Last Friday, I had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Ann Patchett, the renowned novelist. I should probably qualify that statement by telling you that at least 150 other people also sat down with Ann Patchett, in a rather large lecture hall, to hear her speak about her acclaimed novel, Bel Canto.
Published in 2002, Bel Canto was the winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist. The novel has made several “Best Books of the Last Decade” lists.
Listening to a successful author speak is always interesting. Sometimes, they have little of interest to say: many are better writers than they are speakers. Ms. Patchett, however, is an eloquent speaker, and she gave a candid talk about her love of and frustrations with the writing process. She also gave some great advice. Here is some of what Ms. Patchett had to share:
The Importance of that First Line:
Ann Patchett shared an interesting tidbit about author John Irving. Did you know that John Irving cannot begin writing a new novel until he has come up with the last sentence of that novel? Ms. Patchett, on the other hand, believes in the importance of composing a solid beginning to any piece of writing. She is especially proud of the first line of Bel Canto:
When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.
A great first line draws the reader in right away. This sentence provides a wealth of information, but begs a lot of questions, too. We know the lights go off, but why? Was it on purpose? A power-outage? Who is the accompanist? Are we at a concert, or is this person just known as “the accompanist?” And who was kissed? Did she even want to be kissed? Did she kiss him back? Was this their first kiss? Was he accompanying her? And if so, what instrument does she play? Or is she a singer? There is so much in that one sentence, perhaps the most important sentence of the novel. There is action, there is intrigue, and there is the introduction of two crucial characters. Lesson from Ann Patchett: never underestimate the importance of that first line, and of course, that first page.
On Naming Your Characters
Ms. Patchett likened naming her characters to having to having 35-year-old children she never got around to naming. She is careful to choose a name that fits her character while being cognizant that certain names have certain insinuations, especially in the literary world. Naming becomes more complicated when writing about characters who come from a completely different culture; Bel Canto has a plethora of Japanese characters. How did she choose their names?
Her character Gen Watanabe is a combination of two of the most popular first and surnames in Japan. She named Kato after the Green Hornet’s sidekick. She named another character after her drycleaner’s Japanese friend. The rest of the names were a combination of first names and surnames from records of Japanese prisoners. (That’s one way to go about it! Where do I sign up to receive records of the monikers of inmates?)
The names of her female protagonists were chosen very carefully. The character Roxane is named for Cyrano de Bergenac’s (the character of the novel by the same name) love interest. Carmen is named for the popular opera’s title character. Beatriz is named for Dante’s ultimate goal in The Divine Comedy– his lost love, Beatrice.
Ms. Patchett also discussed the emotional difficulty of killing off her beloved characters. She stated, and I quote:
That’s an awful day when you kill your characters.
After all, she spent a lot of time with them, and got attached. She described the tears that ran down her face as some of her characters ultimately bit the dust. (This of course makes the analogy of her characters being her children a strange one. Perhaps it’s best that Ms. Patchett is a writer and not a mother.)
Fiction writers get to play God, which can be empowering, but Ms. Patchett admits that the difficulty of killing off her “children” was enough to make her toy with the idea of saving their lives. In the end, she sacrificed some characters for a more authentic reading experience. She admitted playing God is not all fun and games.
How Technology Has Changed Writing
No, Ms. Patchett did not discuss word processing programs or the new iPad, but rather, how the onset of technology has changed the way writers approach their fiction. After all, so much of the conflict in a plot is about missed information: a missed phone call, an unknown answer to an important question, an inability to get in touch with someone. How do you write a plausible conflict when in today’s society, everyone can be found, every answer can be answered, and every person can be gotten in touch with?
Ms. Patchett was recently mucking through Amazonian swamps in search of a rare lily. (The hike to the lily, she insists, was not worth the “reward.” Something about bugs and mud…) On the boat ride back to primitive civilization, a cell phone rang. A man answered it and said, “No- I can’t make a 2:00 tee-time. I’m in the middle of the Amazon.”
There, in the most remote of places, a person can be found. (To which the novelist replies– well, maybe he loses his cell phone in the water. And when he goes to fish it out, he is attacked by piranhas.) Of course conflict can be found, but with today’s technology, you have to go to great lengths to explain away possible solutions to the problem.
And there you have it, just a few thoughts from a celebrated author. Here’s what I gleaned from the experience: My next short story will introduce the main character in the first sentence. Otis dropped his cell phone in the murky Amazon water. Otis, of course, is named for the largest manufacturer of elevators, because like an elevator, he will experience ups and downs throughout the story. I will kill him in the end, probably death by piranhas, and I’ll be sad about it, but it will be necessary.