You can’t blame Ann Patchett for taking a break from fiction since her 2011 novel “State of Wonder.” She has such a good excuse. When her hometown of Nashville lost its last independent bookstore Patchett and a partner came to the rescue and opened one, Parnassus Books. The writer will leave book selling and writing behind briefly to be fêted at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center 5th annual Summer Awards Celebration on July 12.
BOOKS: What have you learned about readers’ tastes from owning a bookstore?
PATCHETT: They show me things all the time about their taste, and I just ignore them. I’m not so interested in what people want to read as in making them read what I want them to. I’ll just take the Nicholas Sparks books away from you, and I’ll just assume you made a mistake, that you thought it was Muriel Spark.
BOOKS: What kind of books do you avoid?
PATCHETT: I won’t pick up almost any genre book. They aren’t my thing, but I can be proven wrong. James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird” about the abolitionist John Brown would usually be something I would hate, but I absolutely loved it. I also don’t like child narrators. I remember reading reviews of Emma Donoghue’s “Room” and thinking that sounds interesting, but who’s going to read it. I did, and it was fantastic. I have a very hard time reading YA, which is such a thriving part of book selling, but I’m just an A, not a YA.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
PATCHETT: “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis. I’d never read any Lewis. I picked this up because Azar Nafisi’s “The Republic of Imagination” is coming out this fall. I loved her “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” This book is about her three favorite American novels: “Babbitt,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and Carson McCullers’s “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” “Babbitt” is the only one I hadn’t read.
‘I’m not so interested in what people want to read as in making them read what I want them to.’
BOOKS: What makes “Babbitt” so good?
PATCHETT: I’m a big fan of Erskine Caldwell and Nathanael West. Lewis writes like them, a kind of gymnastic, pyrotechnic writing. Pop, pop, pop. I had the feeling that I was the only person on the planet who hadn’t read “Babbitt.” I started to ask around, and I can’t find anyone who has. I’ll convince people they can’t go another day without reading it, and we’ll get a big pile of “Babbitt” at the bookstore.
BOOKS: Any other literary omissions in your reading?
PATCHETT: How much time do you have? I’ve only read one Trollope, which means I have about 3,000 left to go. I have no desire to see the world. My entire bucket list consists of Trollope.
BOOKS: Do you read mostly fiction?
PATCHETT: No. This has been a big nonfiction year for me. There has been a death and illness in my family. I have had a kind of grief that couldn’t find a lot of comfort in fiction. I kept picking things up and putting them down. I read 30 pages of Michael Cunningham’s “The Snow Queen” and put it down. I don’t even know where the book is. But I’ve been able to stick with nonfiction. I read Sheri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial” about what happened to this hospital after Katrina. I read “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala. She was the only one in her family to survive the 2004 tsunami. I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit.” All 928 pages. I want credit for that.
BOOKS: Do you switch reading gears in the summer?
PATCHETT: No. But I’m just starting a novel, and I’m going to read only what I want to. I have the galleys of Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” and of Esther Freud’s “Mr. Mac and Me.” She’s the daughter of the painter Lucian Freud and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. I also have “Victory” by Joseph Conrad. Joan Didion told an interviewer that whenever she starts a book she always rereads “Victory.” Damn, if that’s not reason enough to read it I don’t know what is.