‘Going back to books’: Ann Patchett on The Dutch House, and reviving the bookstore culture

Ann Patchett is at her elegant best in her new novel, The Dutch House, and she's also a shining beacon for the cause of reviving the bookstore culture.
Ann Patchett (Photo: Heidi Ross)
Ann Patchett (Photo: Heidi Ross)

American author Ann Patchett is out with her beautifully composed eighth novel, The Dutch House.

Bringing out all the complexity of emotions that characterise any close familial bond, her carefully constructed narrative spans five decades, etching out Danny and Maeve Conroy's life choices and where they lead them.

Patchett’s characters have a realness to them, which brings to life the Orange Prize winner’s fictional world. 

Here, she chats about her new novel, running an independent bookstore in this day and age, and how the subjective nature of memory continues to fascinate her. 

Tell us about The Dutch House. What was the inspiration behind it?
The Dutch House is the story of Danny and Maeve Conroy, a brother and sister who grow up in a fantastically beautiful and elaborate mansion outside of Philadelphia. Their mother leaves and their father remarries, and after that, the stepmother throws them out.

At its heart, it's a book about not being able to let go of the past. Danny and Maeve go on to have happy lives, or happy enough, but then can never stop obsessing over the house and what they lost.

In the very beginning, I wanted to write about a character who walks away from wealth. The book was originally going to be about the mother, but it turned into something else entirely.

The intricacies of familial relationships drive the narrative. How much of that came from your personal experiences?
My last novel, Commonwealth, was very much inspired by my childhood and my own experiences. This book isn't. This book I just made up, though I have many friends who've had hard experiences with their stepmothers. My stepmother is one of the nicest people I know.

From Commonwealth to The Dutch House what would you say is the hardest part about writing on the complexities of human nature that is brought out in these novels? 
I don't set out to write about the complexities of human nature, I just try to write about realistic humans from realistic families. I think everyone's families are complicated, even the happy ones.

I think we have different expectations for people than we do fictional characters. Real people have big, sprawling, messy lives filled with people. Real people tend to be both good and bad at the same time. I want my fictional characters to be more like the people I know.

Memory and the very act of remembering as a subjective experience also informs your works. Is that something that fascinates you as a storyteller?
Memory has always fascinated me. My sister and I grew up in the same house but we had such completely different experiences, both because of our temperaments and abilities, but also because of the differences in our ages. Two people can be positive about completely different memories. The older I get, the less I trust the things I used to be sure of.

<em>The Dutch House by Ann Patchett</em>
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

How has your journey been as an author? Any advice that you would like to give to aspiring writers?
My journey as an author has been easy. I have a lot of confidence, which doesn't mean I think I'm a great writer, but I've always felt certain that this is what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. My success came early.

It wasn't a big commercial success, but I sold my novels and was able to make a living. I love what I do, I do the best work I'm capable of, and I forgive myself when the story I write down doesn't live up to the story in my head (it never does).

I'm a hard worker, I'm not particularly sensitive to criticisms or slights, I read constantly. Those are all the thing I'd recommend. That's what's worked for me.

As an independent bookstore owner what do you feel are the major challenges facing the publishing industry? With so many old bookstores closing shop with each passing year, how has your experience been with running  Parnassus Books since its inception in 2011?
Actually, the tide is turning. More and more independent bookstores are opening every year. The stores are smaller but basically things look good. People are reading less electronically. They're going back to books.

My own experience with the bookstore has been nothing but happiness. It's been a wonderful way for me to be part of my community. I love the people who work there. I love recommending books to customers. I can bring my dog to work with me. It's great.

<em>Ann Patchett (Photo: Heidi Ross)</em>
Ann Patchett (Photo: Heidi Ross)

Having written across genres and forms (novels, the short story, essays) which mode of writing would you say comes more easily to you and which is the hardest to compose in?
Non-fiction is the easiest for me and I really enjoy it, but in my heart, I believe I'm a novelist. I think that's what I'm supposed to be doing. I write essays in order to think deeply about a single idea and I always enjoy them. I've also started writing picture books for children and that's been a lot of fun too.

What is your writing process? How long does it take from the inception of an idea to its completion?
I spend a long time thinking up a story, maybe a year or two. When I start to write it everything seems terribly difficult. I find the hardest part is going from thinking about a novel to actually writing it.

But the farther along I get in the process the easier it is. When I start writing a novel I'll stay at my desk for twenty minutes a day. By the end of the novel, I can work for 12 or 14 hours.

What are some of the titles on your reading wish-list?
I'd like to read more (Anthony) Trollope. I’d like to read more (Marcel) Proust. I'd like to read all of Shakespeare. I'd like to read more works in translation.

Now that I own a bookstore, pretty much everything I read is contemporary. It's been a wonderful experience but I miss having time for the classics.

What are you working on next? Any upcoming writing projects?
I have to give two long speeches that I need to write. I want to write more for children. Basically, I'm interested in writing short things. I've just come home from a very long book tour and I'm tired. I have a novel in my head but it's in the early stages. I'll enjoy having plenty of time to think about it.

- Simar Bhasin

Bloomsbury India, INR 550.

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