27 Nov 2021

Ann Patchett: a much loved writer asks what matters most

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 27 November 2021

She’s a bestselling, prizewinning author with her own bookshop in native Nashville Tennessee, but in her new collection of essays This Precious Life Ann Patchett reveals that below the surface of any charmed life there are darker undercurrents. "Again and again," she writes, "I was asking what mattered most in this precarious and precious life." 

Ann Patchett is the author of seven novels, four books of nonfiction and in 2019 published her first children’s book. Patchett’s numerous awards include the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and 2020 novel The Dutch House was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 2012 Patchett was named by Time as one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’.

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More than one essay in the book looks at downsizing and minimising in life. One looks at trying to buy next to nothing for a year and another is on a pandemic house clearance.

“My husband and I had been talking about moving down the street. There was a pretty house that was for sale about a block away from us. We looked at it and when we started talking, we realised that the only reason that we were interested in moving was that it would force us to go through all of our stuff.

“We’re not hoarders, we’re really pretty neat, but we’ve lived in this house for a long time. We decided to just pretend like we were moving and go through everything. The nice thing is, if somebody walked in right now and said, I need a green pencil, I would be able to put my hand on a green pencil in 20 seconds because I know where every single thing in the house is right now. That’s beautiful.”

Patchett says she believes it will stay thus and says she became a neater person when she quit smoking.

“Smoking was really lovely for a number of reasons but, if I was writing and I wanted to just take a little break but not get too far away from work, I would smoke a cigarette. Now, I will get up and clean a bathroom or get up and vacuum one room. I need some sort of small mindless activity that won’t take me away from work but gives me a little something to do.”

The title essay of the book concerns her friend Sooki Raphael, Tom Hank’s assistant, and her pancreatic cancer.

“I met Sooki when I was interviewing Tom [Hanks] for his collection of short stories. We really liked each other and just met for a few minutes and stayed in touch with an email a month. In that time of two years, she had pancreatic cancer, had surgery, had chemo, got better, had a recurrence, then needed to find a clinical trial for recurrent pancreatic cancer. It’s very hard to find a trial that is an exact match for your cancer and is also accepting people.”

Patchett’s husband, Carl, is a doctor and managed to find Sooki a spot in a trial in Nashville.

“She was going to come out for about ten days and then go back to Los Angeles because a hospital near her was opening up the same trial. Truly, I had met her once two years before for five minutes. When I picked her up at the airport, I didn’t really remember what she looked like. She came here and, in this ten days, Covid happened and not only were the flights cancelled, the clinical trial back in Los Angeles that was supposed to start was cancelled.

“She couldn’t travel and, even if she could’ve, she couldn’t have gone home. My husband started practising telemedicine out of the dining room, I was on book tour but I stopped so I was upstairs and Sooki was downstairs painting. There we were, locked down together and we just had a miraculous time.”

Patchett says they were aware from the pandemic and recurrent pancreatic cancer that nothing lasts and to make the most of the time they had.

“We felt very aware of every moment and very appreciative.”

Another essay concerns here husband’s love of planes and flying, and her concerns about his safety while he’s out there.

“I think that’s an essay about what it means to be married. You can’t take out the pieces that you don’t like and expect that you will wind up with the same person. I always say Carl is a tapestry and I don’t get to pick out a thread or two I don’t like because then the whole thing falls apart.

“What I love about Carl is that he’s brave, he’s someone who can figure things out just on the spot. He’s so fast, he loves adventure, he’s not afraid of anything. Those are all the things that make him a great pilot and so, if I worry about him when he flies, I don’t get to change him. I have to accept the whole package of him.”

One essay about her husband recalls the time he offered to buy a baby while on a flight home from Russia.

Patchett says they were waiting to board their flight at Moscow Airport and noticed there were a bunch of babies at the airport. It dawned on them that they had been adopted by American parents who were returning home with them.

“It was a plane full of babies for a 12 hour flight, which sounds like a terrible thing, but the babies were so happy and the parents were so happy. There were no crying babies.”

Patchett and her husband had been standing next a couple in the line who had a baby and found they were seated on the aisle next to them.

“At one point, the woman was up in the aisle walking her baby and she came back to the seat, her husband was asleep, and she was crying. She was on the aisle and Carl was on the aisle and he asked her what was wrong and the woman said, a woman at the bathroom who had a baby had told me there was something wrong with my baby, that my baby was neurologically impaired and couldn’t hold its head up and that I should go to the doctor right away.

“Carl said, give me the baby, I’m a doctor, give me the baby. So, she hands him the baby and he does these things that makes it look like he’s examining the baby, plays with the baby’s finger, holds his finger in front of the baby’s eyes. He says, this is a perfect baby, I think this is the best baby on the plane, and I want to buy this baby.

“I almost passed out, I thought they were going to throw us off the plane. Carl said, you know what, you can get another baby but if you don’t feel confident about this baby, then I’ll buy this baby off you for $20,000, I’ll have my accountant wire you the money when we land. I’m sitting there thinking, don’t say this! This is horrifying! The woman, of course, looks shocked because he’s holding the baby and then she says, you think this is a good baby? You think there’s nothing wrong with this baby?

“She was completely restored and Carl said, here’s my card if you change your mind, I will always buy this baby and you can go back and adopt a different baby. It was the most outrageous thing in the world but Carl is just someone who knows how people work. He somehow knew that that was what she needed to hear, that this was a valuable baby.”

Patchett asked her husband later if there was anything wrong with the baby and Carl told her that the baby was perfectly fine.