Novelist Ann Patchett energetically resists all efforts to identify autobiographical elements in her fiction, but she has never been averse to personal writing in general: In fact, as she explains in her new book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, she got her start as a writer by publishing essays and features in national magazines. It's one thing to write personally for a publication that will end up in the recycle bin almost immediately, and something entirely different to publish an autobiographical book, however, and Patchett has always preferred to issue her life's story in incomplete, widely scattered episodes.
But when she and Karen Hayes opened Nashville's Parnassus Books to great fanfare in 2011, Patchett became for the first time a very public person in her own hometown, and this new perspective gave her a way to look with new eyes at her own personal writing over the past 20 years. The result is an essay collection with a structure that's more akin to Patchett's six novels — including her most famous, Bel Canto — than to her two earlier books of nonfiction.
Patchett sat down for an interview in the dining room of her Nashville home.
When we spoke about your last novel, State of Wonder, you said you don't go back and read your novels. What was it like to go back and read your nonfiction for This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage?
It was horrible! It was absolutely the thing that kept me from doing this book for the longest time. How this whole book started was that my friend Niki Castle moved from New York to Nashville and was trying to find a job. I said that she could come and work for me. It was about six weeks before she found a job, and I don't have six weeks' worth of stuff around here to do. She went into [my] bin of articles and started scanning them, organizing them. After all that, she decided that she wanted to make a book out of them. It took a long time to get to where I could read it, and then when I did read it, I thought a lot of the essays were bad. So I would dump essays out, and then I would write new essays and throw essays away and write new essays. Then I had a book.
It's interesting that the pieces aren't arranged in chronological order.
It was very important for me to put this book together so that it would read like a novel. I actually wrote new essays to make it bridge properly and so it would read with the flow of a novel.
In your essay "My Life in Sales," you talk about whether it would be better to be like a Fuller Brush man going door to door with your books instead of going on a book tour. And that made me think of a series of works by Marcel Duchamp, Box in a Valise, where he had miniature versions of his works, like the parody of the Mona Lisa and the urinal. He used to be a salesman himself, and so he had this valise open with all these miniature works of art so he could show his wares to the world. In many ways, a collection of essays is similar to that.
That actually makes me wish I could just start making miniatures. It's very much like the novelist's life or the essayist's life, to kind of shrink your circumstances down to a physical model that you can hand somebody and say, "This is what it looks like."
I wrote "The Getaway Car," which is a piece about all the writing advice I have. So many people come up to me and ask me questions: "How do I get a book published?" "How do I get an agent?" "My daughter wants to write. Will you meet with her?" And I thought, "Wouldn't it be amazing if I could put it all in one place, so I would have just that, a physical object?" And I say to people, "Yes, I would be happy to have lunch with your granddaughter — on the condition that she read this essay first, which is like 50 pages long. If she gets to the end of this essay, and she can still think of anything she wants to ask me, I'll have lunch with her." And not once has anyone ever called me back and said, "Yes, there are still a lot of things I want to talk to you about." So that's a great example of having the little thing that says: This is my life shrunk down in a package, and, here, I'm going to give it to you.
So much of art is about making choices. In making choices about what to put down on the page, how much of the piece is also defined by how much and what you leave out?
Everything. Everything is defined by what you leave out. Someone said to me yesterday, "Oh, well, this is really the story of your life. This is your autobiography in a collection of essays." And I said, "No, these are just the little pictures that I feel like showing you. This isn't the story of my life at all. This is more like the novel of my life."
You're turning 50 soon, and it is also close to 20 years that you and your husband have been together. Do milestones, big decennial markers, mean anything to you at all?
No, they really don't. And I have to say that I have Lucy [Grealy] to thank for that, because Lucy was more tediously obsessed with her age than anyone I've ever known. She died when we were 39. And for the five years before 39, she talked endlessly about the horror of turning 40. How if she didn't find true love by 40, she was going to leave New York, and if she hadn't finished her book by 40, she would go to medical school, and all of these things. It was such a drama with age. And because she and I were together for so long, I learned a lesson: that age doesn't make any difference.
When I look back now, I think, "Oh my God, you were 39 when you died. And it seems, of course, like she was a baby. Another friend of ours from college is still a good friend of mine, and every year we talk on Lucy's birthday. We said, "Oh, Lucy would have been 50; wouldn't she have hated that? Wouldn't that have been the worst thing in the world that could've happened to her, turning 50?" And because of that, I know that turning 50 doesn't seem like anything to me. It's almost like I keep going for both of us, in a way, and I am saying to Lucy in my mind, "It's not bad. 50 is great. 60 is great. Dead, dead is hard, but age isn't hard." I'm sorry, but I have to be very rude at this point, and instead of expressing gratitude for this work you've provided us, I have to ask you, "What's next?" There's nothing rude about that. I'll tell you: I'm going to write a novel. And because now I've written this very personal book, the next novel that I write is going to be the novel that I should've written when I was 25. I really want to write a roman à clef. I really do feel that I have tried so hard not to have any personal, readily identifiable information in my novels. In a way, I'm not sure that it's right. And so why not just write the novel that I spent my whole life trying not to write? That's what I want to do now.
But repression does wonders for art.
Doesn't it? Yeah, but I'm tired of it, too. Again, this is about being 50. I feel that I tried very hard to not ever write anything that would upset my parents. And what I realized is that my parents couldn't care less. They're very proud of me; they're very happy for me, and I don't need to think the way a 14-year-old would think anymore. I can embrace whatever I want to embrace. I can use whatever I want to use.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and to hear a podcast of it — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.