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Patchett uses freedom as her guide in tackling literary goals

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

When Ann Patchett’s novel “The Magician’s Assistant,” hit the shelves in 1997, it did well.By the standards of Patchett, a writer of literary novels built around language and character, “The Magican’s Assistant,” her third novel, did extremely well. So well that, when Patchett embarked on her fourth novel, she did so with a big advance and the feeling that she could do anything.”By my standards, ?The Magician’s Assistant? did very well. And it was about a gay magician,” said Patchett, who is among the writers and publishing world insiders scheduled to appear at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival. The event runs Saturday through Wednesday. “It gave me this freedom: I thought, I can write about whatever I want.”So Patchett began to write a book about a hostage situation, loosely based on the 1996 takeover of the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru. But in Patchett’s telling, the story isn’t about guns, politics and negotiations. In Patchett’s “Bel Canto,” published in 2001, the hostage situation is a springboard to examinations of love, unexpected pleasures, life alterations and above all, the transformative power of art.Virtually all of the novel takes place in one house. The central character is a world-famous opera singer. The action consists not of gunplay, but of translating from one language to another. Seriously.”I went into it thinking, nobody’s going to read this,” said the 39-year-old Patchett, a Nashville resident whose previous novels had focused on a home for unwed mothers (1992’s “The Patron Saint of Liars”) and a black nightclub owner (1994’s “Taft”). “I’ve always written what I wanted. It’s got to be able to hold my interest.”Patchett proved a better writer than prognosticator. “Bel Canto” not only became a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner and National Book Critics’ Circle Award, it was also a commercial success. “The amazing, staggering part of the story is that it became a bestseller,” she said. “This incredibly weird, obscure book about terrorism and art connected with people.”Patchett was equally amazed to see how many different angles there were to find in “Bel Canto.””This is a book that, depending on who the reader is, is about a lot of different things,” she said. “It’s a book about opera. It’s a book about politics. It’s a book about romance and love.”For Patchett ? and this reader ? “Bel Canto” is about the extraordinary powers of art. As the fictional soprano Roxane Coss begins to sing daily for the group of hostages and captors, all walls break down. Violence and politics become afterthoughts. Captors fall in love with hostages. Japanese and Americans and Russians and French and Peruvians form a miniature society built around the beauty of Coss’ voice. In the midst of it all is Gen, the memorable, dutiful translator.”For me, it’s about the redemptive power of art,” said Patchett. The subject of opera was a new one for Patchett. But as she thought out “Bel Canto,” she realized that opera must be at the center of the story.”When I started this book, I knew nothing about opera,” she said. “I made a list of all the things she could be. She could have been a cellist, but that wouldn’t have been as convincing, to say people were swept away by a cellist. The voice seemed the natural choice. Opera is the greatest art form; it embraces theater and writing and music and often dance.”Contrary to many indications, Patchett doesn’t believe the art form of the literary novel is in such terrible shape. She has the success of “Bel Canto” to bolster her claim.”The truth is, good books do come through. It’s not unheard of that good literary fiction makes its way up the list,” she said. For this, she thanks Oprah Winfrey and her televised book club. “She got us in the habit of being adventurous readers. She told us we could go outside the brand names.”Patchett herself is going beyond the lines of the obvious for her next book. She is currently at work on a memoir about her 20-year friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy. Grealy, author of 1994’s “Autobiography of a Face,” a memoir of her battle with jaw cancer, died late last year. It is Patchett’s first nonfiction work, and though the subject is often painful, she finds writing nonfiction a simpler process than creating fiction.”You get up in the morning and know what you have to write next,” she said. “The plot is your life; the plot happened.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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