Patchett always swore she would never write an
autobiographical novel. "I get too distracted by
the facts," she said in 2007. "No room left
for the imagination." If she wrote about herself,
"I would write the most boring book in the
until now, her most famous novels have been set in
exotic locales: Orange Prize winner "Bel
Canto" (2001) took place somewhere in South
America, "State of Wonder" (2011) in the
now here is "Commonwealth," her big new novel,
not boring at all, getting great reviews (the New York
Times called it exquisite), and it is about an American
family much like hers.
Patchett said, laughing, in a recent phone interview.
"It’s very funny, because my publicist said, ‘How
are you going to handle questions of whether or not it’s
based on real life?’ And I said, well, if anyone did a
modicum of research they would know, so I would feel a
little stupid saying I made it all up."
reversal about autobiographical writing came gradually.
It turns out she was less worried about being boring
than she was about upsetting her family.
then she read Roz Chast’s memoir of her aging parents,
"Can’t We Talk About Something More
Pleasant?" and the highly autobiographic Patrick
Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn.
are people who are drawing from their own
experience," she said. "There was an emotional
power to these books, and I wondered, if I allowed
myself to do this thing that I have not allowed myself
to do, if I could tap into some of that same emotional
was further emboldened by her own most recent book, a
collection of essays titled "This Is the Story of a
Happy Marriage," which she published with some
trepidation because it was so highly personal.
family read it, "and they were like, ‘Seriously?
This is what you think is going to bother us? Really?’
I thought, omigod, I’ve spent my whole life cutting
myself off from my own experience so I wouldn’t rock
anybody’s boat," Patchett said. "And then no
true and not true
opens with a killer first line: "The christening
party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with
book is fiction, not memoir. While the characters are
based on Patchett’s family, the details of the plot
are not from her life. "My mother said, ‘None of
it happened, and all of it’s true,’?" Patchett
said. "I think that’s kind of the best
story begins in California in the 1960s, when Fix
Keating, a police officer (like Patchett’s father),
and his wife, Beverly, a raving beauty (like Patchett’s
mother), are celebrating their new baby. A handsome
stranger shows up (with gin) and kisses Beverly, and she
kisses him back.
I wanted to do with ‘Commonwealth’ is write a
birth-to-death novel, which I did not quite pull
off," Patchett said. "I always want to grow. I
always, in every book, want to do something I haven’t
done. And I definitely felt that time was compressing
more and more in my books."
Canto," for instance, takes place over several
months. "Run," Patchett’s 2007 novel, takes
place in one day.
with "Commonwealth," she went the other
direction; the novel spans 52 years, moving gracefully
from narrator to narrator. "I like a shifting point
of view," Patchett said. "That’s something
that I really worked hard to master in my writing life,
and I’m good at it, and I love doing it.
wanted to move people over a long period of time, for
two reasons: One, I wanted to show the repercussions of
an action, the action being two people who are drunk
kiss at a party.
I also wanted to show how people change and yet are
still themselves. To see them grow up, to see them in
their 20s, to see them in their 50s, these people are
themselves, they’re connected to the children that
52, is married to Dr. Karl VanDevender, a Nashville
physician. They live in a pink-washed brick house that
she loves so much she wrote an essay about it for the
New York Times. ("I am in love with my house. It
would be my final wish to have my ashes quietly
deposited behind the garage.") She writes on a
computer in the back garden, or in a spare bedroom, and
is happy to see "entire days go by from dark to
dark, never going farther than the end of my
one thing that gets her out of the house is her famous
bookstore. Patchett never intended to own a bookstore,
but after the last two bookstores in Nashville shut
down, she hoped that someone would come to the rescue.
That someone turned out to be Karen Hayes, a former
Random House sales rep, "who wore the steely
determination of a woman who could clear a field and
plant it herself," Patchett wrote in "Happy
had the desire; Patchett had the money. They teamed up.
Parnassus Books opened in November 2011 and doubled in
size this year to 5,000 square feet when Pickles and Ice
Cream, the maternity shop next door, closed.
funny, because we haven’t grown into the space
yet," Patchett said. "Every time I walk in, I
think, ‘That is a lot of floor.’"
is not on staff but she is deeply involved in the store,
more involved than she had thought she would be. She
stops by several days a week. "I write a monthly
blog post. I do a load of shelf talkers," those
little handwritten cards with staff recommendations that
are tacked up in bookstores everywhere.
love recommending books. It is the greatest joy of my
life," she said. "If I go out on the floor, I
just go up to people and tell them, ‘Hey, let me tell
you what to read.’?"
too long ago, she brought a box of cookies to the store
and then just walked around, offering cookies and book
advice to everyone she saw.
rescue dog, Sparky — a small, fuzzy Ewok of a dog —
gets dropped off at Parnassus nearly every day, one of
five shop dogs. (They have their own blog:
tell you the best thing about owning a bookstore — all
my friends come to visit now," Patchett said.
"Jackie Woodson has a new book out, wooo-hoo!
Jackie, you can stay with me! I know you’re on book
tour and I know you’re exhausted, but you can stay in
my house and we’ll have breakfast together.
store is nothing but a joy in my life."
doesn’t read about herself online. "I have an
enormous amount of restraint where the internet is
concerned," she said. "I don’t ever read
anything about myself on the internet. Never."
when the sister of Patchett’s close friend Lucy Grealy
wrote an essay for the Guardian, taking Patchett to task
for writing a memoir about Lucy ("Truth &
Beauty"), Patchett did not read it.
day it came out, Elizabeth McCracken called me up,"
Patchett said. "And she said, ‘Don’t ever read
this.’ And I said, ‘Baby, that is all you have to
say.’ And I never did.
now and then something will cross my path, but I find
that when I read an interview that I gave, I always feel
bad. I always feel like I said something stupid or I was
making a joke that didn’t come off as a joke, or I
said something I shouldn’t have said. The only thing I
could learn by reading all the interviews that I give is
that I shouldn’t give interviews."
every now and then, chance intervenes, such as two years
ago when she noticed her own name in the New York Times
Book Review. It prompted her to write this letter:
was grateful to see my book ‘This Is the Story of a
Happy Marriage’ mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct. 19).
When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection,
the review mentions topics ranging from ‘her
stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog’
without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression
that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog
is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus
Books last summer as part of a successful fundraiser for
the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl
VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective