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Continued: Setting her own pace

"It doesn't take very many angry people to make a big angry deal out of something," she said.

Stitching up metaphors

"Run" contains vivid descriptions of what it's like to be in a hospital: "The emergency room was like a casino. ... It existed in a state of perpetual fluorescence that was meant to represent neither day nor night. It was a jar of alcohol solution in which time had been suspended."I have spent a lot of time in hospitals," she explained. "I've been stitched up every place, lots of reassembly. I was just one of those kids."

In fact, Patchett was in a serious car accident on Cumberland River Road in Nashville when she was 9. She broke bones in her face and bit part of her lower lip off, going through several surgeries before she was healed.

"There's a stitch motif in all my books. Someone always has to get stitches. It's a wonderful metaphor."

Due to her vivid description of the guerrilla leader who had painful shingles in "Bel Canto," people often think she must have had it, as well.

"No," she said with a laugh. "If I can write about evolutionary biology and ichthyology, I can write about anything."

Patchett's mother, Jeanne Ray, walked into the kitchen loaded down with produce from the farmers market; she and her husband are living in the basement while their own house nearby is being renovated. A former nurse, Ray began writing at age 60. "I was my mother's personal trainer," Patchett said. "I wouldn't let her get up from the computer till she'd finished Chapter 3." Her first book, "Julie and Romeo," became a bestseller.

Ray, in turn, was Patchett's matchmaker, introducing her to VanDevender. Their two-story house, on a tree-lined block in the stately Richland Area neighborhood, is filled with eclectic art, from standing Japanese screens and classic portraits to a folk-style painting of a picnic. A complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary and a collection of Audubon Society nature books line the walls on either side of the TV, which only gets turned on when there's a Titans football game, Patchett said. "Those books are Karl's," she added. "I have trouble hanging onto books because I always give the ones I really like away."

Late reader, early writer

Born in Los Angeles, Patchett was 6 when she and her older sister moved to Nashville with their mother, who had divorced their policeman father. She recalls her first experiences in the music capital were "of the Lemony Snicket type," as she struggled to adjust to being plopped somewhere new. Patchett, who knew she wanted to be a writer at 5, didn't learn to read until she was nearly 8, which she attributes to the family's upheaval.

"When I said I wanted to be a writer, I probably meant that I wanted to know how to write letters," she said.

As an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence, Patchett studied under Grace Paley, Allan Gurganus and Russell Banks. "I was so open to being stamped then," she said, counting that experience -- being taught for a year by each writer with weekly one-on-one sessions -- as a far greater influence than her grad-school years at the University of Iowa.

Her first published story, for the Paris Review, was titled "All Little Colored Children Should Learn to Play the Harmonica," about a boy who was urged to switch to the violin but decided to stick with his instrument.

"I wish you hadn't asked me about that," she said. "My gosh, did I have guts at 19. At some point, I regretted the title being so aggressively in your face."

All of Patchett's books have been optioned for film, but thus far only one, "The Patron Saint of Liars," has made it to the screen, as a cable-television film starring Dana Delaney. At one time or another, "Bel Canto" was going to be a film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, an Andrew Lloyd Weber opera at the Met and a stage play -- "everything but the ballet and finger-puppet rights," she said.

Kasi Lemmons, director of Don Cheadle's "Talk to Me," has shown interest in "Run."My past experience has taught me to be so deeply zen" about film projects, she said. "But I'm like Charlie Brown with the football. I want to get this done."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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