On Writing and Friendship
by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett's fourth novel, Bel Canto, is a nominee for the 2003 Book Sense Book of the Year Award in the Paperback category. Here, she writes of the friendships she has with fellow authors -- and the invaluable roles these women have played in her life, and in her books.
If I was a director, all of my movies would star my friends, and I would always write in a part for my dog. As a novelist, I can never separate my favorite books from my favorite people. Of course, the history of literature is full of brilliant minds I did not know. It's not that I enjoy Shakespeare plays less for never having had dinner with the man. Still, there is something especially moving to me about the books that I saw being made, the ones I watched grow up word by word, sentence by sentence.
Seeing my friends write is how I learn about writing. I study their drafts, look at what goes and what stays. One month I'll read a beautiful page and the next month I'll see that page re-written so that it surpasses itself. It's like screwing the back off a pocket watch and reveling in the tiny inner workings, every cog and wheel clicking together. You can't tell the time by looking at the back of a watch, but you can tell how time is made.
I have a lot of friends who are writers now, but there is a special love for the ones I knew in the years before any of us were certain we would ever finish a book, much less publish one. Lucy Grealy was my roommate in graduate school long before Autobiography of a Face was even an idea, but I can see the links between the poetry she was writing then and the moving and extraordinarily important book she would come to later on.
Elizabeth McCracken, who has done more to shape my novels than anyone, lived across a parking lot from me in Provincetown when we were both in our twenties. We would meet each other late in the day with a fistful of fresh pages to exchange. Writing was as much about the time I spent with her talking over ideas and reading the notes she'd scribbled in my margins as it was sitting alone at a computer.
Our friendship influenced the books we wrote that year, Patron Saint of Liars for me and Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry for her, as well as all the ones we would write in the future.
Adrian LeBlanc, who is one week younger than I am, was my editor at Seventeen magazine when we were both 25. I went off to write novels and she went to the South Bronx, where she spent 12 years reporting the story that became the brilliant Random Family. I not only love that book as a piece of literature, I love that book like a niece. How could I not, after 12 years of talking about it with Adrian?
Writers don't have office complexes with other writers they can bump into at the water cooler. For the most part, we live far away from one another. Elizabeth is in Paris now, Adrian is in New York, and dear Lucy died in December of 2002. I keep their books close by me. They are the celebration of both art and friendship. When I read them again I can see the lives we lived played out on every page.
Author photo by Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of HarperCollins.
Bel Canto was a Top Ten July/August 2001 Book Sense 76 Pick:
"I could not put this marvelous book down. Patchett has based her new novel on a true event - the hostage situation in Peru a few years back--but boy, does she put a new twist on the story. I won't reveal what happens; please read this book for yourself!" -- Roberta Rubin, The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka, IL