We went to see Ann Patchett speak on Tuesday. She was presenting her newest novel, she was doing it in Brooklyn, and we could make it by train after Noah got off work.
I surprised him at his office door, hiding a bit to the side so as to be able to properly scare him. He nearly leapt out of his skin when I put my hand on his shoulder, then began grinning wildly when I brandished our saag paneer dinner and announced that we were getting on a train. Forty minutes later we were outside St. Joseph’s College, shoveling down the paneer and spinach and rice. I still hadn’t told Noah what we were doing, and the secret was coursing through me like caffeine. It was exciting. I so wanted him to be pleased.
As we checked in, we were handed our signed copies of Commonwealth. I waited for Noah’s reaction; just yesterday, he had added the book to a wish list we keep, and I had very innocently suggested that perhaps we wait on ordering it. “You scoundrel!” Noah cried. “We were just talking about this book.” I grinned. I should lie to my fiancé more often.
Once inside, I began wondering what Ann would be like. I’d read The Magician’s Assistant and her collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, just a couple of months before. They were my first and only exposures to Ann, aside from her blurbs on Kevin Wilson’s books and his humorous nod to her in his acknowledgments in Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: “Patchett, Ann: Ann Patchett.” She was, of course, a complete stranger, but reading about her marriage and divorce and dog and second marriage and experiences of writing and the founding of her bookstore left me thinking of her as something closer than a stranger.
A few minutes later, Ann came out. She was nothing like I expected. Effervescent, self-assured, confident, funny, Ann was easily the most comfortable person in the room. Whether her public presentation was the product of practice or personality, I could not say, but either way I was inspired. As she very animatedly read a passage from Commonwealth, it was clear that she was having a great darn time. She was delighting in her work. She was delighting in her place in the world. She simply was delightful. I wanted to be like this lady.
Reading finished, the interview began. She chatted openly and easily about the dynamic she returns to with each novel, laughing that she writes the same book over and over again. But perhaps after this latest one, in which she said that she dispensed with the “papier-mâché” headpieces and other disguises she usually dressed her characters in, she would be “free.” But maybe not. She seemed perfectly chuffed either way.
When asked about her bookstore, Ann lit up like a Christmas tree. She could hardly contain her excitement as she talked about Parnassus, the Nashville-based independent bookstore she co-founded. It opened a whole new world for her, started a new chapter in her brain. She enthusiastically brandished a book of dog sketches, encouraging us all to pick up a copy. “Next time you go to dinner at a friend’s don’t bring them wine,” she said wisely. “Bring them a copy of Dogs as I See Them.” She went on to praise her staff for their brilliant recommendations, which she said have pushed her boundaries and exposed her to magnificent works she’d never have read otherwise. She recounted how different her trips to the grocery store were now: Whereas before she was Ann the Author, and when approached by nervous and venerating fans could only nod and listen and attempt to extricate herself as quickly and politely as possible, now she positioned herself as Ann the Bookseller and took each encounter as an opportunity to command books onto people’s nightstands.
Her passionate rhetoric on independent bookstores was pinpoint perfectly timed: Noah and I recently planned to visit a great batch of local Manhattan bookshops, and her excitement fanned our already-well-stoked flame. As she chatted, I kept thinking that we should do this more often, this going to hear authors speak. We had excellent times seeing both David Sedaris and Neil Gaiman, but there was something far more personal and touching about this small gathering with Ann. We immediately renewed our vows to go see Kevin launch his new book in 2017.
When the interview was done, everyone who wanted a personalized message next to her autograph queued on the far right side of the room. Ann signed and chatted and smiled and seemed to make everyone feel special and heard and noticed. I was nervous. What in the world would I say to Amazing Ann?
When we got to the front, I passed our book over, and asked how she was. She answered quickly, in a hurry to instead say what was really on her mind: “I have to tell you, that is a great dress. It is everything I want in a dress. That dress is my ethos.”
The encounter was going better than I could have hoped for. The dress was Noah’s favorite, and mine too. I bumblingly agreed that I also enjoyed all crotchety clothes, before proffering the Banana Republic bag in which I had housed our dinner-on-the-go. “Banana Republic.”
She looked as though the world had just been handed to her. “Are you kidding? Now?”
“I am going there and I am getting that dress. It’s so Catholic schoolgirl.”
It was too much. The conversation was too perfect. “I’m a Catholic schoolgirl!” I wailed.
She nodded knowingly. “Of course you are.”
I was flattered, in the same way I had been flattered when I was in middle school and a boy in my class told me I reminded him of Luna Lovegood. It took me years to realize he hadn’t been trying to pay me a compliment. But this, this was a compliment.
“It’s like I know you,” she added.
“I feel like I know you.” The words were out of my mouth before I could rescue myself from being creepy and clichéd. She didn’t run in the opposite direction, so I quickly explained, “Noah and I fell in love reading books and writing letters. He recommended you.”
Noah nodded. “I use your blurbs as a barometer for what to read. That’s how I came across Kevin Wilson.” Ann looked delighted.
“I associate you with Kevin Wilson,” I added.
This was a good thing to say. Her face became a Christmas tree again. “You associate me with Kevin Wilson? You associate me with Kevin Wilson? I love Kevin Wilson. And his wife.” She leaned across the table. “Do you know what Kevin Wilson named his son?”
I felt like I should, but I did not.
“Patchett,” she said triumphantly. “They call him Patch.”
This really was too much. Words failed. Noah and I were gripping hands. “I am so happy for you, and I am so jealous.”
“I am not maternal in the slightest, but Kevin Wilson is my son,” she said matter-of-factly.
I clutched my heart. Noah and I gripped hands all the tighter. I was so happy to be having this conversation.
She handed us our book. “I am going to Banana Republic tomorrow morning and getting that dress.”
As we walked away, I peeked at the inscription. “To Mary Cate and Noah. We are so related.” With our Catholic schoolgirl pasts and mutual plaid ethos, with my memories of falling in love with Noah all wrapped up in her books and Kevin’s, I couldn’t help but think that she was right.
“Ann Patchett presents Commonwealth” was an event put on by the beloved and independent Greenlight Bookstore of Brooklyn. The event was a bookend to the Brooklyn Book Festival, which will be celebrated tomorrow, Sunday the 18th, rain or shine. We’ll be there, and we simply cannot wait.