Author Ann Patchett Needs First Reader Ann Patchett, author of the best-selling novel Bel Canto, can write anywhere — hotel rooms or airports if need be. And she is not interested in creating fiction based in Nashville, where she has lived most of her life. But what she cannot do without is a "first reader."
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Author Ann Patchett Needs First Reader

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Author Ann Patchett Needs First Reader

Author Ann Patchett Needs First Reader

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Some writers spend a lifetime writing about the place where they live, some have strict routines and need to be surrounded by their favorite things in order to write.

Ann Patchett, who's the bestselling author of the novel "Bel Canto," is not that kind of a writer. She says she can write anywhere — hotel rooms, airports - you name it. And she is not interested in creating fiction based in Nashville, where she's lived most of her life.

As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, there is one thing she cannot do without when she writes a book, and that's her first reader.

LYNN NEARY: Many writers have a first reader. That is someone they rely on for advice while a book is still a work in progress - often it's a spouse, sometimes it's a group of people. For Ann Patchett, it is fellow writer Elizabeth McCracken.

They met 17 years ago in Provincetown. They liked each other immediately, but their friendship was sealed when they read each other's work and fell in love with it. They have been each other's first readers ever since. Their relationship is so strong that Patchett says, when she writes her books, she is writing them for McCracken.

Ms. ANN PATCHETT (Author, "Bel Canto", "Run"): I write for myself first and foremost. And then I write for Elizabeth, and then really nobody after that because while I'm in the process of writing, we're the only two people I could even imagine reading the work.

NEARY: Both McCracken and Ann Patchett say in the beginning of the writing process, it's important to encourage each other. But as the work gets closer to completion, the critiques may get tougher. Still, McCracken says she thinks of herself as an enthusiastic audience for Patchett's work. She has read the first drafts of all of Patchett's books, and even remembers where she was when she read them.

Ms. ELIZABETH McCRACKEN (Author): I remember reading "Bel Canto" sitting at a bar in Cambridge having lunch, and wanting to grab the bartender by the necktie and say, you know, I'm the first person reading this book but everybody's going to read this book. It was such an exciting experience.

NEARY: Naturally, McCracken read the first draft of Patchett's new book "Run," and Patchett says her influence is evident in the first few pages. "Run" is the story of a Boston Irish Catholic family that is also a meditation on the nature of motherhood and the pull of politics. Though Patchett believe strongly that her fiction does not need to be based on her own life experience, "Run" does draw on her Catholic girlhood in Nashville.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. PATCHETT: We came up these stairs, in a room. Picture hundreds of tiny girls in plaid marching up these stairs.

NEARY: This is St. Bernard's, the Catholic convent school that Patchett attended growing up. An old-fashioned building with creaky wooden staircases and corridors, it still smells like a school even though it now houses offices and Pilates studios. Outside, Patchett stares up at the Gothic, red brick structure; and remembers the way the campus used to look.

Ms. PATCHETT: This whole area was dotted with huge marble statues - or they seemed huge when I was eight - of the Virgin and Sacred Heart. And we would have these great rituals where we - all little girls would go out one day, and then we'd scrub the statues with brushes. And then we would make the flower crowns, and we would sing all the May songs, and process out. And we would crown the statues, and kiss their toes, and pray to them, and….

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: You know, I can't help but thinking, as you're sitting there, that your book "Run" begins with just that kind of the statue.

Ms. PATCHETT: That you can run, but you can't hide. No, it's true.

NEARY: Was the statue always part of the book? Was the statue an inspiration for the book in some way?

Ms. PATCHETT: Well, the Statue is the first chapter of the book. And when I was writing the book, that scene with the statue actually appeared in the third chapter. And when Elizabeth McCracken first read the first hundred pages, she said, take the statue out of the third chapter, make it a little bit bigger and fuller, and then put it at the front of the book and have that be the first chapter; and it was genius - as everything Elizabeth tells me to do is genius.

The great thing about my relationship with Elizabeth is that I don't think about it. I just automatically do it.

NEARY: The statue of the Blessed Virgin, which plays a role in "Run," has been handed down to several generations of mothers and daughters, and has come to rest in the bedroom of two African-American boys adopted into the Doyle family. The statue looks like their adoptive mother, who has died. And so when they gaze upon it, they are always reminded of her.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Likenesses of the Mother of God abounded in the world. And in Boston, they were doubled. But everyone who saw this statue agreed that it possessed a certain inestimable loveliness that set it far apart. It was more than just the attention to detail — the tiny stars carved around the base that Earth sat on, the gentle drape of her sapphire cloak — it was Mary's youth, how she hovered on the line between mother and child.

NEARY: McCracken says she wanted to hear about the statue at the beginning of the book because the story deals so much with motherlessness, that it made sense to start with a parable about motherhood. She also had another reason for moving it.

Ms. McCRACKEN: My hardheaded answer is simply because it should have been and, you know, it was just - she had just written it in the wrong order.

NEARY: McCracken's own view of her role in Patchett's writing is self-deprecating. The way she tells it: She has to look for something to change.

Ms. McCRACKEN: In "The Patron Saint of Liars," there was a scene in which a child was born and was passed around the room from hand-to-hand while everybody sang "America, The Beautiful." And I was delighted when the scene came up because it was bad, and I had something to do. And I could go back and say, you must remove this scene. This scene is not good.

NEARY: But Patchett gives McCracken a lot more credit than that. Patchett says she tries to think the way McCracken would.

Ms. PATCHETT: And I'm actually writing in such a way that I'm always thinking I'm going to fix all of the things that she would catch before I give it to her. And, of course, I give it to her, and then she makes these brilliant comments that help me see my work in a new way. And I think, oh, you know, I'm never going to outgrow her.

NEARY: At this point, Patchett says she can no longer even separate her writing from her relationship with McCracken. It's the one thing she really needs to write a book - that, and her imagination.

Lynn Neary, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Ann Patchett's new novel - it's called "Run" - goes on sale next week.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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