By Sarah Guan
It takes a bit of star power for any lecturer to fill Cemex Auditorium on a school night–but the New York Times bestselling author Ann Patchett spoke to a full house on Monday evening. She was introduced by Professor Tobias Wolff, who fondly recalled a 20-something Patchett just embarking on her literary career. He described her latest novel, “State of Wonder,” as evocative of the myth of Orpheus in the Underworld and of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” praising in particular the book’s deep mythic structure and Patchett’s careful research. Alluding to a scene in which a character gives birth in the middle of the Amazon, Wolff remarked, “If I needed a Caesarean, I think she [Patchett] could do it for me!”
Patchett took the stage and spoke briefly about the process of researching a novel. She described her own methods as “composting” — learning as much as possible about the relevant subject and then forgetting about it, allowing it to seep organically into her writing. She drew a wave of chuckles from the audience when she admitted her irritation with books that flaunted just how much research the author had done.
She then read a scene from “State of Wonder” in which an anaconda boards the boat that three American doctors and their native guides are steering down the Amazon River. (If you’re looking for more snake scenes, Patchett recommends Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” which she read on the plane from Nashville.) The passage was inspired, she said, by an eventful research trip: she was on a boat in the Amazon with a local guide and a number of tourists when one of the guests — a professional snake handler — reached into the murky water and pulled an anaconda from the river, providing a moment of surreal terror for the other passengers and instant inspiration for Patchett.
Patchett proceeded to open the floor for questions. The first was a predictable inquiry about her new independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, which had garnered coverage from numerous major media outlets, including the New York Times and NPR. Patchett delivered a spontaneous, impassioned speech about the enduring importance of literary communities and independent booksellers; she explained that as Nashville bookstores were being shut down at a corporate level, the community was increasingly concerned about the lack of bookstores in the city. Finally, she and another bibliophile, Karen Hayes, decided that if they wanted a bookstore, they would have to do it themselves — and so Parnassus Books opened for business in October.
There were many questions about her personal process of research, writing and editing. Here, Patchett’s clever sense of humor and ability to command the stage truly shone forth, as her answers included a number of memorable lines. Patchett mentioned having to take the anti-malaria medication Lariam, which her husband, a doctor, prescribed for her aforementioned trip to the Amazon, and she remarked that the prescription of a class four narcotic was a sure indicator of true love. In answering a different question, she declined to elaborate on an incident she coyly referred to as “when I kissed John Updike.” And when asked about inspiration and influences in writing, she replied, “I can trace back every good thing to where I stole it” — a frank and mindful quip, which earned a hearty laugh from the audience.
Not only is Patchett a great writer — many attendees were long-time fans — she is an excellent speaker, keeping the crowd engaged and entertained for more than an hour. She was truly an inspired choice for the Lane Lecture Series, and one hopes that the program will continue to bring authors of such caliber to campus.