portrait Ann Patchett

interviewed by Candace Moonshower

Published in Issue No. 44 ~ January, 2001

I felt a kinship with Ann Patchett early on in her career when I read somewhere (after the success of The Patron Saint of Liars) that she had waited tables at the T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant on Elliston Place in Nashville, Tennessee. I, too, had waited tables at Friday’s, though not in Nashville. But, hey! We both waited tables at Friday’s! And I’d enjoyed many a happy hour or late-night drink with friends at the Nashville Friday’s in the early ’80s. This tenuous link made me curious to read Patchett’s first novel. Patchett’s writing has kept me reading ever since.

Ann Patchett was born in 1963. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and was a Bunting Institute fellow at Radcliffe. She has written for various magazines including Seventeen, Elle, GQ, The Paris Review and Vogue. Her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, was the only first novel chosen in 1992 by the American Library Association’s Notable Books Council as one of the best works of fiction of the year. Patron Saint was also chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Taft won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Patchett lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Candace Moonshower: When we began the interview process, you mentioned that you have just completed your latest novel. Congratulations! How do you look at the finishing of a book? Do you feel differently now about the end of a novel than you did the first time, with The Patron Saint of Liars?

Ann Patchett: There are so many steps in finishing a book. There’s the day I write the last page. Then I go back and re-write the end several times, then I start to re-read and change things, then I send it to Elizabeth McCracken and add in her changes, then my agent, then my editor, who may or may not want changes. I suppose a book is done when it is typeset, or maybe after that. It’s done when I can’t make changes anymore. Right now my editor has the book, but I think it’s finished. I had so many people go over this one. It still does feel like it did with Patron Saint, that moment of typing a last line, stumbling away from the computer. It feels a little bit like walking away from a car crash, all of life and all of death in a minute.

CM: Were there any finished – or unfinished, for that matter – novels before The Patron Saint of Liars? What had you published before submitting it?

AP: Patron Saint was the first novel I wrote. I did try to write an inter-connected collection of short stories before that, but I was unhappy with the way it turned out and threw it away. I wrote/published a lot of short stories before I wrote novels, something I don’t do anymore.

CM: Have you ever written – or do you plan to write – books in any other genre?

AP: I suppose it’s possible that I would write a book of nonfiction, but the other genres that interest me right now are plays and screenplays. I’ve just written two screenplays.

CM: Did you receive many rejection slips in your early years? How would you advise a writer embarking on a professional career to view rejection letters?

AP: I received a lot of childhood rejection slips, mostly from Seventeen and The New Yorker (an odd combination, admittedly). I saved them in a scrapbook for years and then threw it out. I’ve had plenty of rejection slips, but mine isn’t the classic story of struggle in the face of tremendous odds. I did well pretty early on. I published my first story in The Paris Review when I was still in college. When I look back now, all I see is the enormous luck of it. My advice to writers with rejections is to not try to incorporate the advice that is scrawled on a slip into your story. An editor rejects so many pieces, and he or she may try to give a reason why your story wasn’t right for them, but there isn’t a great deal of thought that goes into these responses due to bulk. I know, I’ve written those letters. Also, don’t send out the first story you have that’s really good. Often, pieces will get rejected because the editor wants to see if you’re a one-trick pony. Have five strong stories lined up so when one comes back saying, ‘This came close.’ you have another story to fire off to the magazine.

CM: What bizarre notions or false assumptions have you encountered from non-writers or developing writers about the writing life and the nature of creativity? For that matter, what kinds of advice did you receive early in your career that proved to be either helpful or worthless?

AP: People always tell me I have such a glamourous life. That mystifies me. I’m home most of the day, alone, wearing a sweatshirt, drinking lukewarm tea, scratching the dog. It’s not so dazzling. I know there is a certain imagined glamour that is left over from Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but most of the writers I know aren’t leading that life. People also still talk about the muse and the lightening bolt of inspiration. Maybe it works that way for some people, but for me it’s much more a matter of sitting down and focusing. The advice most people give writers is to keep a journal and to write every day, both brilliant pieces of advice that I’ve never been able to follow.

CM: Did you begin your college years with an eye to writing for a living, or did you have some other plan in mind? When did you know you would write for a living? Was it an epiphany or a slow dawning of realization – like “I love to write; hey, I could do this for a living”?

AP: I’ve wanted to write for a living since I was about five years old (for more information see an essay in the anthology, Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe). I always wanted to do it for a living. I never seriously considered doing anything else. I sold stories, I taught creative writing and literature, I did free-lance work for magazines. All of those things felt like I was making a living off of writing. That’s an amazing feeling for me. I’ve always been very independent financially, and I love to make the association in my own mind between writing and paying the rent. I feel like I take care of my creativity, and it takes care of me.

CM: Having worked as a waitress at Friday’s in a town where every waiter or waitress is a songwriter or artist of some description, did you find it difficult to be taken seriously – or to take yourself seriously?

AP: There were so many great things about those dark days at Friday’s. Everybody there believed that they were special, that they weren’t really a waiter, that they were the one who was getting out. We all talked about it. I believed it, too. I thought, well, of course, it’s different for me, but at the same time I saw that we all believed that. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just like everybody else, a girl with a dream and a plate of hot fajitas. You get out not so much because you’re special but because you’ve got enough steel in your soul to crawl up. I had that. I loved those people because we were all just out there, turn a table, go back and cry on somebody’s shoulder, smoke a cigarette, get a neck rub, borrow money, go out there again. I had come from a lifetime of academia, and being a waitress felt so open and honest in comparison.

CM: Did you ever have a crisis of confidence? Do you ever experience any kind of bottoming-out as you work on each novel? If so, how do you recharge yourself and your project?

AP: I never wondered if I was really a writer or if I was supposed to be doing something else with my life, so no, no really big crisis of confidence. The other kind, the smaller ones, I have all the time. The way I write, I have a novel in my head for a long time that I think about, and in those months it is so beautiful, so incredibly profound. As soon as I start to put it on the page I kill it. It always breaks my heart. Suddenly, it’s a terrible novel and I’m stupid for thinking I could do it. For me, the greatest challenge is to stick with the book I’m writing when what I want to do is hit the delete button. Fortunately, I have several good friends who can talk me down off that ledge.

CM: How do you jump-start yourself to work – and keep yourself going? Do you have any writing “rituals”? Do you write longhand and retype later, or do you write on the computer?

AP: I’m a computer user all the way. My handwriting is no help to me. When I’m trying to write after a long stretch of not having written, it’s like trying to run after taking six months off. I have to get the muscle of discipline in shape again. I have to stretch out my attention span. I do this by making deals with myself: I have to sit at the desk for X amount of time every day. I don’t have to write, but I can’t do anything else, either. After awhile, I get so bored that not writing seems worse than writing. I achieve a state of what Dorothy Allison calls, “necessary boredom.”

CM: Do you have a writing schedule? You’ve mentioned writers’ colonies in the acknowledgments of your books. Do you utilize your time at writers’ colonies to get started on new projects or to get through the long haul of a work in progress, or both?

AP: I’m better in the morning. I’m a better person. So I write in the morning. When I wrote my first two books, I was very isolated and so wrote them pretty quickly. The last two books I wrote in Nashville, where I have a great deal of family obligations. I also have this career now, and people are always asking me to do things (like this) and that takes a huge bite out of my time – speaking, reading galleys, going to book clubs, whatever. So I’m getting slower. The last book took me forever. I go to writer’s colonies less often now because it’s harder to get away. You have to apply so far in advance, there’s simply no telling where you’ll be in the process when and if you get in. I always wished there was an emergency writer’s colony that you could call up and say, I have to have a week right now! There have been times I’ve needed it.

CM: In the initial stages of a novel, do you plan plots and sketch characters, or do you simply jump in with the first sentence and plot later?

AP: I plot everything before I start. It’s like traveling with a map. If I don’t know where I’m going, I tend to just drive around in circles.

CM: How did the idea come to you for The Patron Saint of Liars? Is it autobiographical in any way as many first novels are thought to be? Did it start out as something else? What about Taft and The Magician’s Assistant?

AP: I like to think that the one thing one can tell by reading my novels is that they aren’t autobiographical. There are issues in all my books that I’m interested in (the construction of family, the nature of love and responsibility) but the people, the plots, I make those up. Patron Saint is a story I made up when I was rolling silverware at Friday’s at two a.m. to keep myself awake. I kept saying, okay, but then what happened?

CM: The women in your novels seem to “settle” instead of holding out for more rewarding existences. Rose, in Patron Saint, marries two men for whom she feels no great passion; Marion, in Taft, becomes bitter after putting up with John Nickel’s mistreatment of her during her pregnancy; and Sabine, in Magician, marries a man who can never love her as more than a friend. Do you intend, as Rose’s mother tells her, to show how pretty girls are often distracted from their real selves because “there will always be people to tell a pretty girl what she should be doing or thinking”?

AP: I’ll have to disagree with you on this one. Rose didn’t do so well with love, but Marion was not bitter and unhappy. She was a woman who was deeply hurt by the man she loved and makes the journey back to loving him again, which I think she does by the end of the book. Sabine loves Parsifal with her whole heart. What I wanted to show in that relationship is that a man and a woman can share a profound love and relationship without having sex. I really don’t see myself as writing books about unfulfilled women. I think that’s true in the first one, but it would be missing the point to try and lump them all into that category. The women in Bel Canto find great love.

CM: Do you feel that unfulfilled potential is an element inherent in the personalities of your major characters? If so, was this intentional on your part and any sort of message on self-imposed limits or the chains women and men are bound by when they are responsible for spouses and children?

AP: Nope. Again, I ask you to resist the urge to make sweeping statements about the way all these characters are. The question I’d ask you is, how many people do you know who have realized their full potential? Don’t we all come up a little short of what we wanted to be? Everybody settles in some way. That’s the human condition, it isn’t just what people do in my novels.

CM: In a conversation with Elizabeth McCracken, you write that you have a terrible time naming your characters, yet your characters’ names are one of the aspects of your novels I find most entertaining: Martha Rose and Son in Patron Saint, the sisters Marion and Ruth in Taft, and Parsifal (who is really Guy Fetters) in Magician. Though you’ve said that your characters remain nameless for long periods of time, when you do get around to naming them, is there a method to your madness?

AP: Naming characters is tricky because you need a name that fits the personality but doesn’t fit it too well. It would be like naming your children when they were twenty. People grow into their names. Fictional characters don’t. There were some Catholic issues in naming characters in the first book, but that wasn’t true in the others. Parsifal comes from the Wagner opera of the same name. He is Percival, the last knight of the round table, the one who survives and finds the grail. The interesting thing was naming characters in Bel Canto because they are all from different countries. I would call a friend and say, “Give me a list of Japanese names,” and then I would just pick one. I had no associations with the names. We all have such baggage with names. If you knew a beautiful Amy in the third grade, or if Amy beat you up in the third grade, it will have a big impact on the way the name fares in the book.

CM: The settings of your books are so finely drawn. In of The Magician’s Assistant, I enjoyed the juxtaposition of warm, exotic and accepting Los Angeles and cold, bitter and unforgiving Alliance, Nebraska. Did you live or spend time in Los Angeles and Nebraska before or during the writing of the book?

AP: I was born in Los Angeles, and my father and step-mother live there. I’m there a lot, and it’s a city I love. Los Angeles is much maligned in the public consciousness, especially in fiction, so I wanted to write a positive story about L.A. As for Nebraska, I wanted to pick the state that was the biggest cipher in my imagination. I’ve been there many times. I didn’t need to go to either place again to write the book.

CM: Dreams appear to be a major motif in The Magician’s Assistant. Do you believe there is magic in dreams? Do you see our dreams as self-revelation or messages from our psyche?

AP: I don’t know what to make of dreams. But I know that people long to hear from their loved ones after they’re dead. It’s our fantasy that the dead watch over us, protect us, guide us in ways we can’t see. I don’t necessarily believe this is true, but I thought it would be a wonderful gift to give to Sabine’s character. Readers have responded so strongly to those dreams I can only believe I have tapped into an enormous hope that people have.

CM: What writers do you enjoy reading?

AP: I just finished Jane Austen’s Persuasion this afternoon. I marvel at her novels; they work beautifully on so many different levels. I love, in no particular order, Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, Alice Munroe, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Elizabeth McCracken, Lucy Grealy, Thomas Mann, Joan Didion, Doris Kearns Goodwin. I could go on all night.

CM: Is there anything you wish I had asked you?

AP: I can’t imagine it. This is a seriously extensive interview. I think there’s a real benefit in typing it all up myself. It gives me a chance to both think and be spontaneous. I appreciate all the time and thought you put into this. My thanks for everything.

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Candace Moonshower is an army brat who taught herself to type the summer she turned eight, knowing even then she would write. Now a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, she studies English and writes both fiction and nonfiction. Candace's personal and ongoing work involves researching and writing about the cultural aftermath of the Vietnam War, especially with regard to the men and women that served and the families they left behind, in the hopes of promoting an understanding of our national consciousness before, during and since our involvement there.