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Ann Patchett at Powell’s

June 20, 2011

Ann Patchett Is Not a Romantic

The charming, articulate and surprisingly hilarious Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder, is no shrinking violet.  Shortly after taking her place behind the mic at Powell’s Books in front of hundreds of fans she said, “Ok – this is what we’re going to do:  I’m going to read for 15 minutes and then I’m going to tell you a little story and then I’m going to answer questions and then I’m going to sign your books in a new and improved way that I think you’re going to find really exciting.”  And that is exactly what she did.
Before getting started, Patchett also said that “for reasons that I cannot possibly understand without spending years in psychoanalysis which does not interest me at all, I tend to write books in which people do not swear and do not have sex.  There’s usually some sort of strong moral and the books get taught in schools a lot.  This scene that I’m going to read to you is the only scene in the book in which there is a great deal of swearing, but because I went to Catholic school for 12 years I can’t swear in front of you, although I could swear like a stevedore one on one if we were alone.  So I’d like you to just bear that in mind – just think about it – think swear words while I’m reading – that would be helpful.”  And she proceeded to read a terrifying passage from State of Wonder that involves a 15-foot Anaconda snake.  I thought swear words as commanded and they were totally appropriate.
After reading for 15 minutes, she told a short story that was funny.  Check here later for an audio clip.  Then it was on to the Q&A.
Patchett got very unromantic when asked what inspires her to write and whether she hears the characters as she writes.  She said, “This is my job.  I write fiction for a living – professionally.  There was a time when I felt inspired – I think I was in college – but since then I’ve been ‘working’ and I don’t mean that in a bad way but I don’t know that Yo-Yo Ma is inspired to play the cello and I don’t know that Baryshnikov is inspired to dance.  I think that on that bedrock of a phenomenal lifetime of regular work something very light and magical sits on the top of that – but that little light – it’s like you’re talking about the mist instead of the earth.  So the older I get and the more books I write – it’s about work and I mean that in the best possible way because I love my work and you know when people say to me as they very often do – Oh, I really hope you write another book – I often think, what else would I do?  My husband’s a doctor and I always think of when a patient leaves the room they never say – I hope you see another patient, you’re really good at this and I hope you come to work tomorrow too.  So this is it.  As far as hearing the characters – you know I’m not hearing the characters – they’re hearing me.  I’m making them all up.  They’re not external coming to me, they’re internal going out of me and I think this is a great myth often put forward by fiction writers themselves – I was writing a book and I thought it was going to be about cats but it turned out to be about nuclear armament cuz the character just hijacked the novel and I was just typing, typing, typing.  I’m not a romantic person but there are so many people in my field who are romantic and they will give you that other answer and you’ll say – that bitter Patchett woman.”
By this time the crowd was loving everything that Patchett was dishing out but she was just getting started.  When a fan pointed out that he noticed the same theme in several of her books she replied, “He has noticed wisely that I write the exact same book every single time which is that a bunch of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a family or society.  I swear to you that I keep trying to stop – I keep trying not to do it and I think I’m not doing it and then I finish a book and then I’m like OH MY GOD! there it is again.  And then one day this light bulb went off over my head and I thought OH MY GOD! I only have one story to tell and then like ten seconds later it was like OH MY GOD! everybody only has one story to tell.  I’m just going to go with it and I’m going to be fine and relax.  I actually think that where people get messed up is when they try desperately to work against their own nature.  Because I write books that are far flung, and  a lot of people say it’s as if your books are written by entirely different people and then someone like you comes along and says – It’s the same book. – and I love that because both of those things are true simultaneously but not many people see it – so good for you.”  Whew! That seemed like it could have been a buzz-kill question, but Patchett handled that with aplomb.
I had a bad feeling when I heard some one ask Patchett where she gets the parts of her novels that seem really different.  But she patiently explained to that person that “I have a really good imagination and I am at heart a true homebody and I like to think a lot about the world and about things I don’t know anything about while staying in the comfort of my own home.  I enjoy just going outside of myself.  You know – my imaginary friends. I want to write about things that I don’t know because I want to have an opportunity to learn about them so I’m always looking for something kind of far flung.  How else are you going to learn about malaria?”  How else, indeed!
To end the evening on a high note, Patchett asked the audience for one last “unbelievably intelligent” question.  A man in the back accommodated her by asking her how she wanted to be remembered.  After barely skipping a beat, Patchett replied, “Do you know that I could absolutely care less.  If no one ever read any of my books, if every bit of work I did went up in flames with my corpse, it wouldn’t matter to me at all.  Dead is dead is dead is dead is dead and it just doesn’t matter at all and to try an arrange anything that goes beyond you or how you would be thought of would be the very height of foolishness. So, I’m writing books.  I’m really, really enjoying it and I’m having a great ride but I’m not expecting it to come to anything.”  Well Ann, I think that’s a little unrealistic given the fanaticism of your fans.
And then she wrapped it all up with her new way to conduct book signings.  “I’ve been doing it on my book tour and it’s worked really well.  What I have arranged is something I refer to as priority seating.  Anyone who just wants my name and the date and you open the book up to the title page and walk up to me and I sign and you say – It was a lovely evening – and I say – Thank you – and then you go – all those people get to go first.  Anybody who wants personalization, you went to high school with me or you have  a really sad story that is going to make me cry – you have to wait because the person who just wants me to sign my name should not have to wait for the person I went to high school with.  So that’s the way we’re doing it.”  So we all did what we were told and it worked beautifully – as Patchett knew it would.

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