Novelist remains faithful to the nuns who taught her

Ann Patchett

Saintliness is an unspoken theme running through the books of American novelist Ann Patchett, and in her life she has never wavered far from the principles drummed into her by the nuns at her Catholic school.

- UK Telegraph/SMH

'What else could you possibly want to know about me?' Ann Patchett asks, laughing at the absurdity of this interview. I have come to Nashville, Tennessee, to ask about her writing, her personal life, her experience of being a rich, successful literary novelist, and she has just revealed everything in a book of essays called This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

'It's not a book that leaves you wondering what the real story is,' Patchett says. 'It's more a book that makes you cringe slightly and turn away, because you know too much now. I'm glad you're here - I really am - but you didn't have to make the journey.'

I point out that I've met Sparky now, and seen for myself what a fine and fortunate little fellow he is. Dogs are a recurring theme in the essays, as central to her life as writing or husbands, although far less problematic. I know a great deal about her two marriages, where her fiction comes from, why she has never wanted to have children, but now I can see the exterior surfaces of her life. Her house, for example.

I know that she once passed the physical entrance examination for the Los Angeles Police Department, as part of a writing project about her father, who was a cop in LA for 32 years. She was one of the few female applicants who could scramble over a 1.8-metre wall. Now approaching her 50th birthday, she is still a trim, athletic woman, with a wholesome glow. The intelligence and compassion so evident in her writing are there in her face.

She became a rich, successful novelist with her fourth book, Bel Canto, a spellbinding fable about terrorism and opera in South America. It won the Orange Prize in 2002, sold a million copies in the US, and was translated into more than 30 languages. Before that, she was a poor, struggling novelist whose books garnered excellent reviews and sold modestly.

In her 20s, having graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, along with Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and many other top-flight American novelists, she freelanced. Many of the essays in the new book began as magazine pieces, and were made from her life at home, 'writing and love, work and loss,' as she summarises in the introduction.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is published by Bloomsbury, $29.99

FULL STORY Novelist remains faithful to the nuns who taught her

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