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.
"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
Kristin Tillotson • firstname.lastname@example.org