Post Magazine: Summer Reading Issue

Ann Patchett
Novelist
Monday, June 25, 2007; 12:00 PM

Five well-known writers have shared their memories of summer for the Washington Post Magazine's annual Summer Reading Issue. In one memoir, novelist Ann Patchett, author of "Bel Canto," recalls the time she spent training and applying for a spot on the Los Angeles Police Department -- with some help and insight from her father, a retired cop.

Ann Patchett's new novel, Run, will be published by HarperCollins in September.

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Ann Patchett: Hello everyone, it's Ann. I'm here to talk about my article about the police academy. if you have any questions send them in.

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Munich, Germany: Geez, the only time that I see policemen running where I work is when the mobile sandwich truck arrives (just joking). Actually, your adventures and preparations remind me of the start of "The New Centurions" by Joseph Wambaugh.

After passing the entrance exam, why did you feel so strongly that you could not get through the police academy?

Also, what are your favorite Los Angeles based police novels and authors? Joseph Wambaugh and Michael Connelly are well known. Do you know of a few lesser known hidden gems?

Ann Patchett: If the exam almost killed me I felt certain that the academy would polish me off. Everyone was so much tougher than I was. I think to get through something like that it helps to really want the job. Going through for a book isn't much help when it comes to taking a ten mile run up hills in the summer and having people scream at you. Also, my father felt very strongly that I could never say anything bad about the police department, and while I planned on writing a positive book I knew that plenty of tough issues would come up.

I'm not much on police novels but the two writers who I think best capture Los Angeles are Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion.

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Gaithersburg, MD: While I enjoyed your article, what really struck me is what your research cost the taxpayers. This includes all of the resources that went into the hiring process and the fact that by making you a job offer, perhaps someone else was not made a job offer when you never had any intention of taking the job.

Ann Patchett: Certainly that figured into my thinking about not pursuing the academy. I actually met a lot of people (mostly cops) from other cities who tried out for the LAPD as a point of pride to see if they could get in. After I was accepted I told the department that I planned to go through to write a book and not to be an officer. They were in full support of the plan. They seemed to think I was a good investment in public relations.

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Anson Mountain, Tenn: I enjoyed this article immensely. I'm curious if you found any answers to your initial question--why some people want to be cops, and why your dad in particular had wanted to be one.

Ann Patchett: I think people want to be cops for different reasons. For a lot of people it's just a good job, benefits, advancement, pension. Some people really do want to protect and serve their community. For my father, the heros in his neighborhood growing up fairly poor in L.A. were the cops and the priests. He was following his role models. There are also people who are drawn to the work because they're bullies. They like to push people. I think like anything else it's a real mix.

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Boston, Mass.: Ann, what did you think about writing nonfiction for a change?

Ann Patchett: I love writing nonfiction. I actually write essays all the time and wrote one nonfiction book, Truth & Beauty. I find it a relief to not have to make everything up.

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Washington, DC: Nice to see a piece by you in the magazine, and nice to

see you chatting too.

Not a question - I jsut had to write in and say how much I

LOVED Bel Canto. I was devasted by the ending, and loved

the entire exeperience despite the heartbreak. (I read it

years ago, my heart still breaks most for the young opera

singer in training, which was probably not the point but

there you have it.)

If you take qestions on your other work, I'd like to know

your inspiration for Bel Canto. Did you have th entire

story in mind when you started writing?

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto was loosely based on a true event - the takeover of the Japanese embassey in Lima, Peru. That was the inspiration. I tend to have a story pretty much complete in my head before I start writing so yes, I knew where I was going with it. I'm glad you liked it.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Ann, love your work. This is a great summer story -- were there any other summer stories you considered writing?

Ann Patchett: Thank you for the compliment. I have to say this was my first idea. I've been holding onto these LAPD notes for thirteen years wondering what I was going to do with them and when I got the request to write this piece I knew it was time. I was very impressed by how good the Post summer reading issue always is so I wanted to be a part of it.

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Fairfax, Virginia: I have always loved your fiction and your memoir Truth and Beauty. This is a little bit of departure for you. What drew you to this "story"?

Ann Patchett: well, I was 30 then. I'm 43 now. I was more energetic in those days, and I was also looking for ideas that might sell. The thing that drew me to this story was my dad. I think he's an incredibly interesting person and I liked the idea of interviewing him endlessly about his life.

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Washington, DC: What factors went into your decision to tell the department you would write a book (even though you did not eventually do so)? I imagine that if word got out, that other trainees would ostracize you or at least not "be themselves" around you, and your book might suffer for that. I'm thinking of Ted Conover's Newjack as I wonder about the advantages of "undercover" journalism in this situation.

Ann Patchett: I am simply not an undercover reporter. I don't have it in me. The book would have wound up being different because I would have been 'out' about what I was doing, but I never considered doing it the other way. I think there are some things you are either cut out for or you're not.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Ann,

You were kind enough to sign a copy of Bel Canto for my mother while I was pursuing my master's at University of Michigan.

And while I loved reading BC, Truth and Beauty, and The Magician's Assistant (which I just finished a few weeks ago), I think my favorite piece of your writing remains your kind words for my mother (she was recovering from a broken arm).

Thank you for that.

Ann Patchett: Okay, this makes my day. You've made the whole 'live chat' experience worthwhile. I hope your mom mended nicely.

Were you in the MFA program at Michigan? Did you have dinner at Peter Ho Davies house after the reading?

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Washington, DC: Ann - has your dad read any of your writings? Another question - do you still throw yourself at walls during your runs?

Ann Patchett: My dad BETTER be reading what I write. Actually, he reads everything early on and is awlays helpful.

I haven't jumped a wall in a long time but I sometimes look at one smugly and think to myself, oh yeah, I could take that one.

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Vienna, Va: I am curious to know more about your forthcoming book. What is this one about?

Ann Patchett: It's called RUN. It's set in present day Boston, it takes place (more or less) in 24 hours, and it's about a single father who is trying to convince one of his three sons to go into politics. It's actully about a lot more then that. There's also a good bit about ichthyology.

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Washington, D.C. : Ann, thanks so much for chatting today! Just out of curiousity (or my being nosy, whichever), what's on YOUR summer reading list? I'm always interested in knowing what authors themselves find worth reading. Thanks!

Ann Patchett: Three days ago I finished reading Henry James THE AWKWARD AGE. It took me a month. I am obsessed with James but it is always slow going for me. Right now I'm reading Per Petterson's OUT STEALING HORSES (so far so good but oh, it reminds me of my favorite book, SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW.) I also just read EAT, PRAY, LOVE (along with the rest of America) and I loved it.

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Washington, DC: The big question - what does your father think of the piece?

Do you think he still wants you to have a "real job?"

Ann Patchett: Dad loved the piece. He was really sweet about it. I think after Bel Canto he figured I had a real job.

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Arlington, Va.: No need to public post--I was actually getting my master's in economics, so I wasn't invited to MFA events.

But I greatly enjoyed the reading, and told all my friends to pick up a copy of the book.

Good luck with the new book, and I hope you consider stopping by DC if you tour.

Ann Patchett: I'll be in D.C. on October 2nd and 3rd. One of those nights I'll read at the National Cathedral with Liz Gilbert which should be a blast. The other night I think I'm at Politics and Prose. Please come. Bring your mom.

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