'If I am going to write about people who are kind and generous and loving and thoughtful, so what?'
Friday 10 June 2011 10.05 BST
hen Ann Patchett decided to set her sixth novel in the Amazon, she called up her editor on the glossy magazine Gourmet, and asked him to arrange a trip.
"I really wanted to be on a boat but they couldn't find the right boat in Brazil, it was either a cruise ship which I didn't want or a raft with cockroaches which I didn't want. I wanted something very small but nice and they found it in Peru, it was called the Aqua and I think it had a dozen rooms and it was absolutely gorgeous."
On the journey (which the magazine paid for on condition she wrote an article about it), Patchett immersed herself in the rainforest, paddling down tributaries, walking through the jungle with a guide to point out poisonous frogs, and imagining the terror of being lost or left behind. "I could have gone and stood there for two hours and gotten more than I ever needed," she says. "It wasn't as if I was interviewing anyone, I wasn't talking about anything, just to stand there and look, just to go out at night and see the stars, just to feel the bugs hitting your face."
The resulting novel, State of Wonder, is a triumph and Patchett's best book yet. Partly this is due to the setting: Patchett's jungle seethes and seeps, the humidity and the insects and the utter strangeness of it all but suffocating its American visitors. Partly it is down to a plot, involving the investigation of a mysterious death, that takes hold of the reader on the first page and doesn't let go. But mainly it is thanks to the novel's 42-year-old heroine Marina Singh, the pharmacologist from whose point of view the adventure unfolds and who is the strongest character Patchett has written.
The similarities between the novelist and the scientist are as obvious as the differences. Both the real and the imaginary woman have a much older partner with a previous wife and grown-up children. Both have divorced parents and lost regular contact with their fathers as children: while Patchett's mother moved from California to Tennessee before remarrying, Singh's father went back to India. Singh has a recurring nightmare in the novel, brought on by anti-malaria pills, in which she loses hold of his hand in a crowd and wakes up screaming.
But most significantly Singh, like Patchett, is a woman who has chosen to be childless. Fertility is State of Wonder's big theme. Vogel, the midwestern pharmaceutical giant for which Marina Singh works, is funding the research of Dr Annick Swenson in the Amazon in the hope she will develop a fertility drug for post-menopausal women. Singh is sent to Brazil to check on her progress, as well as to learn more about the circumstances of her colleague Anders Eckman's death, and the novel is much concerned with the emotions and ethics and physiology of reproduction. In one spectacularly graphic set-piece, Singh performs an emergency caesarean on one of the indigenous Lakashi women whom Dr Swenson's team are studying.
As preparation, Patchett gained permission to attend a real operation. "It was phenomenal, so unbelievably violent," she says. "The nurse is on one side and the doctor is on the other and they're pulling so hard to tear her apart, to wrench this little baby out. I was just absolutely amazed by the brutality and physicality of it all. And I did actually pass out, at the very end while they were sewing her up."
Now an elegant 47, Patchett has reached an age when people have stopped questioning her decision not to be a mother, but she remains indignant at the memory: "I never wanted children, never, not for one minute, and it has been the greatest gift of my life that even as a young person I knew. It freed me up tremendously. Children are wonderful but they're not for everybody, and yet it never stopped. To constantly have people tell me that I didn't know my own mind and I didn't know my body was kind of outrageous."
Convinced from childhood that she wanted to write fiction, Patchett pursued her ambition faithfully, encouraged by her mother. A quiet and obedient schoolgirl, with one older sister, she studied creative writing first at Sarah Lawrence college in New York, and then at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she met her first husband; she divorced him a year later. She returned to Tennessee, where she worked as a waitress and produced a first novel, Patron Saint of Liars, set in a Catholic home for unmarried pregnant women, before her 30th birthday. The book was intensely emotional, and unusual in combining a religious theme with a deep interest in women's psychology influenced by feminism.
Since then she has written five more novels including the Orange prizewinningBel Canto, and a memoir about her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, who died in 2002 of a heroin overdose. She has also done some journalism and teaching, and got married again, aged 41, to her partner of many years, Karl VanDevender, a doctor.
Patchett went to a Catholic school, and has often spoken of how a childhood spent praying to statues and dreaming of miracles was the perfect preparation for her life as a storyteller. Not a regular churchgoer, she describes herself as both "adoring and struggling with" her faith, but there is nothing but warmth in a recent essay about Sister Nena, one of the nuns who taught her. In a way, she says, the childless nuns with their vocations were role models for the would-be writer.
"I think I would probably have been a good mother," she says, "I'm incredibly domestic, I love to be home, I love to cook and clean and sew and have people over, I'm really all about home and hearth, but for me it was either/or. My friend Elizabeth [McCracken, the writer] and I used to say if we ever met someone who desperately wanted to have children and who was willing to do half or slightly more than half the work, then we would think about it. And she found that person, she found that astonishing man. I have never had a cup of coffee with that man. I have never met him."
In State of Wonder, Dr Swenson's single-minded pursuit of work verges on fanaticism. Singh, her student in medical school, has spent her career battling the shadow of her teacher's disapproval. The relationship at the heart of her new novel could not be less equal, less symmetrical, but Patchett says it "makes complete sense to me. I had a couple of teachers in college who changed my life, I shaped myself in order to please them."
These mentors were the writers Allan Gurganus and Grace Paley. "Allan's lesson was how to work," she says. "We had to write a story a week, and a revision didn't count. He said think of yourself as a pipe with a lot of muck in it and you have to get it out. The only way you can find out what you're good at is to have written a ton of work. In the same way that if I was learning the cello I would understand that I had to practise hour after hour."
Paley's influence was less tangible but just as important, and she was even more ruthlessly determined to stamp out ego and preciousness. Seminars were cancelled and assignments ignored as students were bussed to political protests. "Grace's lesson was the lesson of having a single voice and being one person, so you're the same person as a mother, a friend, a teacher, a writer, an activist, a citizen," Patchett says. "That was an enormous lesson that I had a very, very hard time learning." In Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and dog, with his ex-wife (a friend), step-grandchildren and childhood friends all close by, Patchett is putting Paley's teachings into practice. "I feel like I'm playing my part in the community and I like that," she says. "When the Literacy Foundation needs somebody to come and be the spokesperson for something, I'm the person they call. I have such a connection to the place and I feel like what I'm doing is important."
Patchett divides her career into two distinct phases: before and after Bel Canto. Before her fourth novel became a paperback bestseller, Patchett struggled. Her second novel Taft could not live up to the passionately personal promise of her debut, and the fact that it is so little read still rankles. She calls it her "neglected child . . . it's as if it smells or it's sticky or something".
But Bel Canto, a stylish and theatrical kidnapping fantasy set in an unnamed South American capital, was a game-changer. "I sort of jumped into a different kind of bracket," she says bluntly. "I've met so many interesting people because of it. I've become very close friends with Renée Fleming [the American soprano] because of that book, it's like I'm invited to better parties now, ha ha."
She believes her success was in part a matter of timing: Bel Canto came out in May 2001, and after the events of September 2001 "people wanted to have a way to discuss what was going on, they wanted to get together in book groups and talk about terrorism."
But the book was not universally admired, and some in the British publishing world were perplexed that Patchett's take on terrorism, strong on romantic love and light on violence, took the Orange prize in an unusually strong line-up that included Sarah Waters's Fingersmith and Helen Dunmore's The Siege.
Since then, critics including John Updike have taken Patchett to task for her unswervingly cheery outlook. When I ask about this she says she can't help it: "I think it's brain chemistry, I'm a positive, cheerful person and I think it is absolutely the luck of the draw. I think the life I have had has come largely from the chemicals in my head. I see my life as good and I think a lot of times if you see your life as good then that's how it turns out." When she feels disappointed – for example by the fact that her readership is, she estimates, a startling 98% female – she turns it round and thinks "lucky me, at least I have all those women reading my books".
In many ways Patchett's optimism is appealing. She has made a specialism in her novels of characters bonding across classes and races — Run features African-American brothers successfully adopted by Irish-American Catholics — and her belief in happy endings can feel progressive as well as redemptive. Human goodness, in her books, usually carries hints of divine grace, whether or not these are interpreted by nuns or priests, and her epiphanic endings are moving. When her fiction jars, at least with secular readers, it may be when spiritual uplift seems to tip over into a didactic cancellation of difficulty or sadness.
"I have been accused of being a Pollyanna," she says, "but I think there are plenty of people dealing with the darker side of human nature, and if I am going to write about people who are kind and generous and loving and thoughtful, so what? In my life I have met astonishingly good people."
It seems no wonder that Grealy, the friend Patchett made at Iowa, made such an overwhelming impression on her. Injured by cancer in her jaw as a child, Grealy spent her 20s and 30s undergoing surgery after surgery in an attempt to rebuild her damaged face.
But Grealy was also often demanding and difficult, with episodes of self-destructive behaviour and self-harm. Did Grealy test her belief in positivity? Is that why, following Grealy's sad death, she felt bound to write a book about their friendship, Truth and Beauty, even at the cost of alienating Grealy's sister, who wrote a long article in which she explained how offended the family was by the book, and called Patchett a "grief thief"?
"I always saw the goodness in Lucy and maybe that's why she loved me," Patchett replies. "She was the smartest person I knew and the funniest. She was the person who would get up at every party and dance first and she had a tremendous capacity for joy. She had more friends than anyone I've ever known and she wrote two great books. It's astonishing what she managed."
Her thoughts about a cure for malaria, rather than reversing the menopause, were the starting-point for State of Wonder. John le Carré's The Constant Gardener is the obvious point of comparison, with the Amazon taking the role in the American novel that Africa played in the British one. But although Patchett loves Le Carré's novel, she is quick to point out that the pharmaceutical company in her novel is "not sinister". Patchett's husband is a doctor, as was her step-father, and her mother was a nurse before launching herself on a second, post-retirement career (encouraged by her daughter) as a popular novelist.
As a child she accompanied her step-father to the operating theatre in the summer holidays, and watched him perform brain surgery –"I can remember the burning smell and little chips of bone coming up like snow in the air". Medicine has always been part of Patchett's life, and she does not share Le Carré's rage at multinational corporations avid for profits and prepared to sacrifice ethics – and lives – in their search for billion-dollar drugs.
While Patchett describes herself as "very liberal", and "crazy about Obama", the politics of the modern-day Amazon are missing from her new novel. When I met her in the week that Brazilian conservation activists José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva were murdered, and asked why deforestation does not figure in her story, she pointed out that Dr Swenson does refer to it at one point.
But this is not to say that Patchett, who is pretty much a vegan for both moral and health reasons, does not take the environment seriously. State of Wonder is passionate about nature – but Patchett has used a real jungle as a setting for a fictional conflict, and an imaginary set of dilemmas based around an invented ecosystem. "In a way it is like Bel Canto, it is like all my books. I didn't write about the world outside the house. It's about a pocket of the world just before that pocket disappears. It's a glimpse into something magical."