FACT AND FICTION: A Q&A WITH ANN PATCHETT
THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE
By Ann Patchett
Harper. 305pp. $27.99
The award-winning novelist and memoirist, author of the brand-new collection of writings, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and owner of Nashville’s beloved indie bookstore Parnassus, opens up to Biographile about the public role of a writer, and about tempting fate with a title, in the first part of a two-part interview.
BIOGRAPHILE: In your introduction, you present the book as a serendipitous, almost accidental collection of your nonfiction essays. Do you now see a larger story unfolding through these different stories — a thematic through-line?
ANN PATCHETT: Oh, absolutely — I think I was being cavalier [in the introduction] because it took me two years to do it. My friend Niki Castle put it together and then I kept going through and taking out the pieces that I thought were weak and writing something else to build a narrative arc. Then I would read it through again, and something that had seemed really great two or three readings ago now seemed weak, because I kept upping it, kept pulling things out. If it works the way I want it to work, it’s a book about the things that I am deeply committed to: the things that I am, in a sense, married to. Not just my husband — family, friends, dogs, art, work, bookselling. The things that I wouldn’t give up.
BIOG: So the title, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,is bigger than just the one essay that shares it. When did that emerge as the title for the book?
AP: It was fairly late in the game. On one hand, speaking as a bookseller, it’s a great title. Garrison Keillor was reading at the store last night, and he asked me about the title, and I said it. He looked up and he just looked so shocked, and said, “That’s a great title. It’s fiction, right?” I cracked up and said no, and he said, “That’s terrifying.” And that’s sort of how I felt about it. It’s a great title but it was so scary to me, because it’s as if I’m saying, “My children are beautiful, and they love me, and they get good grades, and they don’t smoke crack” — it’s just a really bad idea from a personal point of view to call a book this, because it’s like inviting the evil into your life. Once I decided to call it that, every time my husband and I had an argument I would say, “Oh, this is great, I’ve got a book coming out in six months called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and look at us now!”
BIOG: You have at least until the paperback version comes out …
AP: That’s right! “This was the story of a happy marriage.” Only have to change two letters.
BIOG: It’s how literary titles tend to go — you’re waiting for the ironic twist.
AP: If nothing else, it’s a title that will make people go to the book and say, “What? What’s that about?” And that’s what you want.
BIOG: There are so many ways it can be read — it brings up ideas of what marriage is, how a happy marriage is different, and what happiness is.
AP: There’s a picture of me on the back of the book, which is something I normally object to, but it’s in the bookstore, and it’s me sitting in this sea of books. There are boxes of books all around, and there are books up to the ceiling, and I’m quite small — and I really like that, because if you picked the book up and turned it over you’d think, well, wait, is she talking about being married to books? And in a way, I am.
BIOG: I wanted to ask about the challenge in nonfiction of deciding what’s private and what’s public. I found the stories about your public engagement as a writer so striking, particularly about opening the bookstore, and around the Clemson speech and controversy. [In 2006, Clemson University in South Carolina assigned Patchett’s book Truth and Beauty, the story of her close friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, to the incoming freshman class, and invited the author to give the convocation address; Patchett found herself subject to a protest and smear campaign by “concerned” locals and parents who objected to the book.] Do you find it harder to write about yourself in these public roles, where it’s not just your story that you’re telling?
AP: No, I don’t — in fact, I’d never even thought of it. When I’m writing about opening the bookstore, or about Clemson, I’m really writing about how I am feeling in that experience, so it doesn’t register as different than when I’m in the nursing home feeding my grandmother.
BIOG: The bookstore story in particular is about becoming aware that suddenly you’re the face of something. It remains your perspective, but it brings up an interesting question about the public role of the writer.
AP: It’s true, because I am telling stories in which I’m in front of an audience, and a lot of other people are viewing me as these things are happening, but that doesn’t change my personal experience in the moment — I’m just in it. I’m also viewing myself with a certain amount of detachment, as the person that these things are happening too, but it doesn’t change me as a person. No matter what’s going on, we’re still just seeing the world with our own two eyes.
BIOGRAPHILE: Do you think Truth and Beauty would have been as controversial a choice for the students at Clemson if it were a novel?
ANNE PATCHETT: Oh, I think it wouldn’t have been. In the speech that I gave at Clemson I say something about that, that maybe the reason that The Great Gatsby andAnna Karenina and other novels aren’t as upsetting is that they aren’t true, and so we can think, well, people didn’t really behave this way. Yet personally, I find fiction so much more moving and glorious than I do nonfiction. I read a lot of nonfiction and I enjoy it, but if I make a list of my favorite books, they’re always novels.
What fiction is good for is it gives us empathy, because it forces us into the skin of another person, in the way that nonfiction doesn’t always do. Somehow in nonfiction, knowing the story is true, we stay outside and observe it, and yet in fiction — if it’s good — we’re often really forced into the story, and into the skin of the character. We can say, that’s how that feels, or I don’t want to participate in these acts — or I do want to participate — because now I have a better sense of how it feels.
BIOG: And somehow, with an autobiographical piece of writing, it’s easier to blame the writer for the bad feelings we may have when we read. With a novelist, we understand that it’s imagination — we’re a step removed.
AP: When you read a novel you can imagine it happening to you. I read Katherine Boo’s book,Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about Mumbai and the slums, and to me it’s a wonderful book, but I had a sense of disconnect. Compassion, but just thinking, Man, I am never going to Mumbai. Whereas if I read a book like White Tiger, another book about poverty in India, but it’s a novel, I feel it all pressing in on me. I feel like, I just shot that guy. It brings a panic up in me, that closeness with the character.
BIOG: Also the uniqueness of your experience, as a nonfiction writer, is part of what makes your story special. It can’t be shared in the same way, so the writer has to find different ways to share what they’re feeling and thinking. Although this isn’t primarily a book about writing, there’s a lot here about your writing methods. Do you approach nonfiction differently from fiction?
AP: Well, for me, nonfiction is so much a job, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been a successful nonfiction writer, compared to some of my friends who are novelists. This was true especially in my twenties and thirties. I have lots of friends whom I was always recommending to magazines — I’ll put in a good word for you, and you can get this job too — and they couldn’t do it. They procrastinated. They couldn’t do this whole deadline thing, and it made them incredibly miserable, to have the looming assignment, and for some reason that never bothered me; I’m really good with assignments! But there really aren’t a lot of fiction writers who go back and forth between the two. [Elizabeth] Gilbert is a good friend of mine and she of course is somebody who does it brilliantly, but at the same time, everybody is just so shocked that she can write fiction, even though she started out writing fiction. No, there aren’t a lot of people we’re willing to accept this from.
BIOG: You mention that one of the changes in the publishing landscape has been that you’re given different parameters by, say, Audible and Byliner, to write longer pieces. In the book, the difference between what would have been a substantial magazine article feels much smaller next to those longreads, and has a different rhythm. Does that higher word count change your writing?
AP: It really does, because I’m so fixated on word count. Do you know that magazine called The Week? They have an author in there every week who picks six books to recommend, and they said it was supposed to be 320 words. So I pick my six books and I write my six little descriptions, and it’s 320 words, and I send it in. The editor wrote back and said, “Oh my God, you actually turned in 320 words. Usually when I say it’s supposed to be 320 words, an author sends in 900, and then I have to cut it down.” So it has been really interesting to open up. But at the same time, Audible and Byliner also told me how long they wanted it — 15 or 20,000 words. It wasn’t like I could just write forever.
The one piece actually where I had no restrictions was the piece about the Los Angeles Police Department [a story in which Patchett, the daughter of an LAPD captain, successfully tries out for the Police Academy]. I had written a very short piece about that and then I went back and rewrote it for the book and made it really long, because I had all these fabulous notes. But even then, at the end, I found myself going back and cutting out big chunks of that piece, because I was afraid it was going to be boring, that I was giving too much information.
BIOG: So having a sense of the length of a story will start to shape it even before you begin to write.