Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
KrisAnne Madaus, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ann Patchett about her book Commonwealth (HarperCollins), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Commonwealth is the story of how one small action can change lives—in this case the lives of two families that merge to become one after an uninvited guest brings gin to the christening party for the new baby girl, Franny. From here, there are the subsequent divorces and marriages. The children grow up and have families of their own and dramas of their own. (The book is incredibly layered.) It's a fifty-year journey from childhood yards full of orange trees in Los Angeles to an apartment in Brooklyn and to a remote village in the Swiss Alps. And though the distance has grown among the family members, there is a still an unbreakable thread connecting them all--still some gin to share.
I had the pleasure of asking Ann Patchett about Commonwealth, the name she’s made for herself throughout the years, and her growing role as a spokesperson for indie bookstores since the opening of Parnassus, the Nashville bookstore she opened with Karen Hayes in 2011.
KrisAnne Madaus: Commonwealth is a great example of how recognized you are as a writer. I read parts of the book on the subway to and from work and can’t tell you how many people came up to me to comment that they’d read it or that they’d seen this book with the oranges on it everywhere and it better be good. (It is.) How have the awards and recognition over the years changed you?
Ann Patchett: For better or for worse, my life keeps me grounded. I constantly struggle to figure out a way to prioritize writing over housework and grocery shopping. I’m close to my neighbors, have friends from grade school in Nashville, see a lot of my family. Awards and recognition can’t stand up to all of that. People in Nashville are very respectful of other people’s privacy. Nicole Kidman and I shop in the same grocery store and it’s a lot more exciting to see Nicole. That said, I also understand that I have civic responsibilities — to my city, to booksellers, to the larger community of writers. I try to put whatever clout I’ve gained to good use.
KM: I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that represents the modern, complicated family as well as Commonwealth does. Do you think it’s important to document the changes in our society’s view of what constitutes a family? Was this something you were thinking about while writing?
AP: Yes. One of the things about owning a bookstore is that I’m very aware of the books that are out there, and while there are plenty of wonderful and complex family novels, I didn’t feel that the kind of family I had come from—sprawling, imperfect, affectionate, constantly reconfigured—was represented. The funny thing is I used so much restraint when I was writing Commonwealth. It was so tempting to dive into the family of the mother’s third marriage and see how far I could go with them. I should also say I don’t know that I was documenting society’s views or current views. The fracturing of the American family really got going in the 1960s. I wanted to show long term effects.
KM: There are so many characters and we get to see some of the young ones into adulthood. First, what challenges did you face with balancing all eleven family members? And second, did these character developments from childhood to adulthood and adulthood to old age present their own challenges? Did you have the material from your family, or did it take some imagination?
AP: My first idea was to write a birth to death novel. They are few are far between. Liz Gilbert managed it beautifully in The Signature of All Things but I couldn’t pull it off. I knew I wanted to cover a lot of time, to show the consequences of one fairly small action on many people. I also wanted to show how people changed over a great deal of time. The kids are all pretty irritating (with good reason), and then for a while in their twenties they’re lost, and then they move into midlife and settle into themselves. They aren’t ruined by their childhood, but they’re shaped by it. I had plenty of emotional material from my own family but the things that happened to the characters didn’t happen to us. The facts of the story are imagined.
KM: You’ve said that all of your books tend to be the same sort of book, which, in my experience, is not an uncommon thing for authors. What does it mean when we writers keep circling back to a similar set-up?
AP: In my case I really can’t help it. With each book I think I’m doing something different, and then at the end I can see I’m still going back to the same themes. It’s like dating the same sort of man over and over again—you don’t think you’re doing it, but you are. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe if I ever answer the questions about family and class and wealth and poverty I’ll move on to something else.
KM: This is your most personal novel and you sent pages to your family to get their permission before moving forward. Were you surprised by their reactions?
AP: Permission would be too strong a word. I told them what I wanted to do, what I was doing, and then what I had done. I talked it out all along the way. I just said I wanted access to my entire life, which meant having access to their lives as well. Again, it wasn’t a factual thing, it was an emotional thing. Everybody understood that and they were very supportive. They love me, I love them, I didn’t have real concerns.
KM: Even if a book is partially autobiographical, I always read it and fit it to my own life (for example, I definitely saw one of my brothers in Albie’s character). Am I just self-obsessed, or do you find that to be true as a reader, too?
AP: That's a good question. I never thought about it before but that’s not something I do. I think too much about the writing and how that characters are made to really relate my experiences to theirs.
KM: Place is important in this book. There are so many locations, from Los Angeles to Virginia and a Zen Center in Switzerland. But no matter where a character travels to or ends up, they are still either loyal to or trying to escape their birthplace. Even small characters like Fodé and Bintou are lumped together by another character because they are both from Guinea. Can you comment on place and why there’s such an emphasis on it?
AP: I’ve always been obsessed by “Our Town,” both the play and the idea of that sort of life: you all grow up together, you marry your neighbor, your mothers are friends, and when you die you stay in the town and you know all the people in the cemetery. My life, and the lives of most of the people I know, has been just the opposite. We are restless, we spread out, we change our minds and wind up someplace else. Staying in touch, or, in the case of looking after parents, staying attentive, takes a huge amount of concentrated effort. This to me does represent the American situation, and having characters from Guinea or a character in Switzerland serves to underscore how far we must go (literally, figuratively, and, in Holly’s case, spiritually) in order to stay connected.
KM: Can we talk about Parnassus Books, the indie store in Nashville that you co-own? How has this venture changed you as a reader and a writer?
AP: I used to read for pleasure. I read to be smarter, to improve my own craft. Reading was all about my mind. I read some contemporary fiction but I rarely had a sense that I needed to read something that had just come out unless it had been written by a friend. Owning a bookstore has changed all that. Now I read books, all different kind of books, almost in the same way I read the newspaper: I read to be informed, to understand what’s current, what people are thinking about. I have a much better sense of what people want to read, what they’re looking for. I don’t know if it’s changed me as a writer, unless it’s given me more freedom. Once you really understand how many books are being published, how impossible it is to distinguish yourself in the flood, well, there’s a certain liberation in that. If a reader doesn’t like my book, doesn’t read my book, there’s still plenty out there. You don’t have to try and be all things to all people.
KM: I used to think that readers were either snobby literary types or best-seller types until I got a job at the public library in Milwaukee and learned there were readers for everything. Mystery! SciFi! The romance novels flew off the shelves. And if they weren’t there for the books, patrons were there for a quiet place away from the cold. I’m curious if you had a similar discovery at Parnassus. What’s the strangest thing someone’s come in looking for? Did you have it?
AP: You’re exactly right. I knew this from my friend Elizabeth McCracken who used to talk about her years as a librarian in the same way. There are people who only want dog books and people who want crossword puzzle dictionaries and I think, Do we even have crossword puzzle dictionaries? We do! We do a lot of special orders so the strange things people want we just have to get for them. I like the people who are just looking for a quiet place. They’re sitting on the couch with my dog in their lap. Or all the people who come on Saturdays and you know it’s their thing –Let’s go to Parnassus on Saturday!
KM: Also, I heard there’s a bookmobile. Do you drive it?
AP: I don’t. You need a special license and I don’t have one. It’s a beautiful bookmobile.
KM: It really is. Okay, and lastly, what are you reading right now?
AP: Pretty much everything I read won’t be out for another four months. There are stacks of galleys everywhere. Last night I picked up a Scott Spencer novel The River Under the Road that’s coming out in June. I’ve only read the first chapter but it was great.
Ann Patchett is the author of seven novels, The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder, and Commonwealth. She was the editor of Best American Short Stories, 2006, and has written three books of nonfiction–Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, What Now? an expansion of her graduation address at Sarah Lawrence College, and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of essays examining the theme of commitment.
KrisAnne Madaus is an MFA candidate concentrating in fiction at The New School. Here, she is working to complete her collection of linked stories inspired by her hometown. Her work has been published by SpringGun Press.