The government of a small South American country holds a birthday party for the head of Japan's leading electronics manufacturer, hoping to attract its business. Mr. Hosokawa, they know, can't resist the opportunity of a private performance by the world's leading soprano, Roxanne Coss. But it's not Hosokawa or Coss the terrorists want. The guerrillas who raid the party are after the country's president. Unfortunately, they quickly learn that he skipped the soiree to watch his favorite soap opera. Upon successfully storming the building, the naïve rebels find their kidnapping attempt foiled, and they don't know what to do.
As Patchett's new novel opens, fifty-seven men, eighteen terrorists, and one remarkable opera singer begin their new life behind the closed doors of the vice presidential mansion. Inspired by the four-month-long, 1996 Peruvian hostage crisis, Bel Canto "is ninety-eight percent fiction," the author says. Roxane Coss was her idea.
"Soon enough," Patchett writes, "the days were divided into three states: the anticipation of her singing, the pleasure of her singing, and the reflection on her singing."
The New Yorker raved, "Patchett's tragicomic novel — a fantasia of guns and Puccini and Red Cross negotiations — invokes the glorious, unreliable promises of art, politics and love. Against this grand backdrop, the smallest gestures bloom with meaning." As Laura Miller concluded in a review for Salon.com, "Patchett makes it work, completely."
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Dave: This is your fourth novel, and I found it to be the most...
Patchett: I'm thinking that tedious is the word you're looking for, the way you're looking around.
Dave: No, I loved it, I really did. It felt like the most carefully written. It was more dense. Single lines were accomplishing a great deal, moreso, I felt, than in your earlier novels, which seemed more voice-oriented. It seemed like a big jump in some respects.
Patchett: The big jump is the narrative structure. I've always wanted to write a book with a truly omniscient third person narrator, what I think of as a Russian third, the Anna Karenina-third where it moves from person to person within a room during the course of a single conversation.
I tried to do it with all three of the other books, failed repeatedly, then each time went back to a narrative structure I could manage. When you have a book that's character-driven, voice-driven, as opposed to something more narratively structured, more author-driven in a sense, the first person is easier.
In the first book, I wrote three different first person points of view because I didn't know how to handle it with one narrator and I sure wasn't capable of using a third person voice. In the second book, I used a single, first person narrator. In the third book, I used third person, but limited to one person's perspective. Now I got to this.
To my mind, it's been a progression, and it's what makes the book seem fuller. It is more ambitious, but God knows I tried it the other times. It's all learning and moving forward. Let's hope the next book takes on something else.
Dave: One line that made me stop and think, You know, she's really doing something here, was the one about the plants having grown a half-centimeter in the last hour.
Indirectly, in that single line you completely convey the tedium of the situation, a group of people standing at the window, staring outside, literally watching the plants grow. Also, the sense that although these people remain in captivity, on the other side of the glass the world hasn't stopped for them.
Patchett: That's really funny because my editor, Robert Jones, whom I love, that was one of the three lines he wanted to take out. He said, "There's just no way. It's unbelievable." I knocked it down from a half-inch to a half-centimeter.
I grew up on those Disney films where the plants grow in front of the camera. It did seem exactly like that. They're just standing there. It's that slow.
Dave: How did you manage the omniscience this time around when you hadn't before?
Patchett: I'd written three other books. It's a learning process. It's not as if I feel like I failed to achieve anything in those other books, but you get older, you do your job longer, you get better.
On a line by line basis, I have no idea. There will always be people who say to me, "Boy, I can never get over Patron Saint of Liars," which always makes me want to rap my head against the wall in one sense, but in another sense, they're just different readers. Different people respond to different things. I always want to feel as if I'm going into new territory.
There was a wonderful review of Bel Canto in New York magazine by Daniel Mendelsohn. It was terrific. But he had this one line that really bothered me when he said that my first three books were extremely competent but basically "women's fiction." I'm paraphrasing, but he said that this was the jump into "real" literature, to which I wanted to say, "Because that's what interests you!" There will always be others who like the earlier books more.
I like this book the best, I really do. But I have very strong feelings for Taft, in large part because the book bombed so hugely.
Dave: There's a dissertation in here somewhere. Jane Smiley said the exact same thing...
Patchett: About The Greenlanders.
Patchett: She can't stop talking about it.
Dave: And she admits that a big part of the reason she loves it so much is that no one else read it, or so it seems to her.
Bel Canto takes place in South America, yet we see absolutely nothing of that continent. The whole novel occurs inside the mansion and on its grounds.
Patchett: Right. It's a novel that takes place in a living room, basically, which is why I don't name the country. There's no sense pinning it on any particular place because it doesn't happen anyplace.
Dave: Was the confinement helpful, to be able to define the stage so precisely?
Patchett: Yeah, but again, it's not so different from my other books in an odd way. In Patron Saint of Liars, you're stuck in a home for unwed mothers. In Taft, you're stuck in a bar. In Magician's Assistant, you're stuck in a tract house in Nebraska in the snow. Now, in this one, you're totally enclosed. Nobody gets out.
I was very influenced by The Magic Mountain. It's a book that had a huge impact on me. I loved that as a shape for a novel: put a bunch of people in a beautiful place, give them all tuberculosis, make them all stay in a fur sleeping bag for several years and see what happens.
Probably the single thing that had the biggest artistic influence on me was The Poseidon Adventure. That was the first time I saw something that made me think, Oh, that's what plot is: you're going along, it's fine, then everything turns upside down; people band together, sacrifices are made, there's passion, there's loss, there's a journey, and at the end you cut a hole in the boat and you come out into the light. That's what this book is, in a sense, except for the part about coming out into the light.
I've written an homage to The Poseidon Adventure! Someone had to do it.
Dave: It should have been in the subtitle.
Patchett: Oh, you wouldn't have been able to keep the books on your shelves for the demand.
I do think it's the films we see as children that imprint in a meaningful way. You see an absolutely brilliant film later, as an adult, and you walk out thinking about what to have for dinner. Whereas something like Jaws winds up having a huge effect on me. If only my parents had been taking me to Kurosawa films when I was eight, but no.
Dave: Last year, you appeared with Elizabeth McCracken at Portland Arts & Lectures. How did she become your friend and an editor for you?
Patchett: We met ten years ago at a place called The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown where we spent seven months over the winter, and we were together every day. I have other friends who are writers, some who maybe read my work, but she's just it for me. I don't know how it's her.
We have very different personalities, yet we really understand each other. We have very little in common in a way, nothing as writers in terms of how we work. I get everything all plotted out, I sit down, and I write the book, more or less. Whereas Elizabeth, if a character walks into a room, she says, "When George's great-great-grandfather left Lithuania in the early 1800s?" and there'll be 200 pages. This is the guy delivering the mail! They're brilliant, but they don't go in the book. She has to cut them.
For every 400-page book she winds up with, she has 4000 brilliant pages she's worked on slavishly that don't end up in the book. I cannot imagine doing that kind of work or the heartache she causes herself by having to throw that all away. I'm always saying to her, "This scene has got to go. This person has got to go. There are fifteen kids in the family, I want to see it down to four." Whereas she is saying to me, "Plump it up, let's flesh it out." Everything I give her tends to be really skeletal.
I have often thought, if anything, God forbid, were to happen to Elizabeth, I don't know that I would write anymore. I don't write for an audience, I don't think whether my book will sell, I don't sell it before I finish writing it. I write it for myself, and I write it for her. For the pleasure of giving it to her. It's such a thrill for me when I can say, "I've got fifty pages. I've got a hundred pages."
What's bizarre is that we've so internalized each other's comments by this point that's it's almost a game. We don't send each other stuff early because I know what she's going to say and I can correct the mistakes before she gets them. She'll do the same thing. But if she tells me to do something...
Originally, this book had a first person prologue on it, written by Gen, that said basically, "This is the story of how I met my wife." And Elizabeth told me, "You're putting this on because you can't own up to the fact that you've written a complicated third person narrative. You want to say, 'Really, it looks complicated but it isn't.'" She said, "This is just about fear and you have to let it go."
The whole conception of the book for me was about that prologue. I'd worked on it for a year. I must have revised it a hundred times, but she was right, it had to go, so it went.
If I finished a book and she said, "This is bad, you're going to embarrass yourself, you should throw it away," I would throw it away. I'd sit down and cry for a weekend, but I'd throw it away.
Dave: I didn't know until yesterday that you wrote for Seventeen magazine for nine years.
Patchett: Was it nine? That's right. Why? How? Is that what you're wondering?
Dave: Not really why so much as how and what was it like. A friend of mine put herself through graduate school writing Sweet Valley High books, and we all thought that was so cool. Most of the students had unfulfilling, low-paying jobs, and she was writing professionally.
Patchett: And talk about honing your sense of plot. Sweet Valley High, there's no slouching in that.
Dave: So you wrote for Seventeen for a while.
Patchett: I'm not exactly sure how that happened. I sold them a short story. Most of what I ended up doing was nonfiction. Seventeen was good for me because they were so cruel. They bought one out of every five articles that I wrote, and they would let everyone in the office, down to the janitorial staff, comment on everything. There would be notes in seven different colors of ink, people writing back saying, "That wasn't the way I felt when I was fourteen. You need to represent my point of view."
They were horrible, the worst organization to work for, but in terms of nonfiction, I lost all my ego. I can write for any magazine now, in any voice. I can do it in two hours, I could do it in my sleep, it's like writing a grocery list. I give them a lot of credit for making me the workhorse I am today.
I did next to nothing for other magazines in those days. I was always nervous, trying to win their approval. Then I got an editor there whom I despised, we had a screaming fight on the phone - you don't know me, but I've screamed maybe three times in my life, I'm just not a screaming kind of person - and I said, "That's it. I'll never darken your door again." At that moment, it was like my whole career broke open and I was suddenly able to do some different things. Being with Seventeen was great, cutting them loose was great.
I also worked for Bridal Guide. That's a big one.
Dave: What were you writing?
Patchett: I had the politics column. The politics of sharing a bathroom, the politics of in-laws, the politics of cleaning, that sort of thing.
Dave: Is there any particular insider expertise you'd like to offer?
Patchett: Well, I always say that the two things I was most disastrous at in my life, being a teenager and being a wife, were the two things I really wound up cashing in on when I was writing fluffy magazine pieces.
Dave: In an essay you wrote about your dog, you asked why no one looks at a single man throwing a ball to his dog and thinks, "Oh, he really wants kids." Well, I'm not married, I have no kids, and I have a Labrador retriever. I'm not sure whether anyone's ever told me it means that I want a baby, but people are bugging me about fatherhood just the same.
Patchett: The guy and the dog - no one says, "Oh, that's your biological clock!" I've never seen that. People gave me such a bad time about wanting a baby. I didn't want a baby, and I still don't. I wanted a dog.
Dave: A review of The Magician's Assistant noted the theme of families coming together reoccurring in your novels.
Patchett: A group of strangers thrown together?
Dave: Right. You write a lot about family.
Patchett: If I wrote twenty books over the course of my life and at the end of it somebody said, "Gee, they were all about family," I don't think that's such a problem. If that's my thing, it still gives me an enormous amount of space.
Dorothy Allison is a friend of mine, and we were having a conversation about this once. She was saying that she really worries that she has only one theme. I never worry about that - or, I hadn't until that particular conversation. I'd never even realized it. I thought, "My God, I have one theme, too." But I wonder if most people don't really have one theme.
Dave: In The Magician's Assistant, there's a descriptive passage explaining why people shouldn't be so hard on Los Angeles. You're originally from L.A., right?
Patchett: I left when I was five, but my father is in L.A. All my extended family is there. I'm there all the time.
Dave: You want to talk about formative movies? I grew up in Massachusetts, and my entire conception of California was based on Woody Allen's version of it in Annie Hall. Your defense of Los Angeles struck a chord with me.
Patchett: I love L.A. I find it an incredibly beautiful city, incredibly compelling, gorgeous. The way the whole city is cut into the landscape, cut into the mountains, the wide-openness of everything, the way it always seems to be glowing. And it's completely multicultural. Everything in L.A. is like music. And as I say in that book, I think it's always been unfairly maligned. It's backlash, the beautiful girl of whom everybody wants to say, "Oh, she's really a tramp." She's just too good-looking, too fantastic. We got sick of her and resented it. But yes, L.A. has got a lot of problems, it has enormous corruption...
Have you read Mike Davis's books?
Dave: I haven't.
Patchett: City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. They're catalogs of every single thing that's wrong with Los Angeles, but they're clearly born out of love. He loves the city so much, and he's so furious and brokenhearted about how it's fallen apart.
Dave: What else are you reading?
Right now I'm reading The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. I was doing an interview with a compelling young woman in New York, and she said it was the best book she'd ever read. She bought me a copy and brought it to my reading that night. I'm only about twenty pages into it, but I have the feeling that it may in fact be the best book I'll have ever read. It's so gorgeous. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980. It reminds me of Henry Green, and I'm a huge Henry Green fan.
Dave: Had you heard of it previously? Before it was recommended?
Patchett: I think I'd heard the name, but who knows. There are too many books.
One of the most horrifying things about book tours is being in bookstores every day and just thinking, "Oh, why bother? Look at all the fantastic, brilliant books. I don't really need to throw another stick on the fire."
Dave: And yet you do, and people are reading them. I've been amazed how much attention Bel Canto has been getting. Not to diminish your accomplishment in any way, but as you say, there are a lot of books out there, yet everywhere I look lately I see that someone is writing about this one.
Patchett: And I can tell you why: I have an amazing publicist. That's it. The last publicist I had I thought was pretty good. I never knew what a publicist was until I started working with Jane Beirn. She is so smart and hard-working and devoted. As far as she's concerned, this is her book. It's her project.
I've book toured my whole life, gone from city to city, without ever doing a radio show. Then all of a sudden you wake up and you're doing four in a day. It's not because I've suddenly become a much better novelist.
In interviews I'll meet people who hadn't previously read my books. Now, suddenly they've read all four of them, and they ask me, "My God, why are you so obscure? No one's ever heard of you, and yet I just read all these books and you're really good." Or, you read a review that starts out, "Ann Patchett has long toiled in utter obscurity?" and I think, Is it that bad? Were things going so badly in my career? Who knows?
Part of it is living in Tennessee. I'm so out of the loop. And as a person, I'm out of the loop. I'm oblivious by nature. I'm not someone who's ever called in to ask, "What are my sales? What's my ranking on Amazon?" So I'm surprised to find out not only that I've been totally obscure but now, suddenly, I'm going to edge my way out of it.
Dave: Are you working on another novel?
Patchett: I have the idea, but I haven't started it. Book tour would be even worse if I was leaving home, loved ones, and fifty pages of a book I really wanted to write, so I just wait until it's over. And now, of course, because it's another book that has to do with family, I'm thinking maybe I should write a book about skiing or something.
Dave: A group of skiers, confined to a lodge?
Patchett: It's true! They'd wind up in a chalet during an avalanche and form some sort of society.
Dave: Do you really want to be thinking and talking so much about your writing as you do on book tour?
Patchett: Absolutely not. Ninety-eight percent of a book tour takes place in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, eating a Cinnabon, waiting for a plane. Two percent takes place in a bookstore. And it is at times lovely to meet people, but praise and criticism seem to me to operate exactly on the same level. If you get a great review, it's really thrilling for about ten minutes. If you get a bad review, it's really crushing for ten minutes. Either way, you go on. But it's just as unnatural for people to sit around and tell you you're a genius as it is for people to tell you you're a fraud. I just don't think it's healthy, either way. It doesn't do me any good, either way.
And it's very strange. I have this life, a boring, predictable life. The main thing I do during a day, aside from whatever work I do at my own house, I have a ninety-three year old grandmother that I take care of during the day, and I go see her and spend time with her. Usually at some point in the morning she's dropped a five gallon jar of molasses on the tile, and I spend two or three hours cleaning molasses and shards of glass off the floor. That's kind of my average day. Then you leave that life, you go into a bookstore, and you meet these people with tears in their eyes who take your hand and say, "The Magician's Assistant was the most important book I've ever read. This changed my life." It's really lovely, and I'm really glad, but it makes me feel like an insane person. It's so devoid to how people respond to me in my real life, which is I'm on my hands and knees cleaning up molasses and shards of glass. There is no bridge between those two things. I look at that person in the bookstore, and I think, You must be wrong. You must be talking to someone else because I'm not who you think I am. Because I'm not.
I have a very boring life. It's lovely, it's my life, but it's boring. I have a very Eudora Welty kind of life.
Dave: I didn't know Eudora personally. What exactly does that mean?
Patchett: She stayed in Jackson, Mississippi, took care of her aging parents, and lived in the house she grew up in. Her life was lived in service to her family. I'm not as good as that, but nor am I anyone who's going off and taking Paris by storm. I don't go to $500-a-plate fundraisers for Yaddo. I'm not invited, I'm not in the loop.
Dave: But once you break out of obscurity...
Patchett: Even then, what? I'm going to fly up on a Thursday night if I'm, God forbid, invited? Probably not.
So much more of an answer than you asked for. What in the world was the question?
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State