Introductions: Ann Patchett

On September 19 at Benaroya Hall, international bestseller Ann Patchett spoke of the life-changing process of writing about her own family in her new novel, Commonwealth. SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey introduced and interviewed Ann for this event, which opened SAL’s 2016/17 Literary Arts Series.


By Ruth Dickey, SAL Executive Director

I first fell in love with Ann Patchett’s writing through her nonfiction work Truth and Beauty.  While I was deeply moved by her chronicle of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, it was her description of waiting tables at TGI Fridays that stole my heart – cleaning the taxidermy by the ceilings, rolling silverware into napkins, the particular horror of waiting on former classmates, all while hoping for a different life. As she writes, “Without writing, I was another waitress like all the other waitresses in Nashville who were waiting for their big publishing deal. They wrote songs. I wanted to write a novel. I was starting to see it was all pretty much the same thing…”

How extraordinary – this candor. That behind every waitress could be Ann Patchett; that someone as gifted as Ann Patchett once waited tables and worried about doing so forever. I’ve gobbled up her novels since, carried to a home for unwed mothers, to the jungle of the Amazon, to meet magicians in Los Angeles, or dignitaries and an opera singer held hostage in an unnamed South American country. In these disparate worlds, Ann Patchett lovingly creates characters so aching and real that what stays with me is not the exotic worlds, but the unfolding lives of her characters there.

Patchett is the author of seven novels (including Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pen Faulkner Award) and three books of nonfiction. Her numerous awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Bookseller’s Associations’ Most Engaging Author Award, and in 2012 she was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people. She is also the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee and an ardent champion of independent bookstores.

Her most recent book, Commonwealth, was called “painfully beautiful” by the New York Times, and it is that and more as it traces through 50 years of the lives of two blended families. In one of my favorite passages, Teresa, a mother, talks to her adult daughter about overcoming tragedy. She says, “We all did, I guess, in our own ways. You don’t think you’re going to but then you do. You’re still alive. That was the thing that caught me in the end: I was still alive. You and Albie and Jeanette, still alive. And we wouldn’t be forever, so I had to do something with that.”

I feel like these lines are the great gift of the sweep of Commonwealth, and indeed of so many of Ann Patchett’s beautiful books. To acknowledge that sometimes tragedy happens in ways big and small. But in the end it comes down to the sliver of time we are each still alive. What we do with it. How we find or make our family.

I know I am not alone in believing we are all tremendously lucky that Ann Patchett has chosen to use her sliver of life both to write, and to champion books and authors. Please join me in welcoming the person who gives me hope for independent bookstores, shop dogs, happy marriages, blended families, and every single waitress in America, Ann Patchett.

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