Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On Dogs and Ann Patchett

In society, fiction lays the groundwork for a compassionate life, said author Ann Patchett, who appeared at a Borders in Northern Virginia last night to promote her new book, Run.

“The importance of fiction in society is that we need to imagine the lives of others,” Patchett said. “That is the essence of a compassionate life.”

The 43-year-old Patchett quickly engaged the audience with her disarming candor, delightful sense of humor and bold, animated reading style.

Although she is on tour to promote Run, Patchett said she has actually embarked on the “book tour of failing eyesight,” as she donned a pair of reading glasses. She attributed the need for reading glasses to William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Midway through the novel, she said, her eyesight began to fail. She’s currently reading the large-print version of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.

The book tour is also about Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty, her two previous books. “People come for your last book,” she said. Bel Canto propelled Patchett into the upper ranks of American authors – it was short-listed for the National Book Critics 2001 award for fiction and won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner prize for fiction. In Truth & Beauty, Patchett turned to non-fiction – her first such effort – with a powerful memoir about her decades-long friendship with the late author, Lucy Grealy.

“I love that book,” Patchett said. “It’s where I put my memories.”

In response to audience questions, Patchett said she is never surprised by the direction her writing takes because she spends a great deal of time in preparation before she begins writing. She expressed skepticism of authors who talk airily about their characters seizing control of the narrative, suggesting it was unprofessional on their part.

When asked about writing outside her realm of personal experience – Bel Canto was about an opera singer held hostage at a Japanese embassy in South America – Patchett said, “Writing about what you know is OK if what you know is interesting . . . but there’s nothing going on with me.”

She said her work style is haphazard and that she does not write every day. “I don’t have something to say every day,” Patchett said.

Patchett received an unusual introduction. The Borders employee read a brief essay she had written for Outside magazine about the importance of making a loving commitment to a dog. Her essay concludes:

Dogs know something about love writ large. The rotten part is that their life span is so much shorter than ours. Barring some seriously bad luck, I will outlive Rose by a large margin. She is 11 now. She has cataracts, and her back legs are weak. When we take long hikes, I always wind up carrying her home on my shoulders. Rose has taught me how to be a better person. I'm not sure I've taught her anything, except how to tell me when she wants another biscuit. Rose could not be a better dog. When she dies, I imagine I will howl like her ancestors, but the inevitable end of a relationship is no reason not to go there in the first place.

During her talk, Patchett said she was glad she wrote Truth & Beauty because the writing helped her deal with the loss of her friend and that now the book gave people a reason to ask her about her feelings around the loss of Lucy. She said people want to talk about those feelings, but seldom have the opportunity.

I never do this sort of thing with an author. I never assume we’re making some sort of connection, but this must have felt like an invitation.

After the reading, as Patchett prepared to sign my copies of Run and Bel Canto, I said, I’d love talk with you about dogs. Do you have dogs? she asked. Two, I said. Black-top corgis. Gracie and Dolly. She paused between books and fished something from her purse. It was photographs of her dog, Rose.

Somehow I found myself telling Patchett about last year when I lost my mother and my beloved seven-year-old corgi, Regis, in a matter of months. I’d had five years to prepare for mom’s death from cancer, but Regis’ death came quickly and unexpectedly. I was away on business when he was put down and had no time to prepare for the loss. When my wife called with the news I was on a shuttle bus at the airport and, at 52, I sobbed. I sobbed all through a sleepless night and was morose for weeks. It’s still hard to think about him. It’s hard to explain, I said, and I feel bad, but it was harder to lose him than my mom. It was the expected vs. the unexpected.

Later, after returning home, I opened Bel Canto to the title page to see what Patchett had written. She said, “To John, From my good dog to your good dogs. I understand. Ann Patchett.”

I think she does understand, and in that understanding she derives her power as a novelist.

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