From Page to Lyric Opera Stage: An Interview With Author Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett

The definition of daunting: the chance to sit down with one of your favorite living authors.

I was lucky enough to have that opportunity recently when award-winning author Ann Patchett was in town for the Dec. 7 world premiere of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Bel Canto,” an original opera based on her luminous 2001 book. It was her fourth novel — she’s published two more as well as three nonfiction books since — and won her England’s prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award. The unconventional love stories woven into the compelling narrative of a South American hostage crisis made the book hard to put down; the enthralling fictional character of world-famous opera star Roxanne Coss and the undeniable power of music to reach across great divides struck a chord with readers around the world, drawing them into the somewhat rarified world of opera.

How fitting, then, that real-life opera star — and close friend of Patchett — Renée Fleming, now the Lyric’s Creative Consultant, commissioned an opera based on “Bel Canto” and curated the artistic team behind it, choosing Peruvian-born classical music composer Jimmy Lòpez to write his first opera with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning, Cuban-born playwright Nilo Cruz. It’s art imitating art imitating life.

So now, 14 years after the publication of “Bel Canto,” Patchett sat down to discuss the opera inspired by her book, the creative process, the value of friendship, the glories of the independent bookstore, the sad realities of our post-9/11 world, and — joy of joys — her new novel.

Make It Better: How thrilling that “Bel Canto” has been made into an opera. When I first read it, I immediately imagined it as a movie, because it felt so cinematic to me. I’ve felt the same about “The Magician’s Assistant,” “Run,” and “State of Wonder.” Was that intentional?

Ann Patchett: People often say that to me, but it’s not intentional. I think it’s two things: I’m a very visual thinker, and I’m also very plot driven. I’m somebody who really writes a story — beginning, middle and end. Some people think that plots are passé. But I think movies tend to be more story-driven than many contemporary novels. So coupled with the fact that I write in a very visual way, that’s what’s going on.

Creating great performance art is a lot like giving birth to a really large baby, right? (Ann: “Ouch!”) It’s an often painful process — and sometimes a painful birth — that comes from collaboration. But ultimately worth it, right? How has this process been for you, and how has it been different than writing a book? 

Well, in the process of writing a book, I do every bit of it myself with no collaboration whatsoever, and in this, I’ve really had not one thing to do with it. Nothing. I last read this book in 2000. When I finish a book, I finish it — and I don’t ever think about it again. I have been working on a new novel that I just — just! — finished, and I’m still doing line edits, with copy edits up ahead. That’s where my mind has been all through this process. There have been several times when the Lyric has said, “Come to Chicago!” And I’ve said, “If you need me to be helpful to you, I absolutely will come. If you’re trying to include me because you are actually nice people, I’ve got a different piece of art that I’m working on right now.” I haven’t had anything to offer to them except the book, and that they had a long time ago. But really, for me, this is all right and proper. I feel good about this. There’s no reason that I should be collaborating with anyone on an opera! I really don’t know anything about opera.

And yet you wrote about it so beautifully!

Well, I make stuff up professionally! I think I’ve done a lot of good in general for opera in the last 15 years, probably brought a lot of people to opera. But in no way does that mean that I should have a part in writing an opera!

I think a lot of people feel so possessive about the art they’ve created that it’s difficult for them to let others mess about in it.

If I felt uncomfortable, I wouldn’t do it. End of story. It’s a choice, and either you sign off or you don’t. I signed off, and I’m thrilled. It was a great decision. And I say to people all the time, “If it had been a ballet — which it could’ve been, and still could be as I own the ballet rights — would I go to the rehearsals and say, “No, that should be a grand jèté?”

But the story is yours, even though it’s inspired by actual events. I know you gave the creative team complete license with the story as the opera came together.

You make a thoughtful decision up front, and that’s it. For example, I would never sell the rights for anything to “Truth and Beauty,” which is a non-fiction book I wrote about my friend Lucy Grealy. I have said to my agent, if Spielberg calls and wants to give me 5 million dollars to make the movie, I don’t even want you to tell me about it. I entertain no offers for anything on that.

But I’m very happy for my friends. I’m very happy for Renée [Fleming], very proud of her. She did this because she wanted to do it and she loved the book, but it also was about being friends. She got this job with the Lyric, this was her first big project to commission a new opera, and she picks her friend’s book. That’s a very beautiful thing. It’s very touching to me. I love her, I trust her completely, and I wouldn’t dream of telling her what to do.

You and Renée became friends after the novel was published, correct? You have said that you listened to recordings of her singing while you were writing it.

I listened to recordings of a lot of people singing. But the real connection with Renée came through my UK editor at the time, Christopher Potter. He was the only real opera aficionado that I knew. So I had Christopher read it right away when I finished it. He told me that the signature aria of Roxanne Coss in the first draft was the aria from “La Wally,” and he said I couldn’t use it because it was the aria from the early ‘80s French film “Diva,” a movie that I loved. I saw it over and over again, which is exactly why I picked it. He told me that anyone who knows anything about opera will know you are ripping off this movie — which I was! — so I asked him to pick out an aria for me that was obscure and would make me seem super smart. He picked out Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon.” And that’s what set all of this in motion, I swear to you, because that was Renée’s signature aria. When you think of Rusalka, you think of Renée. And that’s why everybody sent the book to her when it came out. So we met, and from there, we genuinely formed a friendship.

“Bel Canto” was inspired by the Lima hostage crisis of ’97, when 14 members of the MRTA took more than 700 people hostage at the Japanese ambassador’s residence. Although most were released, 72 were held for four months. In the end, only one hostage died (of a pre-existing heart condition), and all of the guerillas were killed. This is in sharp contrast to the way terrorist and hostage situations tend to go down these days. If you were to write this novel now…

I would never write this novel now. It was a pre-9/11 world. This book was published in May of 2001, and it has everything to do with that. Not to say that it wasn’t a troubled world then, but it was a very different world. And when I was reading the story of the Lima crisis, I was struck by what a tame crisis it was. The NYT headlines were, “Terrorists send out for pizza.” And they were kids. It was so interesting to watch things unfold.

And now…

How different our response is. There’s been a lot in the last couple of weeks in the [New York] Times about empathy, and how we’re always saying, “Our prayers and thoughts are with you.” It doesn’t mean anything any more. It’s happening so fast that we can’t hold on to our empathy for one group, because another atrocity comes in right behind it. And I do think this is very much a story about being locked in with a story and seeing it to its conclusion. Nothing today would go on for four months.

Have recent events complicated matters for the production? Were changes made?

In light of Paris and everything that’s going on, people are asking, “Is it appropriate for BC to premiere now?” But it is the role of art to help us find some comfort and to make us think things through, to reflect. It’s got to be interpreted through art; it’s the only way that we as animals can make sense of our lives.

There’s a piece that goes into the program of “Bel Canto” that warns that there is gunfire at the beginning and end of the opera. And you can’t have gunfire in a public place without telling people to expect it. But it would be ridiculous to tag this to Paris. Because there hasn’t been an “appropriate” time for this opera since 2001 when the book was published.

On a completely different note, can you tell me a little about owning an independent bookstore in this era of instant gratification and e-books?

Best thing ever! Smartest thing I ever did. I don’t care how you read, I care that you read. There are still plenty of people who are willing to pay full price for a hardcover book and have conversations with people and get book recommendations. It was not my dream; I fell into it. We lost our independent bookstores in Nashville, somebody had to open a bookstore, and I thought, “Oh my God, I guess it’s me.” I have a wonderful [business partner] and our deal is she does all the work and I pay for everything, promote everything. I feel that it’s been this opportunity to do enormous good in the world. Good in my community and good nationally, I’m a famous retailer — that’s what I am now! It’s really satisfying work, and totally customer dependent. People are fantastic about it in Nashville.

You alluded to a new book that’s at the end of that birthing process we discussed earlier.

It’s called “Commonwealth.” It will be published on Sept. 6, 2016 by Harper Collins. It takes place over 52 years in five locations with 10 main characters. It’s a book that has a lot to do with my family. I’ve always written books that are very far removed from my own life. This book, it’s not true, but it’s close to me. I’m very happy with it, and I think it’s much better than my other books. It’s the one I’ve always wanted to write. My father died in February, and though I wrote it while he was ill, it’s the book I couldn’t have published when he was alive. The rest of my family — sisters, stepsisters, my mom — everyone has been incredibly supportive about this book, and they could’ve just turned on me like a pack of wolves!

More from Make It Better: