Ann Patchett: A portrait in steel


Author Ann Patchett sits for a portrait at The Wales Hotel in New York. (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post)
November 11, 2013

On and off the page, Ann Patchett credibly presents herself as “unsentimental.” A practical, unsloppy sort of person, she’s too disciplined, she says, to produce a beautiful patch of prose that’s going nowhere in particular.

Unoperatic even if she does love opera, the author of “Bel Canto” and “The Patron Saint of Liars” is relieved to be turning 50 in a couple of weeks, because with age has come freedom at last from that tedious conversation about how she will want kids someday but just doesn’t know it yet.

The title of “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” her new collection of autobiographical essays, is an irony-free reference to a private life so long undisturbed by demons that at this point, she swears her greatest regret is ever getting the e-mail account she checks more than she thinks she should.

Everywhere she goes, she says, men tell her their wives, girlfriends and moms just love her. When she set out to save the independent bookstore by opening one in her hometown of Nashville two years ago, she became the patron saint of writers, too. This is the mission she calls “my ‘save the whales,’ my ‘let’s cure cancer,’ ’’ and that focus has made her less interested than ever in wasting time or tears on personal drama: “I’m not somebody who cries’’ more than every couple of years, she says. Nor is she somebody who even believes in writer’s block; it’s called procrastination, she tells some students who imagine they’ve “suffered cruelly” from it, she writes in “The Getaway Car,” one of several pieces about writing in “Happy Marriage.”

If that straightforwardness offended any of the tender shoots in her class, well, she herself rarely takes umbrage: “I don’t get my feelings hurt for the most part.” Nor, she assures me, does she care what’s written about her, and in fact doesn’t read her own interviews, because “there’s nothing to learn’’ from them.

Not ever? Nope. “Anything you say about me — you go for it, girl — I will never know. So, wide-open field.’’ She does seem wide open, too, with her shoes kicked off and her feet pulled up underneath her on the sitting room sofa in her New York hotel suite. If “go for it” wasn’t an invitation to ask what I really wanted to know, what would be? It wasn’t, though. Not at all, as it turned out.

* * *

At first, I thought maybe she’d forgotten our appointment, as she didn’t answer the phone when the desk clerk called up. But then she bounded down the stairs, laughing and insisting as she led me back up a few flights — because who has time for the world’s most glacial elevator? — that she hadn’t been able to figure out how to answer the phone.

It’s only Day Two of her book tour but she feels, she says, like she’s been on the road for a year already. She quotes her pal Elizabeth Gilbert, on the deprivations of life on tour: “As Liz says, the problem is it’s redeployment; we’ve been to Afghanistan and we’ve been home for two years” and have to ship out again.

Now, maybe the woman who wants to save books shouldn’t cop to such feelings about promoting them. But if you’re going to tell the truth about other people, she says, you can’t very well let yourself off the hook.

She never does that in her nonfiction — and is admirably willing, really, to show herself in a less than gauzy light, being stern and even . . .

“Unfaithful?’’ she says, finishing the sentence. (Though not, I should clarify, to her current husband.) Actually, I was thinking more about her admission that she hadn’t wanted to take her dazzling, exhausting, doomed best friend Lucy Grealy to the New York Times holiday party not long before Grealy died of a heroin overdose in 2002; admitting that is a lot braver than owning up to an end-of-the-marriage affair. As Patchett says in “Truth & Beauty,” her 2004 memoir of her intense friendship with Grealy, “I didn’t tell Lucy” about the party because “if she had come, she would have ruined it for me.”

So is the confessional impulse in her work a Catholic thing? After all, Patchett has said that as a working woman who never wanted to have children, her role models were the Mercy nuns who taught her.

“Where the Catholic thing comes in is this idea if you do something really good, you’re not allowed to tell. So I can’t say something too good, and obviously, I’m no idiot; I can’t say horrible things about myself,” either.

But do female writers have more reason to leave out those “horrible things”? It’s more than okay for men who are great writers to behave like a--holes, but women . . .

“I’m hoping I’m not coming off as an a--hole here!” If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought she was offended. The question of whether women are under any extra pressure to be “nice” doesn’t interest her, but the idea that nice women must want babies sure does.

“People will say to me, ‘You’re a very nurturing, loving person and you would have made a great mother.’ Who cares? It’s like the fact that I’m nice — except for when I’m an a--hole — is a sign you should have been a mother?”

Do I have children, by the way, she wants to know? “And are they nice?” she asks tartly.

Years ago, she claims, she almost punched someone on a book fair panel who declared that “to be a real writer you have to have a child, because you can’t know what love is until you have a child. And I said, ‘You want to take this outside?’ Be cruel to me, I don’t care, but he was being cruel to Emily Dickinson and Henry James.” And anyway, she says, smiling again, “Dickens had enough kids for all of us.”

Was she poking a little fun at the modern quest to extend fertility in “State of Wonder,” with its Amazonian tribe of women who bear children into old age? The book’s not really about that, she says, but “we don’t seem to accept’’ limits on childbearing. Then, too, fertility is a good book club discussion topic.

Wait, she writes with book clubs in mind? “I don’t consciously, but I know that it’s there. Eighty percent of the readers I meet, or 90, say they read my book in book club: ‘My book club loved your book as much as we loved “Elegance of the Hedgehog.” ’ Somebody said that to me last night, and I said I hated ‘Elegance of the Hedgehog’!”

In our 90 minutes together, she’s never anything but hospitable, urging me to have some fruit from the basket the hotel sent up, or maybe I’d like some of the heather?

Still, by the time she’s told me all the things that earlier interviewers have gotten wrong — such as referring to her husband as a surgeon instead of an internist — even Inspector Clouseau would have been wondering if she was really as easy-peasy as she insists.

In her new book, she says that after her first, unhappy marriage, she wanted to stay single,and changed her mind (after dating her current spouse for 11 years) only when he became seriously ill and she realized, as she jokingly puts it, “I really love you; I want to be your widow.”

Until then, “one of my reasons for not wanting to get married was not wanting to live in a house with a television. I don’t not watch television for virtuous reasons; it makes me want to peel my skin off. To be in a room with a television just makes me a nervous wreck. And I will also say the No. 1 reason I never wanted children is that I just have an incredibly low threshold for noise and chat.”

What she can do that others with talent and smarts maybe can’t, she says, is sit in a room alone for long stretches. Yet maybe that isolation does come at a price.

When she gets back from this book tour, she’s planning to go back into that quiet, distraction-free room to start “the boring, close-to-home novel’’ that “everyone else wrote at 25.” Until now, it was important that nobody think she was borrowing from her own life because she didn’t want to embarrass her family. She did, of course, draw quite directly on her friendship with Lucy Grealy — and embarrassed at least one of Lucy’s sisters, who complained in the Guardian. She neither knows nor cares what Grealy’s sister wrote, she says, and adds that what’s important is that her fiction has been far afield from her own life.

Although the line between her fiction and nonfiction has been blurred in other ways: When she wrote for Seventeen to support her fiction-writing, she did make things up: “We’d do all this ‘Jenny, not her real name,’ and I never called anybody; I didn’t even know that you weren’t supposed to do that.”

She stopped reading her own interviews 15 years ago, she says, after a reporter came to Nashville to interview her. “I was so nice to her and I took her shoe shopping and I passed a pair of black, thigh-high rubber stiletto boots and I picked them up and said to this young woman who I was kind of thinking of as a friend, ‘I bet I would sell a lot of books if I wore these on book tour.’ And she put that in the piece, with no irony or humor.”

A few hours later, in a packed bookstore in Chelsea, the last anecdote of the evening is about this woman from The Washington Post who came to interview her “and said, ‘It’s so interesting in your work how you allow yourself to be such an a--hole!’ ”

Her fans gasped in sympathy at what was a way better story than what’s on the tape. But she is, after all, a storyteller. Though she is more sensitive than she thinks, that may be required in her line of work. And maybe a memoir is only slightly more reliable than those “Jenny, not her real name’’ accounts in Seventeen. Whatever that man on the book fair panel said to her all those years ago, it may or may not have been that all real writers have children, and what she answered may or may not have involved asking him to take it outside.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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