On a recent Monday night, one of the first evenings to suggest a prelude to winter, a crowd piles into the downstairs forum room of Pasadena’s All Saints Church to hear the novelist Ann Patchett read from her new book, Run. It has already been dark for half an hour, the wind has shed its Santa Ana warmth, and the anticipation of a chill coaxes sweaters out of Southern California closets. The audience looks to be about one-third customers from Vroman’s Bookstore, which sponsored the event, and two-thirds church book-club members, a few eager to settle questions of character relationships that have caused what one woman describes as big disagreements among faithful readers. Patchett’s voice echoes off the high ceilings as she begins to read. The room is a generous size, with wooden chairs pulled neatly up to counters and a bench winding around the center, all upholstered in a melted-butter yellow that gives off a dull sort of glow, like the light emanating from a single, naked light bulb in a large room. I am one of three people in the audience under the age of 55, and realize now that my choice of studded brown leather boots and a brightly colored striped dress was perhaps an overly ambitious choice. Throughout the reading, the ebb and flow of breathing machines keeps a reliable rhythm alongside Patchett’s playful articulation. I scan the room for someone closer to this decade of young adulthood that still makes me feel slightly awkward in large crowds of people over 50, and the closest I can find is a small blond girl with red barrettes in her hair who has obviously been dragged along by her mother. I get the same impression from the few men in the room. Out of the 75 people here, about 60 are women.
“I haven’t read any of your books,” a 70-ish man admits, before asking Patchett for a brief biography during the question-and-answer session. “I just tagged along with my wife.”
“You really didn’t want to come,” Patchett teases.
My closest peer in the room seems to be Patchett herself. She published her first novel, Patron Saint of Liars, when she was just 26, and was born nearby in Glendale — though she was raised mainly in Nashville, where she now lives with her husband, Karl VanDevender. Her third novel, The Magician’s Assistant, was set in Pasadena, a setting she might not have chosen if she’d lived here longer than the first six years of her life. In order to write about a particular location, she says, it is important to have some familiarity with the place but also to allow for a certain amount of mystery: “I don’t write about a place I know too well. I would never write about Nashville, for example. If I know too much about a place, I end up getting hung up on details in the wrong way.”
When asked whether she is a disciplined writer, Patchett answers that discipline is a rather difficult thing to define. While she is obviously a productive person and has always been driven, she doesn’t adhere to a strict work schedule: “If my friend calls me up and needs a ride to the airport, or someone’s sick and they need to go to the doctor, I’m the kind of person who will just get in my car and do it,” she says. “I’ll take the day off.”
Patchett describes the familiar love/hate relationship with her work: “When I’m working on a book, I’m always thinking, ‘I wish this was finished, I can’t wait till this is over,’ but then once the book is out, I can’t help but think, ‘I wish I was working on a book right now. Oh, a book. That would be nice.’ ”
On the topic of her friendship with the late Lucy Greely, author of Autobiography of a Face and the fuel for Patchett’s fifth novel, Truth and Beauty, she talks about her need to get down the pulp of the relationship, the negative and positive aspects, before time toys with the details. “I know how death plays with memory,” she says.
A woman asks why Patchett was such a devoted friend, when it seemed she gave so much and received very little in return. Patchett responds with her honest philosophy: “There is no equity in love. You’re so lucky to find love, someone who understands you, wants to be with you.”
Run, which Patchett describes as a book about “my exhaustion with family values,” seems to pursue this idea further. “When people talk about ‘family values,’ they usually are talking about people who share their DNA. But family values goes way beyond that. We are responsible for people in our community, including those we don’t want to take responsibility for.”
Patchett’s philosophy is received by a sea of nodding heads. Joking about how frequently the seemingly simple title of the book, Run, is wrongly referred to as “ran” and “go,” Patchett clarifies that it is more than a reference to the physical act of running. While the adolescent main character is a sort of track prodigy, Patchett offers a symbolic explanation that resembles a high school English-class synopsis: “This book is about running in a broad sense. Running for political office, running from your family, running fast.”
Ann Patchett, it seems, has mastered the art of running forward. Like Bel Canto, her fourth novel, which describes a 24-hour hostage situation in the span of 295 pages, Patchett’s life is impressive but rather compact, a 44-year plot that can be mapped out in ideas and dreams that all point in a similar direction, sketched out and realized. Being a writer has always been her plan, she says, describing her rather unhindered success as “kind of boring.”
“You know,” she says, “if you asked me when I was 5 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve told you ‘a writer.’ I’m one of those few people who actually knew what they wanted to do and then went ahead and did it.”