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Lions Roar : January 2017
Your new novel, Commonwealth, is your most autobiographical novel to date. It’s about the fall- out a family faces after divorce. Do you see writing as a way to transform your own suffering? Not to transform it, but to consider it, to think deeply about it. To be able to sit with your suffering is a way to be able to be, if not liberated from it, then at least at peace with it. All of my books are about two factions of people who are thrown together against their will. I have realized over the course of my life that this is the story of me and my sister and our stepsiblings being stuck together without our choosing, and then coming to love one another. Commonwealth drops the façade of putting that story into other settings. Do you think that you’ll now be able to move on to other themes? That’s my hope, but every time I write a book, I think, this one’s going to be dif- ferent. And then I finish it and I think, no, it wasn’t different. So you’ll have to check in on my next book. Do you have an idea for it? I do. I always say my books are inspired by my books. That is, there’s always something in every book that I think, oh, I really want to write more about this in my next book. The thing in Commonwealth that I want to write more about is spiritual practice. What is your greatest flaw as a writer? I have no capacity to write villains. You could read the entire Ann Patchett canon and not find a decent villain. The only thing approaching a villain was a mean nun I had in my first novel. I wind up having empathy for everyone in my books and so whenever there’s a bad character, he or she never stays bad. I get a lot of grief over the fact that the charac- ters in my books are too nice. People say it’s unrealistic or somehow immature. Can writing be taught? I can teach you how to write a character, dialogue, and plot. But I cannot teach you how to have something to say; I can- not teach you how to be a moral person with a center from which to draw. You don’t get to be one person as a writer and then another person as a friend and a family member and a neighbor. You’re only one person, all the time. How can goodness be cultivated in the world? All you can do is your own good. All you can live is your own life. Q&A Why Ann Patchett Can’t Write Villains For this celebrated novelist, everyone is basically good. HEIDIROSS Commonwealth has a Buddhist character. What’s your connection to Buddhism? I adore Pema Chödrön and when Ste- phen Batchelor is in the States I do a Stephen Batchelor day in New York. I’ve never been away to a retreat center, but my entire fantasy life—the only fantasy life I have—revolves around the idea of going away and being on a retreat, either for a week, or the rest of my life, or some place in between. Why don’t you do it? As a novelist, the thing I’m good at is my ability to sit still for limitless amounts of time and stay on point with my thoughts. That is the very definition of my work. I am someone who can get up every morn- ing and meditate and listen to my Pema Chödrön CDs. I can go to the Omega Institute website and livestream a week- end class and really do it. So while surely Ann Patchett was a ten-year-old at Girl Scout Camp when she was introduced to meditation by her camp counselor. The two of them meditated every morning on the side of a mountain. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2017 17 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE