AN INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH MCCRACKEN AND ANN PATCHETT
Ann Patchett: Well, let’s talk a little bit about short stories. One of the things that I want to ask you about is when you were young, and especially since you wrote “Mercedes Kane” when you were nineteen, where you started out as a child in terms of your writing and thinking about writing, and were there things that you worked on in and abandoned, was there a time that you thought you were going to be a poet or thought you were going to write movies? What changed your mind?
Elizabeth McCracken: I was brought up in a family where very happily it was never suggested to me that I would ever have to work for a living. Not that I would be taken care of, but just my parents are impractical people, so I never thought I would have a job or that writing would be a job. But when I was a little kid I wrote rhyming poetry. And then when I was in college, I took poetry and playwrighting and fiction writing, and the poems that I all wrote were monologues, and the plays I wrote were always really heavy on monologues. I was a terrible playwright because all my characters ever did was tell stories about their childhood that would go on for pages and would remind each other of stories that they wanted to tell. And I think I ended up being a fiction writer I like to think because . . . I was better at it than I was at poetry or playwriting, but largely because I was a fairly serious poet, not a playwright, I knew I wasn’t going to be a playwright because you have to spend a lot of time with actors and they’re very, very tiring people. I mean nice, but they’re always like if you have a meal with actors, they’re always standing up on chairs and pretending to faint in places where it is embarrassing to be with someone who is pretending to faint. But I thought I might be a poet and seriously I applied to graduate school and I got in in fiction writing and not in poetry.
AP: There but for the grace of God goes you . . .
EM: Seriously. If I had gotten, I think it’s really . . . I’m a remarkably aimless person, and I think that if I had gotten into the poetry program and not the fiction program, I might be a poet now. Maybe, I don’t know. They sort of said this is what you should write and to some extent that’s what I did. For me, graduate school was sort of learning some work habits because my work habits were appalling and my other work habits, I have to say, were learned entirely from Ann Patchett. But it was also just spending a lot of time writing and it’s possible that if I spent a lot of time writing poetry, I would have realized what a bad poet I was because I don’t have a very elliptical mind, and I think good poetry is fairly elliptical.
AP: Keeping on the whole short story/novel thing, I believe there’s practically no one who is equally good at the short story or the novel. I think Updike is, I think Márquez is. Just about everybody I can think of who write both I can say, well, you know what he really is a better X, she really is better at Y. And you are somebody who writes short stories and novels very well. And I would put you in that Updike category as somebody who goes back and forth very easily. And what I wonder is, I judged a first novel contest a couple of years ago, it was first novels and first books of short stories for PEN and I had 275 books. And of those 275 first published books from major houses that had been chosen by the houses to put into this contest, maybe six of them were good. They were horrible. I’m judging Best American this year and I’m reading now tons of short stories and they are all fabulous. I don’t know how in the world I’m going to choose, they are so incredibly good, which made me wonder what’s going on, why is it that there are so many better short stories than there are novels—in my humble opinion—because I’ve always thought that actually it was harder to write a really great short story than it was a novel.
So that’s part of the question, I’m interested in knowing what you think about that. And also, if the roles of publishing were reversed and publishers said we’ll give a two-book contract, we’ll accept that novel, but only if you’ll swear you’ll write a collection of short stories because we just really want to publish collections of short stories, if the weight was on short stories, because every short story writer is pressed towards writing a novel and if you write a great story or a great collection, the question is always, ok, we’ll take this as a favor to you, but when are you going to pony up and do your real work, your grown-up work, your novel. So if that was reversed, do you think that you would just write short stories?
EM: It’s an interesting question. Because I went for a long time, once I started writing novels, scarcely writing short stories and not really thinking about it and I’m a garbage disposal writer, as you well know, and I will try to put anything that occurs to me into whatever book I’m working on at the moment. It’s that . . .
AP: And then I pull it out . . .
EM: Yes, and then Ann has to pull it out. This is a novel that takes place on Cape Cod and there’s a sudden trip to Arizona because you want to make a joke about Arizona. It’s probably not a good idea. And I guess about a year and a half ago, an anthology asked if I would write a short story and the shtick of the anthology was that you wrote them anonymously. It’s a book that came out in June called The Secret Society of Demolition Writers [Random House, 2005], I think that’s right. And they got a bunch of writers to, the theory, you know like the tagline of the book was what would you write if no one knew who you were and I was so intrigued by that idea that I said yes I’ll write a short story, and I’d written a couple of short stories in the meantime. I made a couple of attempts at it, but I had such a good time that I’ve since written another short story and have been thinking about a book of short stories for the first time in a really long time, so maybe the answer is yes, if people were saying oh why aren’t you writing short stories, I would be writing short stories all the time. I do think it’s harder to write a good short story than a good novel because I too have read first book contests, a published book, not a publication prize, and have been surprised by how many first novels are really short stories. Either they were clearly short stories that had been expanded into a novel or they were novels written with short story techniques, and my theory is that it may be because so many writers go to MFA programs and you really learn to write short stories, that people have more technical chops when it comes to short stories now.
I taught at the University of Iowa for three years, the fall semester, in a row and the question was always how do you teach people novel writing in a method that’s really designed for short story writers, and in fact I did teach a course, a novel workshop, in which everybody in the class was working on a novel and you put up a hundred pages at a time. Everybody in the class made the commitment to read a hundred pages, and you had to have written at least fifty pages of the novel because nobody should be showing the first twenty pages of a novel they’ve written to people. When I was teaching at Iowa a few years ago, I had a student who I just adored who put up the first twelve pages of a novel he’d written like the week before. I’m not a yeller in workshop but I really said Jack, this is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done, don’t want to discuss this piece. And he was really very, he was a lovely guy who said I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. Because in effect the workshop process is, for novels, has to be different than for short stories, it just absolutely has to be and so I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why the fault with a lot of first novels that are published is that they’re written by good writers who have technical skills, but they’re trying to apply all the things they’ve learned about writing a really good short story to a novel.
My friend Bruce always used to quote to me that piece of wisdom that the difference between writing a short story and a novel is that a short story is like a wild, passionate affair and a novel is like a long marriage. And I would always say back to him that for me a short story was a hard blow to the solar plexus and a novel was a long, lingering illness that you might never recover from. And then when I started writing a novel, and I don’t know if you felt this when you went from short stories to novels, that I really had always thought that I wrote short stories with a lot of characters that took place over a lot of years and I thought the transition would be easy, I would just do one of those and take my time. And I was astounded at how different the process was, how different the process of developing characters was, how different my relationship to characters inside of a novel was, how different everything was in fact and I do think now going back to short stories, I definitely write different types of short stories than I did before I wrote a novel. I hope they’re better short stories; they’re more short story-like. I’m equally aware of the difference going back.
AP: I think my whole life that I was writing short stories when I was young, it was like I had my shoes on the wrong feet and the minute that I started to write a novel, that was it, the first chapter, I never wrote a short story again. And . . . well I wrote that one that was so horrible . . .
EM: It wasn’t that horrible.
AP: No, no, I distinctly remember you saying to me I’m so glad to see you don’t nail everything you try, because it was so bad. But I just instantly thought oh, oh, I’m a novelist, oh, I didn’t know, all these years I’ve been trying to write a short story and it’s been a real struggle for me, but it’s because I’m a novelist. The way that short story writing and what I learned about short stories, though, really influenced my work has to do with chapter shape. I’m going to put that on hold for a second because I want to circle back and ask you something. Do you think that if a group of incredibly dedicated and smart teachers who maybe were editors and not necessarily writers themselves, or best yet some combination, that there could be a novel writers program, that there could be a program where you had poetry, short fiction and novel writing and you let five people in?
EM: I’m always uncomfortable talking about myself which makes moments like this very difficult. I actually invented the class and now some other teachers teach it and I invented the class because I was teaching at the University of Oregon and there was a young woman who was working on a novel. It was a very small program, extraordinarily nice people, smart, nice people, and the program, they had all been together two years, some people in the class. They had read everything that she had done and she was putting up the same novel and she got terrible workshops under the absolute best circumstances. Actually, she’s teaching in upstate New York and I told her about this and she said, seeing that made me think there should be a novel writing workshop and she said that yes that had actually caused damage to novel, workshopping it, because even these people who had been reading all along would ask questions of twenty pages of a novel that twenty pages of a novel could not and should not answer about plot questions. Again, perfectly smart people saying I want to know about her relationship with her father and that comes later in the book.
I do think the only way to really successfully workshop a novel is to have people read as much of it as they can at one time. And the major problem with the novel writing class that I taught, which would be part of the problem with doing a program, would be that people were so interested in the notion of taking it, they would lie to get in and say they that had forty to fifty pages, you didn’t have to, you had to have written fifty pages, but you didn’t have to workshop all fifty of those pages, you just had to have gotten past those first tender pages, and you had, meaning you had to have some level of commitment to the book. And I have to say, in all the time that I taught that there were novels that were clearly never going to be finished and novels that were clearly going to be terrific and I do think the workshop was equally useful for both sorts of pieces. But I know I would have students say that they weren’t ready to commit to a date for workshop because they had to admit they hadn’t actually written any pages yet. And boy did we see some really bad novel excerpts by somebody who wrote them, the fifty pages literally in two weeks. I mean I think it was probably useful in some ways because it was useful for them to have to work that intensely for a little while, but it was clear those books were never going to be novels or at least they were not going to resemble their final self.
Yeah, I think it would actually be interesting to sort of say in a graduate program, because there are some people who have never written a short story. I’m actually married to a novelist who has never written a short, I think he’s now written a short story after working on his third novel for a while.
AP: Though the basis of the logic that I have a problem with is if you put a short story up in workshop and people give you comments, they’re giving you comments for revision, if you put fifty pages of a novel up, they’re giving you comments for direction and I don’t ever want comments for direction, unless they’re from you. The only person who reads my work while I’m writing it is Elizabeth, which has always been true, I don’t sell a book until I’m finished with it. I couldn’t bear to hear from five different people, I think she should go this way, no, that doesn’t make any sense, she should die, no she shouldn’t die, she should get married. I mean, that would ruin me and I have a really strong compass because the problem where people fail in workshop is they don’t have a strong compass, so they hear all of these different opinions and they just spin. But if you didn’t actually have the work to go home and look at and say, all right, these are the opinions and this is what I’ve got as opposed to these are the opinions, now which way am I going to go, it’s like having everybody put in their two cents about where you should go on vacation or college or something like that. I would find it really hard, for me, but at the same time, I think there is this inherent problem, there are people who want to be novelists, they’re training as short story writers in order to be novelists and that’s not necessarily a good training for novelists.
EM: I mean I have to say in terms of the workshop, having gone to a million workshops, at this point in my life I can’t imagine going to a short story workshop. And I had a great experience in graduate school. But I have friends who graduated from graduate school and immediately found a writers group and I thought no, no, I am done with that, partly because for me one of the reasons to go to graduate school was to develop my compass, if that’s, that’s probably an unfortunate mixing of metaphors, but to understand what I felt about my own work. And certainly when I teach a novel writing workshop, I try to steer discussion away from prescriptive advice. In a short story workshop, when I teach it, I don’t say anything until the end. In a novel writing workshop, I actually do say let’s talk about blank, let’s talk about the entrance to the book, well you know, are you clear, do you have enough, do you understand what the book is about, let’s talk about the shape of the book so far. And try not to say this book is great, but I think that it should all be Mormons and it should be set in Florida.
EM: That sort of thing.
AP: Now the question I started to ask you before was how short stories influenced your sense of chapter. What’s the relationship between a chapter and a short story?
EM: Gosh, you know, it’s a good question and I’m not sure I know the answer. Because, I know this is true for you, my sense of what a chapter is changes from book to book. I think my first novel was, all the chapters were more short story like and were twenty-five pages long. And my second book was a lot of little chapters and some were longer than others. The first draft was 450 pages and I think there may have been 317 chapters.
AP: All with titles . . .
EM: All with titles, which frankly was the reason there were so many chapters, I really like titles a lot and the titles really cracked me up. The thing that made me really sad is that there was a short chapter that was entirely about the main character losing his hair and the title of the chapter was “Adieu My Friends, We Must Part,” and I just thought that was so funny. And sadly, both of them are gone now from the book. I certainly think learning to think about shaping something ahead of time affects the way I think about a short story. I mean I know that in your first book was, every chapter was about twenty-five to thirty pages. Is that right? Patron Saint?
AP: All of my books except The Magician’s Assistant, they’re all twenty to twenty-five page chapters which is very much on the short story model for me. I mean it’s definitely part of the short story I never got away from. I’m stuck.
What about nonfiction? Are you interested in writing nonfiction?
EM: Yes. You know, I am, I, I do write a little bit of nonfiction that I like. This is the fourth year that I’ve written something, The New York Times has what I always think of it as the dead people issue at the end of the year, the lives they’ve led, a little piece that you write about somebody who’s died in the past year and Ann has done them too. And I really enjoy those because they’re a mixture of book research which, because I used to be a librarian, I adore and because they, I’ve never done anybody famous, just a huge amount of leeway about imagining the lives of these people. The one I just wrote was about the guy who did the voice of Tony the Tiger, the most famous of the people who I’ve done. And I really love those. I like writing personal essays too although I’m a morbidly private person and so they have to be not like really personal essays. The sort of thing that would be nothing for other people to reveal in an essay, you know just really makes me nervous. But I do love writing them and I may someday write a nonfiction book. Again, because I love researching. For all of my fiction, I do a lot of, a lot of book research, a lot of, I mean anything that means I can sit in a basement and read microfilm makes me happy. That a book that would require, not reporting, I don’t think I write something that really required reporting.
AP: Again, I want to ask you twenty questions at once and I’m going to ask you one more question, then let other people ask you questions. So, let’s talk about revision. Elizabeth has the most soul-crushing revision process of anyone in the world.
EM: I believe you once said, “If I wrote the way you did, I would kill myself.”
AP: I would kill myself, yeah, I would and I don’t mean that metaphorically. I really, really would. I will read draft after draft after draft after draft of Elizabeth’s books and the drafts bear no resemblance to one another. They don’t contain the same characters. It’s like one book starts in the 1800s and the next book starts in the 1850s with the children of those characters and they go on and on. For every hundred pages she keeps, she probably throws three hundred pages away. And that’s just my idea of hell. It kills me to watch that process because what you’re throwing away is fantastic. It doesn’t belong in that book that you’re writing, but to get to that book, you have to write through the history of the world. Why? Why?
EM: Maybe because it’s when I teach I can really talk about Ann’s process versus my process because I often think that I would never have written a novel except for the fact that Ann and I were in this fellowship program together called the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown and Ann was working on her first novel. I think you gave me the first seventy-five pages in a chunk and then after that I got a chapter as it was written. And the first seventy-five pages I do remember, we very timidly gave each other work because we really liked each other personally.
AP: You know that awful moment where you like someone and you know that you have to read their work and you know that if you don’t like their work, you can’t date them or be their friend in the same way.
EM: And I remember taking the book home and I sort of said, yeah, you know, I get to this in the next few days. And I sat down on the bed and looked at the first page and the next thing I remember is turning over the last page in the same position as I was laying on the bed and ever since we’ve had what we call the insta-edit service, which means if we send something to the other person, that person will read it that day just about. Might take two days and we do clear it ahead of time, we wouldn’t send it to the other person on their wedding day or something like that.
But I sort of feel like I learned how to write a novel because I watched somebody do it in the next apartment. It was like watching a barn being raised. But one of the huge differences between the way we work is that Ann can do a great deal . . . and she also, she wrote her first book in the first six months of our fellowship, revised it the last month of the fellowship, and sold it shortly thereafter. And was, this was a fellowship program I went back to two years later and it was still something of a legend for having done this and we know, one of, there was a writer there who said to his girlfriend, In the time you’ve been complaining about writing, Ann Patchett has written another chapter. And he also, the same person said, I said well you know one of the things that she does, she thinks about the book for a long time without taking a book and he said, ah, it’s an accounting trick. Separate ledgers.
AP: That’s right.
EM: And this is the metaphor I always give to my students: Somebody once asked Michelangelo, how do you carve the David? And he said helpfully, you take a block of marble and you cut away everything that is not David. And in Des Moines, Iowa, where my mother is from, although she would want me to make it clear she is from West Des Moines, Iowa, at the Iowa State Fair there is another extremely talented sculptor, besides Michelangelo, there is a woman who is called the Butter Cow Lady.
AP: I was going to say . . .
EM: The Butter Cow Lady. The Butter Cow Lady makes a life-sized cow out of butter every year, and it is amazing. And it’s got, you know, it’s really realistic, it’s got veins on the udders, it’s got, you know, the little tassely tail, and she will do another sculpture as well, like she did The Last Supper in butter one time, and it’s in a refrigerated case, in case you're wondering, and also I can report that you can recycle butter for five years before it goes rancid, so it doesn’t waste quite as much butter as it might. And what I say to my students is that there are some people who can take a giant block of butter and cut away everything that’s not a cow, and there’s others of us who have to spend a lot of time churning the butter. And my process requires a hell of a lot of churning. I can’t think about a novel, I mean I can, but then when I begin to write it, everything changes.
The only really useful way for me to think about fiction is through writing fiction. I’m a really, I’m an exceptionally literal person, and anything abstract just boondoggles me. So basically what I need to do is get as, you know, a lot of writing on the page and then find the cow inside of it. I don’t know another way to do it, because I think that if I wrote a novel fairly quickly without doing that, because I can’t think abstractly about it, it would be a very, it would be a not-uncomplicated novel in the bad, in a bad way.
AP: See, I feel like your metaphor isn’t quite right. I feel like you take that giant block of butter and you carve a cow, and then you look at the cow, and you say no, that cow needs to be The Last Supper. And you push the butter back on, it’s the same butter, but you reshape it into The Last Supper and then you reshape it into the Leaning Tower of Pisa and then you shape it into three calves and . . . you know, there’s the, the thread is the butter, but you’re making an entirely different sculpture.
EM: I suppose, I mean I suppose, it’s true. And I guess part of it is that I really don’t know what I’m interested in until I have the material on the page. I don’t necessarily know what I will be compelled by until it’s on the page and, believe me, I know it’s painful to watch. Just imagine what it’s like to live it every day.
AP: Well, but, I do imagine it and that is what’s so painful.
EM: When you’re a writer, there are some things that get easier and there are some things that never get easier. I mean, I sort of think, for instance, when you’re writing your first novel, no matter what, you spend a lot of time saying, Is this a novel that I’m writing or am I writing the equivalent of that book that Jack Nicholson writes in The Shining. The same reason why when you’re writing your first novel, people say what are you working on, you always say, A thing, a big thing . . .
AP: A longer thing.
EM: A longer thing and that gets easier, I think. And your second novel, you actually are aware you’re writing a novel, you know that you can do it. The sort of the fear of exposure of the depths of your soul I think is terrifying in your early work before you’re ever published. That, I think, goes away. At least it did for me.
AP: And the fear of the depths, of exposing the depths of my soul is how boring the depths of my soul really are.
EM: Yes, exactly.
AP: So that I am always writing this novel thinking this is so excruciatingly dull and I have a better idea for a novel and I should and abandon this incredibly dull thing that I am working on and go for the more exciting thing that is now crossing my radar screen.
EM: See, for me that’s one of the things that gets better, is that I don’t necessarily . . .
AP: Yeah, it does get better. It gets better just in that I understand it . . .
AP: And so I still feel it in the same way, but I can say, Okay, now I know that I have felt this X number of times and that it always turns out okay. And so I can have more, I can operate more on faith, blind faith.
EM: I'm also very, kind of, fairly manic writer in that, not that you’re more psychologically balanced than I am when you write, that I go between thinking that I am the greatest genius in the entire world to the next day believing I am the worst fraud whoever walked the earth. And I think that for me personally I have to do that. I sometimes tell my students that every writer should have the same mantra which is, “I’m a genius with much to learn.” That that is what every writer needs to believe, that you need hubris and know that you don’t have it right, but, unfortunately myself I only can believe one of those two things at any given time. But I think it’s the thing that sort of, that without the hubris that I sometimes feel, like thinking, My god, this is so great, this is going to be the best thing that I ever wrote, possibly the best thing anybody’s ever written, and that allows me to get work done. And then I have horrible, crashing doubts and that helps me to go back and. It’s sort of like two sides of ambition. The, you know, the delusions of grandeur and then the need to make it better, the obsession with how I’ve failed and how can I get around it. But I think that that has something to do with how my process works.
AP: The crushing part for me is that plagiarism thing. The self-plagiarism, that I just write the same book over and over again. And I do believe that we all have a certain number of playing cards, you know, you might have five, you might have ten, you might have fifteen, but you just play the same cards over and over and over again and try your best to hide the fact that you’re just playing the same cards.
EM: And it is embarrassing when you think you’ve written something you’ve never written before . . .
AP: Oh, my god.
EM: And then suddenly you realize how it is exactly the same.
AP: Elizabeth just read the first hundred pages of the novel that I’m writing and last night it was a big deal, we talked about it for the first time, I’ve been writing this forever and we hysterically parsed out every single aspect of it.
EM: You were just like, okay, that goes, yeah, that goes in Taft, and . . .
AP: And that goes in Bel Canto and that comes from there and that comes from there and I was oh, okay, maybe nobody else will know.
EM: I would like to say that I did not read the first hundred pages of her novel, which is sounding like I’m a saint.
AP: . . . this would be a patron saint moment if we moved into the beginning of the book.
EM: But I didn’t just suddenly say, hey, this is great and can I do the footnotes.
Q: Well, one
of my questions which might be a sort of introduction to you two since
we didn’t give you a formal one. We just sat down and all started
talking. There’s a nice story about how you two became friends
at Provincetown. Do you want to tell it?
EM: I was there ’88 to ’90.
AP: O.K. and I was there ’85 to ’87.
EM: And, and we’d had a story published in the same magazine, all of a sudden I’d heard your name several times in a row before we met.
AP: Yeah. We were supposed to get there on October 1st and I got there on Oct. 3rd, which is hysterical because we were talking this morning about how punctual we both were. But it had to do with a guy and so I got there a couple of days late and I missed all the getting to know you parties and I didn’t know anyone and I was really miserable and lonely. And after I had been there about three nights, I was talking to said guy on the phone and it was nine o’clock at night, which for me is very late, and he said I want you to go out and knock on doors until you can find someone to go out with. And this is, you know, this is absolutely your assignment, I’m hanging up now. And I was so lonely that I went out and started . . . the fellowship has a bunch of apartments sort of around a parking lot and I went and started knocking on doors. And after three or four completely random doors where no one answered, how lonely must I have been, Elizabeth answered the door and . . .
EM: Meaning I was not her first choice.
AP: No. And I said, Do you want to be my friend? I was pathetic, I mean, Do you want to go have ice cream?
EM: We drove to Ben and Jerry’s and discussed our mutual hatred of Kevin Costner.
AP: That’s right. It was our first conversation.
EM: And over the winter, Ann taught me how to drive because I did not drive, thought of myself as a non-driver and, uh, yeah, I watched her write a novel. And the last day of the fellowship, we printed out our books and stood on them to see how much taller they made us, something very pleasing. We put, in Ann’s little apartment, we put them on the floor and stepped up and stepped down.
AP: It was amazing to have that much time. And I think that’s also what’s so great about an MFA program. It’s having that much time with people and finding people who can be your reader, which I didn’t find when I was getting my MFA, but found afterwards with Elizabeth and I think that’s one of the great quests for writers is to find someone who understands what you’re doing and who you can really hear and knows what to say at the right time and that sort of thing.
EM: Not that fifteen years ago was that long ago, but back in those days we had the dot matrix printers with the long . . . sitting and ripping pages apart to give them to Ann. . .
AP: Yeah. Right.
EM: . . . you know bending back and forth the tractor, whatever that stuff that went through the tractor feed. And I always say that The Patron Saint of Liars was the first book written entirely on Winstons and Good & Plenties, which dates it more than anything.
AP: Other questions?
Q: I’m curious about your relationship with silence in your work, whether during or before a large project you’re working on, how did you confront the matter or do you go through long silence . . .
AP: This is a question about silence in, in working and whether after a long project you experience a period of silence. And I have never been a write-every-day writer.
EM: Me neither.
AP: I do sometimes think that I will start a book fairly soon after I’ve finished a book and part of it is that in my personal process I work on a book until I so, people say, you know, how do you know when a novel is done and for me it’s when I despise it so thoroughly that I can’t bear the idea of working on it anymore which frequently means that I’m really champing at the bit to start working on the next project. However, generally speaking whatever I work on in those months right afterwards never gets into the book, ever. A sort of a loud silence. It may be that that’s my, the way my brain is recharging for the next thing.
EM: One of the other things Ann and I have in common is that we both had as a teacher Alan Gurganus, who is just the most extraordinary writing teacher.
EM: So generous and smart. But the only thing he ever said that I disagreed with was that real writers write every day. You should always write every day. And I don’t believe this is true partially because I don’t and partially because I feel like there are enough reasons to get down on yourself when it comes to writing that to add a sense that you have failed if you haven’t written every day, is a bad extra thing to put into your life. I do, I know a lot of writers who do believe it and if that’s, if you need to believe that to work every day then that’s, that’s great. I basically think that it’s like any rule of fiction writing, it’s actually dependent on the writer.
AP: I also have turned out a whole lot more work than every writer I know.
EM: Who writes every day?
EM: I think there are people who need to approach it as a job. I remember reading some interview with John Updike and it says, you know, like the dentist, he goes to his office, he turns on his light, he works until the end of closing and then goes. And you haven’t written more than John Updike.
AP: No, I have not. But I was thinking, I was thinking about that Ethan Canin story when he and I did the panel together in San Francisco and it was. I had never met him before, and you had never met him before and I had no story about him. And, we were at the San Francisco Book Fair and it was just the two of us and my publicist had gotten the time of the start wrong, this is all these stories about me being late. But when I got there, it had already started, he had gone on ahead of me, which he should have, but I was frantic and apologetic and ran up and took my chair. He was very famous at that point and I absolutely was not. And most of the questions that were directed were going to him and they were, you know, What is it you have to do to be a real writer? And he said you cannot be a real writer unless you have an office outside your home and you get up in the morning and you put on a coat and tie and you go to the office and you keep regular office hours and. And I said well, you know, Gosh I really respect that and I’m so glad that works for you and that’s so interesting but actually no, I don’t, I don’t do that at all. I work in my pajamas, I work at home, half the time I’m not working at all, I’ve written a lot more work than you. And then his next thing was nobody could call themselves a real writer unless they had a visual dictionary. I said I’ve never heard of a visual dictionary. Have you guys heard about visual dictionary?
EM: They’re good.
AP: It’s really cool. I immediately went out and got one so I could be a real writer like Ethan, but it’s a big book, it looks like a dictionary and there’s like a picture of a carburetor and then there are little lines and it shows you the name of every single part of the carburetor or the human heart or a cat.
EM: It also means that if you’re wondering what that thing in the human heart or carburetor is, you can look up by picture and then see the . . .
AP: Right. It’s a way to show off. You know, to have your characters sound smart about something that you don’t know anything about. But we had this hysterical exchange where he kept saying well you have to, you have to be X and I was saying, oh, I’ve never been X. His last proclamation was it is impossible to be a real writer unless you had a child . . .
EM: Good god!
AP: . . . because you cannot know, a human being cannot know what it means to love until a human being has had a child.
EM: Yeah, that Flannery O'Connor, just think what you might have accomplished.
AP: . . . Carson McCullers . . .
EM: I don’t think Chekhov had kids.
AP: And that was, that was the moment—and he just had a baby, you know, it wasn’t like he had a passel of teenagers. But that was the moment that I turned my whole body, was like big guy, you and me, out on the street right now.
Ann Patchett: One of the things that I love so much about this job is that there’s never an answer that works for everyone.
Elizabeth McCracken: No job requirements.
AP: Other questions?
Q: Ann, you were talking about judging your first book, and Elizabeth having done a lot of writing workshops, so I wondering if there was one sort of main overarching or one or two things that you see in those beginning writers who have missed out on in their work, you know, characters or plot or . . .
EM: When I taught at Iowa, I taught with, sometimes I overlapped with Chris Offutt and Chris once said to me, “You know, how do you tell your students what they should write about? You know, how do you put it?” And I said, “I would never tell my students what to write about, you know, I just, that’s not my place.” I had, that semester, I had a student who was a wonderful writer, but she wasn’t, she hadn’t found her material yet. She hadn’t found, I think what you need to write a real interesting piece of fiction is some sort of obsession with the material, some sort of, whether it is an obsession with the inner life of a particular character or with this, even if it’s just the subject matter of what you’re writing about, the background, or the place or the city, some sort of specific obsession. And this young woman who was in my class was the best writer in the class, and yet, she did not write the best stories because somehow she only wrote about stuff that she was passingly interested in. She somehow had not found the material that would really engage he. And I do think that, when I was reading for Provincetown, the things that always rose to the top were the things where there was some, something beyond just the situation of these two characters and this, whatever particular difficulty was between them, there was some interest in the material. And for me, even when I’m just reading for pleasure, that, as well, is what I look for.
And I also know from the writing side of it that when my writing is not going well . . . one of the times when I was being a very inefficient writer was my second novel which is about a vaudeville comedy team, the first draft did not have a vaudeville comedy team in it. And I wrote, I thought I was going to write the great Jewish Iowa novel because I felt that there was a niche there that I could fill. It was wide open for me, based on all of these family stories, my mother’s family, and I did a lot of research and I was, you know, there, I read The Jews of Iowa, A Century of Iowa Jewry, and The Jews of Des Moines, and I was really, you know, I would say to my mother, “Did you know there used to be a matzo factory in downtown Des Moines on West 9th Street?” But the problem was I was, I was interested in it, but I was not obsessed with it. And I worked on it for years and it just never, there were some pretty pretty sentences in it, but it never, sort of, leapt into the level that it should and then I put a comedy team into it and I was obsessed with vaudeville and I got more obsessed with vaudeville and I then wrote the first draft. I never got a first draft of that novel. I had about 180 pages that I ended up throwing out, but once I had, once vaudeville entered into it, I wrote a first draft pretty quickly. And then when I teach I think of what Chris said, about, you know, “How do you tell your students about, what to write?” And I sort of say to students, “All right, that’s not my job, but it’s something you really have to think about.” It’s something you really have to think about what kind of relationship you’re going to have, in other words, marry for love, not for security when it comes to writing.
AP: People ask all the time, “Do you think writing can be taught?” People ask you that all the time and my answer is always, “You can teach someone how to write, but you can’t teach someone how to have something to say.” And you’re much better off taking a student who really, really has something to say, but has a crummy style, because you can teach that, than somebody who has a razorblade perfect style, but really is an empty soul.
And the person that I know that speaks most eloquently on this, although I have to say you just did a very good job, is Robert Olen Butler and I highly recommend Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. If you haven’t read it, it’s a book that I very dearly love. When I talk to Bob and he talks about teaching and he talks about writing, it, it just amazes me and I would love to go back and be his student, he doesn’t let his students write at all, his graduate students, until really late in the semester. He doesn’t workshop. He says there is absolutely no point in trying to fix something, you can make it a better sentence or talk about the structure or the character or the plot or whatever, but he was like if it doesn’t have a soul, it’s never going to have a soul if somebody doesn’t know how to put it in and make that an interesting story and tap into what they have inside themselves, if they’re ready to take those emotional risks. Janet Burroway did a collection of his lectures and it’s called Writing From Your Dreamspace [From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Grove Press, 2005] and it’s just come out, I just got a copy of the book. I could be wrong about the title, it’s something like that, but Robert Olen Butler, Writing From the Dreamspace, would be a book that I would really recommend looking at because I think that it addresses exactly that issue.
Q: In terms of having subject matter which is obviously different from having something to say, I remember with The Magician’s Assistant, Ann, you said that you started to write that and it was about a magician, but you didn’t know anything about magic, and so can you talk about like at what point you realized you need to do research? I think you said that Elizabeth said, “Girl, you need to get some magic tricks in here.” Or something like that, how do you realize what you’re going to research and how far to go and when to do it?
AP: That’s a funny story, although ultimately I think Elizabeth is much better at the research question. It, that’s a book about a magician and an assistant, but its magic is not in any way essential to the plot of that novel. It could have been a heart surgeon and a scrub nurse or any relationship where you have a dominant and a secondary, a dominant and an assistant and I was working on the book and I sent Elizabeth the first hundred pages or so and you said, “Okay, now this is getting kind of embarrassing. You don’t know anything about magic.” And I didn’t and I wasn’t interested in magic and my whole understanding of it was really, like, television shows I’d seen when I was seven. I had never given it any thought, so I stopped. I took several months off to do research and what I found was that any information you really wanted about magic, you don’t have access to. You can read books about magic for the rest of your life and you’re never really going to find out what you want to know because those tricks are sold and if you buy them you have to sign papers that say you won’t reveal them and that you’ll only sell them and so you read these books and it’s about the childhood of the magician or how to build a table that you could slip a rabbit into.
It’s very stupid stuff, but the lesson for me there was, really my greatest lesson in writing, which is that it’s about authority. And magic is completely and totally about domination and authority and fiction writing is completely about domination and authority, that you present yourself as someone who knows what they’re doing and you control the room and you have to control the reader and that, in fact, I had to be able to write a trick that was impossible and that wasn’t true in such a way that would make the reader believe that it was true and that that’s the whole process of fiction writing in a way, too. And that you go through life, go to any party, go to any wedding on a Saturday night in New York City, wear the right suit, get the right dress, go into any wedding with your shoulders back and your head up and nobody’s going to ask you who you are and that’s writing. And people come up to me all the time and say, “Oh, you must be a pianist, you must be an opera singer, you must be a magician, you must have been pregnant in Kentucky, you must have done this and this,” and I’m like, “You know, my job is to create a make-believe world and to make you believe that it’s true. That’s professionally what I do for a living.” And people are, are bizarrely unwilling to accept that. You don’t have to know anything; you just have to have authority.
Q: But there are a lot of different ways you can know something and I . . .
Q: . . . don’t think The Magician’s Assistant would have worked as well with the surgeon.
AP: No, it wouldn’t have, but it’s not a book about magic.
Q: Yeah, but it, it still works as a metaphor.
Q: About relationships and, and Elizabeth, actually, I think, didn’t The Giant’s House and The Magician’s Assistant come out sort of close to each other? And do you have some magic in The Giant’s House, James is interested in tricks and Houdini?
EM: When does ah, when was the publication of The Magician’s Assistant?
AP: I think, I think Magician’s Assistant was before.
EM: What year was it?
AP: No, no, I mean I think, I think Giant’s House  was before Magician’s Assistant .
EM: I think that’s right. I think so.
AP: I think if anything I got magic from you.
Q: Well, they’re pretty close.
EM: Well, no, we were both, we were both, we have discussed, there were certain things that, we, the other person can’t write about that much, like, I can never write, it is possible that if I hadn’t known Ann, I would have written a book about a magician someday, because there’s tiny, tiny bits of magic in The Giant’s House, but now I can’t and Ann said at one point, “You know, I’d love to write a book about a comedy team.” But, pretty much off the list for her, too.
AP: Life is still full.
EM: Yes. Yes. Other questions?
Q: Can you both talk a little bit about, when you’re going through your first draft and you’re first sitting down to start working on either a short story or a novel, do you sweat and toil over each sentence as you go along or do you just sort of, like, I want to get as much out on this paper as I possible can and then go back and look at it later? Are you constantly revising or do you go back at the end, set it away for a little while before you go back to revise?
AP: That’s really Alan Gurganus, that immediately when you said that, I thought about Alan and that idea of get it on the page. I’m a big believer in that. Now, I’m incredibly slow and frustrate myself terribly these days especially, but I think to toy around with a sentence and make a perfect sentence is bordering on ridiculous and it’s just a stall in the same way that research can be the most fantastic stall in the world.
EM: It’s awesome. My favorite stall.
AP: Research can be a lot like doing drugs after a while. No, I think you’re much better off to write something and write to learn not just in terms of process but also in terms of how do you learn—write it, look at it, work at it, go on, go on, go, don’t keep cutting the same diamond, make a glass, smash it, make a glass, smash it.
EM: I mostly agree with that and I agree with that entirely in theory, I’m sort of in between. Our friend Paul Lisicky who’s a wonderful writer and also a musician once told me that when he writes, because he’s so attuned to the noise, he sometimes will put in nonsense syllables because he understands what a sentence should sound like, but he might not have the right words, and I, it was one of the most, I just couldn’t help but think you’re crazy, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.
AP: I heard Phil Collins say that once.
AP: Yeah, I did.
EM: Paul and Phil have a lot in common.
AP: That’s right.
EM: And why I do not sweat and toil over every sentence because I do think you could spend the rest of your life writing the first page of any novel or any short story and by God there are people who do exactly that, that I have a hard time writing what seems to me to be a bad sentence. I can, in first drafts I’ve no problem being sketchy about exactly what the character does for a living, as Ann knows, she’s always saying, “Your characters seem to be utterly unemployed. Where do they get their money?”
AP: Or their health insurance.
EM: Or their health insurance.
AP: I’m always worried about their health insurance.
EM: I always say, I feel the same way about my family; I just never bothered to ask. I can be quite loose about, and, even sort of think, well, I’m going to make this person Catholic for the moment, but that might change, things that other people would definitely know before they went in to something, but when it comes to language, I cannot go forward if I think I have written a bum or sloppy sentence. When I’m first writing something I’ll start every day by reading aloud what I did beforehand until it becomes too burdensome to do that. And I do spend, do a lot of revising, besides all of the revising I do later on, do a lot of revising as I go along, and it is true that I therefore have to be really vigilant that I am not simply, you know, polishing the same square of glass over and over and over again.
AP: It also depends on what drives your work because I think your work is so much more language-oriented than mine. Your sentences are so beautiful whereas I’m a very plot-oriented person and I am, you know, I write like a train, and okay, but then this happens, this happens, this happens. I was watching Wallace and Gromit shorts the other night, they’re really fabulous, “The Wrong Trousers,” take thirty minutes out of your life, but there’s this incredible scene where Gromit, who’s the dog, is on a toy train being shot at by the evil penguin and the train track divides and he’s out of track and Gromit picks up the box of track and he’s, as fast as he can he’s laying the track in front of the train that he’s on, and that’s how I feel. I’m riding, I’m there just as fast as I can putting out the direction and that’s what’s always really important to me. I’ve written some really crappy sentences along the way.
Q: I don’t know if this, all of this dovetails with the research question that Susann [Cokal] aksed ealrier, but do you find yourself gravitating to any sort of novel as you’re writing a novel even if you, I don’t know what happens [unintelligible] you know, like, who did you read as you’re writing or maybe it’s just a question about influences, prior to writing, too, but . . .
EM: Do we gravitate towards certain, because there are writers who don’t read anything when they’re writing and who do we read while we’re writing?
AP: Yeah, or before who can we not read, like I always say I can never read Grace Paley.
EM: Yeah, me neither.
AP: Or Alan.
EM: Or Alan or Raymond Chandler.
AP: I could read Raymond Chandler.
EM: I can’t.
EM: It may be because your work is actually closer to Raymond Chandler . . .
EM: . . . than mine is, whereas there are already guns and drama in Patchett’s novels whereas there are, you know, when I’m reading Raymond Chandler and all of a sudden it’s, my novel takes place in California with guns and drama, it’s noticeable.
AP: When The Jews of Des Moines . . .
EM: “I squinted over my salami sandwich.” I love to read Dickens. I often have said that I have never finished, when I’ve been writing, I’ve never finished a Flannery O’Connor story because she gets me excited about writing, for some reason, particularly, I mean, besides the fact that I love her work, there is something that makes me kind of think wow. And, and I read, I often read poetry when I’m writing, especially if I’m having difficulty, for some reason, and this makes no sense, if I’m really frustrated I cannot write the book that will always unstick me is The Dreamsongs. Like, I’m the only person The Dreamsongs really cheers up, but for some reason it just, it massages my brain in the right place and makes me think different, bigger, frequently when I’m stuck it’s because my brain is turning in circles that are too tight for the project and I sort of can’t get my head above the level of the book. And poetry, more than anything, I think, helps me do that. It’s like a particular kind of physical stretch that that that fixes things somehow.
AP: I’ve been reading a lot more nonfiction, and sometimes I wonder if I will in my life pass out of fiction completely and then maybe pass out of writing. That’s’ always a really exciting thought to me, that I’ve grown a lot and changed as a writer in the course of my career, and that I could actually grow out of writing makes me really happy, but I do read more and more nonfiction as time goes by, and especially when I’m writing fiction that feels very safe, I’ve been on a huge Joan Didion kick lately. I read The Year of Magical Thinking, which is a brilliant book and I so recommend it to all of you, but it’s a very, very sad book, and it’s a book about her really wanting to turn back time, and I was able to do that by going back and rereading her early books, most of which I had read, but I just kind of spun out of control and was reading Joan Didion all the time.
And she is somebody who not only makes me want to write, but really makes me want to be a certain kind of person which goes back to the whole thing of what’s your moral scope, what’s the thing that’s drawing you towards writing? And I feel in Didion’s work that’s so clear, and writers who have seemingly a small space between who they are and what they’re doing become more and more valuable to me, and even a writer like Chandler, who I think very much lived his work and lived that life, which is funny, it’s not at all the same as autobiography or writing roman à clefs, but to say that there’s a deep connection between what you’re feeling, thinking, living, and writing. That’s the work that really draws me, so things that inspire me to go back to work at this point in my life are the most valuable. And certainly things that are too voicy that I would love otherwise, I can’t read while I’m writing because I pick it up.
I’m an incredible mimic. I used to have a boyfriend who Elizabeth couldn’t stand, the second one you couldn’t stand, who now she likes very much, and, okay, they didn’t, they knew each other before they either one of them knew me, they didn’t like each other, then I dated him and then after we broke up they met again and liked each other.
AP: But whenever I would talk to Elizabeth on the phone, this person would be so irritated with me because he always said for at least two hours after I got off the phone with Elizabeth I would talk like Elizabeth and I have a really good ear and I pick things up so easily that I have to be careful about reading. But Joan Didion is so clear and clean.
Q: You said earlier that you’re very private or pathologically private or something like that, and, how does it feel to be interviewed this way?
EM: It kind of sucks. It’s on my question list . . .
Q: Oh, is it?
EM: . . . about privacy. It kind of sucks. No, that’s not true. And certainly Ann knows me well enough not to . . . we were joking and she was telling me, giving me some different questions she was going to ask me and I said, “No, it would be much better, you know, to just go in and you can ask me a question and I’ll burst into tears and say ‘I can’t believe you asked me that question.’” Slap. Slap. And I’d leave the room. This is delightful, it’s fine, but I do have a hard time, sometimes, especially if somebody asks me something personal. I was, it was one of the reasons why I liked being a librarian, because nobody cares about the librarian, and just all day long say, “How are you, what’s new?” Nobody really cared, starts asking you questions back.
Q: One of my favorite lines in The Giant’s House is, “Peggy feels that no one in town recognizes her without a circulation desk around her waist.” It’s like a chastity belt or a farthingale or something like that.
EM: When I was a librarian, that was really, really true that I would all the time run into my patrons in Somerville, Mass., where I worked and I would say, “Hey! How are you?” and they would be wary because I was so out of context. They had no notion of who I was.
AP: Your privacy though has loosened up . . .
EM: Yeah. It probably has.
AP: . . . from when I knew you in your early twenties. You’re more relaxed.
EM: Yeah, I probably am.
Q: And what brought about the relaxation?
EM: I can’t talk about it.
Q: That’s private. Okay. I have one more question actually. As, about friendship and being writers because, you know, I had a best friend in another workshop and she’d always write one hundred and fifty pages to my fifty pages, and, so I think, and I may be making a big assumption that I’m not the only one who deals with writer’s envy, but I was wondering how you deal with writer’s envy and being being best friends?
EM: Our, our competition is really, although now our schedules are a little off, so it’s not so bad, but we really would have moments, entirely, it was based on how many pages we had written.
AP: Yeah. The way you phrased that question, I wrote fifty pages to my friend’s hundred and fifty, that . . .
EM: Well, is that Times New Roman or Courier?
EM: Because it makes a difference.
AP: Yeah. I’m not joking. I mean, it really would get down to that. It was always about productivity for us, and life does change and you’re living in the country and nobody knows where to find you and you have this quiet life right now and I do, I get very jealous of that. I think, I want to live, if I was living in the countryside of France I could get this novel finished.
EM: Actually, page and time envy are good jealousies to have.
EM: Any kind of jealousy that spurs you to productivity. Success envy is the most useless emotion that exists. And I certainly know writers who have given in to it and have sort of scarcely ever written anything good afterwards because if you give in to it in any way, it uses up the time that you should be writing so that, I always think that if you have a moment where you think, I wish I had that , that you need to figure out how to, as quickly as possible, convert that impulse into your own work because otherwise it’s so useless, so I, it’s good to envy somebody’s productivity because that is something, that’s, that’s an easier conversion process into productivity.
AP: Also, productivity is what you can, to some extent, control, and success is a crapshoot. When something goes really huge and really well, it’s not because you’ve produced a better product, it’s because the stars lined up and you’ll never know why and you’ll never be able to replicate it again. So to be jealous of something that you can’t control and your friend couldn’t control is useless. But to say, okay, I’m jealous because you’re getting more done. Okay.
EM: Or if you read something and say, “I wish I had written that sentence”—sometimes if you follow the other person around long enough and keep saying, “Are you done with that sentence? Can I have that sentence?”—she’ll give it to you.
EM: We once did a sentence swap because we so loved this sentence in the other person’s work that we just did an even swap of sentences.
AP: And I don’t remember what it was . . .
EM: I remember the sentence I got from you.
EM: “It was like a bright light went through my mother when she was at her best, and it showed up all the other holes in her character.” It’s not as good in the story as it was in The Patron Saint of Liars.
AP: No memory, no memory of that at all.
EM: But you were done with it. It was a line that when I read it, tears sprung to my eyes because [it] was so good and I happily stuck it in a story, not exactly took credit for it if anybody asked, said, “You know, I really like that line.” I wouldn’t ever say, “Oh, thank you very much.” But yeah, I don’t, but I don’t remember, I don’t remember what you wanted in return.
AP: I wanted “the bar of our recent unhappiness.” Did I get it? No.
EM: We were once walking down the street in Provincetown and we had been, the night before, and this was early in our friendship in one of those moments when we knew we were made for each other, we were in a bar discussing Nine Stories, Salinger book, which is certainly one of my favorite books in the world . . .
AP: Both of us, yeah.
EM: . . . and we were, you know, just sort of, yep, talking about how great all the stories were and a performer, a piano player, came . . .
AP: A transvestite, piano bar singer . . .
AP: . . . and threw us out of the bar for discussing which of the nine stories was our favorite.
EM: Because we got really loud, he, she . . .
AP: We weren’t really loud!
EM: She, well, no, but she began to play and we . . .
AP: We were just too close to the bar.
EM: . . . and we began to yell louder and louder and then she said, “Excuse me, girls,” into the microphone she said, “Excuse me, girls, I’m going to have to ask you to leave because you’re distracting.” And the, but the bar got really crowded in the meantime and we had to work our way back and she said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” into the microphone.
AP: “Bye girls. Bye girls.”
EM: And so the next day I said, as we passed by, “There’s the bar of our recent unhappiness.” And Ann said, “That’s a great title. Mine.”
AP: “Mine. Mine.”
EM: I said, “No, I said it.”
AP: It was our big fight. It was really funny.
EM: No, we essentially had a race and I won. We basically said whoever writes something that it’s a good story for . . .
AP: But I didn’t write stories.
EM: Wily of me, isn’t it? But then you took the first line of that story.
AP: I did, that’s right, because the first line of “The Bar of Our Recent Unhappiness” was “The dog walked into, a dog ran into . . .”
EM: “The dog ran into the bar.”
AP: “The dog ran into the bar,” and the first line of Taft was “The girl walked into the bar.” And what was so humiliating was how many reviews of that book mentioned what a great first sentence that was.
Q: Well, it has that kind of Chekhovian, guests arrived for the party . . .
Q: That classic.
EM: I always just thought it was like a priest, a rabbi, and the pope walk into a bar. I like the Chekhovian thing, I mean, that’s great, but I think it’s . . .
AP: Everything is stolen, it’s just how gracefully you do it, I think.