Interview with Ann Patchett

June, 2011

Ann Patchett A renowned soprano held hostage in South America, a runaway wife raising her daughter at a home for unwed mothers, a magician's assistant visiting her dead gay husband's estranged family—Ann Patchett crafts nuanced characters who deal with complicated situations. The Nashville writer first broke onto best-seller lists in 2001 with Bel Canto, a literary thriller that won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has written six works of fiction as well as a memoir, Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy. Patchett's latest novel is an adventure story heightened by questions of morality and science. In State of Wonder, pharmaceutical scientist Marina Singh is dispatched to the Brazilian rain forest to check up on a research team that has gone AWOL. Dodging 15-foot anacondas and malarial mosquitoes, she must find Annick Swenson, her intimidating former teacher who now leads a secret fertility project. Author interviewer Bethanne Patrick spoke with Patchett on behalf of Goodreads.

Goodreads: State of Wonder reads like a fairy tale in some ways. Would you agree?

Ann Patchett: I would. Back when I was young, I thought I was writing these straight-up, realistic books, but the New York Times book review for The Patron Saint of Liars by Alice McDermott said that it was "a fairy tale, a delight." Since then, every book I published got viewed through that lens. Around the time I was writing Bel Canto I thought, if everyone thinks I'm writing fairy tales, I'm going to write fairy tales! I think I did sort of turn in that direction.

GR: What does "write fairy tales" mean?

AP: What would it really mean to write fairy tales? Oddly, the way in which I think I write fairy tales [is that] I'm such a heavily plotted writer. I can throw 300 balls up in the air and catch 'em at the end. That, to me, is a fairy tale. The idea of making an entire world. I think that's why I love to write books about people who are cut off in some way. They can't get to the rest of normal society. The book I was obsessed with during adolescence was The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

GR: What inspired you to write about the Amazon in State of Wonder?

AP: I was supposed to go to Manaus [the capital of the state of Amazonas in Brazil] with Renée Fleming to see her sing there, but the event was cancelled and we couldn't go. Manaus has this amazing opera house built by one of the "rubber barons" of the 19th century. So I learned about it first while working on Bel Canto.

Then I was very interested in malaria. My books are very inspired by my [previous] books, meaning that things I'm interested in during research for one book spill over into others. In Run I was writing about an ichthyologist and started reading a lot of evolutionary biology.

GR: One of the big subjects of this book is malaria.

AP: Malaria is curable—it will kill you unless you have a little bit of money. It's such a moral thing. If you've got enough money for an antimalarial, you can survive. If you don't, you can die. It's a political and moral kind of disease. That's great, that's just deep novelist territory. I wanted to do the whole bait and switch, meaning have people focus on something very lucrative [i.e. a possible fertility treatment] and then replace that with something that could make a real difference, a moral difference, not simply an ethical one.

GR: Your protagonist in State of Wonder is Marina Singh, whose mother is a Caucasian American and father is a Hindi. Why did you make that choice?

AP: I wanted her to already be versed in the feeling of foreignness, of otherness. She's been a little off balance her whole life in Minnesota. To everyone there she is "the other," in some sense isolated just by her background. I also really like the fact that there is blond/black hair difference. She almost blends in with the Lakashi tribe in my book, becoming more and more like them as time passes.

GR: You have an interesting young bohemian couple in this book named the Bovenders. Let's talk about them.

AP: This is such a good story. I am on my library board, and every year they have a gala and bring in a famous writer for a big fund-raiser. Many people have donated the right for bidders to be named as characters in a book. One year I said, "OK, I'll do this." It was my idea, not the organizers. That year John Irving was our guest, and while he was being interviewed at our Patrons Party, he said, "Ann, don't do this. This is the worst mistake you will ever make! I did this once, some friends bought it, and that character turned out to be the biggest bitch of my body of work! I couldn't change it, and my friends never forgave me. I implore you, withdraw!"

So, Jack and Barbara Bovender are patients of my husband's and friends of ours, very wealthy and influential people in Nashville. Neither is over five foot five! I thought, if I could "give" the Bovenders anything, I would make them tall blond Australian surfers who smoke dope and have sex all the time. I happen to think that "Barbara Bovender" is the most beautiful name in the world!

Once I'd created these characters, I completely fell in love with them, and her especially. I have no idea if this is going to come around and bite me.

GR: You made them Australian surfers; how did you get that down?

AP: All of my Australian surfer information comes from...Nicole Kidman! She lives here in Nashville, of course. So I just asked her about the surfers she knew back home in Sydney.

GR: Do you have any thoughts about boundaries, specifically the boundaries that exist—or don't—between your characters?

AP: I don't have a ready-made answer for this one. I read a lot of books about Buddhism. I'm not a Buddhist, but I'm somebody who is very interested in all of that. One of the things that always resonates with me is the difference between who we say we are and who we are. Layer after layer that we've built up as a carapace and our shield. Who do we actually become? Do we begin to believe our own mythology? I love a story that strips piece by piece of that armor away, of who we thought we were, leaving us with who we actually are. The journey back to our natural state. The things I write about are the things I write about over and over again, like how families are assembled, what happens when we lose everything, what happens when we can no longer be seen . . . That all goes back to my earliest work, so it's not like I was listening to Pema Chödrön.

I remember reading Suttree, my very favorite McCarthy novel, which is incredibly dark and complicated. One of the characters says, "Now I know there's nothing else for me to lose." I thought, "There is always more to lose."

GR: Let's talk about one of your central characters, Dr. Swenson, who runs the jungle research outpost in the Amazon. Where did she come from?

AP: I had intended Swenson to be like Chad Newsome in The Ambassadors—you want to be with her, she's so smart, so compelling that even though she's terrifying, you can't stay away. Dr. Swenson is the brilliant scary professor that you're terrified of, yet you stand in trembling awe before that person.

And that's what the book is about: When I think about the professors who shaped every aspect of who I am today and realize that despite my worship of their brilliance, they didn't know me. I was not a special student, I was diligent and quiet, I was not showy and I was not center stage. Yet I changed my very DNA because I loved them so passionately. Of course, I was just one in thousands.

GR: What about the flip side? The Swenson side of things?

AP: I've been a teacher, and when it comes to old students, generally I have no memory of them. A student will say to a favorite professor, "You changed my life, you were everything to me!" The professor responds, "And what was your name?" That's the central story of this book. It's about growing up and the intersection of your young adult self and your adult self. Am I now this person's equal? Am I now moving into the position of being this person's custodian?

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AP: If I see a ritual coming on, I will stomp it down. Rituals are only destructive. They call upon your superstitious self, they take the power away from you, they use your goofy imagination in the lowest Ouija board part of your brain! I fight off everything that's very cute and anything both ritualistic and superstitious. Because I have that little core that would fall prey to them—years ago I got into a bad computer Solitaire habit. I quit cold turkey.

Now I don't have a routine. How could I have a routine? If I'm starting a book and write for ten minutes, that's amazing for me to sit still. By the end of that book I can stay at my desk for 12 hours! I am not an Anthony Trollope who can start by writing "Page One, Chapter One." I will not write for a long time, and I love that! I am amazed by writers who say as soon as I've finished I have to keep at it. You wouldn't call me prolific, but I think I'm average to high average output for not writing every day.

I need to live my life, because writing so is so isolating, so autistic for me, and I want to be married and be a good daughter and a good friend and a good pet owner, and I'm not great at having balance when I'm writing. Because I am many different people in the course of a year, depending on if I'm working. When I'm working-working-working, I find other people intolerable.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

AP: Well, The Magic Mountain. And Suttree. Also, Raymond Chandler, because of his lesson of putting plot and action together. I really love what I learn from him about chapter shape, how to create a chapter that, even though the reader is tired and wants to go to bed and is grateful for the chapter's brevity, has a little fishhook at its end that makes you want to keep reading the next day.

GR: What are you reading now? Do you have any favorite books or authors?

AP: Right now it's Our Mutual Friend by Dickens. I have been reading it for a long time, because lately I've been inundated with galleys, good ones, from people who can call in favors. Sometimes you think there is no one left in the world whose writing can excite you, and then—boom!—a galley arrives that changes everything.

It's really kept me fresh, in a way, that I do have an awareness of books that are just coming out and writers I feel excited about. Right now I adore Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang, The Song of Achilles from Madeline Miller, Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson, and In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, which is fascinating because it's a book about two teenage girls in 1970s Ohio who essentially do nothing—but I couldn't put it down.

I've always looked at galleys and the business of blurbing as an enemy of my time—but now I'm beginning to see it as a gift. I'll have problems with things but still blurb them. When something is good and ambitious and energetic and fresh, it doesn't have to be perfect. I don't care, I'm just thrilled.


Interview by Bethanne Patrick for Goodreads. A writer in the Washington, D.C. metro area, she is also an editor of Shelf Awareness.

Learn more about Bethanne and follow what she's reading.

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10 likes · like


Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson Terrific interview Bethanne, you did a wonderful job of asking the questions I'd want answered! Ann Patchett is one of my very favorite authors and I always put down whatever's on my TBR list when one of her books comes out. I can't wait to read STATE OF WONDER.


message 2: by Mel (new)

Mel I have not read any of Ann Patchett's books, but based on this interview I'm about to start! She seems to be so clear about how she crafts every aspect of her story and just the way she talks draws me in to want to read her novels. STATE OF WONDER here I come!


message 3: by Doris (new)

Doris Bass Ann Patchett was interviewed this morning by Diane Rehm on NPR. The book sounds terrific and I will read it, but even more interesting is the fact that she is opening a bookstore in Savannah in the fall.....so all of you Georgians take note and keep her store busy!


message 4: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Read the book jacket and scanned inside the other day. This one looks interesting. I've never read an Ann Patchett, either, but I've heard great things about her for years. It's time to read her, I think!! Thanks for the NPR info.


message 5: by Susan (new)

Susan I read Bel Canto years ago and absolutely loved it! It's a great example of how the question "what happens?" in a book and "what's the book about?" are two entirely different questions. What happens in Bel Canto - central American hostage siege; what it's about - the power of music and love.

Any way, I picked up one of her other books later and didn't like it nearly so much. This interview makes me want to try her again. Oh, and btw she has a really funny essay published years ago in GQ titled "Since my Baby Left Me" or something like that. Googled it but couldn't find it. Maybe someone else can find it.


message 6: by Tami (new)

Tami I finished "State of Wonder" a couple of days ago and totally enjoyed it. I especially enjoyed the anaconda scene because I'm extremely afraid of snakes (I can't even watch the Animal Planet or Discovery Channel when it's about snakes)and I was very pleased with the outcome of that scene (I won't spoil it for those who haven't read the book yet). I will definitely recommend this book to my friends.


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