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Author Patchett embraces community to build books

By Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune
Published: September 30, 2023, 6:00am

Bestselling author Ann Patchett says all her books are about the same thing.

She is funny and thoughtful in conversation, but the key takeaway is this: She loves writers.

When asked for the highlights of her own story, the “Tom Lake” author, Pulitzer Prize finalist for “The Dutch House” covers exactly none of her autobiography (grew up in Los Angeles, studied at Iowa Writers’ Workshop, moved to Nashville, Tenn., wrote bestseller after bestseller).

Instead, she steers the conversation to Lindsay Lynch, whose debut novel is out and who sometimes works for Patchett at Parnassus, the bookstore she co-owns. (“Having a bookstore is like having 30 daughters. I’m always taking someone to Target to buy sheets and towels when they get their first apartment or taking them to lunch because they got dumped and they’re crying.”)

More evidence? Better than a Pulitzer nod, the writer has said, is that author/buddy Kevin Wilson (“Nothing to See Here”) named his son Patchett after her.

She regularly recalls being dazzled by Louise Erdrich when Patchett, 59, cooked food for a long-ago party in her honor. Her conversation is filled with writer pals such as Elizabeth McCracken, Andrew Sean Greer and Patrick Ryan.

There’s her bookstore, peddling the work of writers. And, in filmed conversations with Minnesota pal Kate DiCamillo — whom Patchett nicknamed Fluffy (after a “Dutch House” character) — she deflects questions about her work to DiCamillo’s, crediting the “Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” writer for figuring out how to end “Dutch House.”

All of which is to say: Patchett’s Talking Volumes chat with MPR’s Kerri Miller is supposed to be about her new novel “Tom Lake,” in which Lara — thrown together with her daughters on a family cherry orchard by the COVID-19 pandemic — reminisces about her youthful affair with a now-famous actor when they were in the play “Our Town.” But don’t be surprised if the talk turns to other writers, one of whom is almost certain to be the aforementioned Fluffy.

“Tom Lake” is dedicated to DiCamillo and her upcoming “The Puppets of Spel-horst”returns the favor. Did you help each other through those books?

We usually exchange a very small one- or two-sentence email in the morning and again at night. She is so wonderful and supportive. She would always say, “I’m going down the rabbit hole. Good luck in the orchard today,” and at the end of the day she would say, “It’s time to come out of the orchard. I’m holding the lantern up. Just walk towards the light.” And we talk on Sundays. It’s like going to church. We save up all the things we have to work out.

  • Did you meet at literary events?

She came (to Parnassus) and that’s when I decided I needed to read all of her work. We had lunch and I thought, “I’m such a jerk.” I actually wrote about this (in “These Precious Days”): “She’s read all of my books and I’ve never read any of hers because I don’t have kids.” And I needed to change that. I read every one of her books and I found her and we started emailing and visiting.

That you sparked to DiCamillo will be no surprise here. She’s beloved in the Twin Cities.

Let’s be honest. She’s beloved everywhere. It’s not like in Nebraska they shun her.

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  • I wonder if “Tom Lake’s” coziness will make adult children wish they’d moved in with their parents during the pandemic?

That’s my M.O. That’s what all of my books are about: Group of people, thrown together by circumstances, forms a society. All of them. But when I first started putting this book together it was before the pandemic, so I was just thinking, “Farm daughters come home to work on farm in the summer.” The book would have worked perfectly without the pandemic. But the pandemic just made it a little better.

Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic “Our Town” — which depicts a New England town’s residents in three acts devoted to life, love and death — figures prominently in “Tom Lake.” The way the characters see the play changes over time. Is that also true of you?

I change. So there are different times in my life that I feel like “Our Town” can answer my questions. When I was in my 20s, in graduate school, and I shared an apartment with my best friend Lucy (Grealy; Patchett wrote about her in “Truth & Beauty”), she threw the I Ching all the time, and I have always thought of “Our Town” as a little like the I Ching. It’s all in there. It just depends on which page you land on and where you’re at when you look.

  • How did the “Our Town” notion that we rarely appreciate the ordinary beauty of our lives inspire “Tom Lake?”

Lara is sort of taking that “Our Town” lesson and learning to see how beautiful her present life is. She learned it as a kid but lives it as an adult.

  • But, as much as you love it, you’ve never seen a production of “Our Town?”

I have a morbid fear of bad theater. It’s so painful for me if I feel that people are embarrassing themselves. When I was really young, I saw “Cats.” It was a traveling production and I saw it at the performing arts center in Nashville and it scarred me. I was so mortified for those people who were perched on the backs of their chairs, licking their hands. I kept thinking, “I could get you money. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to humiliate yourselves.”

  • “Tom Lake” gracefully weaves stories of Lara’s past and present. How did you do that?

The trick with running two narratives is the reader almost always prefers one to the other. I can think of books where I actually hated one plotline but really loved the other one. So braiding, making them really interwoven, seemed like the answer.

  • Did you have to make any tough choices when you were writing the book?

I couldn’t decide whether Lara or Sebastian (brother of the actor) would be the narrator, which is such a funny thing to say now that the book is written. I could see writing it one way and I could see the other and it would be two entirely different books.

  • Have you ever made the wrong choice?

“The Dutch House.” I wrote the whole book and I just got it wrong. I turned left on page 33 when I should have turned right. When I sat down to read it, I got 20 pages from the end and it was so terrible I couldn’t finish it. And, blowing all my theories of I-don’t-go-forward-until-I-get-everything-right, I had made such a mistake. So I threw the whole thing out. I deleted the files. I wanted to write the same book — the exact same people, same time, same place, same arc of the plot — but to make some essential, different choices.

  • That’s interesting because when I recently asked book clubs to name all-time favorites, they overwhelmingly chose “The Dutch House.”

See, I got it right! But that’s because they didn’t read the first version, which they would have overwhelmingly hated.

  • And, as you say, that’s not the way you usually work?

I do my revisions as I go along. I will revise chapter three exhaustively until it’s what I believe to be completely right and only then move on to writing chapter four.

And when it’s done, I give the book to Elizabeth (McCracken.) I give the book to Kate (DiCamillo.) I give the book to (novelist friend) Maile Meloy. They make suggestions but I don’t ever make changes like, “This person needs to have a sister” or, “It takes place 20 years later.”

  • So your “first draft” is usually the finished book?

Yes. But I was doing a Zoom — this must have been early in the pandemic — and I was in conversation with Elizabeth. I was talking about how I had thrown (“Dutch House”) away and had such a hard time getting back into it and then finally figured out what I’d done wrong and then I wrote it really fast. We got off the Zoom and Elizabeth said, “You know that’s called a second draft, Ann.” And I said, “I love you so much for not saying that in the Zoom.” She said, “You spin that like it’s this unbelievable, shipwreck narrative and you were so heroic doing this.” She was like, “I do that eight times every book. Just shut up.”

Please don’t shut up.