What a delight, what a phenomena for so many writers who have never had such a privilege, although they may have attended dozens, even hundreds of author events! I’m talking about the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival and the finale which for all the world felt like peering in the window at a fireside chat between two old friends, who just happened to be Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Patchett.
When asked to attend our relatively small literary festival in Burnsville, NC, Kingsolver, who is famous for refusing public readings, said that if she could bring her friend Ann Patchett along, then she would come. Well, hello? Sure, bring whatever famous author/great writer you would like Ms. Kingsolver. We will be happy to have her. As Patchett said onstage, “For you this is a literary happening, for us it’s a playdate.”
The stage was set for an evening none present is likely to forget. Two comfortable wingback chairs sat on a spread of beautiful carpet. The two writerly friends came out and sans script or book simply talked to one another about what they were doing right now, their home lives, when and where and how they went about writing. They talked about developing characters—did you need to love every character in a book, even if they were villains, or not? Ann said that perhaps this was why she had such a difficult time writing villains. She loved her characters too much.
The difference in their writing processes was fascinating. Both writers said they faced down fear every time they sat before the blank page. Kingsolver told us that at some point, she would rise from her desk, stare out the window, and say to herself, “It’s okay to write a bad book this time. Nobody ever has to see it. It’s just you and the screen and your ideas here in your study alone. You can delete the whole thing if you want to, any day or everyday.” The truth of these words would free her to begin writing. And how’s that working out for you, Barbara? Most likely you’ve read the results.
Ann, with her witty and incisive descriptions, said that beginning a novel for her was like walking around Fort Knox with an emery board, trying to break in. There was Fort Knox (her great idea) and here was the emery board (her pen, perhaps) and she would just circle and circle until she found the place where her tool would gain her the access she needed to begin. She decided to become part owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville, TN, because she says it grounds her in everyday life and has the added effect of inspiring her to write better books. (Is this even possible?)
The difference in their writing styles was fascinating and, strangely enough, something they had never talked about despite their shared history. It was fun to see two authors surprise one another on stage. Kingsolver writes and writes and deletes and deletes in a style with which I am most familiar. Then there’s the editing process which she loves. Me, not so much. This makes her incredibly prolific and able to reap large novels in a single bound…edition.
On the other hand, Patchett writes like the old masters; one great sentence at a time. She does not revise by draft, but as in the olden days of typewriters, creates a completed page, sentence building on sentence, before moving on to the next page. This style makes for compressed and eloquent work, if you’re pretty much a genius, anyway. It would be more difficult for me, but I sure would love to give up the revision. To me, Patchett’s style indicates her vision is complete from the beginning and what she is doing as she writes is creating the reality, one word at a time. Wow!
I learned so much from them in that brief hour. I could have listened to them for days. Actually, it seemed like I had. Without a tape recorder, or even a camera, I gleaned as much as I could from the two of them and their often hilarious repartee back and forth from wingback to wingback; two friends simply discussing their writing. Beautiful.
*Note: Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible will be coming out as a movie before too long—she has been working on the screenplay. And Patchett is in the final pages of a new book. I can barely wait.
(Kingsolver & Patchett – photo by Michele M. Williams)