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Original Essays

The Marriage of Fiction and Nonfiction

by Ann Patchett (2004)
  1. Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
    $6.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "A tough and loving tribute, hard to put down, impossible to forget." Kirkus Reviews

    "Dazzling in its psychological interpretations...candid in its self-portraiture, and gracefully balanced between emotion and reason." Booklist

  2. Autobiography of a Face
    $5.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Autobiography of a Face struggles from outer to inner to inmost senses of 'face' as it charts the difficulties encountered in trying to carve a face for oneself from the inside out. It's a young woman's first book, the story of her own life, and both book and life are unforgettable." A. G. Mojtabai, New York Times Book Review
  3. Bel Canto: A Novel
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Bel Canto: A Novel

    Ann Patchett
    Winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the 2002 Orange Prize

    "Ann Patchett's latest novel sneaks up so stealthily on the reader that before you know it, you've already skipped a meal or missed your meeting." John Valentine, Independent Online

  4. The Magician
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Patchett's third and finest novel....Patchett's lush and suspenseful story is also a portrait of America..." New Yorker
The first short story I ever sold was to the Paris Review when I was twenty years old. It was my intention in life to be a very serious fiction writer and this seemed to me to be a very serious launch. The first nonfiction I sold came five years later. It was a two-hundred-word book review of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club for Seventeen magazine. I had worked on the short story for months, but the review was finished up in about an hour. At the tender age of twenty-five, I established a precedent that I would pretty much stick to for the rest of my career: fiction was art; non-fiction was money.

After graduate school, I taught creative writing here and there. But I soon figured out that it took a lot of time, time that I would rather give to my novels. So I left the academy for fashion. I could make all the money I needed writing little essays about skirts. People always asked me, didn't writing for Vogue take away energy from my novels? The question implied that we are each given a budget of words to spend every day and I may well be wasting mine. The answer was absolutely no. Magazine work was like putting together a grocery list or writing a letter. It never occupied the same part of my brain as what I considered to be my real work.

This is not to say that writing nonfiction is a lower calling. I simply gravitated towards lower forms of nonfiction. I freelanced for Seventeen until I was thirty, churning out such time-honored pieces as "When the Chemistry Isn't There" and "Getting Over Getting Dumped." Wearing sweatpants and sneakers, never owning a tube of mascara, I wrote for all the phone-book-sized fashion glossies. My favorite job was for Bridal Guide, where some months I wrote the entire issue using six different pen names. I dispensed advice on how to share a bathroom, entertaining in-laws, and finding tiny people for the top of your wedding cake that actually looked like you. I went on elaborate honeymoons which I reviewed without a whiff of criticism. I never once visited the offices in New York.

I zoomed through my assignments like someone writing from the second story of a burning house, but I never tried to throw off a quick short story for publication. I always kept my fiction in what I considered to be a very clean place. After all, it was the fiction that felt so much more true. Once I got to know my characters, I was completely loyal to them. I couldn't change their fates because in my mind they were locked into place by their personalities and circumstances. If I fell in love with a character who was doomed, I still left him to his fate. I couldn't change destiny, even when it took place in a world I had created. Nonfiction, on the other hand, was as soft and as flexible as Silly Putty. No interview is ever presented verbatim, and in picking and choosing which quotes to include I could make people say nearly anything at all. I once spent two days with Ralph Fiennes for a cover story for GQ and came out with sixty pages of transcripts for an eight-page article. When I decided what I wanted him to say, I had a world of true sentences to choose from.

I was constantly mining my own life for magazine articles. I wrote about my dog, my grandmother, my divorce, a long vacation with my father, various dinner parties I had given. But in fiction, my personal life was off limits. I liked the fact that no one would ever finish one of my novels and know anything more about me than they did before they started. As a rule, I do not admire the roman � clef. I like my fiction to be fictional. I always swore that nothing could drive me to a memoir, perhaps in part because I've lived such a sweet life and the memoir seems to be the genre of sad or fascinating stories. Personally speaking, my stories had been neither sad nor fascinating.

But the life of my best friend, Lucy Grealy, was both. When she wrote about surviving childhood cancer and the countless surgical reconstructions that followed in Autobiography of a Face, she made one of those books that you couldn't tear yourself away from. This, I knew, was real nonfiction, the kind that was as true and valuable as a novel, the kind I thought I would never write. Oddly, even after her success, Lucy remained as suspicious of the genre as I was for a long time. She had started out as a poet, and she always believed that that was the highest art. I remember one summer we taught workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and lived together on the first floor of a converted barn. We would lie across the big couches with the doors open and read our student papers. The ones I got were pretty good. The ones she got were dreadful.

"It's because these people never wanted to be writers," she said. "They're just regular people who had something horrible happen to them and now they want to make a book out of their experiences."

What better place than a book to store away the great sadness of your life? I am always sticking things in books. Pull any volume off my shelves and shake it and you'll find postcards, photographs, leaves, receipts, the occasional five dollar bill. The book I am carrying with me at the moment becomes my pocketbook, my desk drawer. When Lucy died in December of 2002, I went back on everything I had ever said about the memoir. I started writing a book about our friendship almost immediately. I thought of her memory as something I wanted to press between the pages of a book to preserve. It wasn't so much about the desire to write a book as it was the desire to actually put her memory someplace safe. I had been driven to do the very thing I swore I would never do because of my circumstances. In her absence, Lucy had made my life almost as sad and fascinating as her own.

÷ ÷ ÷

I once drove a Winnebago across the Badlands of South Dakota and down through Wyoming to Yellowstone for Outside magazine. I saw Fidelio in a box seat at LaScala while on assignment for Gourmet. Was this the part of me that wrote about Lucy's life and death, or was it the novelist? While I would never hesitate to write out the dialogue of a character I had created, it was something else entirely to put words into the mouth of my best friend. Did I remember things correctly? Was I being fair and true?"

"I'm amazed by how you remember everything about your childhood so clearly," a woman said to Lucy one night when we were giving a reading together in New York.

"I didn't remember it," she said pointedly. "It's art. I made it up." She didn't mean it had never happened. She meant that capturing the past is a process much more complicated than accurate transcription.

Now I was left to figure out the same thing.

In some ways, writing Truth & Beauty was a combination of what I knew about writing fiction and nonfiction. It felt like a novel, in that I could not save the heroine I loved from the fate that was coming for her, and it felt like nonfiction, because I had to offer up the details of my own life to make it whole. Mostly, it felt like there was a book that had already been written years before and then fed through a paper shredder one sheet at a time. It was as if I had the pile of thinly sliced strips covering my desk, and all I had to do was reassemble the book that was already there. After all, it was already there. Living your life is the hard part. Getting it glued down on paper in the right order is tedious, but in comparison to the living, it isn't that hard.

÷ ÷ ÷

Lucy was a terrible procrastinator. When she took on magazine assignments, they could be as much as a year overdue. Once, she rode a horse alone across Ireland for a women's fitness magazine. She mucked through bogs, clipped wire fences, and read hand-drawn maps in the rain. But she couldn't stand to sit still and finish the piece.

"You've already done the hard part," I told her. "Just write it down."

That's what I said to her, like it was the simplest thing in the world: it's already happened. Now just write it down. spacer

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