Let's call it as it was: Ann Patchett held BookHampton captive this past Saturday! She set the course for what was undoubtedly one of the best readings we've ever had. The author of the best-selling State of Wonder and the internationally acclaimed Bel Canto took charge. Even standing room was over-subscribed.
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Charming and startlingly outspoken (what did we expect, she's from Nashville) she began the afternoon event by admonishing every reader in the house: "You must not walk through this bookshop writing down book titles and then go home and order from Amazon! If you want to have this bookstore in your town — and a bookstore is the most cherished store in most communities fortunate to still have them — then you must buy your books at the book shop. It's a store. It's a book store.” We couldn't have said it better ourselves, but to hear it from Ann Patchett? We all took note!
State of Wonder was BookHampton's first Common Reader selection, the book that we handed to people all summer and said “Read this. You won't be able to put it down!” Little did we realize how this great story would be made even better by hearing the author read from it herself. Patchett read the section about the boy Easter, the boat and the anaconda. What? You haven't read it yet? How's that possible? Well then, I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that no one moved; we all held our breath. She is a spellbinding reader as well as a great author.
After the reading, questions and answers flowed freely. Patchett is a great conversationalist: she's got that mix of Southern charm, Southern steel, and Sarah Lawrence (yes, she did) outspokenness. The fearlessness in her books should have been a clue.
She talked about the difference between popular fiction and literature: The former is like getting in the back seat of a car and being taken for a ride. Many books can do that for you, take you along for the ride, ask nothing in return, just fun. Noting that such easy reads are not just a recent phenomenon, she cited Gone With the Wind as one example, and the over-thought Atlas Shrugged as a book that should be outgrown by the time you're twenty. Literature, on other hand, is a book that requires the reader to participate, a book that has both the author and the reader engaged in the story. And at the end, Patchett said, the author has left enough open so that the reader is able to imagine the characters going forward; you are left thinking about what happens next, where did it go after the last page. The author brings half, and you, the reader, must bring the other half. It’s by far a more rewarding literary experience.
So many authors claim to be swept up in flow of their own story, guided by their own characters. “I don't believe that for a minute,” she declared. "When I write, I am both hands on the wheel, I'm in control of the story and the characters. Of course I've rethought ideas, made changes along the way, but that is not at all the same thing as saying that the characters take charge. Come on. I am making up a book in my head, my hands are not just writing."
Patchett has said before that all her books really tell the same story: From The Patron Saint of Liars (about a home for unwed mothers), to The Magician's Assistant (about a magician, death and revelation), to the terrorist-driven and music-enhanced Bel Canto, to State of Wonder, which is about a doctor's adventure in the jungle — it seemed like a stretch. And then Ms. Patchett explained the connection: a group of strangers have been thrown together by circumstance, and they form some sort of society. The audience responded with an unabashed “Wow.”
One of Ann Patchett's most touching and certainly most personal books was her memoir Truth & Beauty. In it she shared the story of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a young woman and classmate who after endlessly disfiguring facial surgeries ended her life in a heroine overdose. "She was my closest friend," Patchett said. "And although I never wanted, ever, to write a memoir — I write novels — I wanted, I needed, to write about our friendship.
“Let me explain something. When someone dies, people have the tendency to never mention that person again. Friends don't ask you ever again about your mother or father, or even a friend that has died, as if mentioning them, talking about them would cause you pain. To the contrary, what hurts is not being able to talk about them. People we love,” Patchett continued, “are kept alive by our being able to share our memories of them.” And in one of the afternoon’s most poignant moments, she made a suggestion: "Ask a friend, what would your mother have thought of this book, would she have liked it, what would she have said? Give your friend a a chance to talk about, and remember the individual, remember that person they love. ‘Let me tell you about her.’ It doesn't hurt. Quite the opposite."
Another hand went up and Patchett was asked what books influenced her. She listed Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike, and definitely Thomas Mann. "In the 1970s, that's what was on my parents’ bookshelves. My parents read non-stop. They were always reading. They didn't have time to read to me, because they were reading themselves. That's what I saw, grown-ups reading. If you want your children to read, let them see you reading!"
Patchett reminded us that being influenced by a book is not the same as loving it. Among the books she loved were all of Henry James, and again, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Her current favorite books are The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund DeWaal, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Ann Patchett's reading list is available on our website.
She defined herself a writer who choses her topics and stays in control of her story. She takes her time, a year or two of wandering and thinking the story through, making small notes, perhaps fifteen minutes at a time, until the story has taken hold. Then she hands over all the hours of the day to reach its completion.
Patchett has also added a new facet to her own story. She’s opening a bookstore, Parnassus, in Nashville. The world can definitely benefit from another independent bookseller, someone who is willing to risk filling the shelves and selling the stories. And really, it doesn't surprise me at all that Ann Patchett said it best — a group of strangers have been thrown together by circumstance, and they form some sort of society —seems to perfectly describe BookHampton. We wish her all the best!
The Common Reader Community Read continues in November with Chad Harbach's break-out first novel, The Art of Fielding. We think he's like a young John Irving, and definitely worth getting to know, so we're offering you a 15% Common Reader discount!
— Charline Spektor