May 6 2009 12:00 AM

Author talks skill, chance and the writing regimen she picked up from Catholic school


Best-selling author Ann Patchett attributes her success to three things: talent, luck and the discipline that comes with attending an all-girl’s Catholic school — and not necessarily in that order.

Her credentials speak for her talent — Sarah Lawrence College; University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop; five novels; and awards galore, including the PEN/ Faulkner Award.

Patchett said she knew she wanted to write since the first grade. “It may have been more that I wanted to just be able to write,” she said.

She means that literally. When Patchett was 5, she moved to Nashville, Tenn., with her mother following a divorce, and she admits her schooling was a little loose. “It was 1969, and it wasn’t exactly the age of rigor,” she said. “I didn’t learn how to read comfortably until the third grade.”

Today it’s clear Patchett has mastered several styles of writing, from the lean prose of “Taft,” which is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, to the poetic, almost operatic tone of “Bel Canto.”

When it comes to luck, Patchett knows she found the right place at the right time. She chose Sarah Lawrence College, just outside New York, because she wanted to move away, and she heard it was a good writing school. While she was there, authors Alan Gurganus (“Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All”), Grace Paley (“The Little Disturbances of Man”) and Russell Banks (“Rule of the Bone”) were all teaching courses, and it wasn’t just for a few weeks; Patchett was able to take classes with each of them for a full year each, with only 12 students in a class and individual weekly meetings.

Although her association with the Iowa Writer’s Project often wows people, by the time she arrived there, Patchett said she had been there, done that. “It did absolutely nothing for me as a writer,” she said.

Patchett believes her Catholic upbringing may have actually had more impact on her career. She said the discipline instilled in her by the Sisters of Mercy helped her put her talent to use. “Being on your knees and saying the same prayer over and over is the discipline you need to write,” she said. “There was a lot of talent [in college], but being a writer is about tenacity,” she said. “There’s no water cooler, no deadlines, no performance reviews. You are out in the desert.”

The 45-year-old author, who still lives in Nashville, has a wild imagination, and she isn’t afraid to veer from just writing, “what she knows.” “If that were the case, I would be a one trick pony,” she said. Her last novel, “Run,” follows the lives of an Irish Catholic politician and his three sons just after his wife’s death. Patchett confronts what it means to be a multi-racial family (two black sons are adopted) judged by other’s perceptions.

“Taft,” which she fondly refers to as “her book,” since, she said, “No one else has read it,” is almost Southern gothic in its plot, which involves a bar manager and a waitress with an unusual relationship.

Inspired by the 1996 takeover of Japan’s Peruvian embassy by guerrillas, “Bel Canto” is lush with symbolism and multi-ethnic descriptions and anomalies. The story plays out within the confines of an embassy, where the characters evolve over the course of the siege in ways only Patchett could imagine. “What I’m really good at is plot,” she said. “The thing that is missing in contemporary literature is plot.”

Patchett tends to control her plots with tight parameters. In “Bel Canto,” the action takes place in just a few rooms (and one sensual closet) over two days, while “The Patron Saint of Liars” is set in a home for unwed mothers. “The Magician’s Assistant” seems encased in the cerebrum of its central character. “My husband is a lover of adventure, but I could just write and read and have all the thrill and adventure I need,” Patchett said.

But her work isn’t all make-believe. After her best friend, Lucy Grealy, died from an accidental drug overdose, Patchett wrote about their friendship and their shared passion for writing in the book “Truth and Beauty: A Friendship.”

The book and Patchett were at the center of a controversy in 2006, after she was invited to speak to Clemson University’s freshman class, which had been assigned to read it. A local politician running for office decried “Truth and Beauty” for its strong sexuality and anti-religious themes. “He was whipping other people into a frenzy,” Patchett said. “It was an extended and ugly foray into controversy. At the time it was sort of terrible. I had a bodyguard. [The book] isn’t ‘Fight Club.’ I write really nice, literary fiction.”

Patchett is not the least bit fazed by having been pigeon-holed as a “women’s writer.” She believes she is above that description, but since publicists want to sell books, they market to women, who buy 80 percent of them. But she doesn’t see that as a bad thing “Book groups are a gift,” she said.

Ann Patchett

7 p.m. May 14 Holt Junior High School Auditorium, 1784 Aurelius Road, Holt FREE, tickets required (517) 367-6355