25 Women to Read Before You Die

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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.

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, artist.

÷ ÷ ÷

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

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

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