(Interviewed by Edel Coffey)
Ann Patchett was good fun at the LexIcon last night. She love-bombed her audience from the beginning and it has to be said, the audience was primed and more than happy to love her back. It was the kind of evening when Dun Laoghaire comes into its own – the sea a living thing, defying description, and walkers sensible enough to be out taking full advantage. If you missed it – that was summer, right there. Who knows how long it will last?
So there was the sun, beating on the glass and those of us who didn’t have sunglasses had to close our eyes while listening to Ann Patchett. She said she knew we weren’t asleep but it was very weird to look out at an audience who kept their eyes shut while listening, like a group meditation.
We could have been concentrating. She was worth concentrating on. Although she is funny and personable and knows how to keep an interview flowing, the things she said were worth listening to. She startled us by saying that Commonwealth ( her latest novel and the reason for this book tour) and Bel Canto are essentially the same. ‘I always write the same book,’ she said. That got our attention – well, it got mine. How could Bel Canto – a multiple prize-winning novel wherein a private concert by a renowned opera singer in a South American vice-presidential palace is hijacked by a group of terrorists – be the same as Commonwealth – which tells the story of the effect of divorce and re-location on a group of step-siblings in a contemporary American family?
She said she never knows this about her novels until she gets to the end and sees it: two groups of people are thrown together in strange circumstances and move on from there. Commonwealth is her most autobiographical-ish (her word) novel yet. She said she decided that, if the reason for her novels following this pattern is some deep psychological issue of which she’s unaware, then maybe she could get past it by writing more directly. But it doesn’t bother her at all, this sameness – after all, we only have two stories: a stranger comes to town and the hero’s journey. She’s always worried about things being too close to the truth so she sets her fictional situations somewhere else (eg Peru) and gives the characters different lives (opera singers and terrorists). Commonwealth is the story without the costumes and the sets.
Autobiographical elements in the book include the fact that when she was 6 she was uprooted and moved to California to live with a step-family. Her father was a policeman, like Fix Keating in the novel. The character of Leo Posen, the writer who takes Franny’s story and turns it into a novel, is her, she said – but so is Franny. That was Patchett’s way of working out the ethics and ramifications of writing about a real situation while she wrote it.
Edel Coffey asked about ethical issues and about fiction versus non-fiction. Referring to the title essay in her collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett said she had resisted writing about some things because she thought it would hurt certain people and then she realised that was just a way of avoiding doing the hard work. She decided to go ahead and write the ‘absolute truth’ of it (well, from her perspective), wait a while, then approach the principals and ask if they had a problem with it. And in that case her family – everyone has divorced someone – read it and asked, Did you think we didn’t know we were divorced? Did you think it was a secret?
You could feel the little current of electricity released by this sane advice. Friends exchanged significant looks right and left. Books were spawning, right there in the room.
Another great piece of advice came from her saying that the writing she did for magazines at the beginning of her career was good training because of the discipline of having to cut and cut to fit space requirements and still have the same piece. She goes through her work again and again, she says. It’s not just about cutting scenes or paragraphs, she goes through every sentence, looks at every word. It’s like combing for lice, she said. You think you’ve got them all and then you go back and there are more.
(Commonwealth is published by Bloomsbury. The dlr Library Voices series is curated by Bert Wright)