Accidental Critic: “I thought I made you up!”
Author Ann Patchett on Her Writing–and a Bit of Opera
“I do really think that … somehow, your imagination just gets a couple months ahead of your life.”
Author Ann Patchett to opera diva Renee Fleming: “I thought I made you up!”
If you’ve read Patchett’s novel Bel Canto and follow opera in any way, you might know already that Patchett was referring to the similarity between Fleming and Roxane Coss, the opera star at the center of Bel Canto. The resemblance is so strong that Fleming has been approached repeatedly by movie figures wanting the rights to Patchett’s book – rights that aren’t hers to give, of course.
In fact, Patchett and Fleming had never met before Bel Canto was published. Both say Patchett created Roxane Coss entirely from her imagination.
Yet the similarity to Fleming is undeniable. “Everyone assumes that Roxanne is based on me,” Fleming said during a discussion with Patchett Nov. 18, 2015, in Chicago. “And let’s just set the record straight: It’s not.”
“Although now it is!” answered Patchett. The author said she has had this experience more than once: something or someone she writes from her own imagination turns out to be remarkably like something/someone in real life. “I think, ‘Oh, I have such a great imagination; I’m really making this up.’ And then retroactively it becomes true.”
“I do really think that … somehow, your imagination just gets a couple months ahead of your life,” Patchett said. “I really do believe that.”
“This is a Patchett novel”
“I write exactly the same book over and over again.”
Patchett talked a good deal about her writing and Bel Canto during the discussion, one of three free public events being presented by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in advance of its world premiere of the opera of Bel Canto, which it has commissioned. Expect me to write more about the opera at a later date; I just bought tickets to see it, and it will be my first opera ever. For now, let’s focus on Patchett the author.
Patchett explained the origins of Bel Canto, which was inspired by the 1996 take-over of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, by terrorists. At the time, the crisis seemed like “a particularly unthreatening hostage situation,” Patchett said. “The terrorists were teen-agers. And the New York Times would say, ‘Terrorists request more soccer balls. Terrorists order pizza.’ “
“I was following it on the news, and I thought, “This is a Patchett novel,’ ” she said.
What exactly does that mean? “I write exactly the same book over and over again. … A group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society.” Thematically, Patchett said, it relates to both Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and the movie The Poseidon Adventure. “What is Bel Canto except a classier version of The Poseidon Adventure?” she asked.
“I also really love playing with melodrama, which is, when you’re in graduate school, such a bad word,” Patchett said. “Melodrama was just the lowest thing that you could possibly get into. So it’s something that I’ve always been attracted to.”
For Patchett, though, there’s a limit to how much an author gets to play when writing a novel. It’s important, she said, to be true to your characters’ story – even when it isn’t what you want it to be. In the case of Bel Canto, Patchett followed the real hostage drama in the news and watched on live television as it ended, knowing she planned to write about it and realizing, “This is the end of my book.” (Spoiler Alert: If you’re going to read the book and don’t want to know the ending, don’t read the next sentence!) When the terrorists were killed as the hostage drama ended, she said, “It just killed me. It absolutely broke my heart.”
“When you’re writing a book and you love your characters, you want to save them,” Patchett said. But “you don’t get the ending you want. You get the ending that’s true. You get the ending you get.”
Why an opera singer?
“Whenever I write a book I choose some sort of formal problem for myself, that I don’t expect readers to think about.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Patchett has no control as an author. In fact, in the 1996 hostage crisis in Lima, the terrorists released all of their female hostages. But Patchett decided she wanted her terrorists to keep one woman, “the most important woman.” At the time, she decided that would be an entertainer – a decision that she said makes her cringe somewhat 15 years later. “Probably if I wrote the book now it would be Angela Merkel,” she said.
But she chose an opera singer, even though she knew nothing about opera at the time. “Whenever I write a book I choose some sort of formal problem for myself, that I don’t expect readers to think about,” Patchett said. “And in Bel Canto, it’s, ‘What if there’s not a common language? How do you tell a story without a common language?’ ”
There are three levels on which this can be done, she said – and she incorporated all three into her novel:
- Interpretation – “a brilliant translator”
- Love – “the language of love, amore”
The opera singer, of course, represents the language of art, and Patchett said she chose opera because “here’s an art form where someone is using language that other people do not understand, … but they are deeply moved by it.”
From page to stage: Transforming the book into opera
For Patchett, it has been strange to turn her attention back to Bel Canto so many years after writing the book. “I care so passionately about a book while I’m working on it,” she said. “I absolutely love what I’m doing while I’m doing it. And I love what I’ve done for about six weeks after I’ve done it. And then I never think of it again. And it is so odd to step back into Bel Canto world all these years later.”
Both Fleming and the Lyric Opera’s general director, Anthony Freud, praised Patchett’s generosity in giving carte blanche with her story to playwright Nilo Cruz and composer Jimmy Lopez, the librettist and composer, respectively, for the opera. Patchett, for her part, scoffed at the notion that she could have anything to contribute to creating an opera. But she also described herself as very unsentimental about her book and characters, and mindful of the need to edit to fit the demands of the operatic stage.
Patchett had great training in copy editing as a writer for “Seventeen” magazine, where she said she regularly received last-minute orders to cut back her articles because advertisers had pulled out. The example she gave was of being ordered to cut a 2,000-word piece to 800 words… in 15 minutes. “If something’s got to be chopped, chop it,” she said.
Cruz’s libretto is “so much better than the book. It should be the Cliffs Notes to the book,” Patchett said. “To see someone else take your ideas and do a better job with them is the most gratifying thing.”
Bel Canto the opera premieres Dec. 7 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and runs through January 17, 2016.
Patchett’s discussion with Fleming ran an hour in length and covered a broad range of topics. If you have the time to invest, I highly recommend it; you can watch it on YouTube.
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.