Novelist Ann Patchett is best known for 2001's PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Bel Canto. Her fifth novel is State of Wonder (HarperCollins), about a pharmacologist sent to the Amazon to learn what happened to a colleague who died there. Patchett, 47, visits the Monday Night Lectures on Nov. 21. She spoke with CP in late October from her home, in Nashville, Tenn.
Did you set out to write a book set in the Amazon?
I wanted to write a book with a strong female lead that was not about falling in love or in any way being victimized, because I'm always having people at universities say to me, "We really are looking for a contemporary novel about a strong female lead who is not falling in love or being victimized," and I have a really hard time coming up with an answer for that question.
I knew that I wanted to write about a student and teacher relationship between an adult student and teacher who find each other again. I knew that the student and teacher, both women, hadn't seen each other for a long time, one of them had gone missing.
If no one had seen you for a long time and you were developing a new drug, where might you be? I wanted it to be someplace that had malaria, so then I went to the CDC and looked at all the places that have malaria and although there is more malaria in India and parts of Africa, it didn't have the potential for drug development. So, then I said, "Where is there both drug development and malaria?" I got to the Amazon.
So you did travel to the Amazon?
I did. I would say that I could have written the book without it. I have a great imagination. It was nice to go and I got things out of it. I don't do my research up front. I do my research in the middle. I think it's easy for me to get lost in the research, because the research is really fun and the writing is not. If I had gone to the Amazon before I had started the book, knowing that I wanted to write a book set in the Amazon, I would have stayed there for way too long, thinking, "I have to interview somebody else" or "I have to go see this other part," just the games that you play with yourself in order to not have to sit down and start writing. So by getting myself deep into the novel and then running down to do some research for ten days and then running back home to get to work, that worked much better for me.
Was it hard for you to capture the almost mythic landscape of the Amazon?
Oh, my God, it was so easy! It was just a joke. I mean this, from the bottom of my heart: I could have spent two hours in the Amazon and not only could I have written this book, but I could write every single book that I ever write for the rest of my life and set it in the Amazon.
It is so lush, there are so many weird things going on, there are so many sights, and smells and sounds, and the water looks like tea and yet it's not muddy, and there are all of these weird screeching monkeys everywhere. I really did see a moth one day that was the size of a man's handkerchief. It's just like someone is shoveling the metaphor and imagery towards you.
I think any time you see things that are strange to you, they're easier to describe. I would have a much, much harder time describing my house, or the city of Nashville and making it interesting because I'm so familiar with it; it's hard for me to see it with new eyes.
Opera was central in Bel Canto and it plays a part in State of Wonder. Is opera a special source of inspiration for you?
My main sources of information for the Amazon are the films of Werner Herzog. In the beginning of Fitzcarraldo, which is my favorite Herzog movie, the two characters are paddling up the Amazon to arrive in Manaus to go to the opera. And that image of the opera house and that moment of them coming in there is, for me, such an important image of the Amazon. The idea of opera in the Amazon is huge.
There's also a pleasure in the fact that when I wrote Bel Canto I didn't know a whole lot about opera, and now all these years later, I know a lot about opera. I really did get into that world and I loved it and I stayed in there. It makes sense. It doesn't in any way seem gratuitous or self-referential to drop these characters off in the opera because they are in Manaus and it seems to me, as I say in the book, that the opera is the line that holds the jungle back from civilization. That's the line that Marina is crossing. That moment that she is so dressed up and at the opera, that's her tipping point, and from that point on she really tumbles down, down, down until she is in the jungle and has lost everything, including her clothes. So, it seemed important to me to put her up high so she had a big fall.
Do you have any advice for writing students in Pittsburgh?
I'll tell you this: I wrote a piece very recently for something called byliner.com. They approached me and I wrote a 50-page essay on every single thing I know about writing and all of the writing advice I have. It's called "The Getaway Car." It was really great, because a lot of what I talk about when I do these lectures is writing advice and how I work and process and what I think students should do. It was great to get that down in one place.
I am a big believer in volume, to read an enormous amount and to read way outside of your comfort zone, but also to write an enormous amount when you are a student. I think that so often this time that we are students is a time of narrowing, and closing down, and to write, and write and re-write until something is made perfect. It's just the opposite for me. I would urge students to write a huge volume and don't worry about perfecting it. When you have a number of pages, a lot of pages, you can go back with a little bit of distance and time and look critically at your own work and see what it is you are good at. I don't think you can figure out what you are good at in your head. Write it, work on it, learn from it, put it in a drawer, do something else. That's my best advice.
What will you discuss in Pittsburgh?
I may be talking about the business. I think that people are very overwhelmed right now with the e-books, and the Kindles, and what's happening to publishing, and what's going on with Amazon and bookstores. I feel like I can explain a lot of that.
You're opening a bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books. Why open such a store now?
We had two of them and they both closed, within six months of each other. It wasn't that the stores weren't doing business and people weren't buying books in Nashville, but Borders closed all the stores and Davis Kidd closed almost all of their stores. All of the sudden I found myself living in a city with no bookstores.
We have a lot of really great used bookstores but no independent bookstores, no new bookstores. I just felt like somebody had to do it and I really didn't want that somebody to be me, but it turns out that it was.
After State of Wonder, what's next?
I am presently working on a book of essays, and I am presently trying to get this bookstore open, which should happen within the next two weeks. By the time I get to Pittsburgh, I do believe I will be a retailer.
ANN PATCHETT at Literary Evenings Monday Night Lecture Series 7:30 p.m. Mon., Nov. 21. $15-25. 412-622-8866 or www.pittsburghlectures.org