Long before Ann Patchett’s imaginative novels (Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto, State of Wonder) were bestsellers, she was making a living as a writer - but as a writer of nonfiction for magazines. Patchett cut her writing teeth as a journalist/essayist in the 1970’s, beginning with a book review for Seventeen magazine (for which she was paid $250). She spent eight years writing almost exclusively for Seventeen, until she herself was thirty years old when she moved on to “grown up” publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and Gourmet. While she was writing freelance articles, Patchett was honing her craft as a fiction writer, with short stories and eventually novels. She credits her training in journalism - the intense editing, the research, the deadlines - with teaching her the kind of skills and endurance necessary to persevere as a novelist. “All those years of writing articles…made me a workhouse, and that in turn was a skill I brought back to my novels."
And while Patchett started writing nonfiction as a way to literally support her fiction writing (“The tricky thing about being a writer or any kind of artist is that in addition to marking art you also have to make a living”) she was surprised to find her work as a journalist supporting her fiction in other ways as well. When she was working on Bel Canto, her novel about an opera singer, the editors at Gourmet magazine sent her to Italy on assignment to write an article about famous opera houses. Later, they fronted a trip into the Peruvian jungle while she was working on State of Wonder, her book about scientists in the Amazon. In fact, there have been so many benefits to this “day job” of nonfiction writing that even when her novels were successful enough to provide a living wage, Patchett has continued to write nonfiction, just more selectively than when it was the mainstay of her livelihood.
This is the Story of Happy Marriage collects a variety of Patchett’s essays and articles into one volume. It’s an interesting look at her life through essays that are well written and evocative of the writers time, place, and personality. We learn about her childhood, her love for her grandmother, her first marriage and divorce. We meet her dog Rosy as a puppy and then, 16 years later, as Patchett says goodbye to this beloved pet. We cheer her on when she writes about the success of her new bookstore in Nashville.
And we hear The Story of a Happy Marriage, with her husband Karl. “I can tell you how I came to have a happy marriage,” Patchett writes in the title essay, “but I’m not so sure my results can be reproduced. I continue to think back to (my friend) Edra, standing in that swimming pool on a bright day in summer. ‘Does he make you a better person?’ was what she asked me, and I want to tell her, Yes, with the full force of his life, with the example of his kindness and vigilance, his good sense and equanimity, me makes me a better person. And that is what I aspire to be, better, and no, it really isn’t more complicated than that.”
This collection is an irresistible blend of memoir and journalism - the kind of writing I really love, probably because it’s the kind of writing toward which I have aspirations of my own. Whether you’re a fan of Patchett’s novels or not, these pieces form a portrait of a real life, lived with thoughtfulness, compassion, and love.