A girl attended Ann Patchett‘s book signing in Tennessee and brought a stack of novels for the author to sign.
The student mentioned an essay assignment, and asked Patchett for ideas on a theme. The celebrated author went through the novels one by one, scribbling a few notes that ended with the same word. They all went something like, “This person or group of people gets stuck with this person or group of people, and….trapped!”
Patchett laughed while telling this anecdote to a sold-out Fort Collins Reads audience of 1,000 at the Hilton on Sunday, November 5. Her warm, down-to-earth style seemed to charm everyone.
“Every time I start a new book, I think ‘This one will be different,’” she said.
Author Dorothy Allison confided while they were both writing at The McDowell Colony that she realized she keeps writing the same book over and over.
Patchett decided the same was true for herself: “I am only writing one book, and that’s fine.” She likes to use her imagination to conjure what she calls the “set and design and costume” for each new novel.
“I put a lot of energy into the trees and into the character’s job and elaborate backstories so that you won’t feel like you’re reading the same book.”
Which brings us to Commonweath, her latest novel. “This is the book all the other books are based on,” Patchett said.
As in the novel, her parents divorced when she was young, and her mother remarried, resulting in a blended family. If she were to go into therapy, she might think, “I’m trying to work out the problems of my childhood through fiction.”
Throughout most of her writing career, Patchett wouldn’t write something if she thought it would offend anyone or anything in the world. She realized she was cutting herself off from her own experiences.
When she was 47 – she’ll be 54 in December – her friend and author Barbara Kingsolver told her, “You are going to love being 50 because when you’re 50 you will cease to care.”
“I cared so much when I was in my 20s what people thought of me,” Patchett said. In contrast, her 50s have given her full access to her life and her brain.
At the request of a friend, she gathered her courage to write the essay and then the 2013 book titled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. All her relatives, including her mother and her sister, had experienced unsuccessful marriages: “The ground beneath my happy marriage was divorce…It was terrifying for me to write that essay.”
She had told herself at various times that she shouldn’t write something for fear of hurting a loved one.
“I realized that’s a lie we tell ourselves because we don’t want to do something hard,” Patchett said.
Commonwealth was “a lot of fun to write, easy to write. I knew the people and how to move them around.” Although the characters in Commonwealth share similarities with her family members, they are not the same. She loved her father, a retired Los Angeles police officer. He didn’t understand her writing career, though. Even after she’d published several books, he tried to interest her in pursuing a regular job.
If she hadn’t become a writer, what profession would she have chosen? Making dioramas for architectural models; making tiny trees out of Q-tips. Or film editing.
“If you handed me 200 hours of film and said, ‘Find the two-hour movie in that,’ I think I could do it.”
She realizes these jobs are similar in that they involve being alone in a room for countless hours.
“I have no esprit de corps,” she said. “I just like working by myself.”
After her father became ill and was given six weeks to live, Patchett embarked on a speaking tour to pay for his 24/7 in-home care. The “six weeks” lasted four years (it was like performing on vaudeville, she said), and after her father died, she didn’t stop touring.
Fort Collins Reads was her final speaking engagement, she announced, and her constant smile and animated storytelling throughout the event conveyed her giddiness at the thought that she could finally “stop talking about writing, and write.”
Patchett dedicated Commonwealth to her stepfather, a brain surgeon who wanted to be a writer, who “always believed in me.”
“He has Alzheimer’s now. It was the last book he read,” she said with a smile.