If you're a reader of fiction, you've likely heard the name Ann Patchett. She's won multiple awards for her work, and her novels include Bel Canto,The Magician's Assistant, and most recently in 2011 State of Wonder. Her most recent labor, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage hit shelves on November 5th. This Friday, November 15th she'll be making a stop in Louisville on her book tour.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a series of essays, but it fits together like a biography – at times touching, and sometimes frustrating (particularly a word game she mentions in one of the essays). Ann has lived an incredibly interesting life, and while reading this book I got the chance to step inside her life – from her time as a graduate student, to her first divorce, to the adoption and loss of her dog, Rose. She writes about everything from selling her first novel to opening Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is an amazing read that I could barely put down. And I'll admit it, I'm the kind of reader that has dozens of half-finished books lining my shelves.
I had the chance to speak with Ann last week while she was between events and stops. At first, I was pretty nervous to be speaking with someone so important to the world of American literature but she was incredibly easy to talk with. In her words, “Once you get going it's more like we're just two people talking on the phone.”
Louisville.com: Why structure a memoir in this way? It wasn't chronological, and I thought it was more thematic – would you say you divided into sections by theme?
Ann Patchett: It isn't a memoir, really – if someone called it a memoir they were just being overly generous - it's a collection of essays. I tried to arrange it so it had some sort of narrative arc, and things were revealed in a sensible order. I looked at the essays I wanted to include, and wrote several more in order to fill it out with a sense of arc.
LC: You did mention in the introduction that you added to some of the essays, specifically "The Wall." How much was added to that?
AP: I probably added about ten thousand words – a lot. Maybe even more than that; it went from about twenty-five hundred word piece to being about a fifteen thousand word piece.
LC: Did you have a favorite essay out of the book, or one that you enjoyed writing more than others?
AP: Hmm – I have a deep affection for the last essay, which is about Sister Nina and the Mercies. I think that has to do with my deep affection for her, and the enormous pleasure she got out of the essay and the fact that it's in the book. It makes her happy, and that makes me happy.
LC: I also really enjoyed reading "The Getaway Car." If I were teaching a writing course at a university, I fell like it would be requisite reading at the start of a semester. What was the motivation behind that essay?
AP: You know, people are always coming up to me and asking to have lunch with me and talk about writing, or “please have lunch with my daughter and talk about writing,” and I decided to just write one long essay and put everything I know into it. Every time I've given it to somebody I've told them that if they need to come back and talk to me more after they've read it I'd be more than happy to, but no one has ever come back to me with more questions. That being the case, I feel like I did what I meant to do with it.
LC: Absolutely. And since I got everything I could out of that essay, please help me out with the word game from "The Paris Match." I think I spent about a half hour after I read the essay just staring at it trying to figure out the solution. I'm not holding out hope of getting the answer, but – anything?
AP: Well, I write it for the New York Times magazine for a food column, and while traveling I got a call from my editor saying the New York Times needed to speak with me. So, I called them and got an editor I'd never spoken to in my life, and he said “we're closing the magazine in 45 minutes, and we've decided the piece is too frustrating and you have to give us the answer. We're going to say how you solve the puzzle or people are going to be too dissatisfied.” To which I said, “I'm getting on a plane, and if you can figure out the answer you're welcome to put it in the piece. Gotta go, bye.” And I hung up. So that was very satisfying.
LC: No answer?
AP: Honestly, it's so much easier than you think it is. Write down the words, and put them into two categories – the ones I said it is, and the one's I said it's not. Just look at them – don't think about it – and you'll figure it out. You'll smack your forehead once you do.
And I did - it's painfully easy once you get it. But Ann's right – you need to look at the words to understand it.
Ann Patchett will be at the Clifton Center from 7PM – 9PM at which she'll be speaking and signing books. We can all thank Carmichael's Bookstore for bringing her to town. You can RSVP at the event's Facebook page. Tickets are five dollars, or free with the purchase of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage from Carmichael's.
Photo 1 courtesy of Carmichael's bookstore. Photo 2 courtesy of HarperCollins