Ann Patchett, the author of Bel Canto and her newest, Commonwealth, was having lunch with Ralph Fiennes. It was during her freelancing days and she had flown to London to interview him. He was at the height of his “Ralph Fiennes-ness,” Patchett quipped.
After a waiter came up and told Fiennes he was an actor too, she asked the movie star how long he would have stayed a waiter if his big break hadn’t come so quickly. About five minutes, he answered.
Patchett had a different answer for herself. What if nobody published her work? “I think I would have gone on forever,” she said. “This is what I love.” She compared her work to that of a pianist: You know one, I bet. He or she creates beautiful music but no one hears, or her audience is a classroom of children or a single piano student. The pianist creates his music from love. “It’s a good life,” Patchett said.
Patchett came to the University of Baltimore April 20 to speak about her own inspiration. A UB alum (MA-Publications Design) and a great fan of Patchett’s writing, I had to hear what she had to say. It was illuminating.
Patchett started writing early — even though she didn’t master reading and writing until 3rd grade — and had an agent by age 19.
What has inspired her?
1 Revenge. Patchett was a 26-year-old waitress when she wrote The Patron Saint of Liars. She always wanted to be a writer — and her book proved to people she was more than they thought she was. It was the only book inspired by revenge. Once it was written, it was time, she said, to lay revenge down.
2 Saving my own life. “I really needed to write a novel to save my life,” she said. Patron Saint did that, too.
3 Desire to tell myself a story. This inspires every book, Patchett said. She writes the stories she wants to hear. “I want to read what’s not out there,” she said. For her that’s books about strong women not falling in love and not victimized by men.
4 Mastering formal technique. For Patchett, it was writing in Third Person Omniscient. She said it took 10 years to master it, which she accomplished with Bel Canto. Along the way, she added, she gained the skill of research, too. She learned about opera, terrorism and Peru for Bel Canto and magic for The Magician’s Assistant.
5 Write a novel. “That was the contract I made with myself,” she said. With her first novel, she had accomplished this goal. So she revised it: I am going to make a career writing books. And she certainly has.
5 1/2 I didn’t want to embarrass anybody. Her books have no sex and no one swears. Patchett also didn’t write about her own family — afraid of embarrassing relatives. But, she said, she keeps telling a story that resembles her life: a group of stranger thrown together by circumstances who develop into a family. But then she wrote an essay about her family and let her relatives read it. They weren’t embarrassed.
Turns out, she discovered, it was OK to write about her family.
Ann Patchett’s talk, like her books, has made me think. Long and hard.
Why do I write? What inspires my words?
Why do you write? What inspires you?