A Conversation with Ann Patchett

Before our exciting world premiere of Bel Canto on December 7, author Ann Patchett graciously took time out of her whirlwind evening to talk with us.  

Ms. Patchett is not only a novelist, but owner of the independent bookstore Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives.  Parnassus Books currently has five shop dogs (one belonging to each member of the staff).  Ann’s is named Sparkman “Sparky” VanDevender.

 

After explaining that our newsletter is overwhelmingly read by other musicians, we asked if there was anything Ms. Patchett wanted to say to our readership:

 

God bless you and keep you!  Really, being a novelist is a strange, endangered thing to be, being the owner of an independent bookstore, very strange and endangered.  It’s so weird, because on one hand it’s incredibly competitive…because the world gets smaller and smaller, and the people who have those spots are better and better…but it’s got to be very similar to being in an orchestra.  There’s simultaneously that feeling that the orchestra could vanish, I could lose my job, and there are two thousand people who want my spot. So nobody’s reading fiction, but there are eighty five MFA programs graduating people who want to be novelists.  I feel like a lemming sometimes, getting pushed from the back by all the other lemmings…so I have a great sense of compassion and solidarity.  Also – stick with it, because what you’re doing, like what I’m doing, feels very, very essential to the survival of the human race.  And this is of course what Bel Canto is all about, but I actually, freakishly, believe that is the path to salvation.  That the kindness, the calmness, the higher cultural watermark is our chance at survival.

 

Is this the first time you’ve been to the Lyric, around this production?

 

Yes, because I came up two weeks ago, to see the rehearsal, to do the PBS spot with Renée, and then to do the onstage conversation at the library, and my plane was six and a half hours late so I missed it.  So I have not seen one second or heard one note, which is kind of great…I have been completely hands off, as I believe is appropriate.  When this whole thing launched and I came up,  I said to Jimmy and Nilo, if I can help you, and I cannot imagine how I could help you, but if I can help you, if you want to talk about anything, I’m here for you, give me a call, and if I can help you more by not helping you, I’ll see you opening night.

 

That wasn’t hard for you to do?

 

No. When I finish a book I never care about it again. I never think about it.

 

How wonderful!

 

Well, I mean, if you finish an opera, and then you go on to the next opera, are you pining for Rosenkavalier when you’re playing Bel Canto?

 

Sometimes I’m kicking myself for what I did or didn’t do.

 

In the last piece you played?

 

Yes…

 

Time to be a better Buddhist.

 

You’re right…but I don’t think I’m unusual in that.  I think a lot of musicians have a hard time letting go.

 

I’ve got no problems letting go.  And I care passionately about what I am doing, in the moment, in the project I am working on, but it’s so hard for me to go backwards, because it’s just NOT INTERESTING!  I can’t do anything, I can’t learn anything, it’s not interesting. Everybody’s been saying, oh, this must be so exciting for you, this must be so amazing, and it is, it’s lovely, I’m very happy, I’m very honored, but this has nothing to do with me.  I mean this has to do with Renée, and Antony, Jimmy and Nilo, and Sir Andrew, and you, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.  I mean, this is not my big night.  You know, I’m so happy for my friend, I’m so happy that this has come together, I’m so happy for Renée, and I feel like this whole project was started with our friendship, and that comes from a very special place in my heart, I love her very much, and it’s like she wanted this, I said wonderful, I trust you completely, how could I make any musical decisions that were better than the musical decisions Renée would make?  And you sign off.  It’s not for me to spend four years looking over her shoulder. 

 

Can you talk about what’s next for you?

 

I just finished a novel, and it’s called Commonwealth. I’m still working on line edits and copy edits, and it will probably be completely out of my hands sometime between February and March. It’ll be published on the sixth of September of 2016.  I’m very happy with it.  It seems like a really good book …you know, really it’s the last minutes of that moment where I love this book, I care, I’m completely attached to it, and we’re almost done, you know we’re almost going to break up and then it will be gone from me.  Right now I will tell you it’s maybe the best book I have written, it’s maybe the best book anybody has ever written, and then the door will close, and I’ll be like “what?  I said what?”

 

It must be nice to feel that way.

 

Yeah, it’s a nice moment, that moment when the horrible hard work is done but it’s still with you…and it’s really small.  So I’m just happy.  I am really happy, and I am going to take some time off and read some books and sell some books and watch movies and then the book tour will start in September.  A lot of this book is set in Chicago – not all of it, it’s set in five different cities, but it takes place at the Palmer House.

 

What’s on your bedside table to read?

 

I am so glad you asked.  I am reading an amazing book that you must, must read, both of you immediately, Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road.  And there are all sorts of books that I read now that I would never would have read before I had a book store.  Gloria Steinem is one of those people…and I met her last year, very briefly at a party, and it was like meeting Mother Teresa for me, I mean I just got so tripped out.  But she’s such a familiar American character.  The book is phenomenal.  She is so smart, she’s a very good writer, but she approaches every memory with this great kind openheartedness.  It’s all a good story to tell, and also the stories she’s telling feel like they came from such another time.  Because they did.  And I read this long piece that this young author (by young I mean 32) named Claire Vaye Watkins…she’s a big deal, her new book is called Gold Fame Citrus, and she’s a very good writer.  She wrote this huge essay that’s for Tin House, it’s on the internet, and it’s all about how she has always judged her work by the standards of men, and by her male teachers, and she said the main activity of her life has been watching men, watching men play sports, watching men play video games, watching men talk to each other, caring so much about what men think about her work , feeling like the best complement is that her work is masculine, it doesn’t seem like women’s work, and I was reading this, and I’m 52, and I thought, you know, I came up in the women’s movement.  I wore an ERA button all through high school, all I cared about was that people saw me as equal, and the idea that somebody twenty years younger than I am is so far removed from the woman’s movement that they don’t have that empowerment anymore… and it never occurred to me to care what the boys were doing or what they thought of the work that I was making.  And that was the gift that Gloria Steinem gave me. 

 

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