Ann Patchett returns to Aspen
ASPEN Look at the leading contenders for the Academy Award for best picture, and the view of humanity is a grim one. In “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Michael Clayton,” there are not so much good guys as there are relatively not-so-terrible guys. The filmmakers can seem to be in a competition to see who can depict the most morally corroded take on the world.Squeezed in among those three is “Juno,” which, despite the presence of a stepmother and an impending divorce, not to mention the 16-year-old pregnant title character, is filled with goodness. Characters, though flawed, struggle to be supportive and understanding.It cheers Ann Patchett’s heart to see not only that someone would make a film like “Juno,” but that it would be so successful and celebrated. “All these people were basically good,” noted Patchett. “People were just trying to play the hand they were dealt.”Similarly, in her novels, Patchett creates worlds which are imperfect, yet populated overwhelmingly by well-meaning souls. Patchett has taken some fire for the sanguine tone of her writing. Fellow novelist John Updike, reviewing Patchett’s latest novel, “Run,” for the New Yorker, wrote that Patchett “in her own niceness gives us the world as it should be, rather than as the dirty, abrasive place it is.” Patchett herself, however, isn’t so sure that the world she gives us in “Run” is so different than the world that has been presented to her.”I am basically a good person, with a life full of good people who don’t always do the right thing – but always try to,” said the 44-year-old by phone from her home in Nashville, the city in which she also grew up. “I’ve gotten a lot of flack for that – but the people I know really well, they’re good people.”
Of “Run” – her fifth novel, and first since 2001’s career-making, prize-winning “Bel Canto” – Patchett says, “This is a book with six or seven characters, depending on how you count them. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that you could go and find six or seven good characters. If I wrote about six or seven serial killers, everyone would say, ‘Yeah, that’s the way of the world.'”The two most prominent of those six or seven characters in “Run” are the black, college-age brothers, Tip and Teddy. The two have, in fact, experienced Updike’s “abrasive” world, having been given up for adoption as infants. But that is in the past; their lives since then have been touched by goodness. During the time frame of the novel, which takes place over a busy, snowy 24-hour period in present-day Boston, Tip and Teddy are warmly accepted members of the family of Bernard Doyle, a white former mayor of the city. The brothers are bright – Tip is at Harvard, Teddy, the nicer of the two, went to Northeastern – athletic, worldly and likable. Perhaps above all, they are adored by their father, despite dad’s almost suffocating desire that they follow him into politics.For the abundant good nature of the characters, the world can be cruel. The boys’ adoptive mother, Bernadette, beloved by all, died when the boys were young – the second time Tip and Teddy lost a mother. Doyle’s oldest son Sullivan, his one biological child, is semi-estranged (though capable of charity, having spent some years in Africa distributing AIDS drugs). And there is more tragedy that takes place during the course of “Run.” After hearing Jesse Jackson speak at Harvard, a distracted Tip is nearly hit by a SUV. The only thing that kept him from being run over is the black woman who shoved him out of the way. The good Samaritan takes the blow instead, leaving her 11-year-old daughter Kenya standing, frantic and alone, on the icy Boston street. What follows is a day of collisions – though in Patchett’s story, they are better called interactions – between black and white, religion and politics, family and strangers, plus numerous visits to the hospital. At the book’s core is the woman who gave her body to save Tip’s, and the question, why she did it. Why would she feel responsible for him? And why, in turn, would the Doyles become responsible for the girl, Kenya? Patchett, who appears Wednesday, Jan. 30, in the opening event of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series, sees “Run” in political terms. (The title refers to several things, including Tip, Teddy and Kenya’s shared talent for footraces, as well as campaigning for elected office.) The names Tip and Teddy, of course, come from two of Massachusetts’ most noted politicians. Patchett says she originally wanted to set the story in New Jersey, bringing into contrast the rich (the bucolic college town of Princeton) and the poor (the blighted Paterson). But for various reasons, she discarded New Jersey, and relocated to Massachusetts (she had lived for a while in Cambridge). With the new setting, politics loomed larger.”There was a big Joe Kennedy thing,” said Patchett. “The idea of Joe Kennedy throwing his sons, one after the other, out there into office. You can’t fund anything in Boston, even vaguely political, even vaguely Catholic, without getting into the Kennedy story.”
Ultimately, though, Patchett wrote what she calls the “anti-Joe Kennedy” story. Tip, fashioned after an old friend of the writer’s, studies ichthyology with the fervor that Doyle wants him to pursue the presidency. (“How could you be that smart – and study ichthyology?” said Patchett of the real-life model. “To be that fascinated with dead fish?”) Teddy, with some trepidation, anticipates joining the priesthood.But Patchett, when speaking of “Run” as a political book, is thinking of politics in the broadest terms. The term “family values” has been on her mind, and it is a phrase, as defined by conservatives, she has come to detest. Instead, she frames the term as a question of responsibility: “Who are we responsible for?” she says. “The people we share our DNA with? The child left without a mother in an accident? I think these are very political questions. When you hold them up in a larger context, it’s family values in a bigger way. It’s community values. Who do you take care of? Who is your child? Who do you take responsibility for? It’s very noble to adopt a couple of black kids. But what about those you wouldn’t think of adopting? The ones who just bump up against your door? It’s not political like, ‘Hey, who’s running for president?'”In fact, the person who ran for president – and won – the last two elections has played a prominent role in making Patchett see big social issues in political terms. “All of my political issues have become so much stronger during the seven years of the Bush era,” she said. “I see politics everywhere – even the politics of decency and courtesy. But they feel more social. It’s getting blurrier.”Another phrase – actually, a question – that Patchett has come to dislike is one too familiar to creative people, and probably novelists in particular: Where do your ideas come from? When I spoke to her – and posed a more subtle variation on the question – she was in a generous mood. Though she hints if the question had come up in November, at the tail end of her book tour, she likely would have growled.Patchett comes up with a fine answer. Her books, she says, are inspired by her past writing – “by what I did, or didn’t do, in one book, I’ll do in the next.” In “Bel Canto,” for instance, about a hostage-taking, time was practically suspended for its characters. So in “Run,” Patchett gave herself a 24-hour period to pack her story into.”‘Bel Canto’ almost drove me crazy. You could take three months to read it. They lose contact. They watch the fog. It has a dream state,” she said. “I wanted to write a book where you could read it in one sitting, a page-turner. I wanted to work in the constraints of time. With ‘Bel Canto,’ I’d think, ‘OK, there’s three scenes – and it doesn’t matter which one happens next. ‘Run’ is very responsible to the clock.”
And where “Bel Canto” was romantic, Patchett took all romance out of “Run.” The novel’s only kiss, she notes, takes place between brothers.So what aspect of “Run” is inspiring her next novel? Tip’s interest in dead fish. Her next novel is set in the Amazon, and encompasses pharmacology, drug development, malaria. Patchett, who says the next book owes a great debt to Henry James’ “The Ambassadors,” is reading “River of Doubt,” about Teddy Roosevelt’s trip to South America, and Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana.””I had a bit of science in ‘Run,’ and I enjoyed the studying of it a lot,” she said. “You should see the pile of books on my desk about plants, the Amazon.”This is my happy time, when I’m looking at maps and coming up with names. I can do that for a long time.”Ann Patchett appears in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series Wednesday, Jan. 30, at 5:30 p.m. at the Given Institute.firstname.lastname@example.org
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