Books

Q&A: Ann Patchett On Marriage, Divorce and Squashing Cockroaches

OPB | Dec. 10, 2013 midnight | Updated: Dec. 11, 2013 10:01 a.m.

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Jason Bernert

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Ann Patchett may be best known to many for her award-winning novels — like Bel Canto and State of Wonder — or her non-fiction work, Truth & Beauty. But now Patchett brings something new to bookstore shelves: a collection of essays called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s made up of articles she’s written for the likes of Atlantic Monthly, Vogue and Outside.

Allison Frost of Think Out Loud sat down with Patchett to discuss opening a bookstore, starting out at Seventeen magazine and writing her newest collection of essays. The following are highlights from the Think Out Loud interview.

Allison Frost: This month as you know marks the two-year anniversary of the opening of Parnassus Books, the independent bookstore that you co-own with your business partner Karen Hayes. Happy Anniversary!

Ann Patchett: Thank you very much! And, I’ve been on the road and I missed it. We had a big party and I wasn’t there.

AF: It’s probably safe to say that it’s not everyone’s reaction when you see the two bookstores in your town closed to say, ‘I’m going to start another one.’ Why was this so important to you?

AP: I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to live in a city without a bookstore and I was just positive someone else would open a bookstore. There were a lot of committee meetings and people coming together to talk about it.

Can I tell you a story?

Jason Bernert / OPB

AF: Please.

AP: When I was in college, I went to Harvard Summer School one summer and I was sharing a suite with three other girls. I was 19. There were a lot of cockroaches at Harvard and one night there was an enormous cockroach in the room. It was eleven o’clock at night. It was beyond any cockroach you might be imagining right now. There was a lot of screaming. We chased it around and we finally chased it into the bathroom and we stuffed a towel under the door.

I went and got a security guard. He was an old guy. I brought him into the bathroom and he looked at the cockroach in the shower and he looked at us and he said, ‘You’re on your own.’ I looked at the three young women who were screaming and I realized that I had to kill that cockroach.

That was what opening a bookstore was like.

I just thought, ‘Oh, no! Someone else will do it. Someone else will do it.’ And no one else did it.   

Because I went to Catholic school for 12 years, the nuns used to always say, ‘If you can formulate the thought ‘whose job is this to take care of this,’ then the answer is always ‘it’s your job.’

That’s why I opened a bookstore.

AF: Do you have a favorite moment from those two years?

AP: My favorite moment was a day when I came into the backroom and three members of the staff were arguing, kind of heatedly, and I said, ‘What’s going on? What’s wrong?’ They were fighting about which Evelyn Waugh novel is their favorite. I look at the people who work in that store and I love them. It’s like I’ve created a place to keep my friends and my dog. They’re so smart and so well read and I think, ‘Why are you working in this bookstore? You should be ruling the world.’ Then I see them arguing over Evelyn Waugh novels and I think, ‘No. There’s really no other place for you to go.’

AF: Let’s turn to the topic of writing, which is what many of the essays in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage deal with. Can you tell us how your waitressing work led to your freelance work at Seventeen magazine?

AP: I tried a couple of different jobs, but I knew I was always going to be a fiction writer since I was a little kid. My fiction, I perceive to be literary and serious and I wasn’t going to sell that out. But I also wasn’t going to make a living doing it. So I had to figure out what to do to make money and pay the rent.

I had two skills: I could teach college and I was good at food service.  My third option was to write non-fiction and write really junky magazine work. I started off at Seventeen because I published a couple short stories there and I knew an editor. I had an ‘in.’ I begged them to write some non-fiction and the first piece that they let me write was a 200-word review of a first novel by a girl named Amy Tan The Joy Luck Club

AF: You wrote a lot of things like “How To Decorate A Locker”….

AP: “When The Chemistry Isn’t There.” “Getting Over The Breakup.” “When Your Best Friend Is A Guy.” “When Your Sister Reads Your Diary.” Yeah. Those American classics, those were all me. And for every 10 I wrote, I would get one published.

Jason Bernert / OPB

AF: How did the title essay “This Is A Story Of A Happy Marriage” come about? 

AP: This book owes everything it is to a friend of mine named Niki Castle. … She was the first person who said, ‘You’ve got to put this book together.’ I wanted to write some big essays. And about that time I got asked to write an Audible Original.

… I didn’t know what I was going to write about and I talked it over with Niki. She said, ‘My parents are divorced. My friend’s parents are divorced. We’re all kind of struggling, looking for love, floundering around in Internet relationships and you are the only really happily married person I know. You and Karl have a great marriage. I would love it if you would write the story about your marriage and how it is you are happily married.’

I thought, ‘Okay. That’s a really good idea for a 50-page essay. I could write about marriage.’ When I sat down to write it, what I realized was it was a story about divorce. It was the fact that everyone in my family from the beginning of time has been divorced in every possible direction. I really had to talk about marriage as it was born from the ashes of divorce.

AF: Why did you choose to marry Karl after being together for 11 years?

AP: I thought he was going to die. We lived down the street from one another. We were fully committed. We had been together for 11 years. He wanted to get married every day of those 11 years. I had been married very briefly when I was 24 and I swore, as God is my witness, not so much that I would never be married again, but that I would never be divorced again. After 11 years Karl got sick. It looked very serious, very quickly. We decided in the airport coming back from the Mayo Clinic that we would get married. We got a marriage license, had a friend sign it and mailed it in.

It was the only way in which I would’ve ever gotten married.

AF: Can you tell us about your next work?

I’m going to write another novel. I have one in my head. What I will say, I want to write the novel everyone else wrote when they were 25. I want to write the ‘too close to home novel.’ Wouldn’t that be interesting at 50 to write the book that I should’ve written when I was 25? We’ll see how it goes.


Ann Patchett appeared on Think Out Loud on Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at Literary Arts in downtown Portland. Listen to the full show online.

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