Marie Arana on Ann Patchett: Living in the Moment

Sunday, December 13, 2009

She's not inclined to self-analysis, but if Ann Patchett could point to the start of her journey as a writer, it would be the day she read Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain." She was 14 and had raided her mother's bookshelves. As she sank into the novel about the ailing residents of a Swiss sanatorium, she was held fast by the theme that would consume her for years to come: A group of strangers is thrown together by random circumstance. They can't imagine their future, haven't anticipated this chance community.

She has employed that theme again and again, most famously in her novel "Bel Canto," in which an opera singer, a throng of partygoers and a band of Peruvian terrorists are bound together by the events of a s ingle night. The same thread runs through her other novels: In "The Patron Saint of Liars," a pregnant wife is confined in a home for unwed mothers; in "The Magician's Assistant," a widow is suddenly surrounded by in-laws she never knew; in "Run," an accident drastically alters the life of a complacent household.

Perhaps this obsession with radical, unexpected changes explains why the circle of friends Patchett has built so deliberately is so important to her. Indeed, Patchett is a world-class friend. She proved it in her memoir, "Truth and Beauty," which chronicles her difficult but unconditional love for the late writer Lucy Grealy. She has confessed that she cannot write without the support of novelist Elizabeth McCracken. In effect she has built a virtual village of cohorts, including Donna Tartt, Susan Orlean and Elizabeth Gilbert. She has a gift for the human bond.

She was the child of divorce, born in L.A. and separated from her father at the age of 4. Moving to Nashville with her mother, who soon remarried, she found herself "thrust into a family -- not my family -- having to make a way with these people." She was in a group of strangers, thrown together by random circumstance.

She attended Sarah Lawrence and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop before she began producing nonfiction pieces for Seventeen magazine and Bridal Guide. To make ends meet, she waited tables at T.G.I. Fridays.

She may be a bestselling novelist now, but she has no illusions about her achievements. "I hate 'Run,' " she confesses. "And I hate 'Bel Canto'! Sometimes I can't find a passage in them that I recognize. . . . I'm a bit like a turtle: Once I drop that egg, I crawl away. It doesn't cross my mind again."

She escapes, you might say, as one would from a fleeting incarceration.

-- Marie Arana

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