Ann Patchett is the international best-selling author of seven novels: The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder, and the just released Commonwealth. She has also written three books of nonfiction, but Patchett’s life’s work in books extends well beyond the act of writing. In 2011, after the last bookstore in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee closed, she opened Parnassus Books with her business partner Karen Hayes. Since then she’s become a fierce champion of books and bookstores, and among her many literary accolades, in 2012 she was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. This year, Patchett will receive the Los Angeles Public Library’s Literary Award, an extra special honor for Patchett—she was born in Los Angeles and says, “The Los Angeles Public Library is hands-down my favorite public library in the country.” Before Patchett returns to her beloved Central Library, we spoke to the author about the pleasures and responsibilities that come along with a good read.
With the success of Parnassus, you’ve become a spokesperson for the need for community spaces around books. How do you feel about this role?
Patchett: It’s just a truth and it’s a great thing to be able get up and speak the truth. These are very important places—bookstores, libraries—these are things that we need. It’s wonderful and important to read, but we also need to come together. I think a big component of loving books is the desire to share them and to talk about them and to recommend them to other people and have books recommended to you that you might not have found otherwise. That’s a big part of that joy. We have to take responsibility for the places this happens and not wait for them to go away and then miss them terribly, but let’s keep them healthy now.
Why should the business of bookselling be so important to writers?
Patchett: I think authors need to take a lot more responsibility for the health and wellbeing of the publishing industry. Because this is our business and you don’t want to stick your head in the sand where your business and life’s work is concerned. The health of the publishing industry is incredibly important to me, not only for my own work, but to make sure that when young writers come along that there are going to be things in place that were there for me.
One of the things that’s so important about having a real bookstore is—if Ann Patchett publishes a book, I’ve got a fan base and I’ve got guaranteed reviews in major newspapers and magazines and you’re going to hear about my new book out—but what about someone who is publishing their first novel, or collection of short stories, or book of poetry? You’re not going to find that on Amazon and it’s not going to be reviewed in The New York Times. You find that by going into a real bookstore or a real library and having readers who are booksellers and librarians who’ve read these books. They are going to read them because they’ve actually seen them—they are going to be interested in the covers and the jacket copy and they’re going to pick them up by word-of-mouth. If you’ve given a reading, someone is going to read your book and is going to hand sell it—that is essential for making sure new work thrives and gets discovered and finds its place with readers.
The Los Angeles Public Library strives to foster a love for books and lifelong learning. How do you think reading enhances our society?
Patchett: The most important relationship in my life is to books. I have very close friends and a happy marriage and I love my family, but my primary relationship is to books. To me, there’s no difference between a relationship to books and a relationship to myself—that’s my mind, my lifeblood, my intelligence, my curiosity, my desire to grow as a person. It’s such a gift and a comfort that I would be so lost without books. I would work forever to make sure that everyone has this gift and the same advantages that I had, which is a love of reading and a life of the mind. To read, to be curious, to be empathetic—if through fiction or nonfiction we can step into other people’s lives and experiences, it will make us more tolerant and compassionate. Those are all factors of a good community and a good and safe world.