Patchett’s writing focuses on unexpected life situations, such as a scientist suddenly sent to the Amazon, a fraught family relationship, a group of people unexpectedly taken hostage, and the nontraditional bonds that people form in these unexpected situations. Patchett’s books are beautifully crafted literary gems with surprising story lines and fascinating insights into what it means to be human.
I spoke with Ann on a warm morning in August. We talked about her writing craft and how it applied to her latest book, in which siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy try to make sense of the world after they’re orphaned and kicked out of the house they grew up in.
SARAH BOON: One of the things you’ve written about previously is that you plot out your books before you write them. What does that look like? How detailed do you get? Do you write a timeline? A family tree? An outline at the chapter or paragraph level?
ANN PATCHETT: I do it all in my head. And it’s not very detailed. It feels very detailed, and when I actually sit down to write and I go, “Sigh, I’ve been thinking about this for a year and I know nothing.” But it’s about getting the characters right, figuring out the narrative structure, figuring out the plot and the timing. It’s not a lot of detail, but it is a lot of shape. I find that when I try to take notes (and I often think, “You should take notes, you should grow up and take notes, it looks so professional to take notes”), I feel committed to the things I’ve written down, and I prefer to keep it loose as long as I can because I want things to change. I’m in the middle of this right now with a book that I’m thinking about, and I have an idea that turns into another idea that turns into another idea … and I would be the only person in the world who could see how those things were ever connected, but it’s taking shape.
I remember once, 25 to 30 years ago now. I was in eastern Wyoming, the desert part in the middle of nowhere. I was taking a walk with a friend early in the morning, and there was nothing around: no houses, just rocks and some scrub and open space. In the distance, we saw a man standing on a rock, and it was creepy. We just couldn’t figure it out. It was so far away, and this guy was just standing on a rock. We called out and nobody called back, we started walking toward him and it was a long way and we kept going and going and the person didn’t move and it was so confusing. Anyway, it was a bird. [Laughs.] In that kind of a landscape, where it’s just flat land and scrub and rock, we had no sense of perception, size, and scale. It was just a crow sitting on a rock, and we felt so stupid. And yet I always think: that’s what writing is like, as if you are very far away and you think, “This is the story of a man on a rock, standing on a rock being scary and not calling back.” And then by the time you get close to it you’re like, “Oh my god, this book is about a bird, a little one-foot-tall bird.” And that’s why I don’t take notes. You have to get close to it before you can see what’s really going on.
Do you have a particular location or particular activity you like to do that you find jump-starts your creativity? Or do you just sit down and write?
I sit down and write and that’s it. I mean, there are certainly things that I like to do — like I get up and have a big glass of water in the morning and I try to exercise in the morning, but that really doesn’t have anything to do with writing.
What kind of research do you do for your books? Do you do any archival research, or interview people, or…?
It depends entirely on the book, and for The Dutch House I did a ton of research. Mainly about real estate in New York in the late ’60s and through to the 1970s. I researched a lot about buildings — I have a neighbor down the street who’s an architect, and I can’t even remember how many times I would call him up and say, “Can I come over for a minute?” He had a great book, which I loved so much that I was always talking about it and a friend of mine tracked it down and bought a copy for me. It’s a book of home architecture and it explains: this is the neoclassical home, this is the colonial home, this is the renaissance, this what these columns are called, and this is what these windows are called. My neighbor’s name is Cyril [like Danny and Maeve’s father], and I was always going to Cyril’s and saying, “Okay, now Danny has a job working on a construction site in the summer, what would he be doing, what’s really hard?” And he said putting up drywall is really hard, much harder than you think it’s supposed to be. I was doing an interview yesterday and the guy said, “I was so glad that you said that putting up drywall is really hard, because it is really hard.” And I wanted to say, “I have no idea.”
I weirdly did a ton of research that never made it into the book, about Mother Teresa, her organization and Calcutta, about the boat trip that Elna [Maeve and Danny’s mother] takes to India. It gave me some sense of what Elna’s life might have been like even though she didn’t go to work for Mother Teresa, who was obviously a big inspiration.
Medical school — oh god — because my husband is a doctor, 10 times a day I would ask, “Okay, now wait, how long does a residency take, and how does it work when you apply for it? And what’s the first day of medical school like?” That whole scene that I love about all the heads of medical department going on stage and saying, “Okay, heart surgeons.” Then all the students who want to be coronary surgeons cheer, and then the neurologist comes on stage and all the students who want to be neurologists cheer. That was all from my husband’s experiences at medical school. Somebody also told me that Columbia Medical School had a theater troupe, and I thought, “Oh my god, that’s so interesting.”
For this book, I felt there were a crazy number of things that I had to figure out, and actually one of the things that happened with this book that has been so great is the feedback from readers. The publisher sends out a million galleys so there are all these reviewers who use Goodreads or blogs that do early reviews from galleys. Well, those kind people would find mistakes — and I’m not talking about just typos — but a couple of people wrote to my publisher and said, “Danny and Maeve go to Good Friday Mass, but Good Friday isn’t a Mass, it’s a service.” I’m Catholic, so I thought, “Okay.” Another comment, “Cyril puts the company in an LLC in the mid-’60s, but LLCs weren’t invented until 1977.” This is after the book had been fact-checked by professionals! But nice readers found these weird little tiny catches. For example, I said that they’re driving a Volkswagen and it fishtails on an icy street, and someone wrote, “No, it doesn’t fishtail, because the engine’s in the back.” So, there’s a whole other level of research that’s just nice people out in the world who catch things for you and let you know.
It’s also nice because then you feel engaged with your audience in a way, that they’re taking it seriously enough that they’re actually noticing these kinds of things.
Well, let me tell you — people notice, and they take it seriously. But the difference is these are early readers so I have a chance to catch it. Somebody wrote me an actual letter that got to me through the bookstore, and it said that Danny gets his draft number in 1968, but draft numbers weren’t assigned until December 1969. I got the letter really late, and I called my editor and asked if there was any way to fix this or was it done. And he said, “You’ve got two hours before it goes to press, and you can’t change the word count in the sentence. You have to figure out a way to fix this so that there are the exact same number of words in the sentence or it’s going to throw off the whole pagination.” I thought, “Okay, I can do this.”
And that’s thrilling, because for example in Bel Canto, there was a mistake in the chess game. Two of the characters are playing chess, and I say he had his hand on the horse’s head and moved the rook. That’s wrong. The book was published, and in the last 18 years — no joke — I’ll bet I’ve received 500 letters just about that. Finally, when they did the Bel Canto movie and they were going to rerelease the book with a new cover, I asked if I could go back and change it. There was some other glaring mistake in that book, and I can’t remember it now. But I got to go back and change those two things. It was such a huge relief.
Many writers say they only have one story to tell, and they end up writing that same story in different ways. Do you think this is true for you or not?
Yes. I think that I write about the construction of family or society. I think that I write a lot about the intersection of wealth and poverty and class. I write a lot about race. I could try very hard not to write about those things, but those are the themes that always come back in my work.
In Canada, Michael Redhill won the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize of $100,000 just at the right point in his life, as he was in the process of looking for editing work to make ends meet. I’m wondering, are you able to make a living as a novelist, or do you have to do other work to supplement your income? Like freelance writing, talks, teaching, or even being an independent bookseller?
Um, no I’m loaded. [Laughs.] That wasn’t always the case but I used to teach and I used to do freelance work — I still do freelance work, actually. I like freelance work. I shouldn’t say I’m loaded, but by my standards of what I thought my life was going to look like, I’m great, my books sell really well, and unless I develop a horrible drug problem or something I’ll be fine.
I’ve spoken with many women both online and in person who are really keen to read this interview and learn more about you. Do you think your work is classified as “chick lit”?
No. I don’t, at all. I know from owning a bookstore that something like 80 percent of novels are read by women. Women read fiction, and men read nonfiction. Certainly, more women read me than men read me, but that’s true of just about everybody who writes fiction. And I think of chick lit — I don’t even think of it as being pejorative — it’s a kind of book, it’s about young women falling in love and getting married and having fun and that’s terrific. Everybody likes a fun book. But I don’t get classified as such.
What motivated you to write a children’s book, and what was the biggest difference between that and writing a novel?
The thing that motivated me to do it is that I met Robin Price Glasser, who’s the illustrator, in my bookstore. She’d done the Fancy Nancy series for years and was wrapping that up and looking for a new project, and asked me to write her a children’s book. I had never considered writing picture books. But I really loved Robin and I gave it a try because she told me to give it a try, and the difference is that children’s picture book is about 750 words and a novel is about 120,000 words. It does not compare, for me, personally. I’ve gotten in trouble a few times for saying this — you know you shouldn’t say that it’s easier to write a picture book, but it is easier, at least for me. Maybe not for other people, but it is for me. And it’s loads of fun, I really enjoyed it.
Have you had any issues being a female author in the publishing industry, or have things have gone quite well for you?
No, I haven’t been harassed, I haven’t been marginalized; I’ve had a fantastic career and I am extremely grateful. I have been shown a lot of kindness along the way. I know it’s out there, I know there are problems, and I am fortunate in that it’s not been something that’s affected me.
Sarah Boon (PhD, FRCGS) writes about nature, literature, and women in science for Catapult, Narratively, The Rumpus, Longreads, Undark, LitHub, Alpinist Magazine, and more. She is currently writing a book about her outdoor adventures as an environmental research scientist.