Ann Patchett’s not ‘nice’; just human

[17 October 2007]

By Connie Ogle

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI—The question pops up again and again, multiplied by the onslaught of press attention that mushrooms in the wake of a bestselling novel.

Ann Patchett has heard it a lot during this book tour, longer and busier and bigger than any she’s endured. She has heard it during interviews and from critics, including a sniffy John Updike in the New Yorker. And it’s starting to make her a little crazy.

Why are you so nice?

“I keep hearing on this tour that I’m writing about too many nice people, that I’m unrealistic,” Patchett says from her hotel room in Washington, D.C., where she recently spoke at the National Cathedral. She laughs and must be shaking her head in disbelief. `I just think, `Oh, f—- off.’”

That’s a joke, of course. The good-natured Patchett isn’t holding grudges. She is the author of the searing memoir “Truth & Beauty,” about the life and death of her friend Lucy Grealy, and four previous novels, including the award-winning book-club staple “Bel Canto,” in which ragtag guerrillas hold party guests hostage in an unnamed South American country.

Clearly, Patchett isn’t digging for happy stories. Even in her novels “The Patron Saint of Liars,” “Taft” and “The Magician’s Assistant,” she expertly mines the contradictions, perils and joys of the human condition.

The fully realized characters in the engaging “Run” (Harper, $25.95), which tracks 24 hours in the lives of two families from different sides of Boston, are no nicer than anybody you might meet in the real world. They argue and grumble and make mistakes. They disappoint each other. They can’t always overcome their inherent selfishness. But like us—and this is key—they’re attempting to do the best they can under ordinary but surprising circumstances.

“The people I’m close to are good people,” explains Patchett, who lives in Nashville, Tenn. “My life is full of good people. Writing a book about basically decent people who are trying, well, that’s not unrealistic. All these people writing about hideous people—do they know these people? Why are we so conditioned to believe in evil? I know it’s out there, of course, but if we read about horrible people doing horrible things, we think that’s the only truth.”

There is no horror to be found in “Run,” only an evocative slice of the world of the Doyles—father Bernard, the city’s former mayor; troubled biological son Sullivan and adopted brothers and university students Tip and Teddy. Bernard’s wife, who died when Tip and Teddy were young, lives on in the form of a family touchstone, a statue of the Virgin Mary, as red-haired as any Irish lass.

An accident on a cold, snowy night alters the Doyles’ lives. They meet a woman named Tennessee Moser and her daughter Kenya, a runner. Patchett is fascinated with the idea that a stranger can matter, that “the person you walk by on the street may turn out to be the most important person in your life. Keeping yourself open to other people is very important.”

She also sees herself returning to particular themes and feels a connection between “Bel Canto” and “Run.” “They’re much more political, and the idea of family in them seems to be more of a metaphor for family and community. Hopefully they harken to larger issues as to how we’re operating as a people.”

The fact that Tip, Teddy and the Mosers are black while the other Doyles are white is not incidental, but it’s not the main thrust of the book, either. Patchett aims to explore the subject of race out of the corner of her eye rather than head-on. What’s surprising to her is the reaction she has received about writing from an African-American perspective. She wrote from a black point of view in “Taft,” but that was BBC (before “Bel Canto”) when her audience was smaller and the attention less intense.

“What is strange is that no one ever said to me when they were talking about `Bel Canto,’ `What was it like to write from the point of view of a Peruvian teenager or middle-aged Japanese businessman?’ But get into the point of view of a young black male in this country. ... All the more reason to do it. I want to write books about black people that are not about race. Or people who have religion in their lives, but the book isn’t about religion. For some reason when one of those elements is in a book, that tends to be what the book is about.”

At one reading, a sign-language interpreter suggested that Patchett include a deaf character in one of her books, `someone who’s handicapped but not have the book be all about that. She told me `That’s what we need,’ that sort of normalcy and integration into life and art.”

“I think she’s a genius of the human condition,” says Robert Olen Butler, author of the recent story collection “Severance” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” which explored the Vietnam War from the perspective of Vietnamese characters. “It’s really rare that literary writers, even the good ones, are able to comprehend the diversity of humanity and articulate a wide range of characters, their inner lives and souls. The internal comprehension of most writers is fairly small, but Ann’s is vast.”

Butler, a creative writing professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, views Patchett’s essentially upbeat attitude in a positive light. Patchett, he says, is “able to maintain her artistry without wallowing or giving over in abject pessimism to the dark parts of the human condition. She’s able to legitimize and earn in a deep, artistic way a sense of the goodness of people.”

In the end, though, being labeled “nice” doesn’t seem to have fazed Patchett much, despite the fact that her current busy tour is “something that I have never quite beheld before.” She was happy to write fiction again after “Truth & Beauty,” for which she did not tour despite an appearance at Miami Book Fair International. She’s also been writing essays and considers them “some of my best work,” although “I can see doing a collection of essays, and no one wanting to read it.

“If you’re writing fiction, though, you own it. There’s a lot of ease and comfort in that. If I did another nonfiction book, I’d rather do something like John McPhee than I would about my life. Day in and day out, I’m a happy person. I have a good marriage. I’m close to my parents. My life just isn’t very interesting.”

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