Patchett’s books often delight in putting people in uncertain and unpredictable relation to each other. Commonwealth is no different: the gin changes everything, which is what gin was made to do. The resulting madness propels the Keating and Cousins families into a long and complicated relationship, shaping their entire lives. Soon, the Keating and Cousins children — six in all — are sharing summers in rural Virginia, spending their days wandering around meadows, swimming in lakes and hunting for caves, while the parents settle themselves into a new configuration. Out of an August sky, trouble dawns.
Ranging nimbly over decades and perspectives, Patchett’s novel digs deep into the minds of each of its many characters, exploring memory, culpability, and sheer childhood blankness. Eventually what reveals itself is not just the sad secret that binds them together in silence and conspiracy, but the smaller secrets kept, not just from one another, but also within their private selves. The book begins to uncover the lies and half-lies told about duty, agency, and allegiance.
The family narrative is offset by a riveting and slyly hilarious set piece about an older male novelist named Leon Posen, with whom Franny becomes involved in her 20s. The Keating and Cousins children may not be able to tell their own story, but Leon has no such hesitation. His novel about the two families, also called “Commonwealth,” resurrects his ailing career. Patchett needs no such resuscitation, but her Commonwealth, she explains, is in many ways the book she has been waiting all her life to write.
We spoke by phone this summer: Patchett in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives and co-owns the wildly popular independent bookstore Parnassus Books, and me in Leitrim, Ireland.
BELINDA MCKEON: Commonwealth is such a perfect title for this novel. It evokes so strongly the sense of the six children who are its ensemble cast — a commonwealth unto themselves. Like any commonwealth, it’s a community, but with differences and divisions, both seen and unseen. There are many levels of meaning with that title. At what point did you land on it?
ANN PATCHETT: You want to hear a story about the title?
You know Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still? It’s a fantastic book. I know Sally, and she emailed me that book just as she was finishing it, and she didn’t have a title. It’s a book so centered in Virginia — about Sally and her family — living in their own world. I was just starting my novel at the time, I don’t know how far I was into it, but I was definitely into it. I read Sally’s book and told her, I think you should call it “Commonwealth,” I think it’s a really great title, and it makes so much sense for your book. Sally called her editor and he said, it’s a great title, but for fiction. I thought, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, that would be a really good title for my novel.”
What felt right about it?
All of the books that I write are about society building, more than just family building, but very Lord of the Flies, The Magic Mountain. How do we assemble these characters and make a little biospheric community?
“Inheritance” was the original title, and that’s what the computer file is called, but that just fell away.
The book begins at a christening party in 1960s California, and travels over the course of five decades and two states; all six kids are already part of the story in that opening scene, though one of them is still in embryo. The adults, their parents, are circling each other, and a supporting cast is already beginning to press in. This novel asks its reader to hold several lives in view at once. What was it like to write that story? Was there a point at which the many characters felt slippery to you? Was that hard?
It didn’t feel hard; it’s just the way that I work. I get everything really mapped out before I start. I knew what I was doing; I had a plan the whole time.
Did it come together quickly? It feels like a book that must have taken a long time to grow into itself.
It’s so hard for me to know how long it takes me to write any book, because I’ll work on it so slowly for a long time and then I’ll work very fast. Of course it depends on what else is going on with my life.
I was writing this book while my father was dying, and after he died, things started going much more quickly.
Now, like Fix Keating, the patriarch of Commonwealth, your father was in the LAPD for many years. So, I hate to bring up the autobiographical question so early in the conversation —
It’s hard not to, really.
So there was an inspiration there?
Yes. I mean it’s — [Laughs.] there just would be no reasonable way to deny that this book is based on my family, as much as I would like to deny it.
My parents had two girls and they got divorced, and my mother married somebody with two boys and two girls and we moved across country — so there you go. It’s just a way in which I laid the chess board out, with the characters that represented people in my life. But things that happened in the book did not happen in my own family. The emotional content is very close to my own life. When you ask whether it became hard to kind of keep everything straight: because the characters were each represented by a real person, it was very easy to keep them differentiated.
The things that happened to the people in my family as we grew up did not happen to the characters — the characters went on their own trajectories. Somehow though, being able to say, “Jeanette is this stepsister, and when I think about Jeanette, I’m going to be also thinking about my stepsister,” that made it really easy and well-structured, and it’s something that I’d never done before. I talked to everybody in my family before I did it, and I said, “This is going to look a lot like us. Are you guys okay with this?”
I checked in with them at every step, made 10 Xerox copies when I was done, sent one to everybody, and everybody was fine.
Many other novelists would be much more secretive about writing an autobiographical novel. I know I was. Did you make a conscious decision to be open with your family?
Jane Hamilton is a really good friend of mine, and her most recent novel is called The Excellent Lombards. Jane and I read each other’s work, and actually when we finish, we read our books aloud to each other. She was the first person to read any of this book, and when I said, I’m going to send it to my family, she said, you’re out of your mind. Don’t. Don’t let them anywhere near this. Now, her novel is a very similar situation. Again, it’s not autobiographical, but suddenly we’re writing about something much closer to home, and she did what you did. She didn’t tell anyone in her family and the wracking anxiety that she went through at publication time was so horrible to behold. She said to me, “You did it right, I did it wrong. I wish I had told them.” I thought, who needs that? Right at publication, when you’re nervous anyway?
What did you say to your family?
I said, to everybody separately, I have been writing this story my whole life. Every single novel, this is the story that I write. A group of strangers are thrown together by some circumstance and form some society. It’s Bel Canto; it’s State of Wonder. It’s all of them. I’m really tired of it. I feel like I’m writing this book over and over again now because I’m being so careful not to write about us. Now, here I am, I’m 50 years old, and I just want to have access to my own life. I don’t want to say, I can’t go here or go there. As an artist, it’s really important to my growth to be able to do this.
When I sent them the book, they all came back and said pretty much the same thing: “Wow, that’s excruciating but we think this is your best book and we’re very proud of you.” My stepsister did give me a note. She said, “I wish you wouldn’t use the word pyromaniac so often.”
Your father died when you were in the middle of writing the novel. Did his death make a difference to the kind of novel it became? Or do you think you would have written the book just as it is, regardless?
I knew that he was going to die when I started the book. I knew that he would never read it. It made all the difference in the world on how I wrote it. But I wouldn’t have published it while he was alive.
For fear of hurting him, or because it wouldn’t have seemed possible for you emotionally?
Both. He really had such a huge influence on my work, in a way that I can certainly skew as positive, because I think that he did drive me more toward imagination. He didn’t want anything personal out there; he was a very private person.
But he was also like the morality police — he’d tell me that my characters shouldn’t smoke, shouldn’t have affairs, shouldn’t drink, that I needed to be setting a good example, kids would be reading these books in schools. I would roll my eyes at that but at the same time it had a big impact on me over the course of my life. That kind of thing weasels into your brain over time. I would always win the battle and lose the war. He would read my books in manuscript and say, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, and I would say, but I am, I’m going to — but then I wouldn’t do it again. I feel that this is the book that I should have written when I was 25. It would have been my roman à clef. But I didn’t.
As a writer, rather than as a daughter or family member — if we can pretend to completely separate the two for a moment — what do you think brought you to the point where you could write this novel?
There were a lot of things that influenced me going into it. One was the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn. That just felt like I was sticking my hand in a light socket. I wasn’t trying to parse out what was true and what was not true but I knew that these were autobiographical novels, and the charge they had for me really went beyond fiction.
It wasn’t because I was thinking, oh, I wonder if this is true — I couldn’t care less if it was true. There was such an incredible emotional energy and intensity. As did the Elena Ferrante books, which I assume come from a similar set of circumstances. So I thought, why not try it?
On the other side, you have the Knausgaard approach. Six volumes, intensely forensic detailing of one man’s life —
I couldn’t go there. Couldn’t make it. Did you?
I got to Book Three.
Good for you.
I want to read the rest of them, but even by Book Three, comparing My Struggle to the Melrose novels, or to Rachel Cusk’s Outline, or to other books which have an autobiographical audacity to them, where you know that life is being drawn on in a very upfront way — compared to those books, the Knausgaard does feel indulgent. It’s a narrative in which no decisions are being made, and maybe that’s clever in itself, but it gets tiresome after a while.
Commonwealth, I could have written 1,500 pages of that novel. I could have gone on and on but my years of working as a journalist have made me aware of word counts, of people’s time. I’m constantly saying to myself, “What’s the least I have to tell for the reader to really understand what’s going on?”
So much of the work of Commonwealth is atmospheric. Just in that opening scene at the christening, for instance, there were at least two moments where the hair stood up on the back of my neck but they turned out to be purposefully anticlimactic moments. And yet, the consequences of these small acts — an affair, so many changed childhoods, a death — are building in the background. The writing knows that something is coming down the line, but the characters don’t, and the effect can be eerie.
To me, childhood is just a disaster waiting to happen. Another book that influenced me so much in thinking around this novel was A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes, which is a book I just adore. It’s that idea of kids just blindly tottering through, not realizing that at every moment they’re about to be killed. Bringing that energy to the book was fun — all the guns that never go off.
It also made me think of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, where you have not only a bunch of kids running wild, but also an adult who can’t exactly be counted upon. In Commonwealth, it could be said that the parents are like children themselves. Neither the kids, nor the reader, can look to them to fix anything.
Yes, but I also think — it was the ’70s! It was a really, really different time in parenting and in the understanding of parenting. You had free-range children: you just put them outside and you all did your best.
I have a friend who grew up in Montana. She said that when she was six and her brother was three, her parents would go to parties in the winter, driving a long way, wrap the kids up in sleeping bags, and leave them in the car. For hours. Come out drunk and drive home. I think, oh yeah. That really is the way it was. Now, if you left your kid in the car to go to the grocery store for five minutes, you’d be arrested.
Speaking of unreliable adults, let’s talk about Leon Posen, the older novelist that Franny falls in love with. He’s a very funny character (unwittingly on his part), as well as being very convincing as a certain type of older male novelist. What was his role, for you? I expect he’s not part of the autobiographical element of the novel, but did he become a way for you to defuse the guilt that you felt about writing it?
Yeah, I mean, Leon Posen, c’est moi. [Laughs.]
It was about trying to figure out how, as an author, can I appropriate the story of someone I love, and change it for my own use and benefit. He is definitely playing all of that out.
And he is the authors that I loved when I was growing up. I cut my teeth on Bellow and Roth and Updike, and loved them and still continue to love them — in fashion and out of fashion. [I remember] going to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I was 21 and these kinds of writers always had too much to drink and always had some pretty young girl with them. We sat at their feet in complete awe. Now, I kind of am that guy in a way. What are my responsibilities? It was great fun to try to wrestle all of that out in his character.
But you’re not Leon Posen. The way you write women, for one thing. It’s funny you would say that.
I am. I mean, I’m not, but I am.
That’s the way in which you can say the book is autobiographical but not autobiographical. This is a character who’s making fiction out of the lives of real people and potentially doing great harm, because he wants to make his art. There are days I wake up, and that’s how I feel about it.
One thing Leon Posen certainly wouldn’t do is open a bookshop and put so much energy into recommending other people’s books to readers, which is what you’ve done with Parnassus Books in Nashville, which you opened with Karen Hayes in 2011. You’ve just expanded, and you host 350 events a year. It’s surely a testament to the health of independent bookstores in the United States right now.
The problem for independent bookstores is, it’s all rent. That’s just the beginning, middle, and end of the story. People will say to me, “What are you doing differently in yours, and why do others go out of business?” and I say, “It’s just rent.” It’s why you don’t want to get too big. We’re in a strip mall; the store that we have used to be a tanning salon, and we just took over the space that used to be Pickles & Ice Cream Maternity.
That’s why, in New York — yes, there are tons of readers, tons of people who will come in and buy books, but there’s a capped profit margin. You’re not going to be able to make your rent. That’s the big struggle. Three Lives? Oh God, kills me.
Do you think independent bookstores have a role to play in this election season?
Well, certainly we are talking about politics night and day. On the floor, in the backroom — it’s what you’re talking about. If you go to Gap to buy a T-shirt, or Anthropologie to buy a dress, that’s not what you’re talking about. You have the environment of the bookstore, and the fact that we have chairs, that you can sit down, drop your kids off in the kids section: people meet there, are there to visit, to talk, to interact, to be a community center. Also, booksellers, if I may make a gross generalization, are Democrats. It’s just the way it is. I don’t think we’re going to break down and hang a giant Clinton sign in the window, but we really might. We don’t put the Bill O’Reilly books on the New Releases table. We have them, but they are spine out, in the political section.
You don’t work in the bookstore. Do you drop in often?
I’m in there four, five times a week, often not on the floor, because I don’t have my energy to be on the floor, though sometimes I do.
Recently I was there, buying books, which is what I usually do in the bookstore, and there was a woman in front of me, buying a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, and I was floored. I was floored that [Random House] had released Rubyfruit Jungle, with a brand new, beautiful jungle, and that we carried Rubyfruit Jungle, and that anybody still reads it. I read it when I was 16 and now I’m 52. I stopped this woman and said, what’s up with that? And she said, my therapist told me to get this book, and I looked everywhere, and you guys had it. I wanted to go back to our book buyer and say, how cool are you to know to buy that? All these things are going on, and I love that.
What books were you buying that day?
I was buying Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom and Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, to send to Sally Mann.