By Janet Somerville
On her only Canadian stop on the book tour for her new collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, bestselling, award-winning novelist and Nashville indie bookstore owner Ann Patchett sat down with the equally fabulous Emma Donoghue to chat about the writing life. Peering out at the candlelit café tables in the Brigantine Room, Patchett said, “I have the desire to sing the entire soundtrack to Cabaret. This is so romantic. But, I’m an incredible fan of Emma’s work and I want to talk to her.” Before settling in for that very chat, Patchett read a short excerpt from the essay, “My Life in Sales,” because “I am on book tour and I am feeling sorry for myself.”
Donoghue said, “Well, luckily I loved the book, which is not always the case of someone you’re interviewing, and I’m excited to be sharing a rug with you. You talk such sense about the writing life and you care about the way a book is made the way you’d care about an ailing dog.” Of the luck in her life, Patchett noted that “at Sarah Lawrence, I had a year with Grace Paley and it was like spending a year with God.” She also had Allan Gurganus and Russell Banks as a writing instructors there, though was quick to note that when she attended the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she “got dealt a really bad poker hand. I was in class with Angus Wilson in the last 15 minutes of his life and he only taught in French. And, I don’t speak French.” She was also fortunate to sell her first book, The Patron Saint of Liars, right away, launching a career as a novelist in 1992.
When Donoghue probed about hardships or miseries, Patchett responded, “I hated my first husband. Basically I married, at 24, the first guy who asked me out to dinner. And I was divorced by 25. I didn’t get married again until I was 41.” Her partner at that time had a medical emergency: “And I was thinking, I’m going to have to unplug the ventilator and I can’t do that as your girlfriend, so let’s get married.” They did. And he got well. As Donoghue observed, “There’s this ruthless streak of pragmatism in this collection that saves it from sentimentality.” Patchett added, “It’s a book about all of the things in my life that I feel I’m married to.”
About Patchett’s commitment to the dogs she’s shared her life with, Donoghue suggested, “Maybe it’s great, as a writer, to have a relationship that is not about words.” Patchett talked about “how the plane just crashed when Rose [her dog] died, and that shocked me and I wanted another 16 years. She was a fabulous person, but a lousy dog. She bit children. Now I have Sparky, a rescue, who is a better Buddhist than I am. Every day Sparky asks what he can do for his country.” Because Sparky is listed whimsically as Sparkman VanDeverden (Patchett’s married name) on the Parnassus Books website as a co-owner, he receives several credit card offers each month—yet, his canine mug stares boldly out there alongside the ones of his human companions.
Donoghue said, “I love when you are so honest about the horrors of dementia in “Love Sustained,” which is a hymn to love but also acknowledges how painful it is to watch people get older.” Patchett responded, “The ability to love in a woman does not always fall under the umbrella of being maternal.” Donoghue nodded, “You go inch by inch into intimacy because they need it.” Patchett added, “any moment of spiritual development for me has been taking another human being to the bathroom.” Donoghue noted, “That’s a beautiful thing to know.”
On the myth of writer’s block, Donoghue and Patchett agreed: there’s no such thing. Donoghue said, “Writing is like going to work in a mine. You have to hoist your pick.” And, Patchett said, “some things are difficult to figure out, but you keep working at the puzzle.” On her enthusiasm for magazine writing, Patchett explained, “It was so easy for me because I’m not a procrastinator, and writing fiction is really hard. There’s a culture of looking down on women’s work and I wanted to stand up for it. It shaped me as a non-fiction writer.”
Of bookstore life, Donoghue said, “The books are in relationship with each other. People love the discovery of interaction.” Patchett admitted, “I shove books on people, but I will also take them away. You may not start with Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned.” The trick to an indie’s success is to have famous writers come to the store. In the past 10 days, Parnassus Books hosted Donna Tartt, Garrison Keillor, Pat Conroy and Wally Lamb. And, if you happened to be in Nashville on November 14th, you could have had wine with Russell Banks.
Fans of Bel Canto were pleased to learn that Renée Fleming will produce a stage version at Chicago Lyric Opera in Fall 2015. And, although Patchett continues to cash cheques from time to time for the film adaptation that’s in development, she “can’t talk to the producers anymore. They wanted to talk about faces and cup sizes. Can’t do it. Just don’t care.”
About the writing process, Patchett admitted, “I get better and better at staying still and in the chair. But, when I’m in a book, I want to get out.” Donoghue agreed, “I’m always flirting with or eyeing up the next book.”
If you missed this evening of terrific craic, as the Irish say, between two fabulously talented and engaging contemporary writers, you’ll know to be sure to make an extra effort to hear either one of them the next time. May there be plenty of opportunities to do just that.
Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.