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Author Archive: "Ann Patchett"

The Goldfinch

I used to think I got a lot of books. The mail carrier, the UPS truck, the Fed-Ex truck — they came to my house three or four times a week and brought me things that people wanted me to read. I look back on those days now and realize I had no idea what the phrase "I get a lot of books" even meant. Now I own half a bookstore. NOW I get a lot of books. Everyone who wants to find me now has an address, and every publisher who would like me to blurb a book, and every author who would like me to read their book or help them get their book published (let me spare you the postage: I can't do that for you) sends me a book or a galley or simply a huge pile of paper. I read my friends' books. I try to read the books of the people who are coming to read at the store. I read books I walk by on the new-release table that look good. I read books the smart booksellers in our store are ...


The Signature of All Things

My husband is a doctor, and he has a lot of friends who are doctors. It makes sense — he works in a hospital; it's full of doctors. When he needs to talk to someone about a patient, he doesn't call me. Likewise, a lot of my friends are writers. It's an occupational hazard. We meet in school, at artists' colonies, on panels giving talks, at cocktail parties. We read each other's books and write each other fan mail, and from there we become friends. Here's one thing I've found to be true about writers: we are very good at staying in touch even when we see very little of one another. We live in far-flung places and we like to write. Some of the people I love most in the world are people I see maybe once a year if I'm lucky. We count one another as very close friends, and so we make it work.

The truth is that every book I'm writing about in these five posts has been written by someone I know, and if I picked another five books that were going to ...


The Good Lord Bird

The truth is there are a lot of books I don't like, and even more books I have no interest in, but I made a decision a long time ago not to talk about those books, at least not in print. My opinions tend to be strong, and while I'm convinced that you should read the books I like, I'm not convinced you shouldn't read books I don't like. In 2005 I got to sit next to John Updike at a luncheon at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I was nervous and thrilled and wondering what in the world we were going to talk about. Based on that lunch and one subsequent meeting a few years later, I will say that John Updike was the loveliest guy in the world. We wound up talking about Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I had loved and Updike had panned in the New Yorker the week before. He asked me why I liked it, and then he told me all the things he had liked about it, and then he shrugged. "Maybe ...


Claire of the Sea Light

If I believed in the Evil Eye, I would say that titling my new book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage was a huge mistake. It invites personal disaster. It would be like titling your book My Children Love Me and Get Good Grades and Have Zero Interest in Meth. It's a bad idea. But I don't believe in the Evil Eye (although I will admit that typing that sentence makes me slightly uncomfortable), so I can call my book anything I want. The idea is that these are stories about commitment. I write about friendship and family and my dog and my bookstore and writing. At a reading I gave years after my friend Lucy Grealy died, someone in the audience stood up and asked me why I'd stuck by Lucy through so many turbulent times. I told them my feelings about friendship were best summed up by the marriage vows, and that I thought that we should love and honor and cherish each other through sickness and in health and all of that for as long as we lived. Those vows actually ...


A Day at the Beach

In April of 2011 I met Karen Hayes for the first time, and over the course of a lunch we decided we should be business partners and open a bookstore together. It would be something of an understatement to say I hadn't given the matter much thought. Nashville's other bookstores had closed, and I didn't want to live in a city without an independent bookstore. The fact that I hadn't worked in a bookstore in almost 25 years, and I didn't know Karen, and I didn't want to be in retail, were the minor details I swept away. Our city needed a bookstore, and so the solution was simple — open a bookstore. By November of that year, we had done exactly that.

When someone starts a story by admitting they acted on impulse, you can pretty much be sure that the story is going to end badly (e.g., I saw him sitting at the end of the bar and knew we'd be married by Thursday). But the story of Parnassus Books doesn't go the way of bitter disappointment. In fact, everything about the place is wonderful ...


Ann Patchett: The $200 Impulse Buy

Most bookstores tuck authors away in dismal backrooms or cluttered offices before they read in an effort to:

A) protect the author from getting mobbed too early, or
B) protect the author from the fact that no one has shown up for the reading.

Among the stacks of galleys and paper cups full of day-old coffee, we sign the preorders and lose heart for what is to come.

But everything is different at Powell's. At Powell's they take you to the glassed-in Rare Book Room, a locked room filled with the most desirable treasures in the store — signed first editions and out-of-print wonders. It is a marvel of bibliomania, and it's also smart business. I can't speak for other authors, but I become a serious spendthrift on my book tours. I am lonely and exhausted. Items that I would never dream of buying at home become things I deserve when on tour, which is how I happened to buy a first edition of Dare Wright's dark and depressing masterpiece, The Lonely Doll. I saw it there on a low shelf after I ...


INK Q&A: Ann Patchett

Describe your latest project.

The book is called What Now? It's a slightly longer version of a graduation speech I gave at Sarah Lawrence in May 2006. An editor read it and suggested making it into a little book. My hope is that it encourages people to be at peace with the many unknown elements of the future. At first I wasn't sure it really qualified as a book (I have long referred to it as a pamphlet) but Chip Kidd designed the whole thing and it turned out beautifully. He contributed an enormous amount to this project.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.

I can think of a lot of authors people should read. Henry James is always a good one, but I'm always recommending my friend Patrick Ryan. I thought his first book, Send Me, was absolute genius and it never got anywhere near the attention it deserved.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.

"Vanderbank only smiled at her in silence, but Mitchy took it up. 'There's nobody too good for you, of course; only you're not quite, don't you know? in our set. You're in Mrs. Grendon's. I know what you're going to say — that she hasn't got any set, that she's just a loose little white flower dropped on the indifferent bosom of the world. But you're that small sprig of tender green that, added to her, makes her immediately "compose".'"
—Henry James, The Awkward Age (page 91 in Penguin Classics)

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?

Last night I finished reading Redmond O'Hanlon's In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon. It was fantastic, so funny and smart. I am looking forward to reading his other books about the Congo and Borneo. My friend Donna Tartt recommended it because I'm going to the Amazon this spring and she's a longtime O'Hanlon fan. Another great Amazon pick came from my friend Maile Meloy: she steered me to Evelyn Waugh's Handful of Dust.


Setting the Story: An Original Essay by Ann Patchett

When writing a novel, choosing the setting is every bit as important as choosing the characters. If I know a city too well, I tend to get hung up on the details. My imagination is crowded out by an intimate understanding of traffic patterns and restaurant locations. If I know a city not at all, it means losing a lot of time doing research when I want to be writing. The best solution is to find a place that strikes a balance between knowledge and ignorance, so when I wrote my novel, Run, the sister cities of Boston and Cambridge presented me with a perfect solution. I had lived in Cambridge thirteen years ago while on a fellowship at Radcliffe College, and I've been in and out of Boston for most of my adult life. Better still, I had plenty of friends there who could tell me which train my characters would take when they needed to get from point A to point B. No reader should be jarred from a narrative because someone is boarding the pink line when everyone knows that the pink line doesn't exist.

Every time I returned to the cities on fact-finding missions, I was surprised that my characters tended to hang out in places I'd never been before, especially at Harvard, which I thought I knew well. While I had favored swimming in the Blodgett pool, they went running at the Gordon track, while I had spent countless hours in the Fogg Art Museum, they spent their time in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (known as the MCZ). Tip, one of the young brothers in my book, studied ichthyology, and so I made arrangements to see where the 1.3 million dead fishes are stored. How had I spent a year on the Radcliffe campus without ever venturing over to Harvard's natural history museum? It is perhaps the most fascinating and beautiful museum I have ever seen, even if you can't visit the dead fishes (which aren't available to the general public for viewing). The place is a treasure trove of taxidermy, dusty dinosaur bones, and dazzling minerals. It contains a collection of glass flowers which were created for the museum over the lifetimes of father and son glassblowers from Bavaria. For a sheer breath-taking spectacle of wonder, I would put those flowers up against all the jewels in the Kremlin (which you can confirm is a sizable statement the next time you're in Moscow.)


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