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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.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.]

More from Ann Patchett on PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Ann Patchett is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize), and the nonfiction bestsellers What Now? and Truth and Beauty. Her latest book is This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is co-owner of Parnassus Books.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
    Used Hardcover $11.95
  2. Run (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  3. The Signature of All Things
    Used Hardcover $10.95
  4. Eat Pray Love
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  5. Committed: A Love Story Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. Pilgrims
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  7. The Stone Diaries (Penguin Classics...
    Used Trade Paper $4.50

Ann Patchett is the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

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