Ann Patchett is that rare writer whose books hit the sweet spot: they're smart and thoughtful, but also make you want to know what happens next. She's written six novels; her debut, The Patron Saint of Liars was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, but her fourth, Bel Canto, was her breakthrough, winning the Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award in 2001. The Washington Post dubbed her most recent novel, State of Wonder, as 2011's "smartest, most exciting novel of the summer."
Patchett has also written two nonfiction books and countless essays. More recently, she's become a champion of the independent bookstore community. When Nashville, Tenn., her hometown, lost its last bookstore, she and a business partner opened Parnassus Books in 2011.
Patchett will present the 36th annual Marian McFadden Memorial Lecture, sponsored by The Indianapolis Public Library Foundation, on April 26. She spoke with NUVO about the work of writing, why we can't always be leaders, and what she's learned from opening a bookstore.
NUVO: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming lecture?
Ann Patchett: Lecture seems too strong a word; it's a talk. A lecture sounds a little punishing, and it's funnier than that. I have been talking a lot about work lately - the pleasures of work, and thinking about art more in terms of work and practice than in terms of creativity, inspiration, and the muse. I'm sure I will also talk about the importance of books and libraries and bookstores. Those are issues that are very near to my heart these days.
NUVO: You seem to range far and wide with the characters you write: they hold a variety of jobs, live in different hometowns, and often travel to far-flung places. What is your research process like in order to create so many disparate worlds?
Patchett: I personally like a book in which things happen, and I like to write a book in which things happen, because it's just more interesting. If I think about writing a book over the course of two years, there's got to be a lot going on just to make me want to show up for work every day and to keep myself engaged in the process. I really enjoy research and writing outside of my own experience. I don't set out to stand on my head or twist myself into a knot, yet I find that often that is exactly what I'm doing. I like to think, "Wow, I don't really know anything about evolutionary biology or opera or the Amazon, and this is going to be a really good excuse for me to learn." That's the best thing about writing novels, or writing anything: you can use it as an excuse to stay in school your whole life, and keep doing research on different things. It's continuing education.
NUVO: In What Now?, based on your 2006 commencement address at your alma mater Sarah Lawrence College, you emphasize some qualities that we don't hear much about these days: modesty, humility, learning to follow, and being still.
Patchett: Have you read Quiet by Susan Cain, the book about introverts? I just read it, and I got so much out of it. My husband and I listened to it together on a long car trip. He's an extrovert, I'm an introvert, and it was a wonderful way to have a conversation and say, "Oh, you're not wrong, this is just the way you're hardwired." I'm so sick of leadership. I was just asked to be the keynote speaker at a leadership conference, which has happened more than once, especially since I've opened this bookstore. And I just keep saying that we can't all be leaders; it's like setting people up for failure. I think true leadership is something so rare and innate. The notion that every school, Boy Scout troop, and conference for adults is about leadership just seems like madness, because that's not what life's about. Life is really about shaking off some of your giant personality and working in a team and helping other people. The notion that if you try hard you'll always get to be the one out front is really sick.
NUVO: Since opening Parnassus, you've become known not only for your writing but also as an advocate for bookstores and the communities they nurture. What have you learned?
Patchett: I've been surprised by how much I've enjoyed it. I never thought that I was doing something that would be seen as trendsetting or particularly surprising or important. I never thought that I would become the sort of industry spokesperson that I have become. I've really enjoyed that aspect a lot - sticking up for bookstores, which I think of as sticking up for my friends. On a day-to-day level, I love making people read the books that I love. My whole life I've been saying to my friends and family, "I love this book, you have to read this book." And now I can say it to a much wider audience, both to people in the bookstore, and in the blog - a word that I hate so much I can barely stand to say it - that I write about what I'm reading every month.
NUVO: Bel Canto is being adapted as an opera by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Lyric's creative consultant Renée Fleming first approached you about this?
Patchett: It was Renée's idea; we're friends. All I can say is, "We'll see." I love the Lyric, I love my friend Renée, I have great confidence in the people that they've chosen, and that said, I have seen so many projects fall through. My experience with movies is the thing that's taught me not to be involved. I really love what I do, and what I do is sit home alone and write books. Creative collaboration is just not my cup of tea. That's not because it's my work or because I'm sensitive or don't want people changing my work; I just don't want to sit down with a group of people and try to make art.
NUVO: Tell us about your upcoming essay collection.
Patchett: I have been writing essays for a really long time, and for a long time that's how I made my living. I started off as a teacher, realized that I didn't want to do that, and supported my life as a fiction writer by doing magazine work. Several people have asked me to do this book, and I've always been really hesitant about it, because I don't think of that as what I do. But I went back and put together a group of essays, and then I kept rereading. I would read the book through and think, "Who is the weak sister?" I would pull out whichever essay seemed the worst, and then I would write a new essay to take its place. I did that over and over again for about two years. I'm hoping that it has a real shape and is entirely strong. I find when I read books of essays, it seems that often there will be two or three or four brilliant essays in a collection, and then a bunch of filler.
NUVO: Why did you choose the title This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage?
Patchett: If I could put it down into a pitch line, it's a book about the things in my life that I feel married to, or the things I am deeply committed to, which are books, writing, dogs, family and friends, and my husband.
NUVO: Was it working on these essays that got you thinking about writing as work?
Patchett: It's really something that I had been thinking about for a long time. Reading that Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers, which talks about the whole theory of 10,000 hours [of practice to become good at something] - I really believe that. I don't believe that everybody can be a writer or that everybody can write at the same level. I know there is an element of talent in this. But people who go far are the people who understand how to work.
NUVO: Discipline is a key in Gladwell's theory, but one thing he didn't address is passion.
Patchett: I was really like some laboratory test rat that pushed a button for a grain of corn. Even when I was really young, it was telling a story that got me the grain of corn. Because of that, I put my little rat nose to that button over and over and over again. One of the metaphors that I've been thinking about a lot lately is that talent is a match. If you want to stay warm for your entire life, you have to think about all the wood that you're going to split, all the fire that you're going to have to tend over the course of a lifetime. Yes, you need the match. You need that initial spark and that initial flame. But in this point in my life, I am so far away from that match, and it has been about splitting wood and keeping warm and keeping alive.