Patchett, Ann 1963–
Patchett, Ann 1963–
PERSONAL: Born December 2, 1963, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Frank (a police captain) and Jeanne Ray (a nurse; maiden name, Wilkinson) Patchett. Education: Sarah Lawrence College, B.A., 1984; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1987. Politics: "Roosevelt Democrat." Religion: Roman Catholic.
ADDRESSES: Home—Nashville, TN. Agent—Lisa Bankoff, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Freelance writer. Ecco Press, editorial assistant, 1984; Allegheny College, Meadville, PA, writer-in-residence, 1989–90; Murray State University, Murray, KY, visiting assistant professor, 1992; University of the South, Nashville, TN, Tennessee Williams fellow in Creative Writing, 1997.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award for Fiction, Trans-Atlantic Henfield Foundation, 1984; Editor's Choice Award for Fiction, Iowa Journal of Literary Studies, 1986, for "For Rita, Who Is Never Alice"; Editor's Choice Award for Fiction, Columbia, 1987, for "The Magician's Assistant's Dream"; residential fellow of Yaddo and Millay Colony for the Arts, both 1989; James A. Michener/Copernicus Award, University of Iowa, 1989, for work on Patron Saint of Liars; residential fellow, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, RI, 1990–91; Mary Ingrahm Bunting fellowship, 1993; Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best work of fiction, 1994, for Taft; Tennessee Writers Award of the Year, Nashville Banner, and Guggenheim fellowship, both 1994, both for The Magician's Assistant; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination in fiction category, 2001, and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, and Orange Prize for fiction, both 2002, all for Bel Canto; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 2004, for Truth and Beauty: A Friendship.
The Patron Saint of Liars, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1992.
Taft, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1994.
The Magician's Assistant, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1997.
Bel Canto, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, (memoir), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
Work represented in anthologies, including Twenty under Thirty, edited by Debra Spark, Scribner (New York, NY), 1987; Twenty for the Nineties, edited by Monica Wood, J. Weston Walch (Portland, ME), 1992; and The Anthology of the Fine Arts Work Center, Sheepshead Press, 1993. Contributor of stories to Columbia, Seventeen, Southern Review, Paris Review, New Madrid, Epoch, and Iowa Review. Contributor of nonfiction to GQ, Outside, and Vogue. Editor, Sarah Lawrence Review, 1983–84; fiction editor, Shankpainter, 1990–91.
ADAPTATIONS: The story "All Little Colored Children Should Learn to Play Harmonica" was adapted as a play; The Patron Saint of Liars was filmed for television by CBS, 1997.
SIDELIGHTS: Author of the novels Taft, The Magician's Assistant, and Bel Canto, Ann Patchett has been hailed one of the most interesting and unconventional writers of her generation. Patchett's power as a writer seems to derive from her unusual ability to make believable the voices of a sweeping array of characters, running the gamut from a Catholic nun to a black blues drummer to a gay magician. In 1984, on her twenty-first birthday, Patchett published her first story, "All Little Colored Children Should Learn to Play Harmonica," a narrative set in the 1940s about a black family with eight children. Patchett, a white woman from Nashville, Tennessee, had actually written the play two years earlier when she was a sophomore at New York's Sarah Lawrence College. "Because I was nineteen, I had the courage and confidence to approach such subject matter with authority," she told Elizabeth Bernstein in an interview for Publishers Weekly. Patchett described the origins of her diverse characters as occurring in moments of fantasy. "I never thought it was strange to pick these topics," she recounted to Bernstein. "I just really believe that using your imagination is the one time in your life you can really go anywhere."
The Patron Saint of Liars, Patchett's first novel, shows just such imagination. It tells the story of a young pregnant woman who flees from a dull marriage, driving across the country to find a new, different, and unexpected sense of family at St. Elizabeth's, a Roman Catholic home for unwed mothers in Kentucky. Critics pointed out that the novel may strain belief at times, in particular because it provides no contextual sense of hotly debated social issues surrounding marriage and reproduction in the Catholic Church. However, as Alice McDermott, reviewing the novel in the New York Times Book Review, pointed out, Patchett's project is to write "a made up story of an enchanted place." Comparing The Patron Saint of Liars to a fairy tale, McDermott explained that "the world of St. Elizabeth's, and of the novel itself,… retains some sense of the miraculous, of a genuine, if unanticipated, power to heal."
Patchett's next novel, Taft, also received critical praise, though reviewers' opinions differed as to whether or not this work exceeded Patchett's achievement in The Patron Saint of Liars. Taft's action centers around a Memphis blues bar called Muddy's. The black, middle-aged bartender, Nickel, who narrates the story, becomes imaginatively and practically entangled in the life of a white working-class teenager, Fay Taft, and that of her family. Focusing on their relationship, Patchett weaves a multilayered narrative about unconventional kinds of love and improvisational familial ties.
In her critically acclaimed third novel, The Magician's Assistant, Patchett continues to explore the themes of unorthodox love, abandonment, and transcendence and the surprising places people go to feel at home. The protagonist and title character, Sabine, has long been in love with the gay magician she assists. As the narrative opens, Parsifal, the magician, who is afflicted with AIDS, dies suddenly from a stroke. Sabine and Parsifal had entered into an unusual marriage, and upon his death, she is embraced by his family, a family she had not known existed. Sabine meets her estranged in-laws, and together they try to put together the pieces of Parsifal's past. As Sabine shares her grief, she finds a hint of redemption and a way to transform herself. Veronica Chambers, reviewing The Magician's Assistant for Newsweek, called it "a '90s love story wrought with all the grace and classic charm of a 19th-century novel."
By the time her fourth novel was released, Patchett had earned a reputation for quality fiction, and that reputation was sealed with the publication of Bel Canto. Loosely based on a real-life 1996 hostage crisis in Lima, Peru, Bel Canto—an opera term that means "fine singing"—takes place in an unnamed South American country where the vice-presidential palace is the setting for a birthday reception honoring a prominent businessman, the chairman of a huge Japanese electronics concern. "The poor host country was throwing a birthday party of unreasonable expense, hoping that Hosokawa might help with training, trade, a factory—something that will make it look like the nation is moving away from drug trafficking," according to Seattle Times critic Valerie Ryan. One of the star guests at this party is Roxane Cross, a revered American opera soprano who has agreed to perform for her biggest fan, Hosokawa. As the lights dim following her aria, the peace is shattered by the invasion of terrorists. The electronics tycoon, the diva, the vice president and sixty dignitaries are taken hostage. "In a marvelously loopy touch," noted David Kipen in the San Francisco Chronicle, "the president has begged off to watch his favorite tele-novela." Negotiations reach a stalemate, but inside the mansion, hostages and guerillas are oblivious to the action. Instead, as the siege stretches to four-and-a-half months, hostages and terrorist form bonds of friendship and even love inside the mansion; "pretty soon, nobody wants to kill anybody," in Kipen's words. But some characters are destined not to survive.
Thematically, Bel Canto is "similar to my other works in that people are thrown together by circumstance," Patchett told David Podgurski in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview. "But I wanted to write a truly omniscient third-person narrative, a 'Russian' novel…. I wanted all of the drama as I saw it unfold on television—it seemed so operatic—and to have all that and yet keep it within a narrative that wasn't a potboiler."
Bel Canto received positive notices from many reviewers, among them Salon.com's Laura Miller. "With this scenario, you'd expect [Bel Canto] to be populated by the kind of romantic figures found in books and movies like Chocolat, cartoonish outlines that invite the reader to stop inside and fancy herself the embodiment of, say, Joyous Sensuality or the Human Spirit. Instead, the characters Patchett has created are just that, characters; they're not empty enough to 'identify' with." Guardian contributor Alex Clark applauded Patchett's range. "With bravura confidence and inventiveness she varies her pace to encompass both lightning flashes of brutality and terror and long stretches of incarcerated ennui," he stated. "The novel's sensibilities extend from the sly wit of observational humor to subtle, mournful insights into the nature of yearning and desire."
What was it about the real-life crisis that inspired Patchett's interest in a fictional retelling? In an essay for First Person Book Page, she recalled her absorption in the unfolding events of 1996: "Very few disasters happen in slow motion: plane crashes, school shootings, earthquake—by the time we hear about them, they're usually over. But the story in Lima stretched on, one month, two, three…." During that time, she added, "I couldn't stop thinking about these people. There is no such thing as a good kidnapping, but I heard the hostages played chess with their captors. I heard they played soccer. There were rumors of large pizza orders." To Patchett, the story had "all elements I was interested in: the construction of family, the displacement from home, a life that was at once dangerous and completely benign."
Following the death in 2002 of Lucy Grealy, Patchett's long-time friend and author of Autobiography of a Face, Patchett wrote the memoir Truth and Beauty: A Friend-ship. In an interview with Publishers Weekly contributor Elizabeth Millard, the author explained: "I give talks about my belief in fiction and the importance of the imagination, and I always say that one thing about my novels is that … I'm not a character in my books and I like that." Shortly after the death of her emotionally troubled friend, however, in an attempt to deal with her grief, she wrote a piece for New York magazine and found herself wanting to write more; Truth and Beauty was the result. "When I look back now," she told Millard, "I think it really was a way to sit shiva for a year, to stay on her grave and be unwilling to get up and go on with my life … going over the good times we had together, because things ended on a very bad note, I think it really gave me all the time I needed to feel terrible and to celebrate her. I feel it would be melodramatic to say the book saved my life, but it certainly put me in a better place." Jennifer Reese described Truth and Beauty in Entertainment Weekly as a "powerful … portrait of a fascinating, understandably tormented woman—and of a great friendship…. Patch-ett's voice—perfectly modulated, lucid, and steady—that makes it both true and beautiful." Donna Seaman, writing for Booklist, called it "Dazzling in its psychological interpretations, piquant in its wit, candid in its self-portraiture, and gracefully balanced between emotion and reason."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Women Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 26, 2001, Greg Changnon, review of Bel Canto.
Booklist, June 12, 2001, Gilbert Taylor, review of Bel Canto, p. 1848; March 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, p. 1098.
BookPage, October, 1997.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), July 29, 2001, David Kronke, "Singing Her Praises," p. L16.
Denver Post, June 10, 2001, Glenn Giffin, "Hostage Crisis a Study in Group Dynamics," p. L08.
Entertainment Weekly, July 31, 1992, p. 57; October 10, 1997, p. 87; May 21, 2004, Jennifer Reese, review of Truth and Beauty, p. 82.
Library Journal, August, 1997, p. 134.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 20, 2001, David Podgurski, "Novel Unfolds with the Expansiveness and Drama of Opera" (interview), p. 4.
Newsday, October 18, 1997.
Newsweek, October 13, 1997, Veronica Chambers, review of The Magician's Assistant, p. 78.
New York Times, May 31, 2001, Janet Maslin, "Uninvited Guests Wearing You Down? Listen to Opera," p. E7; June 10, 2001, James Polk, "Captive Audience," p. 37.
New York Times Book Review, July 26, 1992, Alice McDermott, review of The Patron Saint of Liars, p. 6; October 16, 1994, Diana Postlethwaite, review of Taft, p. 11; November 16, 1997, Suzanne Berne, review of The Magician's Assistant, p. 17; October 18, 1998, review of The Magician's Assistant, p. 36.
Observer (London, England), June 14, 1998, review of The Magician's Assistant, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, July 18, 1994, review of Taft, p. 233; July 14, 1997, review of The Magician's Assistant, p. 62; October 13, 1997, Elizabeth Bernstein, interview with Patchett, pp. 52-53; April 16, 2001, review of Bel Canto, p. 42; March 29, 2004, Elizabeth Millard, review of Truth and Beauty, p. 148.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 13, 2001, David Kipen, "Hostage Novel Ropes You In," review of Bel Cantos, p. E1.
Seattle Times, June 24, 2001, Valerie Ryan, review of Bel Canto, p. J10.
Times Literary Supplement, February 6, 1998, review of The Magician's Assistant, p. 21; July 9, 1999, review of Taft, p. 21.
Washington Post Book World, January 18, 1998, review of The Magician's Assistant, p. 4.
Ann Patchett Home Page, http://www.annpatchett.com/ (August 11, 2004).
BookBrowse.com, http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (August 11, 2004), "A Conversation with Ann Patchett."
BookPage.comhttp://www.bookpage.com/ (August 11, 2004), Ann Patchett, "Turning a News Story into a Novel"; Laurie Parker, review of The Magician's Assistant.
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (August 11, 2004), "On the Road with Ann Patchett, Week 1."
Guardian Unlimited, http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (August 11, 2004), Alex Clark, "Danger Arias."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (August 11, 2004), Laura Miller, "Bel Canto by Ann Patchett."