Ann Patchett on Her New Essay Collection, Social Media, and Societal Pressures –

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“Through these essays, I could watch myself grappling with the same themes in my writing and in my life: what I needed, whom I loved, what I could let go, and how much energy the letting go would take,” Ann Patchett writes in her new, deeply enthralling collection, These Precious Days. As ever, Patchett—who has written four works of nonfiction and eight novels, the most recent of which was a Pulitzer finalist, in addition to opening the independent hub Parnassus Books in Nashville—is discerning and funny, light and moving, whether she’s writing about warily reckoning with old boxes of memorabilia (“It was Pandora’s lesson: don’t lift the lid”) or struggling early on to convince her father of the seriousness of her career choice (“I published stories, articles, three novels, and still he sent me notices for summer work on cruise ships”) or refusing to contextualize her decision not to have a family (“I am not using the dog or the book or the bookstore or the step-children to fill a hole left by not having children, because there is no hole”).
The topics have great range, but all are underpinned by Patchett’s championing of community, of literary rigor, of questioning—and readily revising—what she thinks she knows. Individually and cumulatively, they convey a resplendent concentration of strength and wisdom. Below, chatted with the author via email about her unshakeable sisterhood of friendships, her staunch material minimalism, and the latest titles that she’s cheerleading for.
That’s funny. I’ve never thought in terms of questions I should ask or never ask. It’s always specific to the author and the book. My questions are always friendly. It’s not reporting. I never want to make anyone uncomfortable. I just ask about the things I’m interested in. One thing I don’t do is ask about people’s childhoods. I think it’s time to let those questions go.
The thing to remember is that very few experiences are actually story-worthy. It’s pretty rare that something happens in my life and I think, I’m going to write about this. (I’m 58. I haven’t written that much nonfiction.) Sometimes it can be a comforting place to put in your mind, like holding Darrell’s hand at the end of his life, or being in a bad situation in a small plane.
I love my friends, and I write about them from a place of love. I’ve known Tavia and Erica for so many years, and I could tell different stories, boring stories, but I tell the ones that are the most compelling to me, the ones that are the most emblematic of them. I don’t worry about crossing a line because crossing a line just isn’t interesting to me, either personally or professionally.
My friend Judy is here working as I answer these questions. Judy would say that my house was already so neat that my massive clean-out hardly counted. I don’t think the clean-out changed my relationship to my interior space and materiality the way, say, not shopping did. It just makes me happier to walk into the basement and not see a bank of vases that I’ll never use. I also like knowing where everything is. I’m sure I’ll forget over time, but right now, I find it delightful to know that I own a green pencil and I can find it in a hurry if I need to. It’s a timesaver.
Yes, both are true. Remember, the interesting papers were in Damien’s mother’s drawer, not mine. Plus, those papers really weren’t interesting—Damien’s response to them was interesting.
So many. My favorite example is Anna Karenina. The first time I read it at 21, I only cared for Anna and Vronsky. Kitty and Levin and the peasants bored me to tears. When I read it again at 50, I only cared about Kitty and Levin and the peasants. I couldn’t stand Anna and Vronsky. And I loved Aleksei Karenin! The first time I read the book I thought he was a villain.
It’s a conversation I have studiously avoided. I don’t see my decision as anyone else’s business, and I don’t see other people’s reproductive decisions as my business.
It’s impossible to know about the future. A friend of mine sent this essay to his sister who has six children. She had endured the same kind of judgment I had. She and I really bonded over this: they think you should have some children; they don’t think you should have too many children.
I never sell my books in advance of finishing them because I never want to owe my work to anyone. My deadlines are self-imposed and can be abandoned on a dime. That’s never changed, but I did used to write for ELLE, and those were real assignments that were due. I always got my work in early. One of the great joys of my life is that I’m not a procrastinator.
It’s usually the impetus for nonfiction—the desire to put a person or an experience someplace, to make a record. That was very true of my friend Lucy Grealy and Truth & Beauty.
No. I was constitutionally unfit for classic artist behavior. One drink made me sick, and so I stopped drinking. Obviously, I don’t do well with drugs. I am preternaturally cheerful. I was a perfect fit for Catholic girls school and less of a fit for an MFA program.
I protect myself from internet weirdness. A friend will say, “Don’t read what’s being said about you.” So I don’t. I think the trick is to not give it any air. I’m not on social media. I don’t look at the reader’s comment section on anything. I never think that my way is the One True Path, but it’s my path. I’m sure I’m hopelessly out of step. It doesn’t bother me at all.
I haven’t gone through the letters and the journals. I never read all the stories. I believe that someday I will, but I don’t know when. At least it’s all in a central location now. Writing about the past is turning the past into a story. It’s a kind of documentation, but nothing written is ever the whole truth.
At Parnassus, we have what we call “The Dog and Pony Show” at the holidays. Four members of the staff host a program where we talk about our favorite books for the holidays, and we have to limit ourselves so we won’t go on all night. Here are my picks in no order at all: The Sentence, Oh William!, The Souvenir Museum, The Scientists, The Days of Afrekete, Sorrow and Bliss, Five Tuesdays in Winter, The Whole Language, On Animals, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, My Year Abroad, Harlem Shuffle, and The Beatryce Prophecy.
I kept a low profile and had a small existence. My sister believes I’m a mouse at heart, and I hope that’s the case. There’s a lot to be said for not having success until your fourth novel. I realized that one way or the other, I would be fine.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


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