview.
Steven Winn: The New York Times Magazine.
Ann Patchett: But yeah, it was a New York Times Magazine profile of Lorrie Moore. My boyfriend, and then there was another couple, and one member of the couple was from Wisconsin and we were going to drive to Wisconsin and see Lorrie Moore–not like we were just going to go show up at her house and knock on the door, there was a connection. One of the guys knew her, and so we were going to go and see her, but the car broke down halfway there, and we were next to a giant pig farm, but we didn’t know it because it was 10 o’clock at night. So Ron, the guy who had the Lorrie Moore connection, Ron and I were walking through the field and we kept hearing slam, slam.
It was sort of like a horror movie because it was just a complete dark field and then these slamming–like someone was just shutting doors as hard as they could. But it turns out what it is is the feeding troughs that they have for the pigs are boxes with hinged lids on them. The pigs had already eaten, but all night long, they go and double check to make sure.
At this point, it has nothing to do with Lorrie Moore.
Steven Winn: I was going to say, we’re pretty far from Lorrie Moore at this point.
Ann Patchett: We’re pretty far from Lorrie Moore. But no, I never met Lorrie Moore. And I never got to Wisconsin. And now, Lorrie lives a block away from me in Nashville.
Steven Winn: No pigs are involved at this point.
Ann Patchett: There are no pigs. There are no pigs.
Steven Winn: The reason I raise it is it’s a good story. It’s a great story to hear in any event.
Ann Patchett: I’m full of them.
Steven Winn: You are, maybe more farm animals will appear later on in the evening. The reason I ask it is about early writers’ initiations and how they come to be the writers they are. Loorie Moore may not be the one, or maybe there isn’t one for you. Was there a lodestar person whose work that you adored so much that you just wanted to write like her, and indeed tried to write like her or him?
Ann Patchett: There were two people, and I can’t pull apart how much of it was their writing and how much of it was they were my teachers. One was Allan Gurganus and the other was Grace Paley. My education as a writer came as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence. Iowa is, and I think any graduate program is like this in creative writing, like going to a poker game. And it’s who is seated at the table and the hand you’re dealt.
And your skill has something to do with it, but you’re gonna have a good night or a bad night. I had a bad night at Iowa for two years, and it wasn’t Iowa’s fault. I bear them no ill will, but I didn’t have a good time. I had a really, really great poker table at Sarah Lawrence and I studied with Allan Gurganus for a year, Grace Paley, and then Russell Banks.
All three of them, but especially Allan and Grace, were so important to me. And I loved their work so much. And they have a sort of a similar kind of work that’s so voice-y. They were people that for a long time, if I was writing, I couldn’t read. Because if I read a Grace Paley story while I was writing Patron Saint of Liars, all of the nuns would start talking like Grace Paley.
Steven Winn: Which is a stretch.
Ann Patchett: It is a stretch.
Steven Winn: Tracking back earlier when you were much younger, you knew early on that you wanted to be, I would actually put it this way: that you were going to be a writer. And yet you characterize yourself as not having been a particularly early reader, or an early writer. What was the seed? What was it that gave you the idea that this was something you could do, that you had to do, even though you weren’t especially precocious about it?
Ann Patchett: I don’t know, and I have come up with an answer that may or may not be true, which I’m happy to share with you.
Steven Winn: We’ll take it, true or false.
Ann Patchett: I really think it’s that I didn’t know how to read and I didn’t know how to write. My parents got divorced when I was really young. Just before I turned six, we moved from California to Nashville. With the idea that we were going to go back, we just, we didn’t go to school. It was the late 60s, it was a great time for truancy.
And then there was no money, we moved around a lot. I really fell through the cracks. And, so I think that when I started saying as a young child, “I want to be a writer,” I really do wonder if that was my way of saying “I would actually like to be able to write. I would like to be able to learn those letters.”
Steven Winn: The alphabet first, huh?
Ann Patchett: Yeah, the alphabet. “I would like to be able to sit down and make words.” So I think that that was part of it. And part of it is, the reason that I’m not still in second grade making D’s is that I became very clever. And I became a storyteller. And so, even if I couldn’t cobble the words on the page together very well, I could tell a story.
I was a clever kid, I was an entertaining kid. I was a charming kid. But I wasn’t an academically doing well kid.
Steven Winn: Were you rewarded and reinforced for being clever?
Ann Patchett: Oh, everybody’s rewarded and reinforced for being clever, that’s what people like. People like clever. And sweet. You know, I was sweet.
Steven Winn: Were you aware that you were charming people? Did you have a sense of–
Ann Patchett: –Absolutely. Absolutely. The story is not so great. My sister Heather, who is three and a half years older than I am and was a brilliant student, was always the first in her class. Heather was very angry about what had happened to us as children and she really made life hard. And you know, in the family dynamics, people take different jobs. And so my sister was angry about the circumstances of our life, therefore, I didn’t have to be. And people were angry at her–my mother, my stepfather–because she made our life tough. And in return, I thought, Okay, well, she’s going to be the standard bearer for “Hey, this maybe wasn’t a great decision that was made.” And then everybody loved me because I was good and charming.
And it was really a long time–and my sister and I are incredibly close–that I looked back and thought, You really took the burden off of me. Like, if she hadn’t been there to be mad, I would have had to have been mad, and we divided those. So she was the good student, I was the bad student. She was the difficult daughter, I was the cherished daughter. There you go.
Steven Winn: About this cleverness and facility you had–
Ann Patchett: –Still have it. I still have it.
Steven Winn: You still have it, yes. Point taken. Charmingly taken. In one of your essays where you write wonderfully about these teachers, Russell Banks said something to you which brought you up short.
Ann Patchett: Yeah, well, it was great. And, I love Russell and I miss Russell. There were many times later in life that we talked about this and he always said “I have no memory of this,” and I was like, “Doesn’t matter. I have a memory of it.” And I also understand as a teacher you can say things to students that you don’t remember, you don’t remember their name, you don’t remember anything about them, but for the kid in the room you’re like, “Oh my god this is it, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for.”
But, I had a conference with Russell Banks at Sarah Lawrence. You met individually with your teachers once every two weeks. It was a very, very lovely education where they held your hand and came with you to the cafeteria and cut your food up for you and fed you. And anyway, this was my last semester of college and Russell said to me, “You’re the best writer in the class and nobody is ever going to give you any critique. You’re always going to be the best writer.” And he said, “The only person who is going to make you better is you. And you have to push yourself. You’re not going to find somebody else who’s going to push you.” And he said, “You’re very talented, you’re very good, but you’re facile and you’re superficial.”
This would have been 1984. If somebody said this now, it would have an entirely different meaning. But he said, “You have to ask yourself if you want to write great literature or great television.”
Steven Winn: That’s how he put it?
Ann Patchett: Yeah. And… It was like, “Oh okay, I get it. I’m gonna write great literature.”
Steven Winn: And you weren’t crestfallen, him saying that to you?
Ann Patchett: No, crestfallen is kind of not in my wheelhouse. I was just like, “I’m going back!” It was such a gift and I think that there are very few moments in life when the right person tells you the right thing and you’re open and you can hear it and all of the stars lined up and I just thought, No, that’s what I want. As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. I knew it was true. I knew that I was skating and I wanted to do something better. And I’ve been hard on myself ever since.
Steven Winn: And did the change come pretty quickly for you in that? Did the next story you wrote for class show evidence?
Ann Patchett: No, probably not. But, it stayed with me. Those three teachers each had their own gift. Alan was: “Work so much harder than you ever thought possible; write so much more.” Grace was: “You have to be a person with a single voice. You don’t get to compartmentalize your life. It’s not as if you can be this person as a friend, and this person as a daughter, and this person as a writer, and this person as an employee, and this person as a lover. You’ve got to be one person, have a single voice.” And then Russell was like: “Don’t write television.”
He didn’t even say to me, “Don’t write television.” He said, “You’ve got to make a choice.” And it’s so interesting because I did a little bit of teaching when I was younger. And the last job I had was at UC Irvine. And I taught there for a semester. I was a guest. And I had a student, who was one of the best students in the tiny class of ten graduate students. And he said to me, “I feel like I could be a good novelist.” But he said, “I feel like I could write great television.” And he said, “I feel sort of embarrassed. Do you think I would be selling out?” And I was like, “Hell no! Play to your strength. Do what you want to do. Don’t do what you think is right. Do what is right for you and your talent.”
And that was David Benioff who went on to be the creator of Game of Thrones. I mean, I don’t get any credit for that.
Steven Winn: No royalties either.
Ann Patchett: No royalties, no. But I just thought it was great, because he was such a smart guy, and he knew himself, and he had a little flicker of feeling like, “Ooh, is this okay?” And I was like, “Yeah, go, go.”
Steven Winn: Well, as you were saying, television meant something…It was a sort of a semi-sneer from Russell Banks, or at least a dismissive one, but there wasn’t great television in the way that there is.
Ann Patchett: Well, and David Benioff gets a lot of credit for there being more great television.
Steven Winn: Indeed. Another person who was important in your development was finding an ideal reader just when you needed her, and the person was Elizabeth McCracken. Tell us about that.
Ann Patchett: So Elizabeth McCracken and I met at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 1988. Maybe it was earlier than that. I can’t remember. It doesn’t really matter, does it? And I am two and a half years older than Elizabeth. So I think that when we met, I was 26 and she was 24 and she was working on short stories. She was writing Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry and I was writing The Patron Saint of Liars.
And, she would give me a story, I would give her a chapter. And we went back and forth. It was and is a wonderful and important friendship. And to find that reader, which I have to say, both in college and in graduate school, I didn’t find that one person whose opinion was 100 percent accurate for my writing. I would do anything that Elizabeth told me to do. And what’s interesting is over the years I have so internalized her voice that I really work to make every correction that I could possibly make that she would tell me. I try to get ahead of her in all ways. And she, for many, many, many years, was my first reader. And now she’s my last reader. Because I don’t want to take up a minute of her time with something that somebody else could tell me. She has two children. She has a big job. She has a brilliant writing career. I don’t want to waste her time doing things that I should be able to figure out myself.
Steven Winn: Well she taught you how to figure them out and to a certain extent, right?
Ann Patchett: Yeah.
Steven Winn: Everybody knows your fiction and I’m sure many people here know some of your nonfiction and maybe they know a lot of it, but it’s wonderful. And you’re especially good in a piece called The Getaway Car about the enterprise of making a novel. You say things that are both surprising and seem sort of spontaneously true. And I want to ask you to, if you would, read a short paragraph from that essay, because it gets at a lot of the way you go about what you do. The first paragraph on page 25.
Ann Patchett: [Reading] “This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colors, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature. And I have thought it up. And all I have to do is put it down on paper. And then everyone can see this beauty that I see.”
Yeah, that’s still true. Well, no. If you read on––
Steven Winn: Yes, if you read on, I’ve got the line queued up.
Ann Patchett: The book in your head is never the book that’s on paper. The book in your head is this unbelievable–and I say ‘your,’ because I actually believe this is true for everyone. If you’re writing a geography paper in 8th grade, or if you’re writing your tenth novel, what you think it’s going to be is never what is actually on paper. The process of writing kills it.
And I always say, my greatest strength as a writer, and probably as a person, is my ability to forgive myself everything. And that’s why people can’t write. Because they have a wonderful idea, they’ve got a story, and they sit down and they start to write it and they’re like, “This is horrible. This doesn’t bear any resemblance to the unbelievably fabulous thing that was in my head.” And they give up, but you have to forgive yourself.
Steven Winn: Yeah, the great line later down on the page is, “Writers have to break their hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.”
Ann Patchett: That is very true. Can I tell you why I wrote that essay? I was on book tour for some book. Let’s call it State of Wonder. Alright. I’m betting that it probably was State of Wonder. And I was doing a lunch talk at some club. I’m vague, but boy can I see it. It was fancy. And I went to the bathroom before, and I’m in a stall and from the other side of the door, a woman says, “I really want to write a novel, can you tell me where I should start?” And I was like, “Okay, enough, enough, enough, I’ve got to just write this down.” Because I was answering the same questions over and over and over again. To this day, in my life…My husband’s a doctor, and his patients–that’s a lot of the traffic. Weirdly it comes, a lot of them, from him. The patients have a 12 year old daughter and they really believe she’s going to be the next Tolstoy. And if she could just have lunch with me or maybe she could come and stand behind my desk as a sort of an internship because she has a lot of questions and after gymnastics she’d really like to meet with me.
The number of people who come to me and say “I just have some questions, I just need to talk to you about writing, publishing,” all these different things. And I can say now, “I wrote everything I know down.” And I always say, “If you read this essay–and it’s long–if you read this essay and you still have a question, we can talk.”
This is funny. Up until very recently, I’ve always said, “And no one has ever come back.” Now, somebody came back recently. It was the friend of one of my husband’s friends, somewhere between distant connection and no connection at all. And the woman’s name was Kitsie. I don’t know, I just throw that in there because it’s a good name: K-I-T-S-I-E, Kitsie. And, so Kitsie calls me, I said, “Go read this essay, if you still have a question, you can come back.” And Kitsie calls back, she says, “I read the essay, I’ve still got a question.” I was like, “Great, let’s hear it.” And she said, “I’ve written this book, and I’m going to self publish, I’m going to pay to have somebody publish it for me. And they say that the book is amazing. They say it’s just incredible, and I have to pay them $30,000 in order for them to publish it.” And I said, “Kitsie, one of two things is true: Either they’re telling you the truth and it’s amazing, in which case you don’t have to pay them $30,000 because you should be able to take it to Random House and they will pay you $30,000. Or, they’re lying to you, and it’s no good at all, in which case you shouldn’t pay them $30,000 either.” But I was really glad she called back. Because I did think, Yes, I did want to save this woman $30,000.
Steven Winn: Well, one of the things that’s great about the essay is that, while in a way you’re sort of laying down the law and describing how it’s done and not done, you also acknowledge that the way you do it isn’t the only way to do it.
Ann Patchett: Absolutely true.
Steven Winn: And two things that you do that I think are interesting–and we just may not spend too much time on this, but it’s sort of interesting: one is that the book cooks in your head for a long time before you ever take a note or do anything like that.
Ann Patchett: Right.
Steven Winn: And the other thing is that you always know the ending in advance.
Ann Patchett: Yes.
Steven Winn: And whereas many writers will say they write the book to find out what the ending is, they don’t know. The process of exploration. But for you–I wonder if you’d just talk about about those qualities in your.. Is that kind of who you–
Ann Patchett: –It’s just who I am. People talk about drafts and say, “Oh, well, this is what people love.” People want to believe that novelists are typists for the spirit world and that not only do we have no control, we don’t really have any idea what’s going on. So people are always like, “Did the characters surprise you? Could you believe it when they hijacked the plot and took it over and you never knew?”
I don’t know why it is that people so desperately want to believe that. And my answer is if you’re building a house and you’re going to put the master bedroom–which, we don’t call it that anymore, we call it the owner’s suite–you’re going to put the owner’s suite on the second floor, but then you’re in the middle of building the house, you’re like, “No, I think I want the owner’s suite on the first floor.”
Well, that doesn’t mean that the house had a mind of its own and took over. It means that you made a decision to move a bedroom from one place to the other place. And so that’s part of it. I will think about a book for two years and I change my mind all the time in that period of time.
But once I kind of get it right, then I will sit down and I’ll write it and I do need to know what the ending is, because if I don’t know what the ending is I tend not to get there. There are two exceptions to that. When I wrote State of Wonder, I did not know what the ending was going to be, and that was a real “The Lady, or the Tiger?” like, two doors I didn’t know which way it was going to go. And among writers, there’s something that we call novel therapy. And novel therapy is when you call another novelist, and you tell that person the plot of the book that you’re working on, you don’t make them read anything, and you just talk out your problems, and they can give you some direction.
I got some great novel therapy on State of Wonder that helped me figure out the end, but I was at the end and I didn’t know. And also The Dutch House was the one time I wrote a whole book and threw it away and started over again. And so, when I started over again, I didn’t know how it was going to end.
Steven Winn: But when writers do say that the characters do hijack them and surprise them, do you believe they’re just kidding themselves? They mean it, don’t they?
Ann Patchett: I have no idea. I don’t know what that’s about.
Steven Winn: It just sounds like hooey to you, sort of?
Ann Patchett: Yeah, it does. It does.
Steven Winn: Asked and answered.
Ann Patchett: So, if I was a different kind of writer–and I have a lot of friends, Elizabeth McCracken is like this…Elizabeth, she has a character walk into the room, Betty walks into the room, and then the narrative will stop and say, “When Betty’s great great grandfather left the shtetl in Russia,” and then it’ll go all the way to Betty, and she writes all of that down and then she throws it out. Because she needs to know all of that in order to get back to Betty. So that’s a case where you’re writing things down and throwing things away and changing your mind about things. Maybe it is just that I do it all in my head. It seems much more time efficient.
Steven Winn: Saves paper.
Ann Patchett: It really does. It does.
Steven Winn: We’re going to get to Tom Lake just momentarily, but I want to ask you, you do so many things so well in your fiction but I want to ask you about two particular aspects. One of them is place, a setting and a sense of place. Anybody who’s read your books, who’s been up the amazon with you in State of Wonder, or through the warren of The Dutch House, or all of these environments, the cherry-picking idol in Tom Lake. When I was reading The Dutch House, I started making note of some of the things. You seem to be able to inform place with almost an immanence, as if it has a consciousness itself. A few lines from that: [Reading] “The lilies waving obliviously in the garden as if they had consciousness of being able to wave one way or another.”
Ann Patchett: Can I stop you there?
Steven Winn: Please.
Ann Patchett: So that was from The Dutch House, right? This is a great insight into my life. I get a lot of mail at the bookstore, because I own a bookstore. And, I got a copy of The Dutch House. I was home last week, and I’m going through the mail and a woman had sent me a paperback copy of The Dutch House from Australia. And she had made notes that she stuck in at different points. And one of the notes was about that exact sentence. And she said, “These flowers can’t be oblivious. Here are five words that you might find to be better choices.”
It wasn’t a ton, but every 50 pages or so, there would be a little piece of paper. She’d underlined, put an X by the end of the line, and then a note saying, “When this book goes into its next reprinting, you can correct these errors.” Thank you.
Steven Winn: I love it. It’s great. Did she go after “the insane sweetness of hyacinth” also?
Ann Patchett: Yeah.
Steven Winn: She and I were on some wavelength.
Ann Patchett: I guess, but you liked ‘em. Therein lies the difference, right? You can’t please everybody.
Steven Winn: Anyway, it’s not so much a question as it is an appreciation of how you do that: I wonder if those kinds of things are conscious at some level.
Ann Patchett: Sure they are!
Steven Winn: No, I don’t mean… Of course the word choices are conscious, but did you think of the Dutch House as being a kind of a character in itself?
Ann Patchett: Yeah, I mean, it’s a book about a house. You want me to tell you a good Dutch House story?
Steven Winn: Please.
Ann Patchett: All right. So, my husband and I live in a lovely house in Nashville, but the house is the only house that we could both live in because I want to live in a one-room bungalow that would be where the Seven Dwarves lived. That’s my idea of a dream house. And when we walk the dog at night, if there is a tiny house with a ‘for sale’ sign, I stop and get this forlorn look.
Whereas my husband is somebody who will show me a website for an island in Maine that has a 12 bedroom castle with a tennis court and a pool and a putting green and an airstrip. He so wants to live someplace very grand. We have this friend who’s a realtor who is trying forever to drive a wedge into our marriage because he calls Carl and he says, “This house came up. Oh my God, this house is so incredible.” And then we have to go look at the house. And I’m like, “I don’t wanna live in a castle because I clean it. I’m the one who cleans it and calls the plumber and has the roof fixed. And when the hot water heater broke and you said as you were walking out the door on your way to work, ‘It’s weird, the shower was cold this morning, bye!’”
And then I scream and run downstairs and the basement is flooded, you know, that’s my life. So anyway, we went and looked at a castle recently. And Carl was very down because he was like, “You’re never going to let me live in a castle.” And I’m like, “But I have to clean the ca”––Anyway, we had this whole conversation again.
And I said, “I just don’t want to lose any more of my life to taking care of a house.” And he said, “I mean, I know this. This is why you wrote The Dutch House.” And I was like, [gasps] “Oh, I didn’t get that. I didn’t know.” And he said, “Are you serious? That whole novel is a letter to me about how you don’t want to live in a great big house.” It blew my mind. And the happy memories from the childhood when they’re living on the army base in the one room house… I couldn’t believe it. But no, I didn’t know that. Like, I did not unpack that, and that is exactly what that book is about.
Steven Winn: It’s true. I think you said the original impetus was to write about the mother who is so distressed by finding herself in this big house that she has to run off, and the book actually became more about the brother and the sister, but the house is so integral. You were laying a trap for yourself.
Ann Patchett: This is why I’m not in therapy because I am working these things out. Even on a subconscious level, that’s how I’m processing.
Steven Winn: One of the many things that you’re so good at––I think of you as kind of a high priestess of plot. Plot is very important to you.
Ann Patchett: I love plot.
Steven Winn: You’re a plot person.
Ann Patchett: I am a plot person.
Steven Winn: Lots of novels are written that are seemingly plotless or are plotless.
Ann Patchett: Plot is passé.
Steven Winn: Make the case: why is plot so central to your enterprise?
Ann Patchett: I just love a story… I think that wonderful plotless novels are written, it’s just not my strength as a writer, nor is it, for the most part, my interest in a reader. I really like a narrative arc. I just do. And I get accused of writing fairy tales all the time, but I think that that’s what it is. I like a beginning, a middle, and an end. I am distressed when I read a wonderfully written, long novel and it’s like the writer’s been juggling all of these balls and then she just puts her arms down and they all fall on the floor. I think, That’s not right. I want a conclusion.
Steven Winn: Well speaking of storytelling, Tom Lake is, in many ways, a novel about storytelling.
Ann Patchett: Yes.
Steven Winn: It’s maybe one of your more seemingly bucolic and pastoral novels, and yet it’s so intricately constructed. You’re telling a story about a woman who is telling a story to her daughters about her past, the mother’s past at a summer stock theater, where people told stories on stage to each other.
Ann Patchett: And where the daughters have already made up the story about their mother’s past, and they are in great conflict, because they keep correcting her about her own life. The way we do.
Steven Winn: Central to this, inside these many frames, one of the glowing inner frames is the play Our Town, the Thornton Wilder play, which was central to your–
Ann Patchett: –Life.
Steven Winn: To your life, and to the life of this book. Talk a little bit about how that play sort of furnished forth the book Tom Lake.
Ann Patchett: Somebody asked me in an interview long before the book came out, you know, you’re just sitting on the phone all day doing interviews and the person said, “At what point did you decide that Our Town was going to be the play that Laura was in?”
And I said, “Oh no, no, it started with Our Town.” It was, “I want to write a book about Our Town and somebody who played Emily in Our Town and how the role of Emily shaped her life.” So that’s where I started, and when I was nine, my best friend Tavia Cathcart’s father, who was a drama teacher at a giant public high school in Nashville, put on Our Town, and Tavia and her sister were just extras, but that was the first time I saw the play. I probably read it for the first time when I was 14, and I am 59, and I have read the play every year since and sometimes many times in a year, and it has meant different things to me at different points in my life. One of the things that it has always done–I strive to be a writer of clarity. I would like to express things as clearly and succinctly as possible. I never want to say in ten pages what I could in fact say in ten sentences.
Again, I am a great lover of Henry James. It’s not that I don’t really appreciate long, drawn out, embroidered–
Steven Winn: –Periodic sentences.
Ann Patchett: Yeah. I am all for it. But the kind of thing that I want to write is not always the kind of thing I want to read. So I think that Our Town has been a model of straightforward simplicity in language and complexity in thought.
And it’s also, at this point in my life, where the only character I could still play would be the stage manager, because I’ve aged out of all of the other roles… It’s almost a Buddhist text, to me, because it’s about appreciating your life as you are living it, as a collection of small moments, and not looking off for something else.
Steven Winn: There’s a great line in the book about that: “There is no explaining this simple truth about life. You will forget much of it.” And yet, this is a book about trying to remember and recapture that which might have been forgotten.
Ann Patchett: Well, she remembers the big players, but less and less the small ones. And that’s just so true, I think. I think about the people that I used to date in my twenties and how important it was to me when we broke up that I was the kind of girl who would stay friends with every guy I used to date. And I really did. And then you get older and you’re like, “Why am I doing this?” You’re like, “Why am I sending this person a Christmas card?” And then you can just barely remember who they were, you know? You loved them. You were in love with these people. And you look back and you think, I don’t remember, I don’t remember how many siblings you have. I don’t remember your parents’ names. I don’t know if your parents are still alive. I don’t know anything about you. But I loved you.
That’s so interesting to me. It really does fall away. And I would never have believed that at the time. If somebody had said to me, “One day you’re gonna wake up and you won’t be in love with Jack anymore.” You know what? I’m not.
Steven Winn: Curtis Sittenfeld, in a review of your book Commonwealth, wrote that the passage of time is actually the ultimate plot. That’s kind of true, isn’t it? It’s kind of what stays and what doesn’t.
Ann Patchett: Yes. I am obsessed with time. And I think most novelists are. How you deal with time.
Steven Winn: The other thing we haven’t mentioned about Tom Lake is that it is also, I hate to call it a pandemic novel, because it’s not about the pandemic, but the pandemic is central to it in many ways, and about the importance of storytelling during the pandemic that many of us felt and experienced.
Ann Patchett: And here’s the thing about that: when I first started imagining this novel–I started thinking about it when I was writing The Dutch House–it was pre pandemic, but farm girls come home and work on the farm. And if you grow up on a farm, you come back and you work on the farm in the summer.
The reason that schools have summer vacation is not so that you can send your kids to camp. It’s because kids came home and had to work on the farm and get the food off the trees and out of the dirt. And so they were always going to be these three girls who were coming home because that’s what they did.
And then I was writing it towards the end of the pandemic and I was like, “Ooh, this is even better.” Like, yeah, they’re home, but they can’t leave. And I do love a story where you can’t leave. And if you really look at my body of work, it’s all about you can’t leave. And it’s why I am more interested in writing about family than anything else, because you can’t leave. Even if you hate your family and you swear them off, it’s like those people who write into the New York Times, and it’s like, “I haven’t spoken to my mother in ten years, and now my brother’s getting married, and how should I handle the wedding?” And it’s like, yeah, you can’t get away from it. You think you’re out, but you’re never out.
If you don’t like your spouse, it’s possible to divorce that person and never see them again. If you don’t like your job, you can quit your job. If you don’t like your religion, you can leave. But your family, you’re really stuck with them. And that creates all sorts of interesting narrative tension. So throw that on to a pandemic and a farm, that’s a Patchett novel.
Steven Winn: It’s true. Bel Canto and Tom Lake rhyme in unexpected ways, actually.
Ann Patchett: And Patron Saint of Liars liars, and State of Wonder… I do this over and over again.
Steven Winn: There’s so much more I wanna talk to you about, but we’ve gotta give the folks out here a turn. So we’re gonna bring up the lights and a microphone will perhaps come to your aid.
Audience Member 1: From one independent bookseller to another, thank you so much for your advocacy.
Ann Patchett: Thank you for selling books.
Audience Member 1:I was wondering if you could tell us what your vision is for the future of independent bookselling and especially within the context of, we’re in the middle of Silicon Valley with Alexas that order a book on demand and AI and all that kind of stuff. I’m wondering what you see as the future of independent bookselling.
Ann Patchett: I got into the business after the Kindle, and after Amazon, and after everybody said it was dead. And everybody says it’s dead. Everybody says it is dead. And yet every morning, there is a line of people waiting to get in at Parnassus. And you’re all here because you read. And it isn’t going away. I don’t know if that’s me being a Pollyanna or engaging in a blind act of faith. We will have been open for 12 years in November. And every year we have made more money than the year before. And people are buying books. I am on a 27-city book tour and everything is full every night because people want to talk about books.
And I feel like we have to change the narrative away from fear towards celebration and joy. We are readers. We love our books. And if you want other people to read, read in front of them. Read in public places. Read real books. So that people can see what you’re reading. This is what drives me insane. I’m such a snoop and the fact that people are reading on their phones, I can’t tell what you’re reading if you’re reading on your phones. But if you’ve got a book I can go over and say “I read that book,” “I didn’t read that book,” “What are you thinking about that book?”
Constantly have that conversation. There are studies that say, if you want your children to be readers, it’s more important that they see you reading a book than it is that you read a book to them. Show people that you have relationships with books.
Here in California, land of my birth, such a beautiful, wonderful state. I live in Tennessee, and we are dealing with stuff you guys cannot even imagine, and so I’m thinking so much about book banning. They have all sorts of vague things about if you sell something that is pornographic–but we won’t tell you what pornographic means, you just have to figure it out, or maybe we’ll come and figure it out for you. It’s so disgusting. And all you can do is just keep reading and showing people that you read and that you care. I don’t think that we’re going to be wiped out at all. Publishing, they’re doing fine. Just stay true to the course, keep selling the books, support people who are on strike to make sure that AI isn’t going to take over writer’s jobs and do your best.
Steven Winn: Now that we have you with your bookseller hat on: some recommendations? Books that you especially love and want folks to know?
Ann Patchett: Why, thank you for asking. Okay, so, there’s a book that I’m really pushing on book tour this time. It’s called Do Tell by Lindsay Lynch. And Lindsay Lynch is the buyer at Parnassus. She came to us when she was 22 years old out of Kenyon College. She’s 31 and she’s been working on this novel. She’s sold it to Doubleday. It’s a really great read about the golden age of Hollywood. It’s beautiful, it’s entertaining, there’s a thriller element, it has a fantastic ending and it also shows that what women were dealing with in the 40s are the same things that women are dealing with now.
But I think that it’s really important, in the same way that it’s very important–and you already know this–to support your local independent bookstore. Thank you, Books Inc. for doing such a terrific job tonight. I mean, what terrific people. It was such a pleasure to get to hang out with them. You know you’ve got to support your independent bookstore if you want to keep it in your community.
But you also have to support first time writers. Take a chance. There was a day in which Barbara Kingsolver published her first novel. Louise Erdrich published her first novel. You can’t always go to the people that you know. You’ve got to, you’ve got to open it up. That said, James McBride, Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, I absolutely love.
The new Zadie Smith, and I know she’s coming here, The Fraud. It’s a terrific book. Yiyun Li, if you like short stories, new book out last week called Wednesday’s Child–spectacular. The book that is going to win the Pulitzer this year–Alice McDermott’s Absolution–is coming in November. The book that’s going to win the Pulitzer next year: James by Percival Everett. If I’m wrong, you won’t remember. But if I’m right, you’re gonna be blown away. James is a retelling of Huckleberry Finn from Jim’s perspective. Percival Everett is a genius, it’s a game changer.
Oh, I just read Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer. Oh my God. So every time I go to a bookstore on tour, I say, “What are you guys reading?” I hear this over again: “Monsters, Monsters, Monsters.” I finally picked it up. It’s a nonfiction book about what do you do with the art that was made by men who didn’t turn out to be good guys–Roman Polanski, Picasso, Hemingway, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson. We could go on and on. What do you do with your love for Chinatown? What do you do with your love for Off the Wall? And there are no easy answers, but she really digs into it. And because I love that book so much, I dropped back and I read her last book, which was called Love and Trouble, which was also spectacular. Jill Lepore has a new book out that’s a collection of essays that is terrific.
So, I can do this all day long. And, I will say, I never want you to shop at Parnassus. Support your local independent bookstore and not mine, but I will tell you that every Tuesday we do something on Instagram called “The Lay Down Diaries” in which we talk about the new books that are published every week. And then on Fridays, I have a series on TikTok called “New to You,” in which I talk about backlist books that you might have missed. This is especially funny because I personally am not on any form of social media, and I have never seen these videos. But if you want book recommendations, Parnassus has a YouTube channel. It goes on forever, these book recommendations.
Steven Winn: A little inside baseball about book selling. The term “sideline,” which I had never heard before–what is a sideline and why is it important in book selling?
Ann Patchett: Oh, I’m so glad you asked. Nothing that I love more than sidelines. So when I opened a bookstore, I was like, “I’m not going to sell candles and coffee cups. No way. I’m going to just sell books. I’m going to sell New York Review of Books books. I’m going to sell books that no one actually wants to read half the time, yeah!” Well, that didn’t work. And now I do love some sidelines. While books have a fixed profit margin–you’re not allowed to charge more for a copy of Tom Lake if your bookstore is McNally Jackson in Manhattan than it is Reed’s Bookstore in Tupelo, Mississippi, even though the rent is variable. But a sideline has a much greater profit margin. And so everywhere I go, I look for the best sideline.
And the great thing about independent booksellers is they are always happy to share. And so I was on book tour one time. I was in Powell’s Books. They had a little box of hedgehogs by the cash register about the size of a goose egg. And I picked up the hedgehog and I said to the guy at the desk, “How are you guys doing with the hedgehogs?”
And he says, “Seriously? We don’t even have to sell books anymore. I bet I’ve sold 4, 000 hedgehogs. Yo Yo Ma came in, he bought five.” We also have a log pillow that they were selling at Boswell Books in Milwaukee. I came back with that log and everybody at the bookstore was like, “You’re out of your mind, nobody’s going to buy this log.” Whoa. People walk out of the store like this with logs [gestures as if holding a bundle].
Because not only are they great little neck pillows and all that, but a boy wants a stuffed animal. From the time they’re little until they’re 25. And they can’t have a stuffed animal, but they can have a log. And they do love them some logs, just can’t get enough of them.
Steven Winn: Let’s take another question.
Audience Member 2: Hi, I want to ask about your TikTok and specifically your book recommendations. Is that something that your staff had to get you into? Or are you excited to do it? I also want to know if you’ve gotten feedback from writers about their books that they’ve been selling better?
Ann Patchett: During the pandemic when we were closed–and I know the pandemic is still going on, but you know what I mean–I got really worried about first time authors, because if Stephen King publishes a book, you will know to order it, or you’ll know to call in and we’ll go put it in the trunk of your car, but if Lindsay Lynch comes out with Do Tell and it’s her first novel, you’re not going to hear about it unless you can come into the store, so that’s when we started “The Lay Down Diaries.” All books are published on Tuesday, so we could hold up new books and say “This is the book we’ve read,” or “This is the book we’re excited about.” When I started Parnassus, I had a business partner named Karen Hayes and she was the manager of the store. Karen left last year and Karen was never into backlist, because you’ve got a limited amount of space and she was always like, “We need to just be selling new books,” or pushing new books. The second she left. I was like, backlist, backlist. I wanted to talk about old books that I love. And the fact is if you haven’t read Act One by Moss Hart, if you’ve never heard of it before, it’s new.
So I started this whole TikTok series and I don’t know anything about that. We have a brilliant social media person, Sarah Arnold, and I said, “I want to start this series.” And it’s been so successful and yes, authors… I mean, a lot of the people I talk about on Friday are dead, but the ones that aren’t dead are really happy when it comes up. And I would like to give a special shout out to Edwidge Danticat, who is one of my very favorite writers, because when I did a TikTok about her book Brother, I’m Dying–which is one of the five best memoirs ever written–she sent me a bouquet of flowers because that is the class act Edwidge is. And I was in Seattle–Two days ago? I’m on book tour–and Claire Dederer reached out to me through the store because I had been making such a huge fuss about her books and said, “Do you want to have breakfast?” “Yes, I do. Yes.” You’ve got to read that book.
Steven Winn: How do these two activities in your life, owning a bookstore, and being obviously such an advocate for writers, and your own writing, intersect, feed each other, interfere with each other? How do you integrate those two things in your life?
Ann Patchett: It’s such a mystery to me. I am so much more productive since opening the bookstore and I think it is because 95 percent of what I read isn’t going to be published for another six months. It’s why I’m so excited about Percival Everett. That does you no good whatsoever, although the man has an extensive backlist, there’s plenty to read. But I know what people want to read. I know what’s missing because I’m reading new books the way you read the newspaper. I know what’s not there and I know what my customers are hungry for because it’s the same thing I’m hungry for.
What happened during the pandemic? We’re all stuck at home, and we don’t know if we’re going to die, and we don’t know if society is going to collapse, we have no idea what’s going to happen, and so, what did the novelists do?
They said, “I’m going to write a novel. I’m home, but I’m going to set it in the 1700s because I know what happened in the 1700s. I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen now.” And it made me want to write a book that was set during the pandemic because I was like, “Okay, the 1700s, you’ve got that covered.”
Michael Cunningham has a book coming out in November called Day, which is a very, very good pandemic novel. So everything that happens, you’re reading it two years later because by the time you write it and it’s getting published and all of that, we’re always a couple of beats behind. But it’s made me more prolific. It’s just made me work harder because I know what I need, both as a reader and as a bookseller.
Steven Winn: Let’s take another question.
Audience Member 3: Hi Ann. I’m so curious to hear more about your thoughts on creativity. I know that’s really broad, but I’ve read other writers and creatives ideas, and I would love to hear yours. And while you’re thinking, I just want to say you’re a gift to librarians everywhere.
Ann Patchett: Oh, librarians, you are a gift to us everywhere. Love, do love our librarians, who are also so under siege in Tennessee. Bless. Creativity is a beautiful, beautiful word that is so wonderful when you’re in your twenties.
And it’s right up there with inspiration. And you believe in creativity and inspiration when you’re young. This is what I do for a living. And I always say, “Creativity is a match and having a career as a writer is splitting wood.” If you want to live in a warm house, you need the match, but you really need to split the wood.
And at some point, it just becomes your job and your work. And you’re not sitting around waiting for something to whisper into your ear, you’re just getting the work done and you figure out how you work and you become wise to your own lies. You know how you game yourself and you just get over it and you get down to work.
I think about medicine and my husband’s life as a doctor–which is a very creative field in a funny way, the art and science of medicine. But he can’t get blocked. He doesn’t wait for creativity. He gets up and he goes to work every day. And not that I write every day because I certainly don’t. But you just get going with it. That said, a book that I deeply love by my friend Elizabeth Gilbert, called Big Magic, is a wonderful book about how to have a creative life and how you don’t need to make this your job, but there are all sorts of ways to bring creativity into your life. So if you are looking for a little more creativity in your life, I highly recommend Big Magic.
Steven Winn: There’s a vein we haven’t touched tonight and that is something that because your work is so well known, and even writers who are less well known, people are curious about the autobiographical components of your work.
Ann Patchett: Aren’t they? God, it’s boring.
Steven Winn: Yeah. Well, I want to ask you, there’s a fun fact. You were talking about your first editor, and he had three children named Emily, Maisie, and Nell, which are the names of the characters in Tom Lake. I did not assume that those characters were modeled on that, but there was something about the familiarity of those names that just was a kind of a talisman for you?
Ann Patchett: No. What it is, is the oldest daughter was going to be named Emily because they love Our Town. And I have a lot of significant Nells in my life, but I knew a woman named Nell Gifford who had the Giffords Circus in the UK and she was the daughter of a friend of mine and she died young and I really wanted to put a Nell in my book. So now I know I’ve got three daughters, and one is gonna be Emily and one is gonna be Nell. Well if I’ve got three daughters and one is Emily and one is Nell, then one’s gonna be Maisie. Because of the three Todd sisters.
You wanna hear something crazy? I never knew that three sisters was a thing. If I just sold this book to women who had three daughters, or women who came up and said “I am one of three daughters,” I would have a blockbuster on my hand. The number of women who say, “I’m one of three,” “I have three at home, three girls.” Three girls, it’s a thing.
Steven Winn: Does that happen a lot with your books? People come up and say things that astonish you?
Ann Patchett: You cannot believe. The number of people who say “I grew up in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, in The Dutch House.“
And then they show me the picture and I’m like, “Wow, you grew up in The Dutch House.” But for every book, yes. You think you’re making it up, and no, you did not make it up. It’s true, it’s out there.
Steven Winn: It’s a dark art, isn’t it? Let’s take a couple more questions.
Audience Member 4: Can you tell us why you dedicated this book to Kate DiCamillo, who I know is a friend of yours, and what it means that “she held the lantern high”?
Ann Patchett: Okay, so I dedicated this book to Kate DiCamillo because I love Kate DiCamillo. Who doesn’t? If you wrote a book, you’d dedicate it to Kate DiCamillo, too.
The great thing about getting older and having written a lot of books is I no longer have to dedicate my books to my family. Every time I wrote a book I would think, “Oh, I wish I could dedicate…” No, I’ve got to dedicate a book to my whatever, you know, there was another one. It’s a big family, there were a lot of us. Now I am at a point where I can dedicate a book to whoever I want and Kate is such a good friend. Children’s book authors are better people. In the same way that firefighters are better people. It’s like the children’s people are really, really good.
But they also write really short emails, which I love. The correlation between how long an author’s book is and how long their emails are is just absolutely clear. Sandy Boynton is a really good friend of mine. Her emails are never more than eight words, right? I’ll email forever with somebody who sends me emails that are eight words.
Kate’s maybe in the 15 word category, really short. So every morning she emails me and she says, basically, “I’m going down to the rabbit hole,” because that’s where she works, in the rabbit hole, in the morning. She works every day, just, she is a powerhouse…Oh, can I tell you something really exciting?
Monday, online, there is a profile of Katie DiCamillo in The New Yorker that Casey Cep, who wrote Furious Hours–another book you really should read, it’s fantastic, about Harper Lee–Casey Cep wrote the profile. So it’ll be in The New Yorker that’s on the stands on Thursday, it’ll be up online on Monday.
And, to just make this all the better, Noah Saterstrom is my friend who did the painting for the cover of The Dutch House, which is in my house, and Noah lives in Nashville, and he did that painting in three days, and it’s incredible. When Kate’s father died–and I am going to get back to the dedication in just a second– but this is a really good story. When Kate’s father died, she inherited his slides, thousands of the old little Kodak slides, and she sent me some of the pictures of herself as a child and her family. They were unbelievable and I sent one to Noah and I had him do a painting of Kate at three with her brother and their dog. It’s such a magnificent painting and it’s hanging in her house.
And when Casey Cep was there, they talked about this incredible painting. And I said, “You should have Noah do the illustration for The New Yorker.” And The New Yorker, who never listens to me, listened to me. And so when you see that illustration with that article, know that that’s Noah Satterstrom who painted The Dutch House.
When I started Tom Lake, she would say, “Honey, I’m going down to the rabbit hole. You have a good day in the cherry orchard.” And then at night, she would send me an email, and she would say, “Are you still in the cherry orchard? I’m holding the lantern. Come on out.” And so, that’s what that was: To Kate DiCamillo, who held the lantern high.
I’m gonna tell you another Kate DiCamillo story, ‘cause there’s so many and they’re so good. When I was writing The Dutch House, that’s when we became friends. And as aforementioned, I wrote that book, I threw it away, I rewrote it, I got to the end, I didn’t know how to end it. By which I meant, I knew there was going to be a denouement, just a little section at the end and I didn’t know what was going to happen. And Kate and I were friends, but we weren’t best friends. And she said, “How’s the book going?” And I said, “Ah, you know, I’ve got everything but the end. I don’t know what happens at the end.”
So all she knew about that book was that it was called The Dutch House, it was about a house, a great big fancy house, and the main character’s name was Maeve. That’s what she had. So I said, “I don’t know what the end of the book is.” She wrote me back, five minutes later, it was a paragraph, and Maeve is sitting outside the Dutch House, in the yard, in the dark, smoking a cigarette, and she’s looking at the house, and it’s all lit up, and there’s a big party going on, and she looks at the house, and she says, “Fools.” And she sent it to me, and I said, “That’s it. That’s it, thank you very much,” and that was the end of the book. So shouldn’t I have dedicated this book to her? Absolutely.
Steven Winn: Ann, one of the things I meant to say in my appreciation of Tom Lake is that there’s a sort of a Scheherazade quality to it, the story that keeps getting doled out day after day and night. And just having you here in the theater tonight, you could keep us all spellbound for a thousand and one nights. That said, the time is telling us that regrettably this wonderful evening of storytelling at all levels… Thank you all for coming–
Ann Patchett: –I get to say something. I get to say something.
Steven Winn: Please. You do, you get the last word.
Ann Patchett: Alright, so I write novels and I own a bookstore and I am the advocate for writers and for bookstores and for libraries and all of that, but the thing that I do all the time is this. I interview writers. I interview writers on stage. Constantly. This is a lot of work. It’s a lot of work to interview people, to be prepared and then to shake it off and be natural and have a conversation. I know what you’ve done, and I appreciate it. You’re great at this. So, thank you.
Transcribed by Gabriel Hawkins