Not only is Ann Patchett an acclaimed novelist, essayist and nonfiction writer, she's also an international spokesperson for the independent, locally-owned bookstore. At a reading hosted by Malaprop's and staged at the Lipinski Auditorium at UNCA on Tuesday, Nov. 5, an impressive crowd gathered to hear Patchett present her latest literary offering. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of thoughtful, beautifully written essays about life, love, writing and books. This collection is especially powerful because it brings the reader close to Patchett herself; by the end one feels as if they know Patchett, and that she is close and trusted friend.
Patchett is the author of six novels including Bel Canto (awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction), The Patron Saints of Lairs, Taft, The Magician's Assistant, Run, and State of Wonder. She has also written two works of nonfiction,Truth and Beauty and What now?. Two years ago, Patchett opened an independent bookstore in Nasheville, Parnassus Books, which she co-owns with Karen Hayes.
At last night's reading, Patchett told a story about the creation of her book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. "All my life I have supported myself as a writer," Patchett told her audience. She started writing for Seventeen Magazine at that age of 20, writing as many nonfiction essays as needed in order to pay the rent. She then became an essayists for Vogue, JQ, and NY Times Magazine. "If something happens, I write about it," Patchett told the crowd, "then I tear out the story, put it in a bin, and let it go." The bin in her closet was brimming with these stories. When a young woman and family friend arrived in Nashville in need of work, Patchett took her in, helped her learn to cook, and gave her odd jobs to help around the house. One of the projects Niki took on was the bin. In the process of digitizing Patchett's stories, an idea was born. Niki encouraged Patchett to create a collection of essays and publish them as a book.
At first Patchett was opposed to the idea, and felt as if she were "reading old diary entries." She also said that she found herself "feeling naked" in the face of her work. But the idea stuck, and Patchett thought of other essays that would complete a collection, including a story about her happy marriage, and her bookstore. "[Until opening Parnassus] I wanted to stay inside and protect myself, but the bookstore broke down every wall in my life," said Patchett. Surely there was an essay there. The result is a beautiful and carefully-crafted collection about life, love, and change over time.
Patchett then read her story "The Bookstore Strikes Back." This essay, witty and wonderfully written, tells the story of Patchett betting it all on a bookstore. Two years ago, Nashville found itself without a bookstore. Before she knew it, Patchett invested her life's savings to re-create the bookstore of her childhood. She began speaking up on behalf of the local bookstore, and the world was listening. In her story she writes:
"My act was on the road, and with every performance I tweaked the script, hammering out the details as I proclaimed them to strangers: all things happen in a cycle, I explained – the little bookstore had succeeded and grown into a bigger bookstore. Seeing the potential for profit, the superstore chains rose up and crushed the independents, then Amazon rose up and crushed the superstore chains. Now that we could order any book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased. I promised whomever was listening that from the those very ashes the small bookstore would rise again."
Patchett's reading was funny, thoughtful and beautifully delivered. She is a woman on a mission, and her goodness, intelligence and kindness continues to propel her success.