Patchett returns to familiar turf with ‘State of Wonder’ |

Patchett returns to familiar turf with ‘State of Wonder’

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

BASALT – In the 2001 award-winner “Bel Canto,” writer Ann Patchett wrote about the relationships that develop between a terrorist, an opera singer and a Japanese businessman during a hostage situation – interpersonal dynamics which the Los Angeles-born, Nashville-bred Patchett has no first-hand familiarity. In “Run,” from 2007, Patchett conjured an Irish-Catholic Boston politician, the two African-American boys he adopted, and a young girl who stars in track and field – ignoring again the writerly advice to write about what you know.For her next novel, Patchett took it easy on herself. “State of Wonder,” completed but not due for release till June 2011, is about doctors, development of medicinal drugs and the Amazon – subjects in which she will not claim expertise. But the book’s central relationship is one that Patchett knows well – between a medical student who owes everything to a favorite teacher, and the teacher, who has completely forgotten this particular pupil.”The book is in no way autobiographical, but that’s an experience I’ve really had,” Patchett, who appears Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Basalt Regional Library for her first public reading from “State of Wonder,” presented by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. “I don’t remember my students. My teachers have had thousands of students, and I wasn’t important to them. I wasn’t their special, favorite groundbreaking student. I was really neat and got my work in on time – they don’t remember that.”But Patchett remembers how the relationship felt from her side, and that has made an enormous difference in the writing. It took her a relatively short time – 15 months – to finish what turned out to be her longest book, around 440 pages, and those days and weeks were mostly pain-free.”The last several novels, the primary relationships were ones I didn’t have any experience with. I didn’t have a toehold on any front,” Patchett said from her home in Nashville. “This one was a picnic because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.””State of Wonder” examines a particular kind of teacher-student relationship. The teacher, the 70-something Annick Swenson, “completely formed the life of the student, [the 40-ish Marina Singh], influenced her life in every way,” Patchett said, adding that her own college days, at Sarah Lawrence University, were dominated by a pair of writer-teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “Everything they said, my 18-year-old heart took it in. I based my personality, my life’s work, on what they said. And I was nobody to them. That’s an interesting dynamic.”Just as “Bel Canto” touched on South American politics, music and Japanese business culture; and “Run” opened up the world of Boston politics and race relations, “State of Wonder” goes places beyond its foundational relationship. Annick has discovered a tribe of women in the Brazilian Amazon who are eternally fertile, and immune to malaria. Settling in the Amazon to create a vaccine for malaria, Annick gets into the politics of drug development; Patchett says it is a “sort of ‘Heart of Darkness'” journey.The road for “State of Wonder” begins, unexpectedly, in the Roaring Fork Valley. A year ago, Patchett was slated to appear at a reading in Jackson, Miss., where she was prepared to give the inaugural reading of what was then a 50-page work in progress. But she shared the date with another author, who read first and consumed the first hour and 15 minutes of a 90-minute event. The temperature in the room was a frigid 60 degrees. Patchett – who has been a captivating reader and talker in previous Aspen Writers’ Foundation appearances – stepped to the lectern and said, “Let’s forget this, shall we?” “The audience jumped to its feet and applauded,” Patchett said. Almost immediately, her thoughts turned to Aspen, where she had given the first readings of “Run,” which became a New York Times bestseller; and “Truth & Beauty,” an insightful, touching memoir about her troubled friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy.”I said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll just leave it for Aspen,'” Patchett said. “Aspen’s turned out to be my good-luck charm.”

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