Ann Patchett Calls 'Commonwealth' Her 'Autobiographical First Novel' Commonwealth is actually Patchett's seventh novel, but it draws heavily on her own family experience, and she compares it to the classic thinly-veiled autobiography often written by young authors.

Ann Patchett Calls 'Commonwealth' Her 'Autobiographical First Novel'

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Good novels are like good parties. You get the right mix of people together. And you never quite know what will happen.

ANN PATCHETT: (Reading) The christening party took a turn when Albert cousins arrived with gin.

SHAPIRO: That's Ann Patchett reading the opening line of her new novel "Commonwealth." The gin leads to a wonderfully sloppy afternoon with cocktail-mixing, a dancing priest and two adulterous kisses. The kisses lead to divorces and a new blended family. Six kids bounce back and forth between Southern California and Virginia. The book follows them for 50 years. When we spoke about it, Ann Patchett told me "Commonwealth" is probably her most personal novel to date.

PATCHETT: It's true. This book is a real mix of life and imagination, but what I've realized is that all of my books have been the same book. I write a book that is about a group of people who were pulled out of one family or situation and dropped into another one in which they are not familiar. And then I see how communities are formed. It's "Lord Of The Flies." It's "The Magic Mountain." It's "The Poseidon Adventure." As I realized as I've gotten older that I keep doing this again and again, I thought, wouldn't it be easy to - and interesting - to leave off all of the costuming and the location that I brought to books like "Bel Canto" and "State Of Wonder" and just write about two families merging in the suburbs?

SHAPIRO: Why do you think you keep coming back to these groups of people thrown together under unexpected circumstances?

PATCHETT: Probably it has to do with my childhood, Ari (laughter). If I could stretch out on the couch for a minute...


PATCHETT: My parents got divorced when I was young, and my mother married someone who had four children. And we moved to the other side of the country, albeit not to Virginia. And I think that that being thrown together, being pulled out of a family and put into a family has always been very interesting to me.

SHAPIRO: So was the original germ 50 years? Was the original germ this christening party in the 1960s in Los Angeles?

PATCHETT: You know, originally, I wanted to write a birth-to-death novel. I did not pull it off, but it was really important to me to span more time. I felt like my books were getting more and more constricted and that three or four months was about as far as I could go. So I wanted to say, I want to have a lot of people, and I'm going to cover them for a long period of time and see how they change.

SHAPIRO: Your father, if I'm not mistaken, passed away while you were writing this book.


SHAPIRO: And there are some caretaking scenes in the novel...


SHAPIRO: ...That feel incredibly real.


SHAPIRO: There's this really poignant kind of question of whether you spend those final moments wringing out the stories you haven't heard yet or just reliving the happy times that are comfortable and familiar, knowing that this will be your last opportunity to do either one.

PATCHETT: Or forging new grounds and, you know, not necessarily having it be about the past, but about being present in the moment and saying, you know, who are you right now, as opposed to this person that I knew growing up? But the characters have all of these moments where, like - wait, wait, I haven't heard that part of the story before. And realizations that soon the father will die, and they will never hear any of these stories that have bored them to death. They will never hear any of those stories again.

SHAPIRO: There is a character in the book who is an author who takes a family's story and sort of makes it his own through fiction. And part of the novel centers around the repercussions of that act. Have you, as an author, ever had an experience like that?

PATCHETT: Well, I think I just had one.


PATCHETT: Well, I certainly drew from things that were much closer to my life. Yeah, I have stepsiblings. I have a sister. I have a mother. I have two stepfathers. I have a stepmother. I mean, all these people who are very close to me and very involved in my life - and they have a place in this book. It's not a book about them, but definitely I am using information from our lives.

So when I created the character of Leo Posen, I...

SHAPIRO: Who was the author.

PATCHETT: Who is the famous, older, male author who falls in love with the young woman. I'm kind of simultaneously playing both parts. I am - I am the young woman who's saying here's my story. And I'm the old author who's saying, I'm going to sell you out and take your story.


SHAPIRO: It sounds like this is a book you could only have written at this stage in your career.

PATCHETT: You know, I don't know. I mean, I just keep thinking this is the book I should have written when I was 25.

SHAPIRO: Really?

PATCHETT: Well, that's when people write their autobiographical first novel. I mean, my first novel was about a home for unwed mothers. I had never been in a home for unwed mothers.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PATCHETT: Because I wanted to prove that I had this great imagination. But the wonderful thing about publishing this book at 52 is that I know that I am capable of working from a place of deep imagination. Now I just feel like I own every part of myself and my life and my imagination and the rocky terrain of my own brain, and that feels really good.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask about something - though, on the surface, this is not totally related to this book - which is your decision to open an independent bookstore in your hometown of Nashville about five years ago.

PATCHETT: And I can tell you how it is related to this book, but - yes.

SHAPIRO: Please go ahead. How is it related to this book?

PATCHETT: Please do (laughter). Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, and it will be five years this November. And it has changed me as a reader profoundly because I used to be somebody who read a lot of Henry James and a lot of Dickens and a lot of Austen. And I would read maybe six books a year that were hot off the press. Now all the books I read are books that are going to be out in four or five months. And if I read one classic a year, it's a huge treat. So I want to write the book I feel is missing. And so I read all of these books, and I think OK, that's covered. That's covered. That's covered. Colson Whitehead - he's doing a great job. I do not need to write a book about the Underground Railroad.

But the book that I see that's missing is a book with a whole lot of characters that takes place over a whole lot of time about divorce and family and the reconfiguration of family because often when I see a book about divorce and remarriage, the people have one kid. And that is not my experience nor the experience of other people that I know. It's so complicated. It's so complicated to figure out who you're going to spend Christmas with.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PATCHETT: You know, it's hard when you're seven, but it's hard all those years later. And I really do feel, owning a bookstore - OK, I'm not seeing that book on the shelf, and I want to write that book.

SHAPIRO: Ann Patchett, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

PATCHETT: It's been a blast, Ari. Thank you for having me on.

SHAPIRO: Ann Patchett's latest novel is called "Commonwealth."

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