Ann Patchett will be joining us for a book talk and signing on Monday, November 18th, at 7:00pm. This will be an off-site, ticketed event at Santa Cruz High. Please check the event page for ticket availability.
Interview by Kat Bailey
It would seem that there is a book by Ann Patchett for every reader on our staff. Casey’s favorite is State of Wonder. She read it on vacation, and it was the perfect getaway read. Susan’s favorite is The Magician’s Assistant, and she can barely say that title without feeling goosebumps. My favorite is Truth and Beauty, though The Magician’s Assistant is basically tied for first (also, Susan threatened to stop speaking to me until I finished it). Kim loves Bel Canto, because it is immersive and makes you question your loyalties. Ga loves Bel Canto as well, because she also loves opera. In short, Bookshop Santa Cruz loves Ann Patchett.
And Ann Patchett loves bookstores. She grew up in Nashville, where about three years ago, the city’s two remaining bookstores closed their doors within six months. Patchett felt their loss acutely. Unable to face the thought of living in a town without a bookstore, she teamed up with former sales rep Karen Hayes, and together they opened Parnassus Books. In the years since, Patchett has become what she calls a “spokesperson for independent bookstores.” She was on the front page of the New York Times when Parnassus opened. She’s been on The Colbert Report to proclaim the reemergence of the indie bookstore. Her sharp, beautiful essay about Parnassus, The Bookstore Strikes Back, first appeared in The Atlantic and is now reprinted in This Is a Story of a Happy Marriage, her new book of essays that touches on themes of commitment: to her marriage, to her grandmother, to her dogs, to writing, and to bookstores.
Given our epic and unending adoration of all things Patchett, we are thrilled to be hosting her at a reading on November 18th at Santa Cruz High. (See page 17 for details.) In anticipation of this event, I asked Ann Patchett several questions about writing, reading, and bookselling.
KAT: You write beautifully about how certain books have influenced your writing and how life changing it can be to come across the right book at just the right moment. As a bookseller, are you aware of this when you stock your store? Are there titles you put out for the public, hoping to quietly influence lives?
ANN: Well, first I should say I don’t stock the store. Buying books, like all the other real work, is done by my partner Karen Hayes. Still, I read a lot and I take huge pleasure in ordering books I love and recommending them. I feel like new books have reviews and word of mouth and (hopefully) touring authors to promote them, but wonderful older books can get lost. Our best-selling title in the store is The All of It by Jeanette Haien, a book I got Harper to put back into print. This fall I’m getting another of my all-time favorite books back in print, Geoffrey Wolff’s amazing A Day at the Beach. I don’t think of it as a desire to influence lives so much as a desire to share something that I love very much.
KB: In your essay "The Getaway Car," you advise young writers not to pursue an MFA program unless they know they can pay for it. But what do you think about young writers becoming booksellers? Do you think there is anything about selling and reading and being immersed in books that can provide an education in writing them?
AP: I think there’s a long and noble history of writers of all ages working in bookstores. I worked in a bookstore when I was in my twenties. It just makes sense. It’s where the readers are. You can always find someone in a bookstore who wants to talk about books, and a lot of those people are your coworkers. Sometimes I look at the people who are working at Parnassus and I think, why are you working here? You’re so smart. You should be running your own company. But then they start talking about books and I think, where else could you work? Where else could you go and talk about books all day? Speaking for myself, working in a bookstore or owning a bookstore makes me a really indiscriminate reader. I read all over the place just because things catch my eye. I’m highly in favor of writers in bookstores.
KB: You have become a champion of the independent bookstore and often speak of their importance as community fixtures. Can you share some of your favorite or formative moments in bookstores?
AP: There was a tiny bookstore called Mills in Nashville when I was growing up. One branch I walked to after school with my sister and the other branch I hung out in when my mother was in the grocery store. What I remember was that the booksellers treated me like any other customer even though I was a kid. They seemed to take me seriously, which is what most kids long for. I also remember sitting in my car in the parking lot of Davis Kidd Booksellers in Nashville in the summer of 1992 and crying because I had to go in and give my first reading for my first book on my first book tour. I had some sense that my life was about to change, or maybe that my relationship to bookstores was about to change. Up until that day my time in bookstores had been wonderfully private, and after that, bookstores were often the place that people came and watched me. I know I’m very lucky but still, there are times I miss the old days.
KB: You’ve said that being a bookseller has made you read in wider directions. What are some of the books that have taken you by surprise lately?
AP: Most of the fiction I read, and a lot of the nonfiction, I find through reviews and the recommendations of friends or because a publisher mails me a copy. The books I find in stores are often visually oriented—I wanted them because I saw them. I love a book called Maddie on Things: A Super Serious Project About Dogs and Physics by Theron Humphrey. I’ve easily bought a dozen copies because I can always think of more people who would love it. The same is true of Philippe Petit’s Why Knot: How to Tie More Than Sixty Ingenious, Useful, Beautiful, Lifesaving, and Secure Knots! Did I know that I needed a book of photography about a dog balanced on things? Did I know I wanted to read about knots? Nope. But now they’re two of my favorite books. Today I bought a gorgeous book called Rock the Shack: The Architecture of Cabins, Cocoons and Hide-Outs. I came very close to buying the collected Peanuts comic strips just because the picture of Lucy on the cover was so appealing.
KB: What are the books that make you want to write?
AP: All the good ones make me want to write. I just reread Jane Gardam’s Old Filth to try and figure out how she moved the characters through time. Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena makes me want to take on the world we live in. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves makes me want to open my heart past the point I had imagined it could go. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette makes me want to be funny. (James Patterson gave me that book! He bought it for me in my own store.) Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat makes me want to have a touch so light I would vanish as an author. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert both make me want to be wildly ambitious.
Kat Bailey is the Used Book Manager and Assistant Buyer at Bookshop Santa Cruz. She graduated from UCSC in 2008 with a degree in Literature and Creative Writing.