by Ann Patchett, November 8, 2013 10:00 AM
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 reading because they can be very persuasive. I read books that get great reviews. I read books on the high school summer-reading table that I should have read in high school. Because there is always a long, nagging line of things to be read, I am quick to put a book down if I don't love it. And while the looming tower of books can be overwhelming at times, I know that mine is a problem that many people would love to have. It's always better to have too much to read than not enough.
It's pretty safe to say that if there's a book I want to read I can get my hands on it. I can always find someone who is willing to send me a manuscript. With the exception of The Goldfinch, the book I've been dying to read for the last 12 years.
Donna Tartt's first novel, the internationally celebrated The Secret History, was published the same week in 1992 as my own first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, and we gave one of our first readings together at a Southeastern Booksellers Association meeting which was held that year in New Orleans. (The nice woman sitting beside me in the audience, who asked me polite questions about my book while she waited for our reading to start, turned out to be Anne Rice.) I was so glad to be reading with Donna, who was just my age and a first-time author herself. Donna was completely lovely, and we swapped our books and wrote sweet notes to one another on the title pages, and that was that.
Years later our paths crossed again and we became good friends. We have been friends for all the years she's been writing The Goldfinch, and while I've put considerable energy into hassling her, I never saw a page of the book while she was working on it. She told me that a painting figured into things, and that a character at some point went to Amsterdam. That was all. She finished the book. She edited the book. I continued to plead my case. I want to read the book now! Well, no luck. Finally, a few weeks before the galleys of The Goldfinch were to be ready, I caught a terrible cold. I couldn't get off the couch. I couldn't do anything but read. "Now," I told her. "It has to be now." So Donna emailed me the book, all 800 pages, and I printed it out. (I don't like to read on a screen and I thought, erroneously, there might be something for me to mark up.) I started reading at about 4:00 that afternoon, and two days later, around 10:00 at night, I had finished it. I felt like my left eyeball was going to fall out of my head.
One of the great things about being a writer is that every now and then you get the chance to read a great novel as a raw stack of paper — no flap copy, no blurbs, no jacket art, no opinions — just the book itself, the way it was written. As far as this one is concerned, every sentence is a work of art. The plot is so compelling, so moving and surprising, that I won't tell you one thing about it other than there's a painting involved and a character that goes to Amsterdam. Donna was being a good friend by not telling me any more than that. She was protecting my experience of reading the book for the first time, and that was an experience I wouldn't have missed out on for anything.
People always want to know why it takes Donna so long to write a book, but really, just do the math. One of her books is as long and as complicated as three regular novels, so why wouldn't it take her three times as long to write it? The Goldfinch is a tour de force, and absolutely worth the wait.
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by Ann Patchett, November 7, 2013 10:00 AM
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 be published this fall I would probably know their authors as well, or I'd know the best friend, or I'd know the editor. This is partly because I know a lot of writers and partly because the writers I know are some of my favorite authors. Did I love the book first? Did I love the author first? It doesn't matter. Geoffrey Wolff once hired me to teach for 10 weeks at UC Irvine. I took the job because I was such a fan of his and I wanted to pass him in the hall on the way to class. I met Edwidge Danticat just recently, but I think the world of her and I'm hoping to know her for a long time. James McBride and I met at an artists' colony in Italy in 1999, and through a month of communal dinners I didn't get to know him at all — not until the very end of our stay, when we happened to be talking in a room with a piano in it. Jim McBride in a room with a piano or a saxophone is an entirely different person than Jim McBride in a room with no musical instruments. I came away thinking the world of him.
So now we're on to my friend Liz Gilbert. We were on a panel together, giving a talk to the American Library Association in 2007. I was there for my not-yet-published novel Run, and she was there for the paperback of Eat, Pray, Love, which was probably about two weeks away from becoming a worldwide phenomenon. It was a raucous night, mainly because the very funny Dorothea Benton Frank was among the authors on the panel and she was making us laugh ourselves sick. Somehow, in that crush of authors and librarians, Liz and I exchanged addresses and a great friendship was born. We write each other long letters (stamps, envelopes, paper), and every now and then manage to land in the same city. We talk a lot about writing. I feel like I've known her new novel, The Signature of All Things, from its earliest days, when it was another version of itself set in the Amazon, then suspended while she worked on Committed, and then reborn in a new incarnation (which was lucky for me, since I wrote a novel set in the Amazon just after she changed locations).
My personal bucket list does not include riding a camel or visiting New Zealand, but I would very much like to write a birth-to-death novel before I die. It's a trick that doesn't get pulled out very often. It's too hard to do and most people have the sense to leave it alone. My favorite example is the wonderful Carol Shields novel The Stone Diaries. Now I can add to that list The Signature of All Things. Alma Whittaker is born in 1800 and manages to make it almost to the end of her century. Her life is one of great daring, but it's largely that of a daring mind, an insatiable curiosity for the natural world and the life that is close at hand. Liz has done an extraordinary amount of research for this book (Alma is a botanist who studies moss — yes, moss — and by the end of the book I had come to see moss as the most riveting subject imaginable), but she manages to make every detail feel essential. It is a 500-page novel about a 19th-century botanist who studies moss and rarely leaves her property, and I couldn't put it down. Now that's writing.
For readers who think that Liz's previous work is limited to Eat, Pray, Love (if you've read only one of her books it doesn't mean she's written only one), I urge you to go back to her earlier fiction. Her first book, Pilgrims, is one of the most perfect short story collections I know. Years after reading it, it's a book I still find myself daydreaming about. I'll be running the plot of a story through my mind, a perfect story, remembering it scene for scene, word for word, and I'll think, Who wrote that? And then I'll remember. It was Liz.
[Editor's note: As part of Portland Arts & Lectures, Ann Patchett will be appearing at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on November 20. Details here.]
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by Ann Patchett, November 6, 2013 10:00 AM
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 I was too hard on it," he said.
Updike? The New Yorker? "Maybe too hard"? At that moment I decided to keep my negative opinions out of print. Believe me, it's not that I think all reviews should be good reviews, but as someone who knows how hard it is to write a book, I would rather confine myself to praise.
So let me tell you about The Good Lord Bird, a novel that I imagine has nothing but praise coming at it. At any given moment I probably have 20 books stacked up that I want to read or am supposed to read, and I try to keep them in some loose order. But every now and then a book comes along that breaks the line and jumps to the top of the stack. Such was the case with James McBride's The Good Lord Bird. When I read the front page review Baz Dreisinger had written for the NYTBR, I went straight to Parnassus and bought a copy, and then I went home and read it. I read it the way I used to read when I was a teenager: I read it while eating my cereal in the morning. I read it while walking from room to room. I read it well past the hour I was ready to go to sleep because I couldn't stop reading it. The book had electrified Dreisinger and that electricity was passed on to me, the newspaper reader. So even though I had no great interest in reading a novel about John Brown as told by a first-person narrator who is a child (with very few exceptions I avoid child narrators; they're not my thing), I felt compelled to read this book immediately.
From the first pages I knew it was like nothing else. There is tremendous immediacy in the voice, a snap and crackle of life that grabs you by the throat in much the same way John Brown grabs up everyone he meets. The lessons that our narrator — variously known as Henry, Henrietta, or "The Onion" — learns from Brown are ones he is slow to absorb, and I have to say I found myself thinking about this book for a long time after I had finished it, realizing it was still teaching me things that I was only just now coming to. I'd put my money on The Good Lord Bird to win big prizes.
And while we're on the subject of James McBride, you've read The Color of Water, right? It's one of those books I call a Universal Donor. Do you know someone who hasn't read a book in 10 years? They'll love The Color of Water. Know someone who reads everything? They'll love The Color of Water. If you know a child who's a precocious reader, or a child who hates to read, this is the book to give them. Want to pick a book that everyone in the book club or everyone in the city will love? Bingo: The Color of Water. The Good Lord Bird isn't quite as universal (only because it's more challenging), but truly, it's brilliant.
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by Ann Patchett, November 5, 2013 10:00 AM
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 sum up my feelings about a lot of things I love. Maybe it was my 12 years of Catholic school. I'm a person who likes a vow.
I'm also a person who lives to recommend books. It is my one point of zealotry. It's not quite enough for me to love a book by myself; I want to make sure other people love it too. In an attempt to not be overwhelming, I've limited myself to five books being published this fall, though if you want to keep up with the larger scope of my recommendations, I have a book blog on our store website, Parnassusbooks.net.
I've been reading Edwidge Danticat from the beginning. My longstanding admiration of her work was cemented into unwavering love with the publication of her memoir, Brother, I'm Dying. This book — which is, among many other things, the story of her uncle and father and how she was a daughter to both of them — is extraordinary. One of the pleasures of great new books from favorite authors is how they circle me back around to previous books of theirs I've loved. Edwidge's new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, tells the story of the hard lives of people in a poor Haitian village, but her writing is so luminous, so exact, that I came away from it with the weight of all the characters and at the same time a tremendous sense of lightness that is born of the beauty and love that encircled their lives. The story goes back and forth through different members of the community, weaving the past and the present seamlessly, tying their lives together so that the whole winds up being much more than the sum of its beautiful parts.
Edwidge came to Parnassus for an event and we were so impressed by her. We fawned all over her and in return she was gracious and kind, paying attention to all the staff and all the people who had come to hear her read. If I believed in reincarnation (which I put in the same category as the Evil Eye), I would believe that Edwidge had been a Zen master in a former life.
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by Ann Patchett, November 4, 2013 10:00 AM
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 (except the flooring, which occasionally swells and buckles into waves). I believed I was doing something civic-minded by opening a bookstore. I never stopped to think about all the ways it would improve my life. I didn't consider all the authors, many of them my friends, who would come to town to read. I never anticipated that I would grow to love the people who worked there. I didn't remember what fun it was to encounter great books just because I was walking by them, picking them up, reading their flap copy. I had even failed to consider the very best part of owning a bookstore — that is, that I would get to make people read the books that I love.
A huge part of the joy I take in reading a great book is figuring out who I'm going to give that book to when I finish it. I'm a matchmaker at heart, but a matchmaker who would oftentimes rather curl up with a book than another human. When I see someone in Parnassus contemplating a book I love, or standing within 10 feet of a book I love, I tell them, "That's the book you want!" And they believe me. It turns out I'm a real authority figure where books are concerned (the word author is, after all, the root of authority). My desire isn't to make a sale; my desire is to make people read great books.
So when Powell's asked me to write a five-day blog to coincide with the publication of my new book, I thought, Another opportunity to tell people what to read! Call me bossy, call me passionate, I don't care. I read a lot of books and I want you to read the ones I like. The five books I've chosen are all being published this fall and are arranged by the date of their publication.
First up is Geoffrey Wolff's A Day at the Beach. I'm putting it first on my list because even though it's coming out in November, it was technically published a long time ago. It's my favorite book of essays and it's been out of print for a few years. This was a real problem for me because it's a book I'm always giving to people and I was tired of trying to hunt up old copies. So I asked the people at Vintage to put it back in print. I wrote an introduction for the reissue, and I plan to sell the hell out of it every night when I'm on book tour. This is a book that makes other books (and other authors) appear to be suffering from a bad case of anemia. While other collections of essays offer book reviews and meditations on life in Brooklyn, Geoffrey offers spies, hashish, motorcycle crashes, mountain climbing, adventures on the high seas, and having his chest cracked open. His writing and his thinking are as fiery as his experiences. It's a book that makes me want to live more fully and write more beautifully. I suggest buying copies for everyone you know. And if you haven't read The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey's extraordinary memoir about his life with his father, you're going to want to read that next.
So what kind of an idiot would go on book tour for her new essay collection and try to sell a different essay collection that is better than the one she's written? The kind of idiot who loves books and wants to make sure you get your hands on the best one possible. (Don't get me wrong; I like my own book of essays. I just like it second best.)
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by Ann Patchett, August 22, 2012 2:16 PM
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 had finished signing stock, before I had to go on and read — my favorite childhood book! And a bargain at $200. I snapped it up.
Now that I am safely home, I regard this beautiful book as proof of the temporary insanity I suffer on the road, as well as the general book-fever that can overtake a person at Powell's. Those folks know what they're
by Ann Patchett, April 25, 2008 3:19 PM
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.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
The morning I heard on NPR that Eudora Welty died I got in my car and drove to Mississippi to go to the funeral. Her work meant the world to me when I was growing up (it still does). It never occurred to me not to go.
What is your idea of absolute happiness?
The moment I crawl into bed at night with my husband and my dog and a book. I love being home, and that moment of going to bed seems like a perfect celebration of life. Waking up is pretty good, too.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
This can't possibly be a real question. Authors are completely beaten down by tour. We're exhausted, confused, alone. All the musicians I know have a certain amount of fun. For one thing, they travel in large packs. They can eat dinner together. They're out there making art on stage. I have no doubt that they're wilder. The wildest thing I've ever done on book tour is eat an expensive package of M&Ms out of the mini-bar, and I felt guilty about it. I have serious mini-bar issues.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Peter Sellars, director of opera, theater, film, music, and all-around artistic genius. I met him recently in Chicago with Renee Fleming (another artist I admire enormously.) Peter was the closest I've ever come to a real-life saint. His vision is enormous and completely dedicated to using art as a means of lifting up humanity. I think we all throw the world genius around these days but this man defines it.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Books I'll Never Get Tired of Looking At
Paul Klee, Philippe Comte, editor.
Lucian Freud. Bruce Bernard and Derek Birdsall, editors.
Francis Bacon, John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley, editors.
Living Room, Nick Waplington, artist.
Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, Albertus Sebe,
by Ann Patchett, October 22, 2007 4:42 PM
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.)
Setting a book in a city makes you see that city again, no matter how well you know it. I walked through Harvard Yard and thought how the place would look to both Tip, a Harvard student, and Kenya, his recently discovered sister, an eleven year old girl from the projects. I imagined her at the front steps of Widner Library and was once again struck by its grandeur. There is a reason why Harvard is constantly overrun with tourists: it isn't just a very good university, it's a sort of shrine to American education, and for reasons of history, architecture, and achievement, it is a school worth taking pictures of.
One of my biggest challenges was finding the right house in Boston for my characters to live in. I had the neighborhood picked out, but which street? Some kindly Boston friends drove me around to house hunt. After many hours, Maxine and I were hungry and tired while Al, who was behind the wheel, kept on thinking of one more place I should see. We begged him to stop, and when we passed Aquavit, one of my favorite restaurants, Maxine and I banged on the windows and demanded he pull over. And so he did, right in front of Union Park Street. How had I never noticed it before? It was perfect, with stunning townhouses lining a slim, capsule shaped park. After lunch I discovered that we weren't three blocks from the Cathedral Housing Project, which was adjacent to the Holy Cross Cathedral. Since this was a book about the intersection of wealth and poverty with a healthy dose of Catholicism thrown in, I felt like I had won the novelists' lottery.
When looking at a city with a sensibility that is not your own, you often wind up in places you would otherwise never seek out. One day I took off in a terrible snowstorm to find a retirement home for priests, as the book featured an aging priest in failing health. Even though I was pelted by ice, I kept telling myself it was all for the good. After all, the novel takes place in a snow storm. When I finally found the home I was both frozen and thrilled. I took a minute to step inside the beautiful little church next door where surely the pious younger brother, Teddy, would have stopped after visiting his uncle. I would never have seen it or known it was there, even though I had been within blocks of the place any number of times. But why would I need to see it, or, for that matter, why see the glass flowers at the MCZ? Why would I need to notice the bricks in the sidewalks or the etched glass over the front doors on Union Park Street? Maybe just because it challenged what I knew about the city. It's easy to bring our own set of perceptions to any place where we are a visitor. I seek out the kinds of things I would particularly like no matter where I go. I find the shops that sell to my taste, restaurants and hotels and museums that will bring me the fare that pleases me most. But by using my imagination, I can have a chance to see a different city, even if it's a city I know fairly well. By thinking about what someone else might look for, I was drawn down different streets, and those streets showed me layer after layer of the world, even though that world was once my home.
÷ ÷ ÷
Ann Patchett is the author of four novels: The Patron Saint of Liars, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Taft, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; The Magician's Assistant, for which she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; and Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award, England's Orange Prize, the Book Sense Book of the Year Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It has been translated into thirty languages. Her nonfiction book, Truth and Beauty, was a New York Times bestseller and the winner of a Books for a Better Life Award. Patchett lives in Nashville,