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Ann Patchett opens Aspen Winter Words

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Published: Ross Kribbs
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ASPEN – This past November Ann Patchett opened a bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, where Patchett grew up and still lives. Most everything about the shop, at least in this newlywed stage, seems to make her happy. (Except for the name, which she blames on her business partner: “Her main goal was to have a store named Parnassus Books. Which is a terrible name.” Patchett likes to shelve books – which is to say, she really likes climbing up the ladder to get to the higher shelves. She enjoys standing on the literary bully pulpit: “You can read an obscure novel from 1929 and make everyone else read it,” she said, a reference to Richard Hughes’ “A High Wind in Jamaica,” which she has been pushing on Parnassus customers.Patchett believes that if she has a calling in life, it is to recommend just the right book to readers. “It’s like a magic trick – tell me the last book you liked and I’ll tell you the next book you should read,” she said. (For me, she recommended two recent novels: “How It All Began” by Penelope Lively, and “The Family Fang,” by Kevin Wilson.)But Patchett says that the task that consumes most of her time at Parnassus is signing books, her own books. “I sign cases of books,” she said. “We sell my books like popcorn. Which is something I’d never considered.”I, however, am not surprised to hear that Patchett’s books are a major attraction, even in an age when opening a bookstore is roughly akin to opening a typewriter repair shop. If I found myself in Nashville, I’d take time out from seeking out the city’s bluegrass jams to stop in and get a book signed by my favorite writer.••••Martin Amis’ piece on fellow author Don DeLillo, which ran in the New Yorker magazine this past November, opened with this: “When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.” He goes on to trash approximately 50 percent of the output of Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare and others, while making an exclusion for only Homer, whose output was limited to two works, and Harper Lee, who stopped after one.Patchett is 48, which, I hope, leaves her plenty of time to succumb to what Amis dubs “the fifty-fifty model.” But Patchett will have her work cut out for her. She has written seven books – six novels and one memoir; I’m not including “What Now?” because a., it is an essay, albeit a 97-page essay; b. Amazon lists it in the “Motivational/Self-Help” category; and c., I haven’t read it – and by my reckoning there is not a clunker in the bunch. No “As You Like It” to atone for, no “Mansfield Park” to tarnish her legacy. Patchett’s popularity might stem in part from the fact that she’s got a literary niche all her own. Patchett’s books are often selected for those group-read initiatives, where an entire community – a freshman class, a town – tackles the same book. She speculates that she is chosen so often because her books are clean: “My books have no sex and no profanity in them. They have moral themes,” she said. When the communal read is over, Patchett gets a call from the school dean or town librarian, who invariably wants her recommendation for another book in a similar vein.”They always say, recommend something – a strong female character who is taking charge of her own life,” Patchett said. “And I can’t think of it. That’s ridiculous. There’s no book where a woman isn’t being yanked around on a chain. So I want to write that. I want to see that book.”When I asked Patchett if she could put a finger on what it is she writes about, the question came with an apologetic tone. A lot of writers would hate to have their work pinned down to a few sentences; many would believe that each of their works was about its own world, its own set of concerns. Patchett, though, seemed to have an answer ready – she has definitely been asked this before, and answered it in just this way – and one which seemed to capture the essence of her books.”A group of disparate people are thrown together by circumstance, and we see how they come together, make a family of it. It’s ‘The Magic Mountain,’ ‘Lord of the Flies,'” she said. “Even when I think I’m not writing that book, I finish it and I look back and say, ‘Whoa, there’s that book again.'”••••Patchett is firm in her belief that she has found the boundaries to her writing. “I love writing about new things, different things,” she said from Palo Alto, where she was giving a reading at Stanford. “But I am who I am and I can never escape from my essential self.” She compares herself to a deck of cards that can be dealt out in many different ways. “But I will always only have 52 cards. And I don’t think in all my life I will ever have more than those 52 cards.”A reader might respond that the permutations that can be made from 52 cards might as well be infinite. The reader might suggest that Patchett has shown no signs of exhausting the ways she can put together her familiar elements – well-intentioned characters, people colliding in emotionally heightened circumstances, strong-minded women – in fresh ways. And the reader might further observe that Patchett, instead of settling into any patterns, has continually come up with new approaches to storytelling.”Bel Canto,” the 2001 Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winner that represented something of a breakthrough, was set inside a South American mansion, during a hostage-taking. Virtually all the activity takes place in the one house, giving a sealed-off atmosphere to the story. The novel touched on opera, romance and terrorism – all more or less unique to Patchett’s books. “State of Wonder,” her latest book, from last year, was a return to South America – but here the natural world, the rivers and trees and storms of the Amazon, were a major presence, and the story focused on doctors, medicine, ambition and the relationship between a student and the revered teacher who has forgotten all about her former pupil.In 2007’s “Run,” Patchett set herself the challenge of limiting the narrative to one 24-hour period; she also made the central characters male – a pair of African-American college students and their white adoptive father. The book examined Boston politics, race relations, weather and a father’s devotion to his sons. “The Patron Saint of Liars,” Patchett’s accomplished 1992 debut, told of a young woman in a rural Kentucky home for unwed mothers; the follow-up, “Taft,” was something completely different, centered around characters in a shabby bar in downtown Memphis. “The Magician’s Assistant,” from 1997, was a dreamy, romantic story about magic, family and death, set in Los Angeles and Nebraska.••••Patchett’s next book will be a collection of essays – “about writing, marriage, death, dogs, love, things near and dear,” she wrote in an email. She claims to be shy about exposing herself in the medium of nonfiction, even though all of the pieces in the book have appeared previously (though many will be expanded for the book). “The idea of putting them side-by-side makes me cringe,” she said. “A lot of them are very personal.”But Patchett has been through this before. Her 2004 memoir “Truth & Beauty: A Friendship,” about her relationship with fellow writer, heroin user and cancer patient Lucy Grealy, was everything a memoir should be: colorful, poignant, revealing and deeply personal.Beyond that is the next novel, which is in the very earliest stage of conception: “I’m squinting at it from a great distance,” she said. (As the novel progresses, there is a good chance that Roaring Fork Valley readers will get the first peek: Patchett has chosen the valley for the first public readings of “Truth & Beauty,” “Run” and “State of Wonder.”) Patchett tends to take her ideas for a story from the previous novel she has written. The plot of “Run” was packed into a single day because in “Bel Canto,” about the hostage-taking, time was practically suspended. The next novel, she expects, will play off a character from “State of Wonder,” a deaf Brazilian boy named Easter.”I was very interested in ‘State of Wonder,’ as I finished it, with the idea of children being in terrible peril, and not realizing they’re in peril. They can take it in very calmly,” Patchett, who has no children, said, noting that another of her characters, 11-year-old Kenya, from “Run,” also fits the category. Patchett finds she’s being influenced not only by her own work, but also by “A High Wind in Jamaica,” the book she has been pitching at Parnassus Books, that tells of a family confronting a hurricane and pirates. “These kids have no idea there’s anything out of the ordinary. They don’t understand anything’s gone wrong. There’s something very resonant about that, having just written about Easter.”One card that Patchett had removed from her deck is Nashville. She says she knows the city too well to write about it.”I feel like there needs to be a certain amount of room for my imagination,” she explained. “Nashville – there’s too much baggage. I’d put in too many winks and nods to the town. I’d get caught up in making sure I get the street names right. And it’s like I’m always writing nonfiction pieces about Nashville. I don’t have anything fresh to say about it. It’s enough.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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