Writer’s Hands IV, hands of Bel Canto author, Ann Patchett, signing a copy of her latest book, Run, Fitzgerald Theater, downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
On a rainy October night, inside the haunted Fitzgerald Theater, Ann Patchett held the audience rapt. She has created a huge life for herself. A writer’s life. Awed by her confidence and poise, I was surprised to find she is also funny, and witty. Bel Canto was the novel that put her over the top. And earned her the alias, “Opera Girl.” But it was the memoir, Truth & Beauty, that drew me in.
My friend, Teri, read the book for one of Natalie Goldberg’s workshops. Then attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last summer (where much of the book takes place). She suggested I read it. Along with Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face.
Suddenly, it was October, and Teri, Liz, and I grabbed dinner at Mickey’s Diner before walking across Exchange Street into the bustling, sold-out crowd at the Fitzgerald.
We found split seats tucked way in the left corner, right under the balcony. Opening with an airline joke about her lost luggage, Ann Patchett sat across from Kerri Miller wearing black jeans, black boots, and a burnt orange scarf. Casual. It didn’t matter. Her comments on grief and loss stilled the room. It was her grieving process for Lucy that became Truth & Beauty. There was no tour when the book came out. She seemed happy to talk about the healing.
At times, Ann had the audience in stitches. Other moments, there were tears. Later she would joke with us, pose for a few photos, and sign our books. She seemed glad to be there.
I listened with hungry ears. Teri and I nudged each other anytime we heard some snippet of wisdom, another link in the chain of making our way as writers. Liz took notes in the seat behind us (thanks, Liz!). And every once in a while we would explode into laughter at one of Ann’s jokes.
I soaked it all up. What did I learn?
- She doesn’t have to write every day. She has no rituals or rules.
- She doesn’t write between books. She rests.
- After writing her books, she lets them go. She doesn’t read them again. She doesn’t even remember Bel Canto. She’s moved on.
- The idea that’s cookin’ may not be the book at all.
- Writing a novel is about faking it with authority.
- Two words: pen pal. She has close pen pals.
- A new definition of pornography was forged when Clemson University (in South Carolina) strenuously objected to Truth & Beauty being on the freshman class syllabus, claiming it was filled with “pornography.” There was a protest; Ann needed a bodyguard to make her speech.
- Profound, close relationships between two women scare a lot of people.
- Run, Bambi, Run!
- The center cannot hold; the falcon cannot hear the falconer.
- When you write a new book and go on tour, people really want you to talk about the last book because that’s the one they last read. (In this case, the last two books.)
- She met her best friend and writer, Elizabeth McCracken, during the living of Truth & Beauty. She trusts her with her life.
- She writes 98 percent for herself, 2 percent for Elizabeth, and no one else.
- You can’t put love on the scales.
- In her mid 30’s, she had no knowledge of opera, had never been to an opera, had never listened to an opera. But after Bel Canto, when something goes on in the world of opera, The New York Times calls “Opera Girl.”
- Research brings her a lot of joy. She hates magic. Why? Magic is the most misogynist art form in the world
- No experience matches the moment she finished her first published novel, The Patron Saint Of Liars.
- She was two blocks away from the World Trade Center when it went down. She was holding someone’s hand.
The Fitzgerald Theater (Outside), night of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, on MPR’s Talking Volumes, St. Paul, Minnesota, October 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
What I want to say is that Ann was inspiring. She didn’t pull any punches. She was at the same time vulnerable and strong. Very strong. She knows how to take the criticism of her readers, and the country. She mentors others, gives back. But also seems like she guards her time with her life.
The day after we saw her at the Fitz, she flew to Dallas. Or somewhere in the heart of Texas. The tour went on. I smiled when I thought about her missing luggage. I wondered if Run would do well. But I could tell it wouldn’t matter all that much. She’s already moved on. She’s looking in the eyes of a stranger, waiting for the next book. She’s doing what she’s wanted to do since she was 5 years old. She never wavered for a moment. She’s a writer.
In the moment of our death, we are closest to our life. And the person who is with us at that moment is the person that we desperately need. Because they’re the only person who really understands what we’ve been through.
– Ann Patchett, Fitzgerald Theater, October 16th, 2007
Post Script: Don’t take my word for any of this. To hear Ann speak about ichthyology, magic, Bel Canto, bodyguards, Opera Girl (and to find out whose hand she was holding), listen to her talk in its entirety at the link below (you might even recognize a familiar voice during the audience Q&A):
Patchett discussed “Run” with Kerri Miller and the Talking Volumes audience at the Fitzgerald Theater.
Related links you might enjoy:
Seattle Arts and Lectures: Elizabeth McCracken & Ann Patchett
Novelists, 5th Avenue Theatre, January 10, 2000
StarTribune Article on Ann Patchett
Setting Her Own Pace, October 2007
(you may have to register and log in to read)
-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, November 6th, 2007