A few things I wish I had told Ann Patchett…

My Desk

I first became aware of the immensely gifted writer Ann Patchett when she published her first novel with my old publisher Houghton Mifflin. It was an old Boston firm located in a classical brick office building that seemed indigenous to the Boston Common and the Back Bay. Houghton Mifflin satisfied every dream I’d ever had as an American boy who grew up wanting to be a writer. It was a palace of Boston WASP and its masthead sang out with distinguished New England names. I thought I’d be a Houghton Mifflin boy forever.

But the world of publishing was about to undergo a sea change in the creative lifetime of all writers. I thought my first editor Shannon Ravenel would be my editor forever. But she moved to St. Louis before my first book even came out. Then I believed that the lovely, stately Anne Barrett would direct my career, but Anne retired, then died. I was given the young, dazzling Jonathan Galassi and I thought I’d stumbled into the lifetime of the greatest editor of his generation and I had. But Jonathan was New York bound and New York destined and the mighty Random House recruited Jonathan for its own impressive stable of editors. I would have gone to Random House with Jonathan because I recognized his genius and wanted to be part of it always, but the editors of Random House, in their infinite wisdom and ineptitude, insulted Jonathan and me when I went to sign up for my new novel The Prince of Tides. Both Jonathan and I wince when we recall that dispiriting day whenever we get together in New York. Houghton Mifflin assigned me a new editor Nan Talese and she and I have been partners in whatever crimes against literature I’ve created in the last thirty years. Nan became my destiny and I left Houghton Mifflin, heartbroken, to join her at Doubleday. I plan to be with Nan for the rest of my life.

But Houghton Mifflin is still a cry within my writing heart. It seemed so right for me, an instrument perfectly tuned to the writer I was hoping to become. The firm was literary, low-keyed and calm in its aristocratic singularity. The editors pushed books on me by their new novelists and writers. It thrilled me to read the first and second books of brand new voices on the American scene. My teacher James Dickey had published his first novel Deliverance with them two years before I’d arrived on the scene. Philip Roth had begun his career with Houghton, then had lit out for New York. But I read the first books of Don DeLillo and Paul Theroux and Sylvia Wilkinson and Madison Smartt Bell. Anne Sexton was publishing her incendiary poetry at that time and the Houghton Mifflin’s backlist was a writer’s field of wonder.

Over my time there, I took special pleasure in reading the first works by young novelists, those fearless navigators who slipped into that perilous world with something new to say. Like all publishing houses, Houghton Mifflin was male-dominated, possibly a tad misogynist, and women writers seemed poorly represented when I first arrived. But like all great publishing houses, Houghton was itself a mirror of American society and the great surge of women writers was already on the march.

Ann Patchett

Late in my time at Houghton Mifflin, two young women arrived on the scene who were the talk of the company – Susan Minot with a novel called Monkeys, and Ann Patchett with one called The Patron Saint of Liars. Both were talented, all agreed, but both were also drop dead beautiful.

Physical attractiveness does not make frequent visitations to the writers’ world. When I attended a party celebrating the writer Jennifer Egan’s first novel, Gay Talese came up to me in the middle of the gathering and said, “This isn’t a writers’ party. These people are way too good looking to be writers. Writers are ugly people. This group is way to gorgeous to call themselves writers.”

The talented Jennifer Egan is also a beauty and her husband is in theater and they had attracted a comely group among their New York friends. But Gay had a point and a great eye for detail, which has made him one of the great non-fiction writers this country has ever produced. Generally, writers descend from a lesser tribe and whatever claim to beauty we have shows up on the printed page far more often than it does in our mirrors. Even as I write these words I think of dozens of writers, both male and female, who make a mockery of this generalization. But comeliness among writers is rare enough to be noteworthy.

Though I’m no longer part of the Houghton Mifflin family, I still keep up with their new young writers and I always wish for them success as a publishing company. One of the sales reps sent me a reading copy of Ann Patchett’s first novel The Patron Saint of Lies and from the beginning she seemed like the real thing to me. Her voice was clear and original and I marked her down as a writer to watch. I attended a writer’s conference at the University of Mississippi sometime in the blur that was the 90s for me; I stood in line to get a copy of her second novel Taft signed by her. We introduced ourselves to each other and I found her to be one of the most attractive women I’d ever met. She looked like one of those women you wished you could’ve met and married as a young man. She was poised, self-contained, delightful, and I thought Taft was a fulfillment of the great promise she showed in The Patron Saint of Liars. I thought she was still shaking free of those invisible handcuffs and chains of bondage that the writing schools of America impose on their grads. She was a survivor of the the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where they train the rogue elephants and the big cats of the writing world. It’s both a cutting edge and thought-cutting matrix that has produced some great writers and an endless regiment of failed ones. It is a savage gathering of wolves on the middle plains of Iowa and I can’t think of a more honorable or deadly arena for an American writer to test his or her talent in the vast meanness of the writing world. I applied for admission to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was turned down, and still consider it one of the great blessings of my writing career. But it didn’t lay a hand on the strength of Ann Patchett’s talent. It always makes the great ones better and the bad ones better, too.

I’ve lived in exciting times and I’d have it no other way. I was born during the disgraceful Jim Crow years of the South and was lucky enough to be raised by a southern mountain woman who found the entire South evil. She and I watched the Old South crumble into dust around us and we took enormous satisfaction in its fall. On the heels of the Civil Rights movement, women’s liberation came hurtling down the turnpike and opened up the writing world for women of all kinds. I followed closely the career of Anne Rivers Siddons, Josephine Humphreys, Donna Tartt, Diane Ackerman, Toni Morrison, Andrea Barrett, Alice Walker, Mary Hood, Doris Betts, Annie Dillard, Janis Owens, Louise Erdrich, Patricia Hampl, and dozens of others who both amazed me and filled me with pleasure. Recently, I’ve begun reading the eye-popping works of Barbara Kingsolver and discovering her as one of the great gifts of my 68th year. Joyce Carol Oates has written for so long and so well that her achievement has to be measured in miles, not feet. There has been no one like her in American letters. I once took a streetcar to the top of Nob Hill to get Lee Smith to sign the bagful of her books I’d collected over the years. Cassandra King, the woman I married in 1998, has published five novels since I first met her at a writers’ conference in Birmingham. Though women writers were still a rarity when I began my career, they now dominate at every level and American letters are richer for it.

But, for me, Ann Patchett went to the top of the class when she published Bel Canto, a book that knocked my socks off and did the same with the reading public, who were as hungry for such a book as I was. I read it on Pawley’s Island, one of the magical places on the South Carolina coast, after Doug Marlette finished it and raved about it. Reading half the night, I completed the book the following day. When Doug and I went swimming in the surf that night, we talked of nothing else. When literature works there is nothing like it in the world. Few books I’ve ever read worked as well as this one.

Ann in Parnassus bookstore

Ann Patchett did that wondrous, walking on water kind of thing – she created a whole world that contained grand opera, the revolutionary spirit always alive and close to the surface in Latin America, a siege, a story of Shakespearean grandeur, unbearable tension that built up with the turning of every page, a savage denouement, loves stories haunted by the approach of death, an ending that dissatisfied some critics, but that satisfied something in me – her passionate and grateful reader. I had literature all over my hands and face when I finished that book. I thought then and I think now it’s one of the best novels I ever read or ever hope to read in my life. High praise? Yes, but joyfully given.

During my book tour, I went to Nashville, Tennessee, a city that Ann Patchett has succeeded in making her own. She and her husband are vital members of the city and he is a splendid man, a doctor and Sewanee man, who knew my best friend at Beaufort High School, Bruce Harper, when they attended college together. I visited Ann Patchett’s independent bookstore that she opened with Karen Haynes, a former sales rep for Random House, and the store is a gathering place for book lovers all over the South. The store, called Parnassus Books, is populated by bright young people who know the stock and can tell you all about their own favorite books published that season. Every independent bookstore in this country has a sacramental feel to it these days, of something that needs to be preserved at all costs. Ann herself cuts a heroic figure in the publishing world by stepping into the breach and putting her own money into the survival of this amazing store. I think the city of Nashville understands this – a city without an independent bookstore is not much of a city at all. It’s too much like a river without a current.

Ann Patchett introduced me to a crowd in an auditorium, in one of the most beautifully restored public schools in the country. It’s right in the middle of downtown and reminded me of Sacred Heart, where I went to kindergarten in downtown Atlanta. I thought I’d get a chance to rave about her novels and books, but Ann conducted the interview and kept me talking about the subject at hand. She was bright and as lively and lovely as I’d imagined her to be. It was like being interviewed by Anna Karenina. In my earliest fantasies of being a writer, I never dreamed of such a night happening – to be questioned by a great novelist about a book I’d written. That belonged to the realm of impossibility when I started out and she brought her own deep intelligence to the task of what was on my mind when I wrote this memoir about my family. I wish nights like that could linger more freshly in the memory, that they weren’t so fragile and slippery and impossible to nail down for study in one’s leisure. But the really great nights pass through you like whispers or shadows. They shimmer, but don’t adhere. I never got to rave to Ann Patchett about her work and that’s what I came to Nashville to do. I had a ton of pleasurable things to tell Ann about State of Siege and her new book of essays, but the time never seemed right. But I wanted her to know how essential her writing has been to my reading life.

I can only hope that one day, she’ll read this.

18 Responses to A few things I wish I had told Ann Patchett…

  • Cheryl Bynum says:

    Mr. Conroy: I do believe that I enjoy your musings and meanderings about people, places and things as much as I enjoy your books. You are a treasure.

  • Doris DeVore says:

    Thanks for the recommendations of great women authors…..I will look for these books. Anxiously awaiting your next book!

  • molly quinn misko says:

    Thank you, Pat for introducing us to another writer. I am looking forward to reading Bel Canto.

  • Debbie Watson says:

    I enjoy your blog Mr Pat Conroy. I have been reading your books almost since you’ve been writing them. Thanks for your dedication to the literary world. You’re a pro. And yes, Ann Patchette, we’ll she’s gifted and a gift. I discovered her books quite some time ago. I’m awaiting her next, as always. Again, thanks for the books and blog. Deb Watson

  • To me, Pat Conroy is the gate-keeper of literary letters. I’ve just finished Anne River’s Siddon’s “Peachtree Road,” ( and have “Colony” on deck) based on his directive and will add Anne Patchett to my list of those rare authors who show the rest of us how novel writing is done. For me, the thrill is in discovering those writers who are confident, fearless way-showers beyond negotiation and critique. Having clearly identified Conroy as top of the list, when he recommends a writer, I zealously seize their book and follow along as a tutorial. Coming across this post has made my day ( and it’s only 9:00 in the morning!)

  • Susan Carter says:

    Ah, Pat Conroy the king of writers. I just read The Sound of Glass by Karen White. There is a sentence in the book where a character is trying to describe the feeling of being out in a boat in Beaufort. “The water is wide” I had to dog ear that page and ponder a moment. How many years ago was it that I read my first Pat Conroy book and discovered one of the best movies of all time. Thank you for you gifts.
    Sincerely,
    Susan Alfred Carter

  • Glenda Beall says:

    I have been a fan of your books for many, many years. Thank you for this glowing recommendation of Ann Patchett. One of my friends loves her books and I plan to read them. I am happy to discover your blog.

  • Marie Price says:

    Mr Conroy, may I call you Pat? You have been my favorite writer since first I read your beautiful novels! Enjoying your blog but waiting hopefully for your next masterpiece. I was introduced to your work by my boss some 30 years ago and am forever grateful to him.
    I am looking forward to your recommendation of Anne Patchette’s books and many that you mention in ‘My Reading Life’.

    P.S. do not be distracted by your health club venture. Working out and exercise is highly overrated. Chop chop we miss you!!
    Regards and respect,
    Marie

  • I love your endless generosity to other writers. You set a fine example for the rest of us. (Of course, I also love your books!)

  • molly says:

    Mr.Conroy:

    Our family had the pleasure of hearing you speak that night in Nashville. One of our sons attends Hume Fogg Academy. No doubt it is a special building and school.

    More enjoyable was being in the audience and watching Ann Patchett interview you about your new book. The mutual admiration for each other both as writers and as people was obvious to anyone sitting in the auditorium that night. It made the interview so much more interesting and fun to be a witness to. I found myself hoping that the two of you would share a nice cocktail in the lobby of the Hermitage Hotel after you were finished signing books. :)

    We feel very fortunate to have Parnassus five minutes from our house and believe we have raised three teenagers who still appreciate a good hardback book purchased at your local independent bookstore. Our bookshelves are filled with your books and our sons are plowing through them at this age. My 16 year old read My Losing Season in the car on the way from Tuscaloosa to Davidson College this past weekend. Do you have any idea how your words speak to a young man at this age when he is willing to turn the car light on and ask to read in the car at 9:00pm? Thank you for giving them literature that touches them and speaks to them in such a way.

    My family just returned from a week at Dafuskie Island, SC. Needless to say, we love and appreciate many of the same things.

    Warmest regards from Music City,

    Molly

  • Thanks for turning me on to Ann Patchett. I look forward to getting into her writing. My wife and I spent some time aboard our Nellie Lankford a few years back in the Low Country and ate great fried seafood at a riverside restaurant in Port Royal. I hope your fitness studio is nearby. Along with the great fried food I also smell synergy. My home and newspaper are in Lewes, Delaware where I saw a vessel named Prince of Tides docked recently for a few weeks. A neighbor, Carol DiSabatino, said she thought it was your vessel, that you knew someone in town and that you were visiting. I photographed the vessel one day as we were headed south down the canal to Chincoteague Bay. So Pat, were you in Lewes and if so was your stay enjoyable and any particular impressions? I will be writing a bit of a Shipping News piece for my column next week and figured it wouldn’t hurt to give you a shout out. Thanks for your marvelous appreciation of the marshes and the dots that connect them to their people. Dennis PS Telluride, Colorado? Sweet.

  • Helen Orphanidys Arnold says:

    Hi Pat- I met you at John B’s celebration of life party in Gloucester, VA- I’m the one he dipped while dancing, and then couldn’t get me back up!! I LOVE that you are working out, since I’m a physical therapist and that is my thing, and just keep going and varying your routines and watch how much your mental strength improves as well as the physical benefits. And then get ready to arm wrestle me- I bet I could take you!

  • Cele Otnes says:

    Dear Mr. Conroy: I just finished The Death of Santini and found it riveting and, as is true of most of your work, emotionally wrenching. Thank you!! As for Ann Patchett, I think Run is even better than Bel Canto. And don’t leave Barbara Kingsolver off of your list — Flight Behavior is a masterpiece. Happy reading and writing!

  • Jan says:

    I too count Bel Canto as one of my all time favorite books, and have since read almost all of Ms. Patchett’s other books, including State of Wonder (not State of Siege) and have read most of your books too, Mr. Conroy. Got a new one in the works? I hope so.

  • Nan says:

    Hello, What a treat to discover this blog. I had Googled, Books by Pat Conroy after reading “My Reading Life” which I enjoyed so much. It is so obvious how much you enjoy writing and what pleasure it is to read what you write. Hopefully I will read all of you books and now books by Ms Pachett as well.
    Thanks for sharing your talent here so freely.
    Warm regards

    • Shirley says:

      I’m sorry to hear about the loss of Mr. Conroy. He was a truly a great writer and friend to so many. We will miss him, and we will continue enjoying his books. A truly wonderful legacy.

    • Shirley says:

      I’m sorry to hear about the loss of Mr. Conroy. He was a truly a great writer and friend to so many. We will miss him, and we will continue enjoying his books. A truly wonderful legacy.

  • Ann Pinson says:

    I have spent many delightful hours lost in Pat’s world of wonderful words. He was truly a word smith. As a family, we will miss Mr. Conroy. Lucky Heaven

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