A CONVERSATION WITH ANN PATCHETT
W&B: You were born in Los Angeles but moved to Nashville, Tennessee, with your family when you were a young girl. I have read that you have been influenced by authors as diverse as Saul Bellow, Raymond Chandler, Anton Chekhov, Thomas Mann and Alice Munro as well as several Southern writers including Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. What other authors or regional concerns influenced your decision to become a writer or have influenced your writing over the years?
Ann Patchett: There’s a difference between the writers that I really like and the writers who influenced me. Influence for me has more to do with the time in my life in which I read a certain writer. I like Alice Munro but she has never been an influence (I wish she was!) because I started reading her when I was really past the age of influence. On the other hand it also has to do with how you connect to the material: I read Carson McCullers when I was young and I liked her but she was never an influence. Chekhov, Chandler, Bellow, Roth, Updike, Welty were all influences in my life. They were the right writers at the right time in my life. I read Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain for the first time in high school and then again in college and it had a huge impact on shaping my ideas about what a novel should be. At this point in my life Henry James is my favorite author. I can’t think of a writer whose work is more different from my own.
W&B: What inspires the particular narratives that you write? I am especially interested in the range of characters found in your novels, from a young married woman who flees her life in California to give birth in a home for unwed mothers in Kentucky in the 1960s to an African American bar manager in Memphis who befriends a young white woman to a mixed race family in Boston to the recently widowed magician’s assistant who travels from Los Angeles to Nebraska to discover more about the man she had loved. These characters are unique and so very human as you have fleshed them out. How do you get into the minds and experiences of such disparate characters?
AP: There’s no one answer about where ideas come from. It’s different for every book. It can be a conversation I have with a friend, something I read in the paper, a bit of a dream. It’s never the same. The trick is the keep your eyes open. Very few ideas are actually something I can make a novel out of. People come up to me all the time and say, “I have a story and I know you’re going to want to write a book about it,” and I’ve never once wanted to.
W&B: How many of your stories stem from places or people you know and from real events? For example, how closely linked are the details of the hostage situation in Bel Canto with the takeover of the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, by the revolutionary group Tupac Amaru in 1996? What elements of that story sparked your imagination?
AP: The Magician’s Assistant was sparked directly from a story someone told me about a friend of theirs who had AIDS who then died of something else entirely. Bel Canto was definitely inspired by the takeover of the Japanese Embassy in Lima but it was in no way meant to be a representation of what happened. The idea was just a springboard. I think I was so interested in it right from the start because it reminded me of The Magic Mountain.
W&B: I know that you maintain a friendship with opera superstar Renee Fleming, who is from Rochester. Was the character of Roxane Coss influenced by Fleming (as is the rumor in Rochester, where we are very proud of Renee) or was she inspired by Karol Bennett as I have read? Also, did you begin contemplating writing a story of an opera diva before you read about the true story of the hostage situation in Peru or vice versa? How did you put the two together?
AP: When I wrote Bel Canto Karol Bennet was the only opera singer I had ever met so I picked up a lot of little details from her. I met Renee after the book came out and while I sincerely wish I had written the character about her (and we sometimes say I did just for fun), I didn’t. Still, there are some uncanny similarities between Renee and Roxane. I had certainly never considered writing about an opera singer before I started Bel Canto. The idea was formed as a whole, not two pieces.
W&B: You have noted in earlier interviews that you were not that familiar with opera before writing Bel Canto. Can you talk about the function of music in your life before and after writing this book? What are your thoughts about the power of music?
AP: I grew up very musically deprived. My stepfather controlled the radio dial in our house and he liked Easy Listening (it was the seventies, after all). I just never bonded to music when I was growing up. Also, the two things I’m most likely to be doing in my life are reading and writing and I can’t do either one of those things while listening to music. When I decided to write about an opera singer I gave myself a crash course in opera. I love opera, absolutely love it, but I still don’t listen to music very often in the course of my day. My husband has an incredible knowledge of music so if something is playing it’s usually because he put it on.
W&B: You have been quoted as saying that research is the La Brea Tar Pits for writers, often serving as a distraction from the actual process of writing. But since you tackled so many subjects unfamiliar to you in Bel Canto, you must have done some research before (or during) the writing. How do you go about it and when do you find is the time to stop? And once you do, on what do
AP: It’s true, research just sort of sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. Writing is hard for me. It’s hard to get started, it’s hard to stick with it. Research, on the other hand, is delightful. It takes real discipline in a book like Run to not just read political speeches indefinitely. So yes, I do research, but I try to not get into a situation where I’m doing nothing but research. It’s also very important not to put in every fact you’ve learned. It drives me crazy when I read a book in which the author clearly did an enormous amount of research and now he’s going to tell you every single thing he found out. You have to learn it and then write from that place of knowledge without bludgeoning your readers with facts.
W&B: How do you tie your disparate narrative lines together, and at what point? For example, did you flesh out the scenes of Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa’s relationship before or after you wrote of Gen’s relationship with Carmen?
AP: I write all my books chronologically. I start at page one, I then write page two, so forth and so on. And while there is no one true way to write I highly recommend this as a way to work. I can’t imagine writing a novel as if it were a patchwork quilt, writing the scenes about one character and then writing the scenes about another character and then piecing it all together. You learn about people as you go along; the story should reflect that.
W&B: The various characters in the novel are from numerous countries around the world and thus speak several different languages. Although they are not initially able to readily converse with one another, they find common ground in musical appreciation and for some characters, in love. How did you come to create this narrative polyglotism?
AP: In all of my books there is a central problem that I put in for myself, something to keep things interesting. In Bel Canto the central problem is: what do you do if your characters don’t speak the same language? Well, first they’d hire a interpreter. How would they transcend the interpreter? Through art. How would they transcend art? Through love and peace. I think all of this through for a long time before I start writing.
W&B: Ultimately, Bel Canto is also concerned with human rights issues. When did this aspect come to the table for you?
AP: Again, I map everything out before I ever write anything down. I could never say, well, on page 124 I realized . . . It doesn’t break down like that. There are some things I am always going to be interested in and one of them is the intersection between wealth and poverty. It comes up for me over and over again.
W&B: When did you know how the situation in the Vice President’s mansion would end? When and how did the epilogue, which most readers find quite surprising, come to be? I have read that you originally included a Prologue that anticipated the book’s ending.
AP: All of it was in place before I ever started writing. The ending I took from the real events of the takeover. The epilogue was there from the start. The book did have a prologue but my friend Elizabeth McCracken, who edits my work for me, told me the prologue was just a safety net. Once I was finished I threw it away.
W&B: One definition of “bel canto” is “a style of operatic singing characterized by full, even tones and a brilliant display of vocal technique” or, more simply, “fine singing.” At what point during the writing of the novel did you settle on this title and what does it denote for you?
AP: Bel Canto was the name of the computer file. I used it to remind myself to do more research into Bel Canto, which is such a complex idea to me. It’s a way to sing, a period of operatic composition, a way to be trained. I never thought it would be the title of the book, but at the end I hadn’t come up with anything else so I just used what I had. My friend Elizabeth said it sounded like an Italian restaurant.
W&B: Your characters do engender empathy: I think readers eventually accept the complex motivations of each, even if they do not initially understand their actions. Does the story or do your characters ever take over or do you always remain in control?
AP: I’m always in control.
W&B: The character Fyodorov speaks about the importance of people witnessing and appreciating great art and certainly Roxanne’s singing (and the music) allows for a kind of communication and connection between the hostages and their captors in Bel Canto as mentioned. How important is it for you to have an audience and do you think of that audience when you are writing?
AP: I appreciate my audience, they support me in every possible sense, but I don’t write for an audience. I write my novels for myself. I never think about anyone else reading them, except maybe Elizabeth (who is the only person who reads them while I’m writing them).
W&B: You have said that your first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, served as your means to learn how to write a novel. How has the writing process changed for you over the years now that you have written several novels?
AP: On one hand it’s easier because I know the way I work. I think, oh, this is the part of the process where you feel hopeless, or, this is the part where you’re thrilled. I know I’ll get through it. I know I’ll finish. I did not know that at first. On the other hand my life is so much busier now. It’s hard to find long, quiet stretches to work. The career aspects of writing are very counterproductive to the artistic aspects of writing.
W&B: What films have inspired you as a reader, as a writer, or as a person? How do you feel about your novels being transformed into films? (The Patron Saint of Liars was a CBS television movie in 1997 and Taft was once optioned by Morgan Freeman.)
AP: Morgan Freeman dropped the option for Taft probably ten years ago but I really appreciated him while he was around because I was broke and the option money was a big help then. Options come and go. Frankly, I try to stay out of the whole thing. It’s very distracting. I love going to the movies and I virtually never watch them at home. I would be hard pressed to say which ones inspired me.
W&B: As many readers know, you were very close with the talented writer Lucy Grealy, who passed away in 2002. Lucy wrote her own memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which explores her struggles with childhood cancer and the disfigurement and perpetual discomfort that resulted from her numerous facial surgeries. Lucy’s memoir is a moving and beautiful book of the life of a writer. When and how did you decide to write the story of your complicated, long-term friendship with Lucy?
AP: I started writing that book about three weeks after she died. It was you might say an automatic response to the situation. I didn’t know what else to do.
W&B: Was writing the book a way to work through your feeling about losing Lucy?
AP: It was my way of preserving her. She was such a complicated, fabulous, difficult person and I loved her so much. I just wanted to write it all down so that in the future I wouldn’t be tempted to remember her in a simplified way.
W&B: In 2008 you delivered the commencement address at your alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. How did the process of writing such an overtly inspirational piece differ from novel writing? How did it come to be published?
AP: I do commencements and convocations all the time. It’s fun to give advice, to be part of people’s happy days. I never intended it to be a book. A publisher read it and contacted me about it and I thought, oh, that’s lovely. The next thing I knew my publisher said they wanted to do it and I had a contract. It was an accidental book.
W&B: Your three most recent books are the memoir Truth & Beauty, the novel Run, and the text of your 2009 commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College, What Now? Considering these very different forms, what is the nature of your next book and when can we plan to see it in print? (Your many devoted readers are anxious to know.)
AP: As of today I’m on page 230 of a novel that should be about 350 pages long. I write the end much faster than I write the beginning so I think I should be finished by this summer. I’m enjoying this book so much more than I’ve enjoyed anything I’ve done in a long time. It’s set in the Amazon. It’s a lot of fun.