Author Ann Patchett talks about how she avoids modern tech in ‘State of Wonder’
By Neely Tucker,
Sure, the Nashville resident and author is a winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize, and her books have sold millions of copies in dozens of languages the world over.
But this technology thing, the ever-encroaching creep of communications, keeps making it more difficult for her to keep it out of her novels. She says such constant contact — cellphones, texting, e-mailing, tweeting — interferes with plot twists.
This occurred to her while researching “Wonder,” most of which takes place in the Amazon rain forest. She was part of a tour group walking through a stretch of jungle when the guy behind her got a cellphone call — from his golf partner in Atlanta.
“We were in nowhere, in the deepest armpit of nowhere, and this guy is talking about tee times,” she says at lunch at Guapo’s, the Mexican restaurant in the 4500 block of Wisconsin Avenue NW, on a recent afternoon.
“And I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.”
In “State of Wonder,” her sixth novel, published June 7, this takes some doing.
The book is about Marina Singh, a medical researcher for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. A colleague is sent to check on a hush-hush company lab deep in the Amazon, a long-overdue project that may prove to be a cure for infertility. The colleague dies of a fever; Marina is sent to the jungle to follow up. Running the jungle lab is her old medical professor, Annick Swenson, who is taciturn, contemptuous and sort of nuts. She runs the lab with such secrecy that no one in the company that employs her knows where it is or what research she’s doing.
It’s a bit of “Heart of Darkness,” set in the 21st century, which makes its harder for the jungle to be as remote as Conrad’s Congo. When Marina makes her trek, she loses her luggage — twice — including her two cellphones because her creator worked to cut her off from the outside world and thus develop a sense of isolation.
She’s not the only Patchett character who can’t keep up with her phone.
In “Run,” her 2007 book, a lead character “loses four phones and doesn’t get a fifth,” she says. “In ‘Bel Canto,’ when the terrorists come in? The first thing they do is take away everybody’s phone. I have to make up a book in which nobody can have a phone.”
“I’m just such a Luddite, and I want to write books about Luddites.”
She laughs at this, but only just so.
She hasn’t watched television since junior high, she says. She has a comically outdated flip phone, which her husband unsuccessfully begs her, “with tears in his eyes,” to dump in favor of something that can text. She lives to write but loathes the requisite book tour with such vehemence that she calls it “Patchett Season,” as in being a hunted target.
“Ann is just a case,” says Tari Hughes, executive director of the Nashville Public Library Foundation and a close friend for nearly a decade. The library is one of Patchett’s favorite causes; when she won an award from the library several years ago that came with $25,000, Patchett donated it to the library.
“She’s a very generous spirit. She’s so confidant and opinionated. . . . There’s a really good feeling for her work and also for her as a person here in Nashville. She’s such a part of the community in so many ways,” Hughes says.
You sit beside her at lunch, this is what you see: a slender, pale 47-year-old woman with shoulder-length brown hair parted in the middle. Red-and-white-checked dress, sensible shoes. She’s married (Karl VanDevender, an internist), no kids, a native of L.A., daughter of a nurse and a police officer. She’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, a product of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
She’s playful, edgy, a smart-aleck. Sample conversation:
So, when did you go to the Amazon for the research on “State of Wonder”?
“I don’t really remember, but let’s call it three years ago.”
That would be 2008?
“Sounds right. Who will correct us? What fact-checking department will call?”
So the trip was for 10 days?
“Probably.” Pause. “That’s the story.”
But it —
“It doesn’t make any difference!” (Laughter)
She takes a bite of her vegetarian burrito. She’s a “stone-cold sober vegan” after giving up smoking when she turned 30. The sobriety stems from developing an allergy to alcohol several years ago.
Karl is 16 years her senior. They dated for 11 years and have been married for six. She tells a story about their romance, then playfully threatens to “hunt your ass down and fillet you if you print that!”
“Wonder” has little bursts of that sense of humor, if you know where to look:
Her favorite brand of cereal, Kashi, became the name of the Amazonian tribe at the heart of the book, the Lakashi. Her inspiration for the book’s setting came from the Werner Herzog film, “Fitzcarraldo,” so she set a scene in the book in the same opera house that plays a key role in that film. A prominent Nashville couple, Barbara and Jack Bovender, won a charity auction to have their names in the book — and she used them for a pot-smoking Australian surfer couple.
As soon as the book tour wraps, she’ll be back to Nashville and another one of her low-tech endeavors: opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
She and business partner Karen Hayes, a just-retired sales rep for Random House, are planning to open a small, 3,000-foot independent store by the fall.
“I don’t think she’s going to be out there on the floor selling books,” Hayes says, “but she’s really into the project.”
There’s no official policy as yet on cellphone use in the store, but it’s fair to say that readers would do well to step outside to, say, set up a tee time.