Ann Patchett Talks About Her New Book, “State of Wonder”

Ann Patchett’s newest book is “State of Wonder,” about a pharmaceutical researcher, Marina Singh, who must travel to the Amazon jungle after a colleague’s mysterious death.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew when I was 5 years old. It’s the one true thing about me that I’ve always known and never waivered on. It’s made life very easy.

In your opinion, what does it take to become a writer?
Many people can write, but I always say is that my real skill is my ability to stay still and be alone for long periods of time.

“Bel Canto,” “Run” and “State of Wonder” all have strangers who are thrown together and then form relationships.

It’s true. No matter how hard I try, no matter how sure I am that I didn’t do it, when I read my book at the end there’s always that “Lord of the Flies” element. I’m fascinated by how people behave in isolation. I was obsessed with Patty Hearst when I was a teenager.

Is the theme how strangers become a family?
I’d say in “State of Wonder” it’s more about society. Humans who don’t know each other, but can’t escape each other, will form a hierarchy. Sometimes it’s warm and loving like a family, but often times it’s tense. Maybe I should write about a group of people trapped in an elevator.

Dorothy Allison (who wrote “Bastard Out of Carolina” and “Cavedweller”) once told me that she was terrified that she only had one story to tell. A light bulb went off. It was so freeing. So many people fight against their story, but I’m not going to fight it. If I’m meant to write about groups of people, I’ll make sure it’s the best group of people.

“State of Wonder” deals with the search for a drug that provides eternal fertility. Why that topic? Is it personal?
When I tell women that the South American tribe in “State of Wonder” can have children until they die, they recoil. It’s like a horror movie [laughs]. It’s not personal, but I was looking for a drug that would be incredibly profitable. Fertility turned into something great to talk about. Americans want to put our choices off forever.

Why do you think that is?
I’m interested in how Americans and science and society are coming together to make us all 16 forever. I find that no matter what I write about, I don’t go into it saying it’s going to be topical, but it somehow becomes a self-fulfilling news prophecy. Now I’m getting emailed stories about 69-year-olds having babies.

What else are you working on, besides this book tour?
Nashville lost its independent bookstore and Borders. So I’m opening up a new bookstore. It’s going to be called Parnassus. I’m opening it with Karen Hayes, who was a sales rep with Random House for 18 years. Since I’m in a new bookstore every day during this tour, I’ve had lots of chances to ask questions and get ideas.

Good luck with the remainder of your tour and the new store. When will it open?
We’re hoping before Christmas. Stay tuned.

Editor’s Note: Ann Patchett will be in Wilmette on May 20 as part of the Wilmette Public Library’s One Book Everybody Reads program.

  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate