“I didn’t want short stories; I wanted to write a novel,” said award-winning novelist Ann Patchett, the keynote speaker for this year’s Southern Literary Festival.
Speaking to the crowded Student Union Ballroom, the Nashville author detailed her personal journey as a writer, from her inspirations, to how she ended up speaking at so many university convocations.
People may think inspiration always strikes in the middle of the night, prompting you to write down your ground-breaking idea on a Kroger receipt — but inspiration is a little grittier then that, and a whole lot more time consuming. In fact, there were five things that inspired Patchett’s first novel, when she was just any other 25-year-old waitress at TGI Friday’s: revenge, since no one thought she’d go anywhere; the idea that writing would save her life; the stories that she believed were waiting to be told; mastering formal technique — third-person omniscient point of view to be exact; and just the desire to write a novel and be a novelist.
“I needed something as big as a novel to pull me out of the circumstances of my life,” said Patchett. “I always pictured myself finishing my first book and then standing on it, as a way of pulling myself out of the novel sized hole I was in.”
And a hole she was in. Divorced, 25 and living in her mother’s guest bedroom — because her mother wasn’t the type to keep the children’s bedrooms the same — was an humbling experience, and without a doubt the happiest moment of her life back then was the completion of her novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. After checking the list of her inspirations, she found that her goal at that point was to have a career, a thought that had never come to her prior.
“Instead of trying to write a book I wanted a body of work that informed each other, sort of like a rubric cube that makes patterned sense,” said Patchett.
But she would always spend her time writing stories about the Amazon, and opera singers and homes for unwed mothers, things she had no real life experience with, for the sad feeling that almost every writer experiences at some point in their career: fear of insulting the ones you love. Her first dive into the world of personal writing came with Truth and Beauty, which was about her friend Lucy Grealy, who died of a drug overdose. Met with criticism from those close to her, Patchett often buckled under the expectations of her family’s rejection.
With This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, creative nonfiction about her family’s history of divorce, the fear of insulting her family made her feel like she was “on the interstate at two in the morning, writing with a legal pad on the yellow line.”
“The scariest thing you can do as a writer is write about your family,” said Patchett. “[Before] I was actually cutting myself off from 85 percent of my own life experience.”
Fortunately for Patchett, her illustrious career didn’t end with her writing novels with “no sex, no smoking, and no language” — criteria she believes has earned her the experience of speaking at so many college convocations. Her newest novel, Commonwealth, out this September, will be about a broken family in Southern California that actually has a book written about their struggles.
None of this might have been possible if her life hadn’t taken the route it did, and Patchett is ever grateful for it.
“I’m so glad that my journey went the way it went,” said Patchett. “If I’d written [The Patron Saint of Liars] at 25, I would’ve thought I’d used all my material and had no where else to go…it’s good to know that [I now] have both an imagination and a life to work from.”
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