American author Ann Patchett always swore she would never write an autobiographical novel.
“I get too distracted by the facts,” she said in a 2007 interview. “No room left for the imagination.” If she wrote about herself, “I would write the most boring book in the world”.
Up until now, her most famous novels have been set in exotic locales: the 2002 Orange Prize-winner Bel Canto (HarperCollins, 2001) took place somewhere in South America, State Of Wonder (Harper, 2011) in the Amazon.
But now here is Commonwealth (Harper/HarperCollins), her big new novel, not boring at all, getting great reviews (The New York Times called it exquisite), and it is about an American family much like hers. (Click for the review.)
“Yes,” Patchett says, laughing, in a recent phone interview. “It’s very funny, because my publicist said, ‘How are you going to handle questions of whether or not it’s based on real life?’ And I said, well, if anyone did a modicum of research they would know, so I would feel a little stupid saying I made it all up.”
Her reversal about autobiographical writing came gradually. It turns out she was less worried about being boring than she was about upsetting her family.
But then she read Roz Chast’s memoir of her ageing parents, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) and the highly autobiographic Patrick Melrose novels of British author Edward St Aubyn.
“These are people who are drawing from their own experience,” she says. “There was an emotional power to these books, and I wondered, if I allowed myself to do this thing that I have not allowed myself to do, if I could tap into some of that same emotional power.”
She was further emboldened by her own most recent book, a collection of essays titled This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage (Harper, 2013), which she published with some trepidation because it was so highly personal.
Her family read it, “and they were like, ‘Seriously? This is what you think is going to bother us? Really?’
“And I thought, omigod, I’ve spent my whole life cutting myself off from my own experience so I wouldn’t rock anybody’s boat,” Patchett says. “And then no one cares.”
Both true and not true
Commonwealth opens with a killer first line: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”
The book is fiction, not memoir. While the characters are based on Patchett’s family, the details of the plot are not from her life.
“My mother said, ‘None of it happened, and all of it’s true,’?” Patchett says, adding, “I think that’s kind of the best tagline.”
The story begins in California in the 1960s, when Fix Keating, a police officer (like Patchett’s father), and his wife, Beverly, a raving beauty (like Patchett’s mother), are celebrating their new baby. A handsome stranger shows up (with gin) and kisses Beverly, and she kisses him back.
“What I wanted to do with Commonwealth is write a birth-to-death novel, which I did not quite pull off,” Patchett says. “I always want to grow. I always, in every book, want to do something I haven’t done. And I definitely felt that time was compressing more and more in my books.”
Bel Canto, for instance, takes place over several months. Run (Harper), Patchett’s 2007 novel, takes place in one day. So with Commonwealth, she went the other direction: the novel spans 52 years, moving gracefully from narrator to narrator.
“I like a shifting point of view,” Patchett says. “That’s something that I really worked hard to master in my writing life, and I’m good at it, and I love doing it.
“I wanted to move people over a long period of time, for two reasons: One, I wanted to show the repercussions of an action, the action being two people who are drunk kiss at a party.
“And I also wanted to show how people change and yet are still themselves. To see them grow up, to see them in their 20s, to see them in their 50s, these people are themselves, they’re connected to the children that they were.”
A happy marriage
Patchett, 52, is married to Karl VanDevender, a physician in Nashville, United States. They live in a pink-washed brick house that she loves so much she wrote an essay about it for The New York Times (“I am in love with my house. It would be my final wish to have my ashes quietly deposited behind the garage.”)
She writes on a computer in the back garden, or in a spare bedroom, and is happy to see “entire days go by from dark to dark, never going farther than the end of my driveway”.
But one thing that gets her out of the house is her famous bookstore. Patchett never intended to own a bookstore, but after the last two bookstores in Nashville shut down, she hoped that someone would come to the rescue. That someone turned out to be Karen Hayes, a former Random House sales rep, “who wore the steely determination of a woman who could clear a field and plant it herself,” Patchett writes in Happy Marriage.
Hayes had the desire; Patchett had the money. They teamed up. Parnassus Books opened in Nashville in November 2011 and doubled in size this year to almost 500sq m when Pickles and Ice Cream, the maternity shop next door, closed.
“It’s funny, because we haven’t grown into the space yet,” Patchett says. “Every time I walk in, I think, ‘That is a lot of floor.’”
Patchett is not on staff but she is deeply involved in the store, more involved than she had thought she would be. She stops by several days a week. “I write a monthly blog post. I do a load of shelf talkers,” those little handwritten cards with staff recommendations that are tacked up in bookstores everywhere.
“I love recommending books. It is the greatest joy of my life,” she says. “If I go out on the floor, I just go up to people and tell them, ‘Hey, let me tell you what to read?’”
Her rescue dog, Sparky – a small, fuzzy Ewok of a dog – gets dropped off at Parnassus nearly every day, one of five shop dogs. (They have their own blog: tinyurl.com/shop-dog-stories.)
“That store is nothing but a joy in my life.”
Ignoring the press
Patchett doesn’t read about herself online. “I have an enormous amount of restraint where the Internet is concerned,” she says. “I don’t ever read anything about myself on the Internet. Never.
Even when the sister of Patchett’s close friend Lucy Grealy wrote an essay for British newspaper Guardian taking Patchett to task for writing a memoir about Grealy (Truth & Beauty; HarperCollins, 2004), Patchett did not read it.
“Every now and then something will cross my path, but I find that when I read an interview that I gave, I always feel bad. I always feel like I said something stupid or I was making a joke that didn’t come off as a joke, or I said something I shouldn’t have said. The only thing I could learn by reading all the interviews that I give is that I shouldn’t give interviews.”
But every now and then, chance intervenes, such as two years ago when she noticed her own name in The New York Times Book Review. It prompted her to write this letter:
“To the Editor:
“I was grateful to see my book This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct 19). When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from ‘her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog’ without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fundraiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions.” – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service/Laurie Hertzel