This Is The Story Of A Happy Reader
by Kathleen Hale
“Oh dear,” Ann Patchett said upon first laying eyes on me. I had just pulled into her driveway after finishing the second leg of a trip that had squeezed me from the crush of Manhattan’s deadlock traffic all the way to Nashville, Tennessee. I would like to say the hours flew by, given that I was going to meet one of my heroes — that as the billboards flipbooked from ads for storage units to ones for porn and God, mountains cropped up in my peripheral vision, all blue at dusk. But anyone who romanticizes road trips has clocked more hours reading travel books than actually driving. The truth is that eventually I ran out of snacks and my phone ran out of batteries and the radio turned to static and I had to yell like Mel Gibson in Braveheart to keep myself awake.
I had not exactly told Patchett that I would be driving from New York City. Instead, I had sort of just implied via email that I would be in Nashville for a ten-day window — a free space that existed on my calendar between various deadlines — and had let her choose the day. “Any day.”
She shook her head at the license plate of my car, flashing me a mournful, stricken expression that I would quickly come to recognize. I wanted to tell Ann Patchett that I’d started reading her books at age ten, and that everything she writes is perfect. But my ass was still asleep from the journey and I felt too embarrassed — especially standing in the shadow of her nice home, which she had paid for with books, to explain that I barely made enough writing to buy petroleum, let alone plane tickets.
So I stood there, fiddling with my camera.
“And you have it in your mind that you’re going to photograph me,” she said.
“I borrowed my friend’s Prius,” I muttered helplessly. “It gets great mileage.”
She led me inside.
Moments later, I broke her heart again — this time for answering her offer of a drink with: “That would be incredibly exciting, thank you.”
“Heartbreaking,” she whispered, handing me the seltzer.
As soon as my adult teeth grew in, another zigzagging row dropped down from the tops of my gums, like icicles hanging off the gutters of a house. I had butterflies in my stomach and a shark’s smile.
I first read Ann Patchett while waiting for yet another adjustment of the wires and elastic bands connecting the metal on my molars to a strap around my neck. I held a waiting room copy of Vogue across my lap and was pretending to like it because I’d seen beautiful women doing that. I thought if I struck the right pose and studied hard enough, I too could be pretty, or at least less vampiric.
The Patchett piece I turned to was called “The Sacrament of Divorce” (now included in Patchett’s collection of essays titled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage). It was 1996, and I was ten, which might seem young to read a grown woman’s personal essay about divorce. But my mom was divorced, and I was interested in the phenomenon of separation, and the relationships that preceded such fallout. My parents’ split-up felt like the biggest mystery of my life, the fact that my mom would tell me nothing the most unfair reservation. When I told her kids at school wanted to know, “Why?” She responded tight-jawed, “Tell them it’s ancient history,” which made me think of pyramids and pharaohs.
Patchett’s prose, though carefully curated in retrospect, felt at the time like a rush of secrets to me.
“The moment I decided to leave changed everything for me. I did the impossible thing, the thing I was sure would kill us both and we lived. And I kept on doing the impossible. I moved home and became a waitress at a Friday’s, where I received a special pin for being the first person at that particular branch of the restaurant to receive a perfect score on her written waitress exam. I was told I would be shift leader in no time. I was required to wear a funny hat. I served fajitas to people I had gone to high school with, and I smiled. I did not die.”
“I did not die,” I repeated, scratching under the polyester neck strap of my headgear. I reread the words over and over. It had never occurred to me that boredom could not kill me, or that grown-ups got embarrassed, too. That they found certain outfits humiliating or got shy in front of others. For the first time in my young life (over the course of which every dull moment had seemed to stretch out for what my book about dinosaurs called eons) I felt that all of this — the waiting rooms, school, my fangs — might really be temporary. It marked the beginning of my tenure as a happy reader. Up until that moment, adult writing had felt purposely dreary, at least based on my mom’s bookshelf, and the passages they had us decipher at church or on standardized tests (“Why were they always describing flowers and silence,” I wondered?). I knew from my teachers that my level of engagement wavered sharply between hyper focus and napping — my mind was prone to wander — but still I thought there must be something between the mindless chapbooks in my homeroom quiet corner and my mother’s parenting books.
The hygienist called my name and I padded after her, re-reading Patchett. I pored over that 1996 essay through the rest of the appointment — for once semi-distracted from the pain. And when they sent me to the bathroom to spit, I looked around to see if there were cameras before slowly ripping Patchett’s pages from Vogue, careful not to tear a single word. On the ride home I guiltily folded the titled over onto itself, not wanting my mother to think I had been spying on her, and when we reached a stoplight I tapped her on the shoulder, holding up the shiny, crumpled page, pointing to Patchett’s name.
“Can we go to the lib-erry?” I asked, struggling to talk because of metal in my mouth and Novocain. “I wanna read more of dis lady.”
Before launching into the interview, Patchett and I settled into her living room, she on the couch and I on the carpet. Her dog Sparky put his silky-haired butt in my lap. / “Maybe we should just get started,” I said, reaching for the notebook where I’d written down my questions. But Patchett beat me to it.”
Ann Patchett: Good idea. You know, I never would have done this interview except that Elizabeth McCracken wrote to me about you. And what did you do with Elizabeth? You were her intern? But that doesn’t make sense…why does somebody who writes short stories need an intern?
Me: Ha-ha, it’s like you’re interviewing me!
[Patchett stares at me, impassive.]
She was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute when I was a student at Harvard, and I worked as a research assistant for whichever fellows would hire me. When I saw Elizabeth McCracken was a fellow my head exploded because I loved The Giant’s House. I just went to her office door and I slipped a piece of paper underneath it: “I understand you probably don’t need a research assistant, but listen, this could help both of us; the money for an assistant is already built into your contract, and you’ll never see it. Let’s scam Harvard.”
That’s very smart.
She and I would go out to lunch and I would charge Harvard and she would charge Harvard. I would ask her questions about writing and she would encourage me to drink Guinness because she was pregnant and couldn’t drink Guinness. And I hated Guinness but I would do anything she told me to.
I would not drink a Guinness if it was for McCracken or for anyone else. I have higher standards, I guess.
Yeah, I was 21 at the time. It took me a really long time to really be able to say no to anybody.
I was just good at that right off the bat.
I bet you were.
[We giggle and smile at each other. Things are better than they were in the driveway. My heart explodes into rainbows.]
Alright, I’m gonna start asking my questions because I gotta —
— oh, right, okay, okay, I’ll pay attention here.
As of today, Ann Patchett is 51 years old and has published six novels and three books of nonfiction, including: The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, and State of Wonder, Truth & Beauty, What Now? and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
In 2011, she opened a bookstore with her partner Karen Hayes, and has since become a spokesperson for bookstores (In honor of her advocacy, and despite the fact that Patchett will never, ever read this because she doesn’t use the Internet, I’ve tried to limit all book links to IndieBound), appearing on high-profile shows such as The Colbert Report.
In other news, she is married to a good-hearted, handsome man named Karl, whom she loves — a deeply kind man who, when he heard that a stranger (me) had traveled by car from Brooklyn to Nashville to meet his wife and would be joining them for dinner, said, “Oh of course she should eat with us — Ann, let’s put her in the guest room.” Later, when Karl excused himself for bed, I bid him good luck with a difficult conversation he had planned for the next day and spoken about at dinner. He responded, warmly and gravely, “All I can do is go into it with love in my heart.”
“He’s so nice,” I said to Patchett in his wake, completely awestruck.
“I know,” she said, equally spellbound.
So one of my all-time favorite books is Truth and Beauty, the memoir about your friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy. I thought it was a beautiful testament to the passion of platonic female friendships. Did the intensity of your relationship with Ms. Grealy change your approach to friendships?
It was kind of the end of an era of a certain kind of friendship. I could never have another friend like Lucy at this point in my life. I wouldn’t be willing to invest that much in somebody. I think that there’s a way that when we’re young — when I was young — I was really willing to take on big things…and I’m not nearly so willing to take on big things anymore. Part of that is just life gets busier. Life gets really full and I can’t even imagine, now, doing all of the things that I did with Lucy. I would have stuck with Lucy, I know that — had she lived, we would still be doing the same things and I would still be pulling my hair out. I never would have given up on her — I might have killed her myself! I look back on all of that and I just think, “Really? We did all of that?”
It’s like, if any of my close friends hit the skids now, if something terrible happened, I would stand by them all the way. But I would never take on somebody who was troubled now. Does that make sense?
Totally. If someone you’ve committed to becomes mentally ill, that’s one thing, but you’re not necessarily going to enter into something new with someone who’s a —
— a train wreck. And when Lucy and I got together, I just never thought about any of those things. And now I would, and part of that, of course, has to do with her. She taught me a lot, and one of the things she taught me is that you can’t change the outcome for anybody. And I thought you could, when I was young. And I know now that you can’t change the outcome but you can bear witness. I can’t change your life, but I can be there while you live your life. I can validate the experience of your life, and stand next to you and be a comfort, but I think that you only get into those really, really tough cases if you think that you can change their life — if you think that you can impact the outcome and make a positive difference. I don’t believe that anymore. And I think that’s good because I think that’s kind of getting rid of your own ego and learning to love somebody and accept them for where they are and who they are.
So, how do you think that that friendship in particular cultivated your capacity for empathy?
I think that I was always empathetic. I think that maybe that friendship worked because I was empathetic, not that that friendship made me empathetic. I think that being around people who are suffering, no matter who it is, makes one more empathetic. Although my response to other people’s bad times tends to be “Come on, let’s pull ourselves together! Let’s think about people in Syria! Let’s go to the Chanel counter and do something crazy!” You know? I’m very action oriented. And I think Lucy always liked that.
And what role do you think that empathy plays in creating fictional characters?
Empathy is a really good quality for a fiction writer. I just think it means that you can feel somebody else’s life. I mean, not their pain exclusively, but their whole life experience. I think it would be hard to be a fiction writer and not be empathetic, although heaven knows there are plenty of them out there who are doing just fine! So, much for that theory!
I’m so beautifully cut off from the world of writers. I mean…do you live in Brooklyn?
That’s where they all are now!
That doesn’t appeal to you.
Well, city life doesn’t appeal to me. I like other writers, but it is really nice because in Nashville…I’m not the only one doing this here, but it feels like that a lot of days. I can close myself off in my world and write and feel like I’m doing something important. It would be very hard for me in Brooklyn to feel like, “I need to stay home and write today because this is a story that needs to be told.” I think I would just think, “Everybody else is going to tell it and they’re going to do a better job, so why worry about it!”
Like, if you were the only tap dancer…wouldn’t you feel more important if you were the only tap dancer, as opposed to one of 200 tap dancers standing in line outside of a Broadway show trying to get a job? Or if you were the only doctor, you would feel…like you were making a difference? I think when there are just a couple of you, you feel like you’ve got a really big role in your community and that what you’re doing matters. And writing stories…let’s be honest, it doesn’t really matter, we’re not curing cancer, we’re not saving the world, we’re making art…largely for ourselves and a half a dozen other people who are interested in it. So I think that delusion, for me, that I’m doing something that matters…helps.
Do you think there are any advantages to living in New York City?
I think it’s just totally personal. If I could go back to Montana it would be so great for my writing, and that New York would kill me. But a lot of people derive their energy from energy, rather from the lack of energy. The idea of going to readings and running into writers you know on the street could be exciting for people. The idea that you have to go to Brooklyn or go to Iowa is ridiculous, though. Writing is so internal. I feel as if prison would be a very good place to get work done.
Has living amongst writers ever helped you? Has it ever hurt you?
I haven’t been to a book fair for a very long time and the last time I went, every time time I turned my head I saw three other people that I knew. The experience of, say, going to writers’ colonies — going to McDowell and Yaddo — the idea of other people around you writing can be very motivating, and getting together at dinner to complain about how little you did and how stupid you are, that can be nice. But there are also 100 ways that it doesn’t work out. People are having affairs or crying, they have all sorts of problems, and you get pulled into that too, and then you have to write them letters of recommendation and blurb their books.
Do you think that emotional instability is part of being a writer?
Stability is really a matter of age. I’m going to be 51 soon. The last time I went to McDowell I was in my early thirties. And so I was much closer to that point in my life where drama was interesting. It’s not really geography, it’s not about being writer. I think if you’re lucky everybody grows out of it. Somebody’s trying to quit drinking and somebody got dumped. And it’s just not like that when you’re fifty. Do you find drama interesting?
On TV and in books? Yes. But I don’t live my life trying to generate it anymore for my own amusement, if that’s what you mean. I definitely used to.
What’s more oppressive to me right now (as a semi-young person or whatever) is this notion that what’s esoteric is smart, and anything popular is questionable hackwork. At college the culture was dominated by an East Coast sensibility that equated sullenness with intelligence and good humor with stupidity. And now, living in Brooklyn I run into acquaintances and all they want to talk about is so-and-so’s Twitter thing or an apparently brilliant book that put me to sleep.
You know what it’s like?
Someone asked me how my career had changed since Bel Canto…The difference is that now I’m the person who people in graduate school sit around and say, “that’s trash!”
That is the best gauge of success I’ve heard in a while. I mean, I love talking about books, but I don’t see the point in finishing or even beginning to struggle through a novel that’s completely boring simply so that I can put on my smart voice about the pros and cons of it at some dreary dinner party with other small people.
Oh yeah, I’m sorry for you. My friends and I talk constantly about books, but it’s more like you send up a warning — you say, “Don’t read this book, I read 200 pages and it starts out good but don’t waste your time.” Or somebody sending up a flare, “Read this!” There’s no sense of I want to impress you with how smart I can be talking about this book. It’s either you have to read this book or not read it. It’s all about time saving and the excitement of reading. But I don’t think there’s anyone in my group of close friends who finishes books they don’t like. And I think that’s a big difference between older people and the young people you’re describing.
The people I’m describing are more like, 30ish.
Where do you think it comes from, the inclination to applaud what most find too boring to pay attention to?
You know that section of the New York Times Book Review, “By The Book”? Whenever I read those interviews I get so frustrated because the subject always seems to say that his or her favorite book is some arcane thing or out of print. Let’s lead people toward books that are being written now. I’d rather keep the industry alive than have people think I’m the smartest girl on the block.
Has a critical review ever taught you anything, writing wise?
No. The reviews are specific to the book. And the book is done, and you can’t fix it. There may have been critical reviews where I may have thought, “oh that’s a good point, but there’s not a damn thing I can do with it now.” and it’s not information you can take into your next book. Right or wrong, everyone believes the next book they’re writing is magically different, and nothing the Atlanta Journal Constitution says about my last piece is really going to stick with me long enough to inform the next one. There should be a better system. I would love to learn, but…
Is it true that you hand in your novels completely finished — like, they aren’t edited?
I’m edited constantly. But it is a Catholic schoolgirl mentality where when I hand in my paper to the teacher I want it to be perfect. I do that by abusing my friends. Maile Meloy is one of my best readers —
Maile Meloy! I know her! I loved her story “The Proxy Marriage.” She’s great.
Isn’t she great? She’s one of my best readers. Also Elizabeth McCracken, Jane Hamilton — I read the last two books out loud to Jane Hamilton, which was an extremely humbling experience. She’d lay there with her eyes half closed, then raise her hand and say, “That’s a bad sentence.” or she’d raise her hand and say, “You used that word 28 minutes ago.”
I’m really good at taking people’s advice, too. There were long passages in Portuguese that I’d painstakingly translated, and then Maile read it and was like “You know, you’re not Cormac McCarthy.”
But I’ve never gotten any edits from an editor that took me more than an hour to complete.
I visited your bookstore earlier and was sort of surprised —
Because it’s at a strip mall?
People say that.
I guess in my head — maybe it’s the name, Parnassus. Maybe I was imagining flying horses, you know like, Pegasus, but there it is next to a Chipotle and across the street from a Bed Bath & Beyond. And then I walked in and it’s like Mr. Megorium’s. You feel totally transported. And there’s that little children’s area you can crawl into…
There’s a door you can use, as well. Anything else would be a fire hazard.
You’ve become pretty well known as a spokesperson for books and booksellers, and you go out of your way to promote current writers. I mean, you must have plugged like a million already, just in this interview alone.
Here’s another: Brother To The More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido. You’ll love it.
Would it be fair to say that you and Stephen King (who famously used the bulk of his National Book Award acceptance speech to promote his contemporaries) share a similar point of view about modern fiction — that is, you believe in the importance of reading good books that are currently being published, rather than very old books, or current but terribly boring books?
Yes. He’s such a prince. I finally listened to On Writing. People have recommended it to me so many times, and I’ve always been like, “Well, I actually don’t need to learn how to write…” But finally I did. I haven’t read Stephen King since high school because I have no threshold for scary. I admire him so much but it’s like hot sauce. I think he’s terrific. I like the idea of people sitting around in Brooklyn asking if he counts, and meanwhile the world is going by, saying that he counts.
Anyone with success is so above and beyond the critics who read them that critics assume they can take limitless pot shots. Station 11 by Emily St. Jon Mandel, for instance — when someone finally reviewed that book, the whole review was about how it shouldn’t have been shortlisted for the National Book Award. It wasn’t about her book at all, because the question on the table was now, “Doe she deserve this award?” Very contrarian. And I thought, “Goddamn, if someone had picked this up when it first came out, they would have said it was amazing.” But it got its review too late.
It’s just open season. I wrote a really bad mean review of Jane Fonda’s memoir — whatever it was, however long ago it was. And I really had this moment when I had done it. Because I read the book with glee, I was a huge Jane Fonda fan, I was very happy that it wasn’t good. I felt like Jane Fonda wasn’t a real person, so I could say whatever I wanted about it. I really regret it. It wasn’t fair.
Not to completely change the subject, but I feel like you do sex scenes really well. Even in your first novel —
But there are like four. I’ve written like, four sex scenes and they’re like, two paragraphs long.
Well, you do them well! And I wondered if you had any personal rules for yourself for writing them?
You know, every time I write a book I think, “People are gonna have sex in this book! There is gonna be a lot of sex in this book!” And then I write these books where the characters both walk into the room and they look at the bed and they’re like, “ehhhm…not so much. No, no.” And they walk out. I don’t know…I want to write a sexy book and I feel like I don’t. So maybe, in the very few seconds that anybody has sex, in any of my books — you know I’ve got a lot of energy to bring to the topic! Because I have not been wasting it.
Have you read any really good ones that make you feel like there are certain ways to do it artfully and yet keep it sexy and not….ridiculous?
Well one thing — and this isn’t original to me and I have no idea who it is original to — but one thing about sex scenes is it’s very easy to write a bad sex scene — to write about bad sex. To write about unequal sex, or violent sex, or…miserable, unhappy sex — that’s not a problem. What’s hard is to write about good sex and the kind of sex you would actually want to have. So that’s something that I really do think about. Did you ever read Endless Love by Scott Spencer?
You must. Immediately. I wish I had a copy here I would give it to you. That’s a book that I buy, like, in bulk, because I’m always saying to people, “You need to read Endless Love!” There’s a 17-page sex scene in that book that’s good. About good sex. Like, they love each other; they want to be having sex. It’s 17 pages long! There’s some great sex in Garcia Marquez. But that’s really, really…rare. Good, loving, happy “yes we wanna be here, yes we wanna be doing this” kind of sex.
I think the problem is the vocabulary. The vocabulary is…limited and tired, and so linked in our mind to bad sex like, alllll the sex words are somehow linked to bad sex, when you think about using them and then if you’re not writing about bad sex, how is it that it’s not corny or…sentimental, or you know. So it’s just really a trick.
I had somebody tell me, “Oh, I read State of Wonder in a class and they said the part where Marina and Andrews have sex at the end of the book was impossible because she was on top. Our teacher said it was completely unbelievable and unrealistic — there was no way the woman could be on top.” And I said, “Well, then your teacher just hasn’t been having good sex!”
But I’ll tell ya, the book I’m writing right now…I think people are gonna have sex! I am thinkin’! It’s…gonna happen! I feel very positive about the chances!
Can you tell me what it’s about, the book you’re working on?
It’s the book that I should have written when I was 25. It’s a real Roman à clef. It isn’t about me, but I’m using the structure of my life. It’s really fun and interesting because I’m doing the thing that I’ve always said you shouldn’t do: like, don’t write what you know; I am just totally writing what I know. Don’t sell your family down the river: I’m selling my family down the river. It makes me realize why people write autobiographical first novels. It’s just easier. And so even thought I’m writing about things that didn’t happen, I’m writing about them within the structure of things that did happen.
That’s really funny. And a good point. My first few stories were very autobiographical except I killed my parents in them. I gave everybody the same names, and then they would be dead.
It’s like a Shirley Temple film, you know? She’s always the orphan.
It was just easier.
It’s like the great liberation is for you to be the lucky orphan.
Yeah! A nice trick. I mean it makes the person immediately sympathetic but it’s also just easier when you’re starting to write to make people orphans, because I didn’t know how grownups acted.
Yeah, and I’m not good at giving my heroines children, which I’m thinking is something I should probably correct in this book. But we were not a big childbearing family. My sister had two kids, and one of my stepsisters had one kid. But we didn’t enjoy our childhoods and we didn’t want to give them to other people.
Why didn’t you enjoy your childhood?
I don’t think I enjoyed childhood. I wasn’t child material.
You just felt disenfranchised by the whole experience of being a child.
I was like a short adult waiting to get to the other side of the party. I never wanted to play. I can remember being really small, like 4 or 5. And those horses outside the grocery store that you put a nickel in, you know what I’m talking about? And my mother would always say, “Oh, do you want to ride the horse?” And I would always think, “That would be so mortifying!” I thought that when I was five, that seems really weird to me. I wasn’t natural as a child. Whereas I think as I get older… I think at eighty…I will be fabulous at eighty.
How does research factor into your novel writing?
I love research. And that’s always been the most fun part for me. I just like being in school. I like learning new things. Research just seems great, and I’m always thinking about, “Well what do I not know anything about? Like if you wrote a book about horse racing — Jane Smiley probably gets invited to fabulous horse races all the time. And I get invited to operas all the time. So my antenna’s always kind of up, going, “Welllllllll? What else might be out there that I would want to do research about?”
So when you’re coming with an idea for a novel, do think about what parties you want to attend?
Exactly! But honestly, I can’t figure out which one I would want. I so nailed it with opera.
I love ornithology. The study of birds. And yet I feel like, I already did ichthyology. Basically I would like to write the book Run over and over and over again. I would just like to go through the museum of comparative zoology at Harvard and write a novel set in every — this is a great idea, why don’t I just do it?! Just write a novel inspired by every department in the museum of Zoology. That could be my life’s work for the next twenty years. A whole series of books. This is my breakthrough moment, Kathleen!
I’m always going to remember. it was during that interview with Kathleen Hale that I realized I could write an entire novel about mollusks!
I love zoology. I love animals.
I do too. I love my life. I love my job. I am the luckiest person in the world. I have no regrets. But it is always interesting to think about… What if? And I think it really would have been evolutionary biology for me.
Do you think you can be taught writing?
Me, personally? Or you?
One. Here’s what I think. I think I could teach someone to write a better sentence. Absolutely. I could teach someone how to develop a character. I could teach someone how to write dialogue. Oh my god! So many people don’t know how to do that, and I do.
What is the trick for writing dialogue?
That you are not running a wiretap for the FBI. I used to have a boyfriend who was an assistant District Attorney in narcotics in New York and he used to have to read wiretaps. And he would bring them home, three feet high, two women who were watching television in their separate apartments, saying, “I need Pampers! Do you have Pampers? Did you see what he just did on that show?” Four thousand pages. They were girlfriends of suspects and it was a real cautionary tale in how you don’t want people to go on and on. And dialogue is nothing at all like how people talk. Dialogue, hopefully, if you’re doing it well, is a couple of well-chosen kernels that stand in for conversation, that represent conversation. Conversation is very boring. Even interesting conversations.
If you hadn’t gotten your MFA, would you still be a writer?
[dramatic whisper, like I am stupid but also we are having a sleepover] Yes. Yes I would. That’s very hard to even come up with more than a “yes” for an answer. Yes. I mean, my MFA did nothing for me.
How do you feel about the proliferation of MFA programs?
Completely unaffected. I’m so far past that particular hill. There’s a guy who works at the bookstore, who I love, who’s 24. And he’s really debating the whole MFA thing. And we would get together and talk and talk and talk about it. And the whole MFA vs. NYC thing, which I read. I didn’t finish it. I read part of it because I wanted to talk to Tristan about it — he wanted to keep talking to me about it. But it was one of those things where I was reading and my eyes kept shutting!
There’s a very good essay in that book by a writer named Emily Gould and it’s all about money, and her first book deal, and how she went into debt. And I love it — it’s just about money. I think it’s very refreshing when writers are honest about money.
It’s important. Young people romanticize writing when really it’s just a job that doesn’t usually pay well. And New York is very expensive. I don’t know how people do it.
So I’ve read interviews with you where you say you don’t cry.
I cry like once every two years.
Yeah! I saw that.
It gives me a headache.
And I think that your leading ladies are also sort of non-criers, and I was wondering how much of yourself you borrow for your protagonists?
It’s really funny, because this part that I’m writing now, the kids are all kids. It goes back and forth through time; it’s the first book I’ve written that isn’t linear. And I’m writing this extremely long chapter in which they all range in age from six to twelve or something like that. And there’s so much crying! So much crying! It’s like, one of these kids is always crying. Which is just true when you have six kids. Somebody is always crying. This will be the book that will up my crying quotient, and maybe the sex. We’ll have to see. You don’t want to feel like you’re writing people who are like you. You don’t want your heroines to all be you. But I do seem to have heroines who don’t have children and who don’t cry.
In what ways does reading influence writing?
I think reading just influences everything. And the older I get, the more I feel like my life is narrowing down to just reading. All I really want to do is read. My entire bucket list is books. There’s no place I want go, there’s nothing I want do. I just want to read! And every single night after dinner, Karl looks at me and says, “Well what do you want to do tonight?” And I say, “Oh, I don’t know, READ? How about you?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I think, let’s just read tonight.” As if we’ve never said it to each other.
But there are always things that I’m seeing in books that I think, “Oh, I want to try that.” Sometimes it’s just a word. I see a word and I think, “I haven’t used the word ‘bumblebee’ in a book in a long time. I’m gonna write that word down.” Not, like, it’s some exotic word. But just a word can be so inspiring. Or I’ll want a certain feeling for a scene, and I’ll remember a scene in a book that gave me that feeling that I want. And I’ll go back and read it, and I feel just sort of energized. Like, “Okay! I’m ready to go. I can do this now.”
There’s the writing that we are capable of and the writing we’re not capable of. I love Henry James, but that’s nowhere in me. And yet I love to read things that are nowhere in me. Nabokov? Nowhere in me. But, Updike? In me. Very much in me. There are a lot of people who are in me that I can read and get a different kind of encouragement from.
Do you feel like your writing routine is different from most people’s?
I feel like my lifestyle is different from many. I don’t drink booze or coffee. I eat vegan. I don’t text. I don’t use the Internet except for emails. I don’t watch television. None of this has to do with any dogmatism on my part. It’s just the way I’ve always been. I say no to a lot of things.
It makes sense to me that your lifestyle feels so inimitable, because that’s how your writing is.
When I’m engrossed my sense of time breaks, and so the interview with Patchett seemed to take five seconds, although transcribing the recording made it feel more like a weeklong enterprise. In reality, we wrapped things up in under an hour, after which point I excused myself, and Patchett expressed “deep horror” at the idea of my just “getting back in the car! 14 hours! My God!”
“I really do have a full and happy life,” I told her laughing. “I feel the need to tell you that.”
“You can’t leave just yet.” Patchett shook her head. “I’m too glad you’re here to let you leave yet. Do you mind a vegan supper?”
I smiled hesitantly, my mind flashing to leaving more than one Brooklyn dinner with a rumbling stomach, my mouth dry from eggless pies. “That sounds delicious,” I said.
“Good.” She nodded at Sparky in my lap. “You obviously like dogs very much,” she added. “I insist that you get one — tell Simon I said so. Anyway, let’s go see Nashville.”
By “Nashville” Patchett meant “dog park” — a woman after my own heart.
Later, while wading with Sparky through two different dog parks — one for small dogs, where we met a collie with a blue spot in his eye named Tommy Lou, and another for big dogs, because Sparky is brave enough for both — she told me a little more about the bookstore.
“Karen designed it. All that stuff you described, The Wonder Emporium aspect, that’s all Karen Hayes. Opening it was a no-brainer for me, and it’s thriving, somehow. There’s another small dog who hangs around the store — small like, Sparky-small. We recently threw them a dog wedding.”
“A dog wedding,” I whispered. I felt like I was in a dream.
Tommy Lou raced past our ankles with Sparky at his heels.
“Did you meet my nice employees while you were there?” she asked.
“Yeah, one of them asked if I was interviewing you for my high school.”
“Well that’s because you look fourteen.”
I shook my head. “I think it’s the backpack,” I said, adjusting my backpack.
We walked along in silence, following Sparky. I tried to think of what my ten-year-old self would say about this — hanging out with our idol — probably, “Say something.”
I looked around at the healthy trees and considered asking about the last time Patchett had been to New York, and whether the garbage everywhere had grossed her out, and whether she noticed that vomit drying in an airless subway car gives off a Subway sandwich smell. “Oh look, a praying mantis,” I offered, instead — an observation that would have made me feel stupid if I hadn’t known that we were both excited by zoology.
“Hello there Madame,” Patchett said, bending down to get a better look at the horror-movie-huge insect clinging to the fence. “Did you eat your lover today?”
We stared at it and I thought, “Good” — my younger self loved bugs. Then Patchett whistled for Sparky and we proceeded through the gate toward the big dogs.
“God, it’s like a mosh pit in here,” said Patchett, gaping at a Great Dane frolicking in the distance.
“Have you ever been in a mosh pit?”
She laughed. “No,” she said. “I haven’t.”
As the sun set that night, Patchett stood in her kitchen making me a vegan pizza.
“Would you like a glass of wine?” she asked.
“But you don’t drink.”
“Not because I’m an alcoholic! It just makes my skin itchy. Come on, don’t be silly, do you want red or white? You don’t have to drink the whole bottle. We’ll leave it open for the next drinker.”
“Red,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Is your lifestyle really so radically different from mine, Kathleen?” She smiled, pouring the wine. Her face is hard to read but luckily she is very direct. “Is New York City just a mosh pit of drugs?
I laughed. “If by ‘mosh pit of drugs’ you mean ‘occasionally I take over the counter vitamin things to fall asleep.’”
She cocked her head without judgment, her face forever lineless yet thoughtful, and gave me the name of several authors who would put me to sleep instead. Then she told me the story of a family friend whose kids kept trying to get her to buy a microwave. This was back in the 1970s, or something, and the woman just refused to buy a microwave. As Patchett recalled, the woman said, “I’ve done my part with modernity. I’ve grappled and learned, I know my way around, and I’ve taken the parts I’ve wanted. But I draw the line at the microwave.”
“It turns out I draw the line at a lot of things,” she said now, dropping peeled tomatoes into a blender with a flourish that reminded me of cauldrons and dancing. In lieu of comparable talent (which does not exist), or abstemiousness, any hope of emulating Patchett seems to require genuine magic. As far as I could tell, the only remaining way to follow in her footsteps involved matching the sheer amount of distance she’d put between herself and cities like the one I’d come from. In 24 hours I’d be taking the exit to Brooklyn, squeezing into another fact-of-life traffic jam. I’d be getting back in line.
“Now comes the portion of our evening when we will no longer be speaking,” she announced, powering up the blender. I watched the salmon pink whipping at the plastic, a would-be potion, trying not to think of myself in transit. The whirring of her handiwork drowned out my thoughts. I was, for now, a happy reader.
Kathleen Hale is the author of two novels, No One Else Can Have You and Nothing Bad is Going to Happen (the latter will be published by HarperTeen in 2015). Her essays and reporting have appeared in Vice, Elle, and Hazlitt, among other places.