Ann Patchett lets readers into her personal life in new collection of essays

For author Ann Patchett, writing fiction is hard but non-fiction is easy. In a new collection of essays, "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage," Patchett reveals her personal side and reviews her education as a writer. Jeffrey Brown talks to Patchett about the themes she covers, from writing advice to relationships.


Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the evolution of a writer.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: "The tricky thing about being a writer or about being any kind of artist is that, in addition to making art, you also have to make a living."

So writes Ann Patchett, author of such acclaimed novels as "Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder," of her work of a writer as nonfiction. Her new book, "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage," collects essays she's written over the years on various slices of life.

And she joins us now.

Welcome to you.

ANN PATCHETT, author, "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage": Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this idea of having to make a living, you realized that in your 20s?

ANN PATCHETT: When my parents told me to leave.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But there you were, and you're wanting to be a novelist in your early 20s, and the choices are waiting on tables and things like that.

ANN PATCHETT: And teaching. I don't know why they seem like parallel careers. Those were my two choices. I could teach. I could wait tables. I could cook in a restaurant. Food and teaching were the two skills I had.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you found writing.

ANN PATCHETT: There were problems with both. One, I was too tired. If I was a waitress, I was too tired at the end of the day when I came home to try to write.

And with teaching, there was never any time. I wasn't so tired, but there was never any time, because I was always doing lesson plans and grading papers. So I decided to make my living as a magazine writer. And I found that it was really easy and fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you honed your skills. I mean, you...

ANN PATCHETT: Yes, I did. I mean, I learned how to take criticism, how to get things done quickly, how to cut 1,000 words out of a piece when they lost an ad, so they didn't have as much space.

I became very flexible. And I think I really lost my ego at 17. I could go back to the ego offices at 17 and see if I could find it now.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does this represent to you when you look back? When you went back to look at the essays, and you thought of putting them all together, what did you see?

ANN PATCHETT: Yes, actually -- I saw that my best work was my most personal work, which is odd, because my fiction is very far afield and has nothing to do with my life.

But, when I wrote nonfiction, my best work was the really personal stuff. When I was doing...

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think explains that?

ANN PATCHETT: I have no idea, maybe just some sort of balance in my brain.

The reporting pieces I did, when I looked at them again, didn't seem very interesting. But the pieces that I had written about taking care of my grandmother, about my dog, about marriage, about work, those were the pieces that were just better.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you -- it is interesting because you say in here that you like the fact that, in your fiction, the reader ends up knowing nothing more about you, the writer...

ANN PATCHETT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... than when he or she started the book.

ANN PATCHETT: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet, in the nonfiction, the personal is what works?

(CROSSTALK)

ANN PATCHETT: It's very personal.

And it's interesting, because I published in a wide field. So, no one was reading all of my nonfiction pieces. And I could write very personal things, thinking, well, you know, maybe this person is going to read that and someone else is going to read this.

But putting them all together, all of those personal pieces side by side, was very cringe-inducing. And even when I finished the book, it took me a long time to decide that I wanted to publish it.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the themes is, as you have said, is about relationships, all kinds.

ANN PATCHETT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another theme is about writing.

ANN PATCHETT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just the writing life.

ANN PATCHETT: Yes.

I am sure every writer has this and probably every newscaster, that people are always coming up to me and saying, my daughter wants to do what you do, my godson, my tennis partner. Could you talk to my next-door neighbor and my cousin and tell them how to get a book deal and tell them how to get an agent and tell them if they should go to graduate school?

So, I decided, I am going to make a clearinghouse. I'm going to write down every single piece of writing advice I have, from how to work, how to get your skills honed, to how to sell a book, to whether or not you should go to school. I will put it all in one place.

And then when anyone says to me, will you have coffee with my son who wants to be a writer, I could say, he has to read this essay first.

(LAUGHTER)

 ANN PATCHETT: And if he still wants to have coffee, if he has any questions left after reading this essay -- and no one does. I think "The Getaway Car" covered everything I know about writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what -- what is the difference then for you in writing fiction and nonfiction? Is it a physical difference? Is it time of day? Is it everything or...

ANN PATCHETT: It's that nonfiction is easy and fiction is hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's it, huh?

And that's for me...

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Nonfiction is easy?

ANN PATCHETT: Is easy, is fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ANN PATCHETT: I will take almost any assignment. If somebody calls me up and says, will you write this piece, will you write this op-ed, it's 4:00 in the afternoon, it's due at 7:00 in the morning, that's fun to me.

Fiction is always really a labor. The hardest piece of nonfiction I ever wrote isn't anywhere close to the easiest piece of fiction I never wrote.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why is fiction always a labor?

ANN PATCHETT: I think because, in fiction, you have to make up every single thing, right? What's the story? Who are the people? When does it start? When does it end? What happens?

In nonfiction, you know all of those things. It's really more about writing. And I'm very comfortable writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is fiction more enjoyable because of the freedom of making all that up?

ANN PATCHETT: No, it's not more enjoyable.

And, probably, I should figure out why I'm so much more interested in doing something that I think is really hard. But, somehow, the thing that is hard for me feels more noble. I don't know.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, your new book is "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage." Good title.

ANN PATCHETT: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann Patchett, thank you.

ANN PATCHETT: Thanks for having me on.