Behind Ann Patchett's beautiful fiction, including her new novel, "Run," is a calm, deliberate and outspoken woman who is content to explore the world from her low-profile perch.
NASHVILLE -- Ask a random local in downtown Nashville or a salesperson at the Country Music Hall of Fame gift shop whether he or she has ever read a book by fellow resident Ann Patchett, and you're likely to get the same one-word answer in a Tennessee twang: "Who?"
For an author whose breakout novel, "Bel Canto," became the choice of book clubs nationwide (including Oprah's), and who has won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship, Patchett keeps a low profile.
Or perhaps she's just living in the wrong town for a literary notable.
"When you say you're a writer in Nashville, they ask, 'What kind of music?'" said Patchett, curled up on the living room sofa in the house she shares with her husband, internist Karl VanDevender. Next to her lay Rose, her "parking-lot terrier," a small, white dog whose baleful brown eyes suggest both protectiveness and "here we go again" ennui.
Patchett, who will discuss her new novel, "Run," as a Talking Volumes guest Oct. 16, has set books in Peru, Los Angeles and Boston, yet never in the city she has called home for most of her 43 years.
"I can't know a place too well," she said. "I get too distracted by the facts. No room left for the imagination."
So is it safe to say she defies the rule "Write what you know"?
"If I followed that, I would write the most boring book in the world," she said. "I'm a happy, wholesome person with good habits -- hardly good material."
She looks the part. Framed by a sandy-brown bob, Patchett's face is smooth and youthful, save for a few laugh lines at the corners of her eyes and a faded scar beneath her lower lip. Spend a little time with her and it's no surprise she was so unfazed by the acclaim for "Bel Canto," a paperback bestseller about a group of diplomats, executives and an opera singer held hostage by terrorists.
"I'm not very vulnerable to the world's opinion. I'm like a turtle who drops her egg in the sand and keeps going. The idea that I had to repeat a performance or live up to something -- it didn't affect me at all. If I never write another book, the world is going to be just fine.
"When I write a book, it's entirely for myself. I'm telling myself a story that I want to hear. It's very private. There's a great freedom in writing fiction, because no one's watching."
Yet she calls her one nonfiction book -- "Truth and Beauty," a painful memoir about her friendship with troubled writer Lucy Grealy -- the easiest she's ever written. Grealy, with whom Patchett roomed at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, gained fame for "Autobiography of a Face," her book about living with deformity. Grealy died in 2002 of a heroin overdose, and not long after, Patchett began the memoir.
"I wrote it in bed," she said. "For three weeks, on a cookie sheet, with all of my notes scattered around me. Everyone left me alone, because I was working. If I went back now and tried to write it, I would be careful and guarded. I didn't want to simplify her in any way."
Accepting no boundaries
"Run," Patchett's fifth book and first novel since "Bel Canto," is about a former mayor of Boston, a white man who had adopted two black boys with his late wife. One snowy night the boys, now young men, attend a Jesse Jackson speech with their father. After the event, a car accident brings together the disparate lives of strangers -- a common Patchett theme.
While three hot-button topics in American life -- race, religion and politics -- anchor the plot of "Run," Patchett said "they're just there, part of the bigger picture."It's strange that if you write about black people in America, you're doing something bold. No one ever said about 'Bel Canto,' 'How can you write about Peruvian guerrillas or Japanese businessmen?' That seems nuts to me. No one's allowed to draw lines on my imagination. They can criticize me passionately if they think I didn't do a good job, but no one can say who I can write about."
They can, however, react negatively to her work -- and they do.
Patchett's easygoing life was interrupted briefly in 2006, when an influential alumnus of Clemson University in South Carolina strenuously objected to "Truth and Beauty" being on the freshman class syllabus, claiming it was filled with "pornography" (possibly referring to Patchett's depiction of the two friends' fondness for each other as well as mentions of Grealy's increasing promiscuity). Things spiraled from there into a protest; Patchett even traveled with a bodyguard to make a prearranged speech there. She wrote about the experience in Atlantic magazine's 2007 fiction issue.