Inconsistently yours

November 8, 2013
Author Ann Patchett didn’t do anything bad to acquire her new dog, Sparky. (Heidi Ross)
Author Ann Patchett didn’t do anything bad to acquire her new dog, Sparky. (Heidi Ross)

Early in her career, novelist Ann Patchett tried supporting her fiction habit by waitressing on the side. When that job left her too tired to write, she found an easier way to make a buck: as a hack writer.

“I wrote for Seventeen. I wrote about decorating your locker, and when your best friend’s a guy and when you have no privacy,” she says. “The amount of time it took me to type each piece was the amount of time it took me to write it. I made up interviews; I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed.”

In the meantime, she worked on her novels. It wasn’t until her fourth novel, 2001’s “Bel Canto,” that Patchett found she could get choosier about her assignments. So, she stopped writing tips for teens and began penning stories for Harper’s, Vogue and The Atlantic — lyrical meditations on her life.

These personal essays form the heart of Patchett’s new book, “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” (Signed copies will be available Tuesday night when Patchett gives a reading at Politics and Prose.)

Binding so many of her life stories into a single book left the author feeling a bit exposed.

“I always wrote for such a wide range of magazines,” she says. “I never thought there was any one person out there reading all of these things.”

Now, readers might notice some inconsistencies — especially in an early story about how the author got her beloved dog, Rose. In the first version of the story, Patchett says she spotted a cute puppy in a car, and, upon finding out that it was a stray in need of a home, Patchett and her husband thought it over and then returned to pick it up.

In a later essay, Patchett comes clean. It turns out that while she was mulling things over, a blind kid had claimed the puppy, though his mother was ambivalent. So, Patchett took the dog from the sobbing kid. “Sometimes love doesn’t have the most honorable beginnings. And the endings, the endings will break you in half,” she writes.

“The nice version is the story I told everybody,” Patchett says. “But then [Rose] died and time goes by and you think, ‘Wow, I went a long way to get this dog. I did a bad thing to get this dog, and I don’t regret it.’ ”

Patchett now has a new dog, Sparky, whom she adopted from an animal shelter. As Patchett used her last book tour as a bully pulpit for independent bookstores, this time she’ll proselytize for pounds.

“Pound dogs are the future,” she says. “In two years, nobody will be buying dogs. Everyone will be getting them for free and giving them good homes.”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Tue., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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