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Ann Patchett on the inspirations for her latest novel, 'Tom Lake'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: In the midst of the pandemic, a woman tells her three grown daughters a story of her youth about a love affair, a path that she might have taken, but didn't. They in turn tell her of their hopes or fears for the future.

"Tom Lake" is the latest novel by renowned writer Ann Patchett, who also owns an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee.

Jeffrey Brown joined her in New Hampshire recently for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Ann Patchett, Author, "Tom Lake": Wow.

Jeffrey Brown: Ann Patchett "Tom Lake" begins in a high school in a small New Hampshire town, when a young girl named Lara makes a sudden life-changing decision to audition for a role in a play.

Ann Patchett: She is not there to try out for the role of Emily. She's there to register the people who have come to try out for the play. And they're so bad that she decides after four hours of listening to auditions that she's just going to get up and read the lines in a straightforward way, because she loves the play.

Paul Newman, Actor: Yes, we all know in our bones there is something eternal about every human being.

Jeffrey Brown: The play is Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic "Our Town," seen here in a 2003 production starring Paul Newman. It's a deceptively simple portrait of the everyday, what we see and what we miss, and the quick passing of a life.

Actress: Goodbye, world. Goodbye, Grover's Corners.

Jeffrey Brown: And it's a play that Patchett, like her fictional character, has always loved.

Ann Patchett: It's about paying attention to all of the small moments of your life, realizing that your life really is just the compilation of small moments. And either you are awake to them and pay attention to them, or you're always looking ahead and you miss your life.

Jeffrey Brown: So that becomes, of course, the theme, or one of the themes of "Tom Lake."

Ann Patchett: Yes, Yes.

"Tom Lake" definitely started with "Our Town." Somebody said to me recently: "So how did you decide which play Lara is going to be in, in high school?"

And I was like: "Oh, no, no, no, I started with 'Our Town' and then figured out who the characters were."

Jeffrey Brown: Wilder based his fictional town of Grover's Corners on the real-life New Hampshire town of Peterborough, where he also produced it with the Peterborough Players, a professional summer stock theater.

He'd conceived and written part of it in a small cabin at MacDowell, the famed artists residency program in Peterborough. And that's where we met Patchett, who had herself once had a residency here, to talk about a novel in which Lara, now an adult, tells her three grown daughters the story of her long-ago summer romance with a young man who would become a world-famous actor.

Ann Patchett: She's not going to tell her daughters the whole story, but nobody ever tells anybody the whole story. I mean, we all edit our stories based on our audience.

I'm going to tell a story to my husband one way, to my best friend one way, to you one way. It's not that you're lying. It's just that you shape your story to fit your audience.

Jeffrey Brown: But, I mean, that suggests we all have many stories.

Ann Patchett: Of course, everyone. What are we except a bunch of stories, a compilation of the stories that we have lived and that we have told ourselves and other people over the course of our lives?

Jeffrey Brown: Now 59, Patchett has been telling stories for a long time, with nine novels, 15 books in all, one of our bestselling and best-loved writers.

But there's always something new to learn.

Ann Patchett: It was actually really a joy to write this book. And you want to know why?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Ann Patchett: I wrote the entire book on a treadmill.

Jeffrey Brown: What do you mean, like, literally, while you were...

Ann Patchett: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Ann Patchett: I got a treadmill desk.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Ann Patchett: I wrote the whole book on the treadmill desk, so I walked the whole book. And for whatever reason, it just thrilled me. I would get up in the morning and think, I'm ready to go to work, I'm going to get on the treadmill desk, I'm going to go write my book.

And I have never felt that way before. It was a joy.

Jeffrey Brown: There is much joy in this novel, set mostly on a cherry farm in Michigan, where Lara has made her life far from any one-time dream of the glamour of Hollywood and is herself coming to see what a life is made of, as in this passage.

Ann Patchett: "There is no explaining this simple truth about life. You will forget much of it. The painful things you would be certain you would never be able to let go of, now you're not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else. Memories are then replaced by different joys and larger sorrows. And, unbelievably, those things get knocked aside as well."

Jeffrey Brown: But this is also set amid the pandemic, and Lara's daughters bring their own fears for their lives into the story.

Ann Patchett: One of the things that this book is about that I am so struck by is, when I was in my 20s, I worried if I had enough money to go out to dinner. We would go to the matinee because we don't have enough money to go at night. We will go to the restaurant, but we will just get a piece of pie. I really want to get this story written. Maybe I will send the story to a magazine.

That's what I was worried about. At the bookstore -- I own a bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus. We have all these employees, a lot of them in their 20s and 30s. And that's not what they're worried about. I mean, they're worried about the pandemic. They're worried about climate change. They're worried about gerrymandering. They're worried about the right to love who you love.

I mean, it's -- the weight of things that young people have to worry about today is so different from the things that I worried about when I was young.

Jeffrey Brown: Here, you say it: "The beauty and the suffering are equally true."

Ann Patchett: Right. That's exactly right. There's a lot to feel terrible about, but there is also so much joy, and there's so much to feel good about.

And you can hold those two opposite things. We all do every single day. We hold those opposite truths.

Jeffrey Brown: That's true for the world of books as well. Patchett is a champion of writers and literature generally, but is also near the front lines of today's battles over book bans.

Ann Patchett: Things aren't great in Tennessee. The people who are banning books don't care about books. You don't ever ban something you care about.

You want to keep kids safe? Ban guns. You want to keep kids safe? Maybe don't let them bring their phones into school. But nobody is going to keep a child safe by keeping a book from them. And yet by making the conversation about the book, then no one on either side has the energy to talk about the things that really matter. Schools really matter. Teachers, librarians really matter.

Jeffrey Brown: For all her characters' uncertainties and those of our times, Ann Patchett has always had her own clarity. And nothing brings it out like being back in high school.

Did you know what you wanted to be when you were in high school?

Ann Patchett: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You did?

Ann Patchett: I did. I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Ann Patchett: I wanted to be a writer. I never wanted to be anything else in my life.

Jeffrey Brown: How did you have that certainty?

Ann Patchett: I have no idea. But if you were interviewing 6-year-old Ann Patchett on this stage right now and said, "Ann, what do you want to do with your life?" I would have said, "Geoff, I want to be a writer."

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Our Town, Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Correction: The original headline on this story said Ann Patchett was a Pulitzer winner. She is a Pulitzer finalist. The headline has been updated. We regret the error.

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