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An unexpected guest arrives at a christening party with a bottle of gin. An illicit kiss follows soon after. So begins Ann Patchett’s latest novel “Commonwealth.” Like so much of Patchett’s work, it reflects her interest in what happens when people are uprooted and thrown together under new and unfamiliar circumstances. But this work, she says, is her most personal yet – dealing with divorce, its aftermath, and the complicated reality of blended families. The bestselling author of “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder” joins us to talk about her new novel, and why it’s her answer to what’s missing on bookstore shelves today.
- Ann Patchett Author of seven novels, including "Bel Canto," winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize; co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee
Read An Excerpt
MR. A. MARTINEZThanks for joining us. I’m A. Martinez of KPCC's Take Two from Southern California Public Radio. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. Author Ann Patchett likes to take characters out of their comfort zones. The author of "Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder" has often brought her characters to far flung locations around the world, but for her latest, they're closer to home. In her new novel, "Commonwealth," she follows families in California torn apart and then reconfigured by divorce, unfolding their stories bit by bit over 50 years and also echoing elements of her own upbringing.
MR. A. MARTINEZWith us to discuss her new book, "Commonwealth," and the career that's brought her to this point is Ann Patchett. She joins us from a studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Ann, welcome.
MS. ANN PATCHETTThank you.
MARTINEZAnd by the way, we'll be taking all your comments, questions throughout the hour. You can call us at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Or send us an email at email@example.com. Ann, if you could, please start with a little bit from "Commonwealth."
PATCHETTSure thing. I'll tell you what. Let's start at the beginning.
PATCHETTAnd I'll just read the very opening.
MARTINEZBest place to start.
PATCHETTYes. It always makes me want to sing that song from "The Sound of Music." "The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin. Fix was smiling when he opened the door and he kept smiling as he struggled to make the connection. It was Albert Cousins from the district attorney's office standing on the cement slab of his front porch. He'd opened the door 20 times in the last half hour to neighbors and friends and people from church and Beverly's sister and all his brothers and their parents and practically an entire precinct worth of cops.
PATCHETTBut Cousins was the only surprise. Fix had asked his wife two weeks ago why she thought they had to invite every single person they knew in the world to a christening party. And she's asked him if he wanted to look over the guest list and tell her who to cut. He hadn't looked at the list, but if she were standing at the door now, he would've pointed straight ahead and said, him. Not that he disliked Albert Cousins. He didn't know him other than to be able to put a name together with his face.
PATCHETTBut not knowing him was the reason not to invite him. Fix had thought that maybe Cousins had come to his house to talk about a case. Nothing like that had ever happened before, but what else was the explanation. Guests were milling around in the front yard. And whether they were coming late or leaving early or just taking refuge outside because the house was packed beyond what any fire marshal would allow, Fix couldn't say. What he was sure of was that Cousins was there uninvited, alone, with a bottle in a bag."
MARTINEZIsn't that how it works sometimes, Ann?
MARTINEZThe guest at a party that you wonder why they're there are the ones that cause the most trouble.
PATCHETTEspecially when they show up bearing large bottles of gin.
MARTINEZThat, too, yeah, that, too.
PATCHETTYeah, then it's kind of got trouble written all over it.
MARTINEZYeah. And, of course, what follows after that is one moment that really alters two families forever, one little thing that has an impact that lasts over half a century.
PATCHETTYeah. It's true. The opening chapter of this book, it seems like disaster waiting to happen at every turn. And really, there is no disaster. There's just one little drunken kiss between Albert Cousins who arrives with the gin and the host's wife. But then, in fact, it does change the outcome for these two families forever because the kiss, off stage, becomes two divorces and a remarriage and the reconfiguration of these families.
MARTINEZYou were mentioning a song earlier. What's the song? "You Must Remember This, A Kiss Is...
PATCHETTJust a kiss.
MARTINEZWell, not in this case.
PATCHETTA sigh is just a sigh.
PATCHETTMaybe we'll just sing the whole interview.
MARTINEZHow about that?
PATCHETTIt'd be kind of nice.
MARTINEZIf you had to sing something right now on the fly, what would it be?
PATCHETTWell, it would be that because you know the way songs are, as soon as one mentions a song, it's the only song you can hear in your head. Although, I will say I am listening to the soundtrack to "Hamilton."
MARTINEZAre you really?
PATCHETTAround the clock. And really every time there is any singing in my head right now, it's (singing) "Hamilton."
MARTINEZI would sing something, too, Ann, but it's a Prince song and I need a feather boa and they don't have one in the studio, so.
PATCHETTOh, that's a shame.
MARTINEZYeah, we'll have to...
PATCHETTWe could get you one.
MARTINEZ...leave my voice for later. Now, a couple of these -- I mean, these are things, you know, that you mention in the book that you know from your own life. I mean, so why did you write this book now?
PATCHETTYou know, there were a lot of little things figured into it. One is I have always taken great pride in the fact that I don't write autobiographical fiction and that no one in my family would ever be made uncomfortable by any of my novels. But I have also realized, at this point, and this is my seventh novel and my tenth book, that I keep writing the same thing over and over, which is, as you said in your intro, group of strangers thrown together by circumstance.
PATCHETTEven as I am desperately trying not to do that, when I finish the book and I read it, I think, wow, look, there it is. There it is again. "Bel Canto" was like that. You know, a group of people come to a party and then they're taken hostage and so they're stuck in this house with these terrorists for months and months. My last book "State of Wonder" is like that. The person goes to South America, gets trapped with this tribe she doesn’t know anything about.
PATCHETTAnd so, you know, to save myself the expense of psychoanalysis, I looked at my life and thought, well, there I was as a child and my parents got divorced and my mother married somebody with four children and we moved across the country. And then, I was in somebody else's family. So that's probably what it is I’m writing about, except in my previous novels, I have constructed more elaborate costumes so nobody would know what I was doing. And I just thought, you know, I don't know -- I was probably 49 when I started this book and I'm 52 now.
PATCHETTLike, maybe I'm at this point in my life where I should just write what it is I'm always writing about and then maybe I'll be free of it. So we'll see.
MARTINEZWell, wondering 'cause you've said you've written a few other types of situations, strangers desperate sort of -- have you written enough where people that are -- maybe that are real inspirations can't think, oh, that's me? That's me.
PATCHETTRight. Nobody reads my books and thinks that it's them. And really, it never is. I mean, a few times, certainly the vice president in "Bel Canto" was based on my husband, but for the most part, no. I mean, it really is a work of imagination and yet and yet and yet. When I look at all of the books together and break them down, I start to think, yeah, this is just my childhood so why not go ahead and take it on.
MARTINEZSo it's fair to say then, at this point, that all those other books did lead to "Commonwealth"?
PATCHETTYes. It is. And it is very fair to say that all -- each one book that I write leads to the next book so this would be boring and I won't do it, but I could start at the beginning and say, you know, I did this little thing in this book and it made me think about this thing. For one example, in my novel "Run," I have a character who studies ichthyology, which is the study of fish. And I got so interested in science that I thought, okay, now in my next book I want to write about science, just a book about scientists.
PATCHETTSo my last book was a nonfiction book called "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage," which is a collection of essays about commitment, not marriage, per se. But that title story is about the history of divorce in my family and about how that ultimately lead to my marrying the right person after, you know, not doing it right off the bat. And I was terrified when I was writing that essay. It seemed just so scary to write about my own family and real life. And when I was finished with it, I sent it to everyone in my family.
PATCHETTAnd I said, okay, does anybody have any problem with this? And nobody did. Nobody cared at all. And I thought, wow, all my life, I have been so careful to not inconvenience anyone by writing about my own family and they don't care. So -- and I mean that in a good way, like they care about me, they care about my work, but they weren't taking it hard. So I thought, wow, well, maybe I'll just write a book about this.
MARTINEZAnd you've written about marriage and relationships and family. Have you figured it out? Do you know? Because, you know, what -- if you do, please...
PATCHETTOh, sure I do, yeah.
MARTINEZOkay, tell me.
PATCHETTI got it down.
MARTINEZExplain it all to me.
PATCHETTI got it cold. Is there anything you need to know specifically?
MARTINEZYeah. Why are they so complicated? Why are they so stressful?
PATCHETTYou know, I love the play "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder. Probably, I reread "Our Town" three or four times a year because the notion of being a kid who lives next door to the person that you would grow up and marry is so amazing to me and that you would know that person's parents and that everyone in the town would have the same basic moral structure and the same touchstones. How incredible and foreign that notion of "Our Town" is to me.
PATCHETTAnd I think about my husband who's a great guy. I really knocked it out of the park on this husband and we've been together for 22 years. And there are so many things we do differently and we don't agree on and I have to always say to myself, this is a very good man who grew up in a different tribe from the tribe I grew up in. We watched different television -- he didn't watch television. We had different life experiences. He's a good bit older than I am. We come from, I mean, almost different generations.
PATCHETTAnd what he's doing isn't wrong and what I am doing isn't wrong or right. We just come from completely different backgrounds. And that has really, really helped me in terms of just accepting someone because that's got to be the key to being in a family or in a marriage, that you can look at someone and say, you're different from me and I love you for who you are and I am not going to try and pull out the thread of the thing I don't like about you for fear of completely unraveling you like a tapestry.
MARTINEZComing up, more of our conversation with Ann Patchett. Her new novel is "Commonwealth." I'm A. Martinez. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARTINEZWelcome back. I'm A. Martinez of Take Two on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're speaking with Ann Patchett. Her new novel is called "Commonwealth." Ann, I mentioned that I'm from Southern California Public Radio. You're a Californian at heart, that's your native state. The heart of this novel is set in California. Why now returning to the Golden State?
PATCHETTI do so love California. Where are you, exactly?
MARTINEZLos Angeles. I was born in Koreatown, and I work in Pasadena.
PATCHETTFabulous, okay. Well, I was born at Queen of the Angels Hospital and lived in Glendale, and my father was LAPD for 33 years.
PATCHETTI have an uncle who was in the fire department and an uncle who was a DA for L.A. County, I should say an ADA for L.A. County, and yeah, we have a deep history of civil service for Los Angeles.
MARTINEZYeah, Los Angeles tends to be, I think, especially in the entertainment business, especially, I guess, in the '50s and '60s, overlooked a little bit because the center of the universe, we all know, is New York City. At least New Yorkers love to think that. I'll argue with them on that one. But yeah, when I was reading it, I was really pleased to see that it was set in California, in Torrance, a city that I know well.
PATCHETTThere you go. I love California, and it's interesting, I left California, my parents got divorced, my mother drove across country with me and my sister, and we moved to Tennessee. We got here the week before I turned six. And it's fascinating to me the extent to which Southern California imprinted on me as home in that short period of time.
MARTINEZEven that young, wow.
PATCHETTYeah, and every time I go back, I have this sense of relief, like this is the color the sky is supposed to be, this is the air is supposed to feel, the freeway is supposed to -- well for one it's supposed to be called a freeway and not an interstate but it's supposed to be wide like this, and these are the trees, and these are the hills. It's -- it really is a place that I think of as home, which is strange.
PATCHETTI went back and forth my whole life to Southern California, but I really never lived there again for any extended period of time. But it's a magic place, and I -- I always think that people malign Los Angeles because they're jealous of it. It's kind of like the most beautiful girl in school that you trash-talk because you're just -- you're so incredulous that so much beauty and so many wonderful things could have landed in one person or one state.
MARTINEZYeah, the most beautiful girl in school would never even look at me, so I never had to worry about being...
PATCHETTI find that very hard to believe, A., and it's radio, so, you know...
MARTINEZBut you know what? It's funny that you mention about Southern California being trash-talked because this book has to do with kids and moving around and everything. But a lot of people say, oh, I'd never raise my kids in Los Angeles or in Southern California, as if it's some kind of thing that will put toxic energy in their heads and change them forever. But you actually had a little bit of experience growing up here. How do you compare that to moving around? And in your book, how do you put the children in these similar situations?
PATCHETTWell, it's interesting about growing up in Southern California and putting your kids in school in Southern California because I have to say I left gorgeous, sunny heaven, Southern California, and wound up in a very gothic, Catholic girls' school in the cold, drizzling rain, and I really do believe that I studied a lot harder and that it would be so much harder to get a great education in Southern California because you've got the beach, you've got so many places to go if you're going to blow off school. If you're going to blow off school in Nashville, where are you going to go? Down the street? You know, it's raining. You might as well just go back to school.
PATCHETTSo I think that dismal climates and dismal environments do, in fact, produce a higher level of education.
MARTINEZWould you have been a writer if you grew up in Southern California, all the way through?
PATCHETTSure, yes, absolutely, absolutely. I am always -- oh, irritated is too strong a word, but especially in the South, Southerners like to believe that it is because they are Southern that they write the way they do. And I think that if Faulkner had grown up in Torrance, he would have still been Faulkner. I mean, maybe he would've written about different things, but I don't think that writers are made by geography. I think they draw from their geography, but it's not like I would have been a neurosurgeon had I stayed in Los Angeles.
MARTINEZYou would -- well, in Los Angeles maybe a plastic surgeon, how about that?
PATCHETTThat's right, that's right, I wouldn't have been a novelist, I would be shooting people with Botox right now.
MARTINEZSomething like that, something like that. Tell us about the way this novel is constructed. I mean, it goes back and forth through time, recollections of different family members over a span of 50 years. I mean, you really -- you really went deep into this -- into this family and what they went through.
PATCHETTYeah, I'm kind of obsessed with time both as a writer and as a person. And my novels had become more and more constricted. It seemed like three or four months was as long as any Patchett novel was going to cover. So one of the things I really wanted to do in this book was bust out the time. I wanted to write a birth-to-death novel, which is very, very hard to do, and there are very few great ones out there. Carol Shields' "The Stone Diaries" is my favorite. I loved Liz Gilbert's "The Signature of All Things." This novel did not make it birth to death. It starts at a christening, so it starts with a baby, not a birth.
PATCHETTAnd it almost ends, not with the baby's death because that's what the birth-to-death novel would have to do, it would have to follow one life, but it almost ends with the death of the father although not quite. He doesn't quite make it out. So I really -- it was so important to me to cover a lot of time and stretch myself in that way. If you're covering -- if I am covering 50-some-odd years in a book, to do it linearly just shows up all of the things that you're leaving out. This book is about 320 pages, I think, and I did not want it to be 1,600 pages.
PATCHETTSo what happens if you have to skip around in time so that what you're leaving out makes more sense. For example the book opens with a kiss. It does not show, then, the disintegration of the two marriages, the affair, the remarriage, it just skips ahead in time because it's all about trusting the reader and saying okay...
MARTINEZYou'll figure it out, right, yeah.
PATCHETTI'm going to show you this, I'm going to show you that, and I'm going to ask you to do the work of what happened in the middle.
MARTINEZHave you gotten to a point where you trust your readers that much? I mean, that's exactly what -- the sense that I got, in that look, you don't need to tell me all the little, you know, salacious details of how it all went from that kiss to these families breaking up. Do your readers, do you think, trust you that way, and you trust them back?
PATCHETTI trust my readers. I mean, I think people are smart. And I also think that people should be required in literary fiction to do a certain amount of work. It shouldn't all be wrapped up and handed to the reader. But the interesting thing about trusting the reader is then it becomes a relationship where I bring half, and the reader brings half, and that's why with every book there are people who love the book, and there are going to be people who hate the book because if you're trusting the reader to bring in their own baggage, then the book is absolutely going to be a different thing every time, and it's also why, this is so interesting to me, there are books that you read in different times in your life, and you love that book, or you hate that book, and the book doesn't change, you change.
PATCHETTI used to love "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
PATCHETTI read it again a couple of years ago, I didn't love it anymore. I re-read, oh may God forgive me, "To Kill a Mockingbird," which I think is an astonishing book to read in eighth grade, but it didn't work for me when I read it as an adult. On the other hand, I tried...
MARTINEZBut why, why? We're told those books are timeless.
PATCHETTYou know, they are, they are absolutely timeless, and any eighth grader who reads that book is going to love that book, and I'm sure there are people pulling out their phones right now to dial me up for this blasphemy. I could never read "Moby Dick." I tried to read "Moby Dick" until I was 30, 35 probably. I would get 100 pages in and just think, I can't do this, I can't do this. And then when I was 35, I read "Moby Dick," and it was in fact the best book in the world.
PATCHETTAyn Rand, if you ever meet anybody over the age of, say, 14 who tells you how great an Ayn Rand novel is, just ask for the check and walk slowly to the door.
MARTINEZThat's a lot of people because lately, you know, a lot of people have said that exact thing, and that, you know, they're over 14 years old, and they love it.
MARTINEZAnd now that I've got your perspective on it, and all of a sudden it changes the way I see them, maybe.
PATCHETTYeah, yeah, I mean, there are just -- there are tons of books that you want to read, you want to read "The Catcher in the Rye," you want to read "Confederacy of Dunce." When you're young, they're brilliant, wonderful books, but those are not stories for your 50s.
MARTINEZLet's go out to Alan in Little Rock, Arkansas. Alan, you're on the Diane Rehm Show.
ALANOh my gosh, you've just said too much. I'm try to be quick. Thank you for saying that about Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand, I couldn't agree more. I read "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" just to say I did it...
MARTINEZJust to say you did.
ALANAnd having heard Alan Greenspan, who said it was his favorite book. Now I know why the economy tanked.
PATCHETTExactly. And Paul Ryan, too, I mean just -- anyway, yeah.
ALANThey didn't read the whole thing. And I've got to tell you, you both have great radio voices. I'm a retired classical singer.
ALANSo it's a pleasure to listen to you both. But no, I want to say I went through a devastating divorce a few years ago, and my psychiatrist recommended I take a writing class because I needed to vent, and he knew how much I liked -- I'm a personal letter writer. So he said just try taking a writing class. So anyway, for five years I've been writing a novel, and my classmate said, well, you've got to submit (unintelligible) to a competition. So I submitted to a competition online, and five years of my life I put into this.
ALANAnd you were just talking about, you know, not basing your characters on friends and family.
ALANAnd mine are loosely, very loosely based on friends and family, and they basically are, you know, about a man in, you know, in midlife just sort of figuring out what went wrong.
PATCHETTIt's your Roman à clef.
ALANExactly, and my classmates loved it. But I came in next to last in this -- in the competition. All they said was, you know, it had no arc, you know, it had no -- I can't remember what they said, but...
PATCHETTCan I give you a piece of advice?
PATCHETTWould you like some advice? Okay, here it goes. I'm really glad you're doing this. I'm really, really glad you're writing and that you're sticking with it. But here's the thing. You write, and you learn, and you throw it away, and you write, and you learn, and you throw it away, and you keep going and going and going, and that's how you grow. You can't go back and just fix the one thing that you're working on.
PATCHETTSo it's really important that you wrote this book, but you've got to think about it like playing the cello. You don't spend five years playing the cello and think you're going to go to Carnegie Hall. You just learn those lessons, take them forward, keep writing, keep working on it.
MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And if you'd like to join us, give us a call at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Or you can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Ann, if you could, could you read a little bit more from "Commonwealth" and set it up for us a little bit?
PATCHETTYeah, sure. So this is a part of a scene -- the kids, when there are six kids together, so the new father has four kids, the new mother has two kids, and when they spend the summers together, the parents tend to disappear and leave the six kids on their own, and they get in enormous amounts of trouble.
PATCHETTWhen they got there, the five of them swam out farther than they ever would have been allowed to had the parents been with them. Franny and Jeannette went to look for caves and were taught to fish by two men they met standing off by themselves in a grove of trees on the shore. Cal stole a package of Ho-Hos from the bait shop and had no need to use the gun in the paper bag because no one saw him do it. Caroline and Holly climbed to the top of a high rock and leapt into the lake below again and again and again, until they were too tired to climb anymore, too tired to swim.
PATCHETTAll of them were sunburned, but they lay in the grass to dry because none of them had thought to bring a towel. And the drying off was boring to them, and so they decided to head back. Their timing turned out to be perfect. Albee was awake, but he was just sitting there in the field, quiet and confused amid the Coke cans, trying not to cry. He didn't ask them where they had been or where he was. He just got up and followed in the line behind them as they passed. He was sunburned, as well.
PATCHETTIt was just past 2:00 in the afternoon. The most amazing thing of all was that the minutes after they came back to the Pinecone Motel and stretched out across the beds in the girls' room, in their damp swimsuits to watch television, the parents knocked on the door, bashful and apologetic. They couldn't believe how long they'd slept. They had no idea how tired they must have been. They would take everyone to the movies and out for pizza in order to make it up to them.
PATCHETTThe parents seemed not to notice the swimsuits or the sunburns, the mosquito bites. The Cousins children and the Keating children smiled up with beatific forgiveness. They had done everything they had ever wanted to do. They had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone. It was like for the rest of the summer. It was like that every summer when the six of them were together, not that the days were always fun, most of them weren't, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.
MARTINEZNever got caught. Well, this is always the part, Ann, when it comes to books where I try my best not to spoil things.
PATCHETTDon't spoil things, yeah. Well actually it doesn't matter because every review who has come out so far has completely spoiled. There's, like, only one secret in this book, and it's always spoiled. So knock yourself out.
MARTINEZI'm going to try my best not to. I'm going to try and dance on that line. Since I'm not going to sing, I'm going to try and dance right here.
PATCHETTOkay, that's good, dance is great on the radio.
MARTINEZWhen you say never got caught, that's not necessarily true, is it? I mean, getting caught can mean a lot of things.
PATCHETTYeah, I know what you're saying. Okay, here, I'm going to drive the conversation in a different direction. Yeah, what you're saying is it is not without cost. It -- the fun they have does not ultimately come without cost. But one of the things that I have really found with this book is a lot of the people that have interviewed me before the book came out, really young, a lot younger than I am, as most people are, and they -- they're so horrified by these parents and the way these children go out and have fun and get in trouble and get themselves out of it.
PATCHETTBut it was the '70s. It was the late '60s, it was the '70s, and we were all like free-range chickens back then. You know, our parents and the parents of all my friends, just put us out in the morning and said, you know, knock yourself out, have a good day.
MARTINEZAnd movies and pizza typically buys off any kid anytime, any point in history, yeah.
PATCHETTThat's right, that's right.
MARTINEZComing up, we'll take your calls for Ann Patchett. You can give us a call at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll be right back.
MARTINEZWelcome back. I'm A. Martinez of "Take Two," on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm speaking with Ann Patchett. Her new novel is called, "Commonwealth." And, Ann, I got a couple of questions for you, an email from someone named Ann. "I've read almost all of your books. Why has "Bel Canto" not been put on the big screen or created as a miniseries in this new golden age of TV? It is so visual and compelling."
PATCHETTWow. Didn't you ask that question at the right time. The people who have the option for "Bel Canto" have had it for 15 years and…
MARTINEZWhat? Fifteen years?
MARTINEZOh, maybe they're waiting for Netflix and Amazon.
MARTINEZ…to have their own studios or something.
PATCHETTI am so over it. It has almost happened so many times. And the good news is -- let's start with the good news.
PATCHETTIt was made into an opera last fall by the Chicago Lyric Opera. And they did a beautiful job. And it will be on PBS, the opera will be -- it's been filmed. It'll be on PBS sometime in the early part of next year. Now, the movie, which keeps almost happening and then not happening -- and I have said I want -- I just don't even want to hear about it anymore. I don't even want to know.
PATCHETTBut last week I got a bunch of emails from people saying that there had been some press release that it was going to be a movie and that Paul Weitz was directing it and that Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe were starring in it. And to which I say, gosh, well, it's almost like gossip.
MARTINEZThose are good names and those are good…
PATCHETTIt's like hearing gossip. I'm like, yeah, whatever. Until I can open up my local newspaper in Nashville and see an ad for "Bel Canto" the movie and go and buy a ticket, I am -- I'm actually not gonna believe that this is happening.
MARTINEZAll right. Then I'm gonna put a scenario right in front of you.
MARTINEZIf you could choose a movie, a film, out in theaters, will all the bells and whistles or an HBO-style, Showtime-style miniseries, what would you prefer?
PATCHETTI would prefer a bestselling novel, thank you very much. One of the many strange things about me is I have almost no relationship to screens. So I don't watch television. And I mean ever, under any circumstances. I don't have any social media. I don't text. I don't have a cellphone. I don't, yeah, I'm really out of the loop.
MARTINEZAnn, we got to hook you up, Ann.
MARTINEZWe got to get you tweeting.
PATCHETTSo HBO, I actually don't have any knowledge. Like, I stopped…
PATCHETT…watching television before HBO was invented. And movies, I don't know. I write books. And I actually have stopped selling my books to movies. Which is something I used to do. But the whole thing with "Bel Canto" has been so endless that I just thought, forget it. I'm out, I'm out.
MARTINEZSo why no relationship to the screen? I mean, that's such a big part of everyone's life. You walk around any city, people are looking at a screen. And they're not looking where they're going. So why don't you like the screen so much?
PATCHETTWhy? Because you walk around any city and people are looking at a screen. And they don't know…
MARTINEZOkay. Throw that right back at me.
PATCHETT…where they're going. I mean, isn't that the question is the answer embedded in it? I feel like I am in a zombie movie and I am the only one who didn't drink the Kool-Aid. It's just insane. Of all the ways I hope I don't die, I so sincerely hope that I am not run over by someone who is texting. Because it just -- it would be heartbreaking if I was taken out in the one activity I don't participate in.
MARTINEZI already know that I'll be making a last-minute switch on my fantasy football team and a bus will have my name on it. That's -- I already know, Ann, that's exactly what's gonna happen to me. I'm telling you.
PATCHETTI, yeah, I know. And that's sort of how I feel, too. But I just I don't want it to be the case.
MARTINEZLet's go out to Fabien in Burlington, N.C. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
FABIANHi. My question is that I've been writing -- I think a lot of people write for different reasons, for therapies, for self-expression. But I think there's a huge difference between writing something that's writing and writing something that's worth reading. And I'd like to get your thoughts on how you transition from writing for yourself to writing for other people.
PATCHETTOkay. The book that I wrote last, this is the story of a happy marriage. And I'm not trying to sell you books. Go and get it from the library. There is a very, very long essay in that book called "The Getaway Car." It's about 60 pages long. And it is every single piece of writing advice that I have in the world. Because so many people have asked me questions like this and I just thought, I'm gonna bring it all together.
PATCHETTSo for the long answer, for the 60-page answer, get a copy of that book and read "The Getaway Car." The short, immediate answer would be, it's time and practice. And, again, I will go back to the cello. A lot of people play the cello because they find joy in the music and in the practice, in the discipline and in the rehearsing. And maybe they play with a little group, maybe they only play for themselves.
PATCHETTThere are very few people who are gonna go on and be Yo-Yo Ma. People who play cello seem to really understand that. The difference is people who write, because we all write and we all think in terms of stories. It's very painful when our writing doesn't then become our career. And all I can say is what you are doing is extremely important. It makes you a better, smarter person.
PATCHETTIt makes you a better reader. It makes you -- I really believe -- more empathetic and compassionate. And just keep writing and working hard at it for yourself. And believe me, if you get to the point where you should be publishing the stories in "The New Yorker," you will know and you will be sending them to "The New Yorker," and they will know as well.
MARTINEZAnd how did you know when you were writing things that were more than just worth writing and worth reading instead?
PATCHETTYou know, I was actually sort of a freaky little child prodigy. And I sold my first story to "The Paris Review" when I was in college, when I was 19. So…
MARTINEZOh, 19, wow.
PATCHETTYeah, I am not a good role model for people who have perseverance. Now…
MARTINEZIt's like asking Michael Jordan, how do you dunk, Michael Jordan?
MARTINEZI just do it.
PATCHETTThat said, you know, my life had a lot of twists, as everyone's life has twists. And I was teaching in college and then I was a waitress at a TGI Friday's when I was 25. And I really asked myself, if this is my life, if for the rest of my life I am waiting tables at TGI Friday's and going home at night and writing short stories, is that okay.
PATCHETTAnd the answer was yes, because I loved writing. It was who I was. It is who I am. And it was a great privilege to be able to do it. I know it's kind of like, wow, easy for me to say that now. but I really, really believe, and I believed at the time, if I was gonna be a waitress for the rest of my life it was all right, as long as I could keep writing for myself.
MARTINEZSo you were a waitress. Franny, who -- that's the baby that was christened at the start of the book and who we follow.
PATCHETTRight. There you go.
MARTINEZShe's a waitress, right?
PATCHETTShe's a waitress. What a crazy coincidence.
MARTINEZSo I -- I know. I'm wondering, I mean, how much of Franny is you?
PATCHETTWell, the funny thing is there's a good bit of Franny that is me, but also I am -- I am also the character of the novelist in the book, Leo Posen. So Franny has an affair with a very famous novelist.
MARTINEZWith -- you're having one with yourself, is what you're saying.
PATCHETTYeah, I am both sides of the affair.
PATCHETTSo I am the person who tells the story and I am the person who writes the story. And I, again, I am saving a fortune in therapy by working all of this out at home.
MARTINEZOr you're about to get -- or some therapist down the line is gonna get a big bill from you, or you're gonna -- he or she's gonna hand you a big bill after what you've written.
PATCHETTOr the next caller is going to be a therapist who's gonna say, Ann, it's time to come on it. Come on, come on, honey, come on it.
MARTINEZThat's true. Let's go out to Tom in New Braunfels, Texas. Tom?
MARTINEZGo ahead, Tom.
TOMHello, hello. So, Ann, tell me how you feel.
MARTINEZThere you go.
MARTINEZ$500 for a minute's work, Ann.
TOMI'll take some advice instead. I -- you mentioned earlier about certain books being better for certain ages. I am…
TOM…52 and read…
TOMWell, hey. I read…
MARTINEZI hear a connection.
TOMThere you go. Well, it's about to end.
TOMI read very, very little as -- in teens and twenties and thirties. Anyway, I would like -- and I'm -- and on top of that I plan on going back to school next spring and I want to -- and with aspirations of becoming a writer. So I would like you to suggest a few books and a few places to kind of get started there.
PATCHETTWell, one, very proud of you for going back to school. I think that is terrific. And when I used to teach, the best students I ever had were always the people who came back to school later because they knew what education was worth and they worked really hard. And I think it's a fantastic thing that you're doing.
MARTINEZAnd they've been through things, too, right? I mean, they've been through life.
PATCHETTYeah, so they've got something to write about.
PATCHETTYeah, I mean, sometimes when you're 19 and you're just -- got a nice dorm room, there's not a whole lot to write about. So the first book that I would recommend is Stephen King's book on writing, which is just a terrific book. I have to say Stephen King is way too scary for me. And I don't read horror. This book is brilliant. He gives all sorts of advice, much of which I don't agree with in the same way he wouldn't agree with mine. And that's the beautiful thing about writing, everybody comes at it from a different place.
PATCHETTBut it really is about finding your story. And it's incredibly entertaining. And if you can get it on audio, he reads it himself. After that I would say start reading in every possible direction and just read while you're wide awake. Read with an awareness of the books and how they make you feel. I don't know what kind of books you like. It's never too late to start reading. But, you know, read some Dickens, read David Copperfield. Just feel what it's like to have a really amazing story pull you along.
PATCHETTThere are also so many great books that have come out this year. Books like Elizabeth Strout's "My Name is Lucy Barton," and Louise Erdrich's "La Rose." Michael Chabon has a terrific book coming out in the fall. I mean, just start to pick up everything you can get your hands on and have that sense of awareness of how are they making me feel. Colson Whitehead's "Underground Railroad." I can recommend books to you all day long.
MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to go back, Ann, to what you mentioned. Okay. So Franny is a little bit of you, but also the writer that she falls in love with, the much older man that she falls in love with, a little bit of you. With that character, you know, he seduces a younger woman and it almost seems like a stereotype. And this is one of the toughest things I have when I defend Woody Allen movies, 'cause I'm a big Woody Allen fan…
PATCHETTYeah, me, too.
MARTINEZ…about the older, much older guy seducing a much younger woman. Are you trying to make any kind of statement with him? But now that we know he's a little bit of you, too, I'm wondering what statement you're making about yourself.
PATCHETTI don't know what the statement is, but I also don't know that he is seducing her. Because she is just stone-cold crazy about him. She has adored him forever. And when I was 21 years old and I was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and those incredibly famous, venerable, drunk, long-winded, elder writers…
MARTINEZDid it help that they were drunk, Ann?
PATCHETT…who I worshiped came in, I never had a shot. I was not that girl. I never, never had a shot. But oh, had I had a shot, A., I would have taken it. So it works both ways.
MARTINEZOh, please give us a name. Please one name, two names, please. I mean, it's the past, who cares.
PATCHETTAll right. Well, I will say while I was at the Iowa's Writers' Workshop Saul Bellow never came. Saul Bellow never came to the Iowa's Writers' Workshop, but the extent to it -- nor did John Updike, nor did Phillip Roth. The extent to which I was blindly in love with those three men in my 20s and would have embarrassed myself to no end, I -- because I'd read all their books.
PATCHETTI mean, those were my huge influences when I was coming along. And also three writers that I still just love. I was doing a book signing down in Mississippi last week and they had a signed first edition of "Rabbit is Rich." I am not a person -- I own a bookstore. I could care less about signed first editions. I bought it just to have that giant Updike novel in my hands. You know what I'm saying there, A.?
MARTINEZBut see, Ann, yeah, but see I -- okay. See, I feel that same way about Diane Keaton. Because I just love her in "Annie Hall," love her in "Manhattan," love her in a bunch of Woody Allen movies. And I'm wondering, like, if I were ever in the same room I might, you know, wink at her a little bit, but I, you know, I wouldn't be so bold as to do anything real in that moment, though. You really think you would have gone for it back then?
PATCHETTNo. No, I wouldn't.
PATCHETTI went to Catholic school for 12 years. I was a total mouse. But that's why it's so important to write novels, so you can live out your early fantasies through fiction.
MARTINEZYeah, that works. That works.
MARTINEZWondering -- so what -- okay. You got "Commonwealth." What's coming up down the road for you? I mean, what do you see yourself doing after "Commonwealth?" What kind of things can we expect?
PATCHETTI can tell you. I see myself waking up tomorrow morning and getting on an airplane and going to see America. I am starting a huge book tour tomorrow morning. If you wonder where I'll be, go to AnnPatchett.com and you can just see. 'Cause I will be coming to a city near you. And when that book tour is over in late October -- my husband's a doctor. I'm hoping he will give me a glucose drip I.V. and then I'll just sleep for a month. And when I wake up I'll write another novel.
MARTINEZWhat do you hope people get out of "Commonwealth?"
PATCHETTI just hope they enjoy it. I really do. I mean, everybody -- I hope that everybody gets something different out of it because everyone will bring something different to it.
MARTINEZAnd why do you think -- real quick. I wanted to squeeze this in. Why do you think this is what's been missing on bookstore shelves?
PATCHETTBecause I read so many terrific books about marriage and divorce and family. And it just always seems like they have one kid. It's an only child marrying an only child and they have one kid. And maybe the story is covered for, again, three or four months. And that's not my experience, nor is it the experience of people that I know. Families, these days, are giant and messy and do you invite your ex-husband's third wife to the Christmas pageant, you know. It just goes on forever. And I really wanted to write one of those families. And I think I did.
MARTINEZYeah, you certainly did. Ann Patchett, her new novel is "Commonwealth." Ann, thank you very much. It's been an eye-opening and ear-opening hour for me.
PATCHETTI had such a good time talking to you. Maybe I'll see you in Los Angeles.
MARTINEZOh, please, let's make it a date, our -- both of our hometowns.
PATCHETTAll right. Take care.
MARTINEZAll right. Thank you very much. That's Ann Patchett. Her new novel is called "Commonwealth." I'm A. Martinez of "Take Two," on KPCC, Southern California Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you very much for listening.
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