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Ann Patchett on her new novel, writing from life, and her extremely chill family.

Ann Patchett.
Ann Patchett.

Heidi Ross

Ann Patchett has written about gay magicians, indigenous rebels, mothers who are too old, mothers who are too young—but if you ask her, she’ll tell you all her novels are the same story. It’s The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. A group of strangers gets trapped in a room, and …

The plot might be Mann, but it’s Patchett’s life story, too. When she was a child, her parents divorced and her mother remarried a man with four children. A group of strangers gets trapped in a family, and …

Her newest novel, Commonwealth, is what happens after the ellipsis. It’s the creation and life of a family, with all the attendant miseries and joys—plus a Saul Bellow–esque novelist who falls in love with one of the sisters and writes a novel about her childhood. Patchett zips back and forth in time and place, from rural Virginia to an Alpine meditation retreat, from a cop’s house in Los Angeles to a cocktail bar in Chicago. She inhabits each character’s head with ease, which is even more impressive when you consider how close to her own family these characters are. I talked to Patchett about the courage it takes to write the people you know, taking on Saul Bellow and surviving, and how to write a novel where there are no bad guys and all the guns’ safeties stay on.

Lily Meyer: How much did you borrow from your own family to write Commonwealth?

Ann Patchett: The vast majority of the things that happened in Commonwealth did not happen to me. The vast majority of the emotions the characters feel in Commonwealth did happen to me. Or, as my mother would say, “None of it happened, and all of it is true.”

Was it freeing to write so close to home?

Absolutely. I loved it. One of the things I’m obsessed with in all my books is time, and I felt that time in my work was contracting. Bel Canto is about suspension of time and takes place over four months; Run takes place in 24 hours; State of Wonder takes place over three months. These books were getting claustrophobic, and so I was very interested in writing a book that covered more time. Operating off the timeline of my experience and family made that much easier. I had more confidence in a larger structure once I could use real people—not as characters but as chessmen. I wanted to be able to move through time and between characters, and that was easier when I could look at the chessboard and say, “OK, I’ll put this weight on my sister and this weight on my stepbrother, and I’m going to move them around.”

Speaking of motion, the pacing in Commonwealth is very different from your last novels. There are no big dramatic moments. Where’d they go?

My feeling is that life is dramatic enough. Also, my last three novels have really played with the idea of melodrama. Bel Canto is such a melodramatic novel—and I wanted it to be! I wanted it to be operatic. I’d always heard that melodrama is a bad thing in a novel, so I thought, What if I go all in? But in Commonwealth, I pulled the throttle all the way back. Someone dies in the book, but it’s not violent. There are no villains. It’s not about cataclysmic events and dreadful secrets. It’s life.

Is that why you wrote a book with a gun that no one shoots?

When Elizabeth McCracken read the novel a long time ago, she said, “I loved how you broke the Chekhov’s gun rule.” That rule was really in my mind. I grew up with guns, and no one got shot. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a super-bad idea to walk around with guns all the time, doesn’t mean that there isn’t harm done, but none of us blew our feet off.

I felt the same way about alcohol in this novel. Actually, before we talk about how much the characters drink, let’s talk about gin. Every important plot moment is marked by gin. How’d you pick it?

My father was a terrible gin snob. He had such strong opinions about gin, and gin and tonics, and the barmaid’s gin and tonic—a great fixture of my childhood. Growing up in Tennessee, everything was about bourbon, but my father wouldn’t have given bourbon the time of day. Gin always seemed clean to me and sophisticated and West Coast. And as far as the drinking goes, it’s like the guns. I wanted to write a book in which people are drinking, but no one is exactly an alcoholic. I suppose Leo Posen, the writer, is an alcoholic, but maybe he’s just an old-fashioned guy who drinks a lot. You’re not going to do an intervention on him. But overall, it’s a book in which there’s a lot of relationship to alcohol, which I think exists in most families.

I’ve been waiting to bring up Leo Posen, but now you’ve done it, so here’s where I want to start: Franny has an intense relationship with Leo’s books before she meets Leo. Whose books were like Leo’s books for you?

Saul Bellow! When I was growing up, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and John Updike were it. They had the biggest influence on me. They were the writers my parents read, the writers whose books we had around the house. I adore them. They never let me down.

Did you ever meet any of them?

I met Updike three times, and he was the loveliest, loveliest person in the world. I had so much respect for him. One of John Updike’s last acts for the New Yorker was to write a really bad review of Run, and I just treasure it. The idea that John Updike sat down and thought about me for a couple hours meant more to me than anything.

I love Philip Roth in the way that Franny loves Leo before she meets him, but that love is complicated for me. I’m a Jewish woman, and we aren’t his favorite species on Earth. Do you ever have trouble with those writers as a woman?

When I was younger, I did. Lolita killed me when I was in college. It frightened me and offended me, and later on it became my favorite book because I could read it as a book about language and love and insanity and bravery and the hideousness and complexity of the human soul. When I was young I had a really hard time with a lot of things I read as a woman, but somehow—and I don’t know if this is a strength or a weakness—it fell away. Updike’s four Rabbit Angstrom novels, which I reread last year, are the most mind-blowingly offensive things you’ll ever read.

But they’re so good!

commonwealth cover.

Exactly. There’s nothing like them. Nothing touches them. I’m careful when I recommend those books, but to my mind, if you want to be a writer, you can go to an MFA program, or you can stay home and read the Rabbit books. Everything you need to know is in those books or the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels. What the Rabbit books bring you is the history of America in those decades in the same way that the Ferrante books bring you not only beautiful writing and compelling characters, not only what it means to be a woman and an Italian woman, but also what the state of Italy and the state of Naples was in those years. Goddamn. I bow my head to that.

Back to Leo. How did you decide that part of this book would be a young woman meeting her literary hero? How did that relate to the family story you’d planned?

Originally, he was going to be a playwright, and Franny’s stepbrother Albie would have the experience of going to see a play that was his life, but I just couldn’t figure out how to get Albie into the theater. But what interested me was the idea of reading about yourself when you don’t know that something has been written about you.

There’s also the meta thing of betrayal, in that I, as the writer, am Leo Posen. It’s funny when people read Commonwealth and say, “I couldn’t stand Leo Posen!” and I say, “But he’s totally me!” And then I think back about Iowa and all those big authors who came into town and were drunk at their readings, and they were pals with the director of the program, and we, the students, would sit in stunned awe. It’s so easy for me to tap into the awe Franny feels for Leo.

That’s fascinating that you’re Franny and Leo at once. The Bellow fan, and Bellow.

It means the sex scenes are super weird.

So how did you write yourself as Saul Bellow? I mean, I love that you did. But how?

Well, it’s not that I’m this giant, lumbering hero of American letters. It’s that I’m appropriating someone else’s experience for my own work, which I do every single time I write a book. And much as my other works have been completely irrefutable pieces of fiction, I could break down any character and say, “Oh, you know, this is my fifth-grade teacher.” That’s the way the brain works. It’s just a matter of how well you hide your tracks, and I’ve hidden my tracks brilliantly until now. Now I don’t care any more.

Is that a product of publishing nonfiction?

I wrote the title essay in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which is very personal, and I thought it would be traumatic for my family. It was the scariest thing I ever wrote. When I finished it, I sent it to everybody in my family and said, “Does anybody have a problem with this?” and they said, “Seriously? Is this the best you’ve got?” Nobody cared. They’re fantastic. They’re like, “You’re an artist. We’ve known you forever. We love you; we understand you. Do what you want.”

I was having dinner with my stepsister and stepbrother right around the time I finished Commonwealth, which I had told them about, but I said, “I just want to go over this one more time. I wrote a book about us. It’s not, but it is. I’m going to give it to you first, and you can tell me—” and then my stepbrother just put his arms around me in the restaurant booth and said, “I’m so proud of you. You can say anything you want about me any time you want.”

Is he the person the book is dedicated to?

The book is dedicated to my stepfather, who was always my champion, always the person who wanted me to be a writer. He was the person who sent me to college. He believed in me unquestioningly from hello. He was also a person who was heavily armed and made a lot of bad choices, but he used to say to me when I was 10 years old, “Someday I’m going to open up one of your books and the dedication is going to say, ‘To Mike Glasscock.’ ”

I could never dedicate a book to him while my father was alive. But my father died, and the first thing I did was dedicate a book to my stepfather. When I got the galleys, I drove to North Carolina and gave one to him, and he just sobbed. You want to know what’s good about being a writer? That’s what’s good about being a writer.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. Harper.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.