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.