EXCLUSIVE: The inspiration for Ann Patchett’s latest book is “a hard thing to talk about”

The best-selling author talks about love, children, and working with Meryl Streep.

Ann Patchett has a confession. “This is such a hard thing to talk about, but I was very happy during the pandemic,” she says sheepishly. “You don’t wish suffering and death on the world, it’s horrifying, but really my dream scenario is that I would just be locked in my house. I wouldn’t ever have to go out to dinner and I wouldn’t ever have to get on a plane, and the person I would be hanging out with would be my husband. The world would be really small,” she explains.

“I had such a revelation during the pandemic. Everybody I needed to see was in a three-block radius and suddenly the people who are central to my life were the people in my neighbourhood. We would swap groceries and any time anybody went to the store we would say, ‘Do you need anything? I can get you this, I can get you that … ’ It was really lovely for my privileged self.

“I don’t have kids and I wasn’t trying to homeschool anybody and the house is big, there are plenty of bathrooms. But honestly, I know a lot of people who felt the same way, who felt like this was a magic time in which not only does everything stop but the presence of death makes us appreciate life.”

What is Ann Patchett’s latest book?

Ann’s feelings during the pandemic became the backbone for her new novel, the beautifully crafted Tom Lake, in which Lara, husband Joe and their three 20-something daughters are locked together on the family farm as the world grapples with COVID somewhere beyond our sylvan scene. As they urgently pick cherries, the sisters get to ask their mother to tell the one story that has always intrigued them – about her wild, whirlwind romance with famous actor Peter Duke.

Ann is one of America’s finest contemporary novelists, whose deep characterisation and soulful storytelling in bestsellers like The Dutch House, Bel Canto and Commonwealth have beguiled millions of avid readers. She says that her books – both fiction and non – are all diaries in one way or another and this is her “pandemic diary”. Ann came up with the idea for the novel when she was writing The Dutch House but it took hold when COVID hit.

“It is informed in an unspoken way by the pandemic and by the fact that this might not work out, so all bets are off and we might as well just be really close. In that sense it’s a diary. I also really wanted to write about married love and dull, reliable love, the love that you can count on, the love that you’re not going to set your hair on fire for, and just how nice that is.”

In Tom Lake we see that love between Lara and Joe and we want it to last because, yes, this feels like the holy grail, the union we all hope for. “I really wanted to write about two different kinds of love,” Ann continues. “The love you have in your 20s and the love you have in your 50s or 60s or whatever, if you’re lucky, and how we tend to idealise the love of our 20s, but actually the love of our 20s wasn’t so great. Personally, I didn’t love it.”

Is Ann Patchett married?

Ann first married when she was in her early 20s. It lasted a year and the divorce left its scars. In Tom Lake, the relationship between Lara and Peter Duke is exciting but emotionally devastating, with dark elements of power play. “It’s about somebody who’s so kind to you one day and so terrible to you the next day, that roller-coaster feeling. I think our body is somehow wired to think that’s love because I want it so much. He was so nice to me yesterday and I want so much for him to be nice to me tomorrow  as well, and that’s got to be love, but it’s not. “It’s like heroin, that somebody gives you the drug and takes the drug away, gives you the drug and takes the drug away – as opposed to if you’re lucky later on in life, there’s that person who’s nice to you every day.”

Ann’s second marriage, to physician Karl VanDevender, who is 16 years her senior, happened more than a decade after her first. “We waited 11 years to get married. If we had gotten married two years into dating, we would have divorced,” says Ann. “We waited and we didn’t live together, so if we would get irritated with one another after dinner, we could just say, see ya! To be able  to say, ‘I’m going home’ instead of saying, ‘I don’t think I can stand to be in this relationship any more,’ that was great.”

The fact that both she and Karl put their jobs first makes them an ideal match, says Ann, who adds that both “completely support each other’s work. If I’ve made a beautiful dinner – and this happens – and Karl calls and he says, ‘I’m walking out of the hospital right now,’ and I put the fish on and he doesn’t show up for ages because he’s gotten called away, I don’t care. I go upstairs, back to work. I do something with the time.”

Ann’s version of a long night at the hospital came more than a decade ago when she walked in and announced, “I met a total stranger today and I think I’m going to buy a bookstore and we’re going to run it together,” she chuckles. “Karl said, ‘Go do it, you’re going to be great.’” The bookstore – Parnassus Books in Nashville – has become a symbol  of people power, proving that an independent outlet could make it after the commercial behemoths moved out of town. 

Ann Patchett’s bookstore

Ann had never imagined herself selling books; it was the dream of local woman Karen Hayes, with Ann hitching along for the ride. “But the joke is, she retired last year. It is now my bookstore, all by myself. I bought her out,” says Anne laughing. “I don’t know how to operate the cash register. I don’t know how to do a profit and loss spreadsheet, or to read one. “I always say I am to the bookstore as Julia Roberts is to Lancôme mascara. I do not formulate it; I do not package it; I put it on and I wear it. I’m the girl in the picture wearing the mascara. I’m the girl holding up the book. And I do a great job at that.”

Through the shop Ann has become a key figure in the local community, which was devastated in March this year when six people – three students and three staff – were murdered in a mass shooting at a Nashville school. “It was just a mile from the bookstore. These people were our customers. Every person knew somebody who had been killed. The degrees of separation were right there for all of us,” says Ann.

Gun violence and the paucity of gun restrictions in the US is unconscionable for Ann who, like many in her community, feels helpless in the face of what she sees as political deal-making that has nothing to do with the American people. “It’s so frustrating and it’s all about money. It’s something like six per cent of the population that says, ‘I want to have assault weapons,’ and somehow those are the people controlling the whole conversation. We can also talk about reproductive freedoms. That’s another really upsetting thing.
An Australian friend of mine recently said, ‘It’s as if in your country they force you to have children so they can shoot them later.’ I said, ‘Yes,  that is what it feels like.’”

In her recent book of essays, These Precious Days, Anne talks about the only time she was tempted by thoughts of becoming a mother herself. It was when she spent a weekend at the farmhouse home of her editor and his three daughters. “It was the love, the house. The field, the dog … piles of books, the three girls mostly grown and gone, that made me think having children could be okay,” Ann wrote.

That motherhood attraction was fleeting, and Ann is famously happy with her choice. Famously because she is always asked about it, as if choosing not to have children is some sort of diabolical human flaw. “Total strangers have told me that I’m wrong” she writes. Early in her career at a literary event in which Ann was in conversation with a male writer, she was shocked when he told her it was impossible to be a real writer unless you had children. When she asked why, he replied, “Because until you have children, you don’t know what it means to love.”

It was, of course, a preposterous and deeply insulting pronouncement which Ann expertly explodes in her essay. Writers since the beginning of time have written about circumstances they haven’t personally experienced, and Lara in Tom Lake, a woman with powerful maternal instincts, is a perfect case in point for Ann. “Lara was a very easy character for me to find,” she says. “I really understood her and boy, I could make you an endless list of all the things I’ve never done in my life that I’ve written about,” she adds.“I’ve written so much about being a mother, being a father, being a brother, all things that I haven’t done. You just watch the world – I pay attention, I love people and I’m a good listener.” 

Anne turns 60 in December and while she’s aware the grim reaper is likely a way in the future, the concept of mortality is ever-present, not as a scary thing but a driving force to enjoy the here and now. “When I was 39, my best friend died, and she was 39 and she did not want to be 40. All she talked about was how horrible it would be to be 40. I think about her as I get older and I just think how lucky I am to be alive, how lucky I am to get older, and that there are only two choices: either you’re dead or you get older. So, I feel good about it, and the other thing is – I wouldn’t be 24 for anything in the world because I wouldn’t want to live in this world.I feel like maybe if I’m lucky I’ll die right on time. I’ll die before the ocean dies. I want to get out in time.

Ann Patchett on working with Meryl Streep

Helping her new novel on its way is Meryl Streep,  who has voiced the audio book. Ann contacted Meryl personally – fingers heavily crossed – and was thrilled when she agreed. “In the studio Meryl said to me, ‘When I start I don’t get it, the first 10 pages or so I’m not going to be good and then I’m going to come back at the end and record those 10 pages again and I’ll be good’. And she was right. When she started, I was sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t good.’ I was panic-stricken, and then by page 11 suddenly she was fantastic. She is perfect.” 

Grab a copy of Tom Lake by Ann Patchett now via Booktopia, $18.50.

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