It’s not news that Ann Patchett is a great writer. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize in 2002 and two other novels (The Magician’s Assistant and State of Wonder) have been shortlisted. What is news is that she is a fascinating person, who has led a strange and rather wonderful life both as a writer and in other incarnations, all documented here in glorious novelistic detail.
This collection of 22 essays spans Patchett’s career as a novelist (and admittedly a lot of it is about “the writer’s life”) but it also has some shocking jolts: her painful early divorce, going on the road in a Winnebago called Minnie, her attempts to join the Los Angeles Police Department (she taught herself to scale a six-foot wall). The title story is about her current marriage to her husband Karl, which she calls “the great joy and astonishment of my life”. The secret, apparently, is to be able to nod when asked the question: “Does your spouse make you a better person?”
Parts of her life (and writing) are reminiscent of Nora Ephron. She writes about years of contributing to glossy magazines, where editors were frustrated that she didn’t write exactly what they would have written themselves.
It’s an impassioned and funny defence of writing for women’s magazines: “I will never be a war correspondent or an investigative reporter, but the tradition I come from is an honorable one, and, at times, daunting.” This collection shows what a great non-fiction writer she is. But it also reveals how writing about real life became frustrating and led her to fiction.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping essay is about something that happened to her seven years ago which would probably now fall under the category of “trolling”. Patchett’s blistering memoir Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, was about her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, an extraordinary woman who died at the age of 39. Grealy had cancer as a child, had 38 reconstructive surgeries on her face and wrote fearlessly of her experience of life and how people reacted to her appearance.
Patchett’s tribute to their friendship talked about their college days and experimentation: sex, drugs, alcohol. One critic decided there was “an implied lesbian relationship” (there wasn’t) and wrote that “the love between two women is not normal”. The Bible Belt awoke and decided the book was obscene and anti-religious. It took Patchett a while to recover from the wrong-headed criticism.
This is also an essential book for anyone who wants to write or who is fascinated by the habits of writers. She catalogues in detail the peculiar combination of procrastination and self-belief that kept her going when she couldn’t get novels finished let alone published. She goes through every failure and success in detail, even outlining her advances: “When I arrived home four days later, my mother came out to the driveway to meet me. An editor at Houghton Mifflin had bought The Patron Saint of Liars for $45,000.”
Patchett explains perfectly the state of wanting to avoid the thing you know you need to do most – to write. “I have a habit of ranking everything in my life that needs doing. The thing I least want to do is number one on the list, and that is almost always writing fiction.”
What a good job she’s occasionally able to fight back against herself.