When I finished writing my first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars
, I printed out a copy and mailed it to my father. I was 27 at the time, which means my father would have been 60. He had not yet retired from his career in the Los Angeles police department, and I had not yet sold a book. I knew from the short stories I had sent him in graduate school that he was a good reader with a sharp eye for typos and grammatical errors. He would let me know when a scene felt stilted or slow, or when a character was doing things that a real person would never do. After 33 years in law enforcement, many of those years spent as a detective, he was also the best fact-checker/research assistant I would ever have.
The problem with my father’s editing was that he brought his own moral imperative to my work. He circled every instance of my characters’ swearing and then drew an X through the offending word. No need for that.
I never believed my father didn’t swear. I only believed he didn’t swear in front of me and my sister. But when he died, several of the notes we received from the police officers he’d worked with mentioned exactly that: what a gentleman he was, how he liked a good martini, how he didn’t swear. He did, however, smoke for half his life, and still he told me that the people in my book had no business smoking.
“But they do
smoke,” I said. The offending characters were both Marines in basic training: the novel’s hero and a minor character who was a corporal of the guard.
“They don’t need to,” my father said. “It does nothing for the scene.”
.” I felt like I was the one who’d been caught with a Camel. The fact was, I did smoke when I was 27. I smoked in my father’s house when I went to visit, opening the flue in the living room fireplace and cramming myself beneath the chimney once my father and stepmother were asleep. I couldn’t go outside because the burglar alarm could only be disabled from inside their bedroom.
“You’re setting a bad example,” my father said of the smoking Marines. “Young people could be reading this book.”
“But you smoked.”
“I quit,” he said.
The cigarettes stayed, but our compromise was a good one: in my version, the corporal threw the butt on the ground moments before accidentally shooting the hero in the leg. Smoking and littering was simply too much for my father to bear, so he explained how the character would field-strip what was left of the offending cigarette, pulling off the paper, rolling it into a tiny ball, and scattering the end of the tobacco. Like smoking, field-stripping seemed to be something a Marine would do.
Every time we talked, he asked me how close I was to finishing. He’d sit down and read whatever I sent him the minute it arrived.
In truth, I rarely gave in to my father’s moral code, but that code had a profound effect on me all the same. I would stand up for a character’s right to smoke in one book, but have a different character put his cigarettes aside (along with his swearing and sex life) in future books. My father’s demand for wholesomeness wore at me. One of the biggest arguments we ever had concerned a scene in a memoir I wrote about my friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy. In Truth and Beauty
, I told a story about the night that Lucy and I read together in front of a packed house on Cape Cod. She read an essay about masturbating for a very long time in front of a man she had met in a bar. In my book about Lucy, I wrote about how bothered I had been to hear my best friend tell such an intimate story — a story I had never heard — in front of so many strangers.
“It’s a terrible thing to say about her,” my father told me over the phone. “You’ve got to take it out.”
“But it’s true,” I said. “I didn’t make it up. I can get corroboration from 150 witnesses.”
“You shouldn’t say that about her when she isn’t around to defend herself.” He was right about that: Lucy couldn’t defend herself. She had died, and it was her death that had led me to write about her.
“She read the essay and then she published it,” I said. “It isn’t gossip.”
My father told me I should be a better friend. The story stayed in, but no one else ever masturbated in a Patchett novel.
In all fairness, my father was only expressing his opinions, opinions I could have just as easily divined. I suppose I could have waited and just sent him the books once they were published, but he loved to see my work as stacks of paper. Every time we talked, he asked me how close I was to finishing. He’d sit down and read whatever I sent him the minute it arrived. That meant a lot to me. It means a lot to any writer.
My father died a year and a half ago of a neurological disorder called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. For four years, we thought he couldn’t possibly have more than a month to live, and for four years, he surprised us. In that time, I wrote a book of essays called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
. There was plenty in that book I hadn’t wanted him to see, but I thought he would die before it came out. When I realized that would not be the case, I flew to California and read the book to him. His illness had made speaking difficult, and his criticism and praise were now marked by economy. “Not good,” he said at the end of a couple of the essays. “Yes,” he said to others. When I read him the essay about the death of my grandmother, my mother’s mother whom he had dearly loved, he sat in his wheelchair and cried.
People love to ask writers about their influences. Did growing up in the South shape my work, or was it my early obsession with Saul Bellow
? Was I a Catholic writer? A woman’s writer? I will tell you: as a writer, I am first and foremost my father’s daughter. I didn’t operate out of a desire to please him so much as I did a desire to not offend him, and the truth is that the constraints did me little harm. There are plenty of things to write about that aren’t smoking or swearing or sex. With the extra time and energy they had, my characters went out and saw the world.
I had always wondered what it would be like to know I would never have his eyes on something I’d written. My father was still alive when I was working on Commonwealth
, and once again, I was certain I wouldn’t finish it until after he had died. This time I was right.
I loved my father, and I wished for him every minute of life that his body could afford him. He did not want to die. Still, after he did, I wrote with an openness I had not previously known. I was 51 years old. I wrote about California and divorce and police officers, second marriages and stepchildren. I wrote about people who were like my family and nothing like my family. It was time to pull down the fences and let my story go wherever it wanted to go. I had been a good daughter, and my father had been a good father. He had helped me in every way he knew how. I will miss his advice, even the advice that had irritated me. His death marked my growth as a writer, but if I were able to choose — the book or my father — I would have him back.
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is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain's Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books. Commonwealth
is her most recent novel.