Ann Patchett on Writing, Her Catholicism, and Her New Book

Ann Patchett talks with Charles Halton: “Writing that is clear, direct, and succinct is a great kindness to the reader.”

Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Harper, 2013, 320 pp., $27.99
Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Harper, 2013, 320 pp., $27.99

Ann Patchett is a best-selling novelist and essayist, but she is also one of the few people who have been able to pierce Stephen Colbert’s schtick and render him speechless. Patchett won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now sponsored by Bailey’s) and the PEN/Faulkner Award for her novel, Bel Canto. Her memoir, The Getaway Car, discusses her life and the craft of writing, and her latest book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of her essays. She discussed her approach to writing, her Catholicism, and her latest book with MRB Managing Editor, Charles Halton.

MRB: In The Getaway Car you fuse your reflection upon writing with your biography. Do you consciously represent facets of yourself within your writing, perhaps as Wendell Berry consciously reflects his own sense of place within his works, or does your background affect your writing merely on a subconscious level?

Patchett: I imagine I’m fairly conscious of what I’m writing, I’m making choices about what examples to include from my life that will reinforce the points I want to make. Even if a person wrote solely from a subconscious level, we read at a conscious level, so by virtue of reading over what I had written I would be forced to understand myself.

MRB: In your new book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, you discuss the fact that freelancing and writing for Seventeen magazine prepared you for your later career since it made you flexible and able to write on almost any topic. Our publication is trying to bring deeper literary sensibilities to academic writing; do you have any advice on how academics can become better writers?

Patchett: Academics become better writers just like everybody else — they practice.  I suggest that academics should forget about literary sensibilities and shoot for clarity. Writing that is clear, direct, and succinct is a great kindness to the reader.

MRB: You include “The Mercies” as the final essay in your new book. Should we draw any conclusions from this? For instance, is it the shorter piece of writing that you are most proud of?

Patchett: I put “The Mercies” at the end of the book because it brings the story full circle. The first essay references my childhood and Catholicism and the last essay shows how I grew up and held on to some parts of that religion while making me rethink some of my memories.

MRB: In “The Mercies” you speak of being taught in Catholic school that “God had a vocation for all of us,” and you say that you felt a voice telling you to be a writer. Do you associate God with this voice? And what role does God play in your writing?

Ann Patchett

Patchett: When I was in school we were told that we would get a message from God about what we were supposed to do with our lives. Because I knew I wanted to be a writer I assumed that was my message from God. I was a very young child when making that assumption. I wouldn’t say I believed that now.

MRB: In 2011 Granta interviewed you about “The Mercies” and asked how you related to the Catholic faith. You said that you still defined yourself as a Catholic but had many problems with the Church. Has anything changed from then to now?

Patchett: Not really. I think of myself as a Catholic in the same way I think of myself as an American or a Tennessean or a Patchett. I was born into it. There are things about the Church I love, the kinds of good works that Sister Nena represents, and things about the Church that I find appalling. Like so many other Catholics, I feel encouraged by Pope Francis’s spirit of humility and inclusion.