Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, follows one family through multiple generations, highlighting the unique relationships that form in blended families. Stepsiblings turn toward each other while turning on their own parents. They form alliances, however temporary, and keep secrets. It’s a tender but honest book, full of the author’s trademark wisdom in the face of great challenges. The elegant prose never glosses over those difficulties, the everyday struggles of being alive. “All the stories go with you,” muses one of the central characters, discontent with the mistakes she’s made along the way. But those accumulated stories sing in Patchett’s hands as she moves between years and perspectives, hovering above the events like a hawk, keen-eyed and knowing just when to swoop closer.
Commonwealth is Patchett’s seventh novel and follows such international successes as State of Wonder and Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award. Other honors include the Orange Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as being named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2012. Recently, Patchett has become as famous for her support of independent bookstores as for her writing. In 2011, she opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, with business partner Karen Hayes. This spot has become a cornerstone of the community, offering more than three hundred events each year. The calendar draws both emerging writers and luminaries such as Stephen King, James McBride, J.T. Ellison, Emma Straub, and Jacqueline Woodson. The business is staffed by book lovers and shop dogs, including Instagram celebrity pooch Mary Todd Lincoln and Patchett’s own rescue, Sparky.
We chatted at Patchett’s home in Nashville with Sparky nestled between us and a cake in the oven. She candidly shared her perspectives on how the media uses fear to sell laundry detergent, what she’d accomplish as emperor, and why writers should care about their character more than their characters. “I can teach you how to write a better sentence,” she said. “But I can’t teach you how to be a decent person, and I can’t teach you how to have something to say.”
—Erica Wright for Guernica
Guernica: Commonwealth seems to be the right novel for right now. There are peripheral issues that keep coming up, particularly with guns but also references to vaccines and insurance cards. When a novel like this focuses so much on a single family, how does the outside world influence the writing?
Ann Patchett: Certainly Bel Canto and State of Wonder—and a lot of my books, actually—kind of happen outside daily life. People are somehow cut off, even if it’s Run and they’re just cut off by the snow. This book is much more about daily life. I wrote this book while my father was dying, and the whole thing about insurance cards and medications and “Did you take your pills?” and “What time?” were on my mind. And guns are always on my mind.
Guernica: Your father was a police officer. I was thinking about that in terms of our current climate with law enforcement. Did you feel any anxiety about writing a character based on your father in these times we’re living in?
Ann Patchett: We’re always living in these times. If I had published this book in 1972, when I was nine, people would have said, “This is incredibly current.” I certainly have written a lot about police in my life, and it’s not only something that I know about, but always something that interests me. It wasn’t that I thought, I’m going to set out to do this again. When I published Run, people said, “You’re writing this book because of the sex scandals in the Catholic Church and having a priest around children, and you’re bringing in all this tension.” And I was like “No, no, that’s not it.” Anytime you write about priests or cops, they’re hot-button professions.
Guernica: I was wondering about memory, one of the book’s themes, and specifically who gets to tell a story. Who has that privilege? Are there added challenges to writing a novel with parallels to your own life?
Ann Patchett: No, it was easier. My novels are very much the same, as I think many people’s novels are. There’s a way in which I’ve spent my whole life not writing this novel. No matter how hard I try to do otherwise, the books always wind up being “a group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society.” I talked it over with everybody in my family and said, “I’ve been tying myself in knots all these years to make sure that I’m not infringing on anybody’s privacy or telling anybody else’s story. But I want to work a little closer to home.” The best line about this book was my mother when she read it. She said, “None of it happened, and all of it’s true.”
Everybody in my family who read it was like, “Great book, I’m going to go throw up now.” The characters are not us, but let’s be honest: my family members are the chess pieces, and I put the characters on top of them. It made it very easy to keep up with everybody. It made it very easy to be consistent with people’s personalities over fifty years and to kind of move everybody around because I could be thinking, Jeanette’s my stepsister and Albie is my stepbrother, and he would be doing this, and he would look like this. Even though everybody had very different outcomes, there’s that feeling—and certainly the memory of being one of six feral children in the summer on our own, doing things that we should not have been doing—that tribal mentality. That was easy to tap. Much easier to tap than a political takeover in Peru.
Guernica: I keep coming back to how tender the portraits were at the end, even though the characters are certainly not perfect. They have all these flaws, but it seems like they were lovingly portrayed. I would imagine that your family reacted well to that.
Ann Patchett: They were great about all of it. I talked to them about it every step of the way. As soon as I finished the book, I copied it and sent it to everybody. I met my stepsiblings’ mother on several occasions, but I didn’t know her. There’s nothing about [the character] Teresa that would have been like their mother. I always wondered about her. I always imagined her. It was nice to write about this person who I imagined. What would her life be like? And to bring her back into the story. To say there are no people who get discarded. In the same way, when you get divorced and remarried, nobody gets discarded. Everybody is still there. Even if their storyline is not directly yours. This is a wife who got left with these kids. What happened to her? I love that.
Guernica: Was it fun to write a character like Leon Posen, this sort of larger-than-life novelist who turns another character’s family story into a bestseller?
Ann Patchett: Absolutely. I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1980s, and those guys—those famous, philandering, drunk white men—used to come, and we idolized them. It was thrilling to sit at their feet and listen to what they had to say. I don’t know if that still goes on in the same way, but I loved those guys. I mean, Updike and Bellow and Roth were my three favorite writers when I was young and throughout my life. On one hand, that’s just tapping into a vein. That’s the easiest thing in the world. But also, I am Leon Posen. I am the writer in the book. I am the person who is appropriating stories that are not mine and turning them into a book. So all of the guilt, I get to kind of sit with it and work with it and think, Am I hurting somebody? What would it look like if I was hurting somebody?
Guernica: You mentioned in a conversation with your publisher [Jonathan Burnham] that you thought of this as a birth-to-death novel that didn’t quite make it there.
Ann Patchett: I set out wanting to expand time because my books had gotten tight and a little claustrophobic. I wanted to bust out of that and have a bigger time frame. I wanted to go from birth to death, but I didn’t make it. It’s like getting halfway up Everest and thinking, No, the weather’s bad. I’m going back.
Guernica: At the beginning, the children are not particularly likable. And I think that’s a criticism that female writers get a little bit more: Why aren’t your characters more likable? Is that something you’ve thought about?
Ann Patchett: Maybe it’s just a conversation that I haven’t been a part of, because when I think of characters who aren’t likable, I think about Franzen novels. I don’t mean that critically of his writing, because I think he’s a wonderful writer, but I always have such a problem thinking, Who am I supposed to like? I always feel it is a shortcoming of mine as a reader and as a writer that I frankly need to like somebody. I am not mature enough as a reader to enjoy a book in which I hate all the people.
I did like the idea of writing about characters over such a long period of time. And how kids aren’t great. By their very nature, they’re kind of selfish and tyrannical and loud. I think that people all grow up and have their same personalities, but you can say, “Oh, I can see the roots of this personality, which I didn’t like, but then you grew up, and I can still see you as that person, but I do really like you now.” Which is sort of how I feel about children [laughs]—I mean, about children who I knew when I was a child and grew up with, and they’re still my friends, and children that I know as children who I see growing up, and every year I like them more.
Guernica: I was taken with Teresa’s chapter, where she’s reflecting on her life and Fix says something to her: “Keeping people safe is a story we tell ourselves.”
Ann Patchett: You know, I don’t watch television. And I don’t really do anything with the Internet except check my email. I have a much higher opinion of humanity because of that. [I remember going] to a hotel gym at six o’clock in the morning, and the television was on, and it’s some drama in which two men have clearly kidnapped a woman. They’re interrogating her, and they put a plastic bag over her head. They’re suffocating her, and I’m thinking, It’s six o’clock in the morning! Why does anybody need to see this? How can I find the off switch? Seeing images of violence—it’s always about how somebody’s going to kill you. Some terrifying other who’s going to kill you, and that’s not what it is. So then you have to have burglar alarms, or you have to have guns, or you have to talk about your safety and the people you’re afraid of, these groups.
Guernica: In your Sarah Lawrence graduation speech, you said, “We are taught to be suspicious, especially of anyone who might not look like us or share our beliefs.” How do we fight that lesson? What’s the antidote?
Ann Patchett: I think probably to not watch television and not engage with the Internet. To get your news from newspapers. Very, very helpful. To not take in everything visually, and then to do your best, however you can, to make sure that you’re out in your community and getting to know the people you’re supposed to be afraid of. It’s not rocket science or new, but I really do think that our subconscious gets corrupted with fear, and fear is how news media—all media—makes us [watch] long enough to get to the Tide commercial. That’s all it’s about. Generating fear so that we can buy the proper laundry detergent.
Guernica: Do you think opening Parnassus Books has made you feel more a part of the community?
Ann Patchett: I always used to be an inside person, and now I’m an outside person. I used to do everything to keep a wall up around myself and keep my life quiet so that I could write. And now the bookstore has completely blown it apart. I am a totally public person. I will go and speak at rotary clubs. I will go and speak at schools. I’m so much in the community, but in a way that I love. It’s been such a positive thing. If somebody comes up to me in Whole Foods and says, “I loved Truth and Beauty,” I’m like, “Oh, um, um, thanks,” and I want to get away. Part of that is Catholic upbringing and not accepting compliments all that well. I don’t want to stand with somebody’s praise. Whereas now when people come up to me, they say, “I love the bookstore” and “Kids! Come here, come here! This is the woman who owns the bookstore.” That’s incredible. I can say to that, “Thank you for shopping local. Thank you for coming in. What are you reading? Let’s talk about books.” It’s about something I’m doing as opposed to somehow something I am. I feel comfortable and positive in that role. Because it’s about reading. It’s about books. It’s about learning. It’s about business and tax base. And employment and health insurance for employees and all of these things I’m happy to talk about forever. It feels great.
Guernica: It’s a role that you’re enjoying because it’s not focused on you as much, but on the store and other writers?
Ann Patchett: If anybody had shown me the paperwork for how my life was going to look in five years, I would have said, “No. That is not where I want to go.” I’m sure also that part of it is getting older and knowing more people in the community. I signed on to be the ambassador for a year for a group called Binc. It [provides] disaster relief grants for booksellers, all over the country. They raise money, and then if you’re a bookseller and you get cancer or your house gets flooded or you need help with education, you can apply and get an emergency grant. If your lights are getting turned off, you can get money from Binc. When they came to me and said, “Will you do this? Raise our profile?” I thought, Sure. That makes such good sense. Of course I want to be involved with that. I wasn’t that person five years ago.
Guernica: You’ve said that you didn’t want to live in a city without an independent bookstore. What do you think that these stores add to their communities?
Ann Patchett: You can’t take your family to Anthropologie after dinner and have everybody hang out and have fun. You can’t go and sit in the Gap when you need fifteen minutes to collect yourself. You can’t meet your friends at Williams Sonoma—I mean, maybe you can and walk around and talk about spices. Maybe you can do that! [laughs] But there’s so much the bookstore fills beyond selling books. You can bring your kids there twice a week and somebody will read them a story. I can’t tell you how many people who don’t have dogs bring their children to the bookstore. If there’s not a dog on the floor, they come to the back and say, “We need a dog.” And we [say], “Opie, go to work!” The kids will sit in the dog bed, and they’ll read to the dogs and play with the dogs. For a parent who isn’t ready to get their kid a dog, that’s great. They can have that relationship. With the exception of Mary Todd Lincoln, who is quite fancy, all of our dogs are rescue dogs. They are a fine group of mutts. That’s amazing to me. That you can come in and hang out with dogs. And you don’t have to buy anything. Nobody expects you to buy anything. Lovely if you do, but it really is about the experience of being alone or being together. How many places can say, “We want you to come here and be alone” or “We want you to come here and be together.” We have three book-group sessions. We have something like 350 events a year.
Guernica: Your calendar is intimidating.
Ann Patchett: It’s nonstop! We want you to come and hang out and meet people and have this experience. I went to an event last weekend called “That Time of the Month,” and it was women reading essays about influences in their lives. They weren’t women who had published books. Their parents were there. Their friends were there. It was fantastic. I think, all over, bookstores are doing this. It’s a really, really important thing. And I do say to people all the time, “If you like this, it is your responsibility to keep it alive.” I think that people get that.
Guernica: I want to ask about your recent op-ed in the New York Times, where you describe your childhood experiences with guns and then call for a total ban. Why did you write this piece now?
Ann Patchett: Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon, has a very popular, powerful website, and they wanted an original essay just for them. My publisher was saying, “It’s Powell’s. You have to write an essay for them.” And I’m thinking, Seriously? I have to write an essay for Powell’s? But I wrote the gun essay for Powell’s, and I had it all set in the email to Powell’s. My finger was on the send key, and I thought, I think this is good. I’m going to quickly run it by my editor at the Times. I’m sure they won’t want it. I’ll send it there to double-check. And they were like, “We’ll run it on Sunday.”
And I said to the Times, “I’m happy that you want it, but can you wait and run it in September?” Because I wrote this for my book. And they were like, “No! This is so topical. It’s gun violence.” And I said, “It will be every bit as topical in September.” I would no more have dared to write that essay in response to gun violence, because I would have thought, Well, who are you to [write about this] in the light of all that’s going on?
But it was a blast, no pun intended, to be able to say those things that I thought I was saying to a book-buying audience in Portland, Oregon. “Let’s get rid of all the guns.” Who cares in Portland, Oregon? Everybody’s like, “Yeah, whatever, of course that’s what we want. We all want that.” I wouldn’t have thought to write that for the Times. It turned out brilliantly because it is what I believe. I think that the conversation is starting from a ridiculous point, that the Democratic conversation should not be “Would it be alright with you if we had more stringent background checks on the criminally insane for assault rifles?” That’s not where it starts. I know that there are people out there who believe we should get rid of all guns. But somehow we’ve lost the nerve to say it because the most important thing is to not upset the NRA. And I think, Why not upset them? Why not say what we want and go from there instead of saying that this is not how we should behave, a thing so obvious even Sparky could figure it out? You should not have assault rifles in your home.
Guernica: I’m so used to the compromise language that I was surprised when I got to your essay.
Ann Patchett: Also, I was in Chautauqua, New York, a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if you know about Chautauqua, but there’s the music and the lectures and all of the things. I was having dinner, and it was me and my husband with David Lynn, who is a writer and the editor of The Kenyon Review, and Geraldine Brooks. And David Lynn said something about, “Well, when I’m emperor, I would have…” I can’t remember what he said. But then I said, “Okay, let’s all go around and say what we would do if we were emperor.” And Geraldine said, “I would get rid of all the guns.” She said she has this picture in her office of the giant pile of guns that were turned in when [Australia] had the callback for guns. I sent her the piece when it came out.
Guernica: That’s a good question to ponder.
Ann Patchett: Mine was, when I am emperor, I will abolish private education. Private schools, private college. All of these parents with money and energy and the drive for bake sales and a desire to leave their vast fortunes to education—everybody would have to be eating out of the same educational pot.
Guernica: I want to ask about Grace Paley.
Ann Patchett: I studied with Grace for a year while I was a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence. No, when I was a junior at Sarah Lawrence, because I had Allan Gurganus first, and Allan said to me, “You might not get her at first. But you will later.” And I didn’t get her. I was not her kind of student. I was always on time, I did my work to exact specifications, I spoke when spoken to. That was not the Sarah Lawrence way. If I had problems, I kept them to myself. I didn’t make a scene. And she never noticed me. We would go picket things and demonstrate, and she would miss classes, and she would miss appointments. I got my little nose bent out of shape over the whole thing. It was probably two years later, I was in Iowa, and I woke up one morning and thought, Oh, I get it. I get what she taught me. I get how she made me. I get how she was the most important person in my life. I didn’t get it at the time. It was that idea of having a single voice. That you can’t be a good person when you’re writing and a bad person to your husband or a bad friend. You can’t be a jerk in order to be a good writer. You can’t say, “I’m too busy writing to be political.” You are one person. You are the same person in every aspect of your life, and you have to be a responsible person in every aspect of your life.
It was huge. People always say, “Can writing be taught?” I always think, I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to do dialogue, how to do character, but I can’t teach you how to be a decent person, and I can’t teach you how to have something to say. And that’s what Grace did. She could care less about our writing. She did not care at all about our stories. They bored the socks off of her. But she cared that we were better people, and that we would be the kind of people who would have something to write about, and we would have something to say. She was working on our character, not our characters. I’ve never seen anyone else in my life who’s tried to do that. The class was about your character, and the stories weren’t interesting to her.
Guernica: That’s lovely.
Ann Patchett: Yeah, amazing. I saw her a few times over the years, and she was always very kind to me. But I was never her favorite or her pet, or anything. I never even came close to the inner sanctum, and it was fine. It was such an honor that I got to sit in a room with her, one day a week for nine months. Except all the weeks she missed. Because she was, you know, getting thrown into prison in Chile or whatever she was doing.
Guernica: The way you speak about her reminds me of the way you speak about writers in general. Even in Commonwealth, you sort of sneak in the names of all these books. I feel like your recommendations are always in the air. Every month you’re helping other writers.
Ann Patchett: That’s important to me, to recommend books. These are the books that I genuinely love. I read books I hate all the time, and I don’t mention them or talk about them. This is my job, my livelihood: the health and the well-being of the publishing industry. We’re all responsible for this. The By the Book section in the front of the Times Book Review—I get irritated when I read those, and somebody will only recommend books by people who are dead, because it makes them look smart. You know, “I’m reading Aristotle.” Well, great, but you know what, that’s not helping. If what we want to do is promote reading and writing and publishing and making sure this is a business that keeps going—because it is a business! It’s not just an art—then we have to take responsibility. I get sort of crazy and frothy when I think about this. It really matters.
That’s one of the many things about having the bookstore that I adore. I can walk into the store and say to somebody, “I’m glad you’re reading this book” or “I’m glad you’re getting this book” or “Don’t get that book. I read that book and hated that book. Let’s get you this book instead.” I was buying a book [recently], and there was a woman next to me who was checking out, and she had a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. I read Rubyfruit Jungle when I was sixteen years old, so this is going on in my mind: I can’t believe we have a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle in the store. Look, Rubyfruit Jungle has been reissued! It has this beautiful new paperback cover. I’m glad that Tristan [Charles], our book buyer, ordered a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle. That’s amazing! So, anyway, promoting books, loving books, living and breathing books.