Q. The Patron Saint of Liars is your first novel. How did you come to write this? What inspired you?
A. I very much thought of myself as a short story writer when I was young, but I wanted to give a novel a try. I won a fellowship for seven months to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which rescued me from being a waitress. I knew that this block of time was my great chance to make the jump to a longer form. So in a sense the fellowship itself inspired me, that and being a waitress. I made up the story of Patron Saint
while rolling silverware at the end of my shift every night.
Q. As a writer, would you say you operate more from life or imagination?
A. In the case of this novel, the question then becomes, "Did you do time in a home for unwed mothers or did you make it up?" I work very much from my imagination, though I write about issues that interest me in my own life, like the construction of family. There are also some similarities between the home for unwed mothers and the artist's colony on Cape Cod in the winter where I wrote the book. Like the pregnant girls, the artists and writers were all sort of stuck out in the hinterlands for seven months.
Q. When you wrote The Patron Saint of Liars, did you start with the characters, the narrative, or something else? What was your process, and did you always know where you were going?
A. I started with the scene of Beatrice giving birth to her twins and not calling out. I was thinking about who the other people in the room were and where they had come from and Rose was the one I was most interested in. I do always know where my books are going before I start writing them. I always say if I don't know where I'm going I tend not to get anywhere.
Q. The novel was adapted to a TV movie. Did you have any hand in the adaptation? What do you think is the best way to make a book into a movie?
A. The best way to make a book into a movie is to have nothing to do with it. I find Hollywood a very frustrating place. I did become good friends with the screenwriter for Patron Saint, Lynn Roth. I always thought of it as Lynn's movie, not mine. Even when I see it now in reruns I think, "Lynn's movie is on!" I had a part as an extra, one of the pregnant girls, but I was cut.
Q. Because your first novel takes place mostly in a small town in Kentucky, some people might think of you as a southern writer. How do you think of yourself?
A. I've lived in Tennessee for most of my life but I was born in Los Angeles. People here take that very seriously, where you were born. Southerners have been so supportive of my work that I will always think of being called a southern writer as a great compliment, but I think everyone ultimately wants to just be a writer, not southern, not female, not Catholic.
Q. How would you say The Patron Saint of Liars fits into your body of work? Did you discover themes or make artistic choices that continue to intrigue you?
A. Patron Saint is the novel in which I learned to write novels. I figured it out as I went along. Many of the choices I made in the book, the three points of view for example, came from what I was capable of doing at the time. I have a real tenderness for the book because it was my first, but I've also never read it since I finished writing it, so I can't speak to whether or not it holds up.
Q. Do you think writing for magazines was important to your early progress? Now that you are a successful novelist, do you still write short fiction or nonfiction?
A. I think writing for magazines was good for me because it helped me take my feelings out of the process of writing. For years when I was young and very broke I wrote for Seventeen Magazine and they were merciless, making me rewrite things ten times. I got to the point where I didn't take it personally. I just buckled down and did what needed to be done. I stopped writing short stories when I wrote my first novel, but I still write nonfiction and I really love it. It's so great when your life revolves around novels that take years to write to do an essay that people read and comment on right away.