Ann Patchett on Novelists and the Sources of Empathy in Story

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Ann Patchett: I don’t like that old business about ‘the characters tell me where to go’ because I think that that makes writing into something magic. But, that said, I go very, very far in, and love these people, am these people, inhabit them. Realize that every person I write about is some aspect of myself.
Intro to Ann…
One of the great things about doing this podcast is that I get to talk with some of the most interesting people in the world all about my obsession. I think you could say that at the heart of communication is empathy — the ability to take on the perspective of another person. Novelists are especially good at this, and there are, I think, few novelists as good at it as Ann Patchett, my guest on this episode. I talked with Ann, the beloved — and award winning writer — at our studio in Manhattan.

Alan Alda: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about empathy because it seems to me empathy is at the heart of communicating and relating. And you write these amazingly engaging novels, which fit right into the theory that a lot of people have about empathy, that a good way to develop your empathy is to read novels?
Ann Patchett: I agree with that. I say that all the time, because it really is putting you into someone else’s skin, in a way that non-fiction and history doesn’t always do. That, I think, with fiction, you have a more empathetic experience: it’s almost like acting; you’re going into the character, you’re going into the character’s life when you’re reading or when you’re writing.
Alan Alda: You kind of have to … I imagine you kind of have to allow the reader to take on the perspective of the character, otherwise not only is empathy not going to happen, they’re not going to be very interested in the story. Does that follow what you think?
Ann Patchett: Well, the thing is, you want the reader to have empathy for many different characters, maybe even all the characters, so they’re not necessarily going to be getting into the point of view of all the characters. I don’t know, there’s an interesting way in which empathy is also a real weakness of mine, because I think that my biggest flaw as a writer is my inability to write villains. Because I … It’s really true-
Alan Alda: Really? Why is that?
Ann Patchett: Because I empathize. Because I have characters who I think are going to be the villains and then as I’m writing them and really thinking about their life, I always wind up having a softness or a sympathy no matter how bad they are.
Alan Alda: Well it’s interesting because that completely parallels my challenge when I’m playing a villain, as an actor, and I don’t have a problem with it, I just try to see the world from the villain’s point of view, and I want what the villain wants, I want what he wants. And I don’t feel I’m really ready to play it until I not only know that I want what he wants, but I feel I’m entitled to get it.
Ann Patchett: Wow! Wow that’s good. But do you wind up having sympathy for the villain? Do you wind up thinking “Well, you know, his mother was awful to him,” or “It was because he didn’t have friends in college, that’s why he turned out to be so villainous?”
Alan Alda: I might. I might have those thoughts but my reaction, as the person, as the villain would be “So, dammit, I’m entitled to get what I want. Look at the mother I had.” You know?
Ann Patchett: Okay. Alright. Yeah.
Alan Alda: It doesn’t make me hold back in any way. It just makes me revel in being able to do things they won’t let me do in real life, like kill people, steal their money.
Ann Patchett: But I think that actually means, in all seriousness, that you’re a better actor than I am a writer.
Alan Alda: No. No. No.
Ann Patchett: No really, hear me out, because I do think that what happens, with me, is I become too sympathetic and I lose my edge because I am treating my villain tenderly. And often I’ll write a book and I’ll think, “Okay now, I really have a villain in this one.” And I’ll go out on book tour and people will come up and they’ll say “Oh that character. Oh that was my favorite. He was the one I loved.”
Alan Alda: As a writer said, a few decades ago, “The snake has the best lines.”
Ann Patchett: That’s good. I like that.
Alan Alda: So people do tend to like them, because the villain … I mean I was kidding before when I said they won’t let me kill people in real life, but everybody has murderous feelings, and if they’re reading a character who convincingly gets away with it, I think they, kind of, are drawn to it a little bit. Not that they want to emulate the behavior, but if you can be convinced of it, it’s kind of freeing.
Ann Patchett: Yeah. I think that that’s really true. I just don’t ever get that far. I mean my idea of … not even my idea of villainy, but the manifestation of villainy in my books has more to do with a woman who just bluntly speaks her mind.
Alan Alda: That’s not much of … that’s heroic!
Ann Patchett: That’s as far as I seem to get. Someone who’s manners lapse from time to time.
Alan Alda: Right. The wrong fork at dinner!
Ann Patchett: That’s right. Watch me go.
Alan Alda: But you know you raise an interesting question about empathy. I try to make a distinction, I don’t know if you agree with this, between empathy and compassion. I don’t think empathy necessarily leads to compassion, because if empathy is simply understanding what your point of view is, where you’re coming from, and what you’re going through, what you’re feeling, that doesn’t mean I automatically have your best interests at heart and feel your pain in a way that makes me want to alleviate your pain. Because there are interrogators who know exactly what you’re going through and use it against you. There are salesman who do the same thing. There are politicians who do that.
Ann Patchett: Yes. I think that’s very true. I don’t think that when I’m writing I sit down and make those distinctions though.
Alan Alda: You just get drawn into sympathy.
Ann Patchett: I just get pulled into it.
Years and years ago, I read the Joyce Carol Oates novel called ‘Blonde’ which was about Marilyn Monroe. And I reviewed it; I never review books. I haven’t reviewed a book in 15 years, and back then I did, maybe, once every two years. So I only read this book because I was reviewing it. I think it was eight or nine hundred pages from the point of view of Marilyn Monroe. And, I, actually … It’s a kind of novel that I hate, when someone takes a real person and then writes a fictionalized account of their life. So if I’m going to read an 800 page book about Marilyn Monroe, I’d rather read a biography than I would a novel that was making creative assumptions and leaps.
But it was an amazing experience because I truly felt, by the end, that I had been stuffed into that dress and those shoes, and I was having to look at the world through those false eyelashes. I really realized the power that fiction has in putting a person into someone else’s skin. And it was empathetic, and I don’t know that it was compassionate because I don’t know that I felt tenderly, necessarily, towards her in the end.
Alan Alda: Yeah. Well she appropriated the public figure of the cartoon of Marilyn Monroe, but then filled it with her own humanity, it sounds like?
Ann Patchett: It was a very, very harsh book, but an interesting experience and a sort of a fork in the road, artistically, for me, where I saw the power of really putting the reader into a character.
Alan Alda: How far do you go with the characters? So many writers say “The characters tell me where the story is going.” It sounds to me like you know what the story’s going to be and the characters don’t talk back to you, is that …?
Ann Patchett: That’s true. I don’t like that whole business about ‘the characters tell me where to go’ because I think that that makes writing into something magic, and magic excludes people. That means you either have the magic, you either have the ability to hear voices in your head, or you don’t. If you learn how to write, and how to do the work, and you treat it like a job, then it is available to everyone. So I’m a big believer in dispelling that particular myth. But, that said, I go very, very far in, and love these people, am these people, inhabit them. Realize that every person I write about is some aspect of myself.


Alan Alda: My problem with novels, mostly, is that I get so much connection with reality when I read non-fiction that when I read a novel, a good deal of the time, I get frustrated because you can just tell they’re making it up.
Ann Patchett: Oh. Yeah. You don’t want to have that feeling.
Alan Alda: No. And I don’t get that with your … your scenes are convincing. I believe they happened to somebody, someone, sometime, or could easily. They’re plausible.
Ann Patchett: You know part of the trick, for me, is I do my research after I’m finished writing the book.
Alan Alda: What!
Ann Patchett: Yes.
Alan Alda: What … how does that work?
Ann Patchett: It works really well. Write it wrong. For example, in my first novel, Patron Saint of Liars, there is a scene in which there are two young marine recruits at Paris Island, right after Pearl Harbor, in training, and they’re horsing around and one of them accidentally shoots the other one. I wrote that scene when I was, probably, 26 or 27 years old, and I knew nothing about anything that was going on in that scene. I didn’t know about Paris Island; I didn’t know about marines; I didn’t … I knew a little bit about guns. I mean the whole thing, I made it up.
And then, at the end, I went back and I did my research. I find that … And, actually, I got an awful lot of it right. Because if you do the research first, you learn a bunch a facts, and then you’re very proud of yourself and you want to put the facts in, to show people that you did your homework. You want to work a really interesting fact, in, that has no business being in there, and you get completely misled from the emotion of the scene and from the characters. Also the only thing research teaches you is how much more research you have to do.
Alan Alda: I know. At a certain point you have to say “I’m just going to glide through with my intuition on this.”
Ann Patchett: Yeah. But, of course, for acting, that’s got to be completely different. You have to do your research up front?
Alan Alda: I don’t know, not always. It really … I approach … I’m a true amateur I think. I approach every acting job with the challenge of creating a whole new system of acting, whole method, pretty much. Because there’s a different kind of problem, each time, if you’re playing a real person who once lived. I played a character in the picture called The Aviator and I wanted-
Ann Patchett: That’s what I was just thinking about-
Alan Alda: He was a real senator and they had said to me, ” You’re perfect for this part. No one can play this except you.” And then they showed me a picture of me: it was the ugliest person I had ever seen in my life. And then I found out more about it, it was even uglier as a person. That was a case of figuring out why I was entitled to get what he wanted, which was the destruction of Howard Hughes. And it seemed perfectly reasonable to me, at a certain point, and at that point I didn’t need to do any more research because I had the force and the energy that he had.
Ann Patchett: What I remember about that … your part in that movie, I remember the fish.
Alan Alda: Oh the fish.
Ann Patchett: The fish.
Alan Alda: When I offer him fish.
Ann Patchett: Of the whole movie, those fish are what stick in my mind. That was a great scene.
Alan Alda: I love that scene. And I improvised a line in that scene where I say to him “We just beat … You want to go to war against the Government? We just beat Germany in Japan. Who the hell are you?” And they kept it in the movie. And it reminded me of when I was a young actor, I used to improvise lines in rehearsal that would wind up in the play, and it gave me confidence about [00:12:30] being a writer, because I’d always wanted to be a writer.
Ann Patchett: How does work? If you improvise a great line in the play and then later on they publish the play, do they put your great line in there? Not that you’d get credit, but-
Alan Alda: No. They tend to because, I have to say, they’re pretty good lines!
But what interests me about you and improvisation is I find you so improvisational and able to go in any direction in an interview. You’ve interviewed me, I’ve interviewed you: it’s as though you’re comfortable in an improvisatory path. Do you write that way? How much improvisation is in your writing? How much is thought out in advance?
Ann Patchett: Well it all depends on how you look at it. It depends on how you do the math. There’s a way in which everything is planned out. I am on Page 174 of a book that I’m writing. It has three sections: every section will have a 100 pages, and when I go back and finish up, at the end, probably every section will get about 10 pages long, because I will do things like put leaves on the trees and the sun in the sky: those things, the little details, the color of the sweater, I never put those things in the first time.
Alan Alda: Oh that’s interesting. Why do you wait?
Ann Patchett: Well just because I get very intense and focused, I don’t put it in the ‘niceties’ the ‘fripperies’. So I know exactly what’s going to happen in this book. I feel like a difference between what I’m doing, sometimes, and what other people are doing, I don’t think that I am a particularly interesting writer, sentence to sentence. Now that I own a bookstore I read all of this contemporary writing, everything I read is what’s going to come out six months from now. And I get so excited about books that I’m reading, novels, and the writing is amazing, and the characters are great, the ideas are huge, and it goes nowhere, because the person knows how to write, but they don’t know to write a novel.
Alan Alda: They don’t tell a story?
Ann Patchett: They don’t tell a story. Which is a very old fashioned concept: plot is out of fashion.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
Ann Patchett: But I love plot.
Alan Alda: When I read a book that’s just an unraveling of the writer’s imagination, and I’m treated to one imagination … one example of imagination after another, and I’m not … if I’m not led along by story, I lose interest.
But I wanted to read this wonderful passage. You were talking about, a moment, the words really struck me. It’s in Bel Canto when the guy sits down at the piano, and if you didn’t read the whole book, if this all you read, you’d be struck by the immediacy of it and the poetry of plain talk: it’s not poetic but it hits you like poetry does. It does me, anyway:
“He could imagine them sleeping. He sat down at the piano to play and thought about his family. He could imagine them sleeping and he put that into the nocturne. His son’s steady breathing; his wife clutching her pillow with one hand: all of the tenderness he felt for them, went into the keys. He touched them as if he meant not to wake them.”
That’s great stuff.
Ann Patchett: That’s nice. And, you know, I have zero memory of that.
Alan Alda: No kidding?
Ann Patchett: You could have said, I want to read you this passage from Moby Dick, and I would have said “Wow! That’s really lovely.”
Alan Alda: Well I’m glad you like it. I wrote it!
Ann Patchett: Good … good job Alan!
Alan Alda: I mean I’m so struck by the evocation of a state of mind in pure words. But to me it’s like reading non-fiction, because it is the exact experience. But you can’t convey that in non-fiction the way you did through the really smart use of words.
Ann Patchett: Well thanks.
When we come back… Ann talks about whether most men prefer fiction or non-fiction. And it turns out I’m a real man.
Right after this.
This is Clear and Vivid. I’m Alan Alda. Now back to my conversation with Ann Patchett.
Alan Alda: Do you find when people come into your bookstore, which is called Parnassus?
Ann Patchett: Yes-
Alan Alda: … and when they come into your bookstore do the women mainly buy the novels?
Ann Patchett: It’s not just my bookstore. It’s everybody’s bookstore. Something like 80% of all fiction is purchased women, and in our store the fiction is on the left and the door is on the left, so when you come in you come in straight into fiction. The non-fiction is on the right. And couples come in and they just divide all day long: the women go left to the fiction and the men go right to the non-fiction. I don’t know what that’s about. I’ve had men say to me, so often “Well I don’t want to waste my time reading things that aren’t true. If I have time to read I want to read something that’s going to teach me, something that’s going to be true.” Whereas women say “I want to be taken over by a story. I want to be swept away. I want to be taken out of my life.”
Alan Alda: And there is, I think, a lot of research that indicates that women tend to have more talent in the area of empathy than most men do, on average; there are some men, of course, you know, and some women who are outliers and don’t confirm to any stereotype. But is that your impression, too, that women tend to be more empathic?
Ann Patchett: I think so. And I think that men tend to be more analytical. Again, “How am I using my time? I want to use my time to learn. I’m not going to learn from a story.”
Alan Alda: I want to have fun. I want life. This show is called ‘Clear and Vivid’ and the ‘vivid’ part is important. It’s not just enough to be ‘clear’ it seems to me. It has to be alive. I have to know that life is taking place otherwise I’m not going to remember it, I’m not going to let it in. And that’s what you do: I love that.
Do you think you can teach a writer to write? Can you help a writer be better? I know you make the attempt. Are you successful at it? How do you do it?
Ann Patchett: Well I don’t teach. I mean, I have, but it’s been a mighty long time ago and I didn’t do much of it. I can teach anyone how to be a better writer, yes I can. I can-
Alan Alda: How do you do it? Because it’s one of the hardest things I’ve tried in my life, when I produced a television show: had the hardest time getting them to write it at their best level.
Ann Patchett: Well it’s a trick answer. I can teach anyone how to be a better writer. I can show you how to take out the extra words. I can show you how to do dialog. I can show you the importance of plot. What I can’t teach you is how to have something to say. I cannot teach you how to have compassion, or an interest in mankind, or the ability to listen carefully and be engaged: that seems unteachable.
I had a teacher in college, Grace Paley, who I adored. She was the only person I’ve ever met, in the world, who actually tried to teach people how to be better people in order to write.
Alan Alda: How did she do it?
Ann Patchett: She took us to a lot of protest marches.
Alan Alda: Oh really?
Ann Patchett: U.S.A., C.I.A, out of Grenada. That way my college experience in writing.
But this idea, constantly, of what’s important. If your story was up for workshop and she was supposed to mark it up and discuss it in class but she, instead, went and worked at the homeless shelter the night before and didn’t get to marking up your story, well that’s the way it was because there were things in life that were important than your story.
And that was the lesson and we were grumpy as “Oh get out,” and hurt feelings. But her lesson, over and over again, is “Your art comes from your community. You must attend to your community ceaselessly.” That there was a single voice in which people spoke. You could not be a mother in one voice, and a friend in another, and an artist in another: you were only one person. So you were only as good, as valuable, as what you were putting out in all these different areas of your life. That was person who was teaching me how to write.
Alan Alda: That’s really an interesting idea.
What we do with the Center for Communicating Science, interestingly, is help scientists and doctors communicate in a more personal way, in a more clear and vivid way, by starting with improvisation, so that they learn through the improvisational exercises what it’s like to connect more deeply to one other person looking them in the eye, taking cues from their face, from their tone of voice, and responding to that rather than responding to some thought in their head. So that the communication is not a one way street; me telling you stuff; it’s me responding to you, knowing whether you’re getting it or not, and that [00:24:30] kind of thing. And that’s similar to what you’re talking about, because the attention is on the other person, not on you.
Ann Patchett: So I want to tell you a story. So I interviewed you when your last book came out, a little less than a year ago, in Nashville, and ever since then I have conducted all of my interviews in what I call “The Alda Method.”
Alan Alda: What’s that?
Ann Patchett: So I interview people a lot. There are a lot of writers who say “I’ll come to the bookstore, only, if Ann will interview me.” So this happens, and I’m on stage interviewing people, often. I still read all the material and I still make my notes, and I write down my questions, and then I leave them and I don’t bring them on stage with me. So I have ideas about what I’m interested in, it’s not that I haven’t done my homework, but I am no longer holding the note cards, asking a question, waiting for you to finish answering, and then asking you another question. You really have completely changed my understanding of how to do an interview and you’ve made me much better.
Ann Patchett: So the key, for me, is to not bring the paper onto the stage. I can be in the Green Room and look over it one last time, because I do have this old Catholic school girl thing of ‘being prepared’. I want to make sure that I’m prepared. I want to be the best possible host when I’m interviewing someone. So it’s scary for me to leave the questions back there.
Alan Alda: Well I agree with you that it’s helpful to write down what your thoughts are. It helps you focus.
Ann Patchett: Sure.
Alan Alda: This is the person I’m going to be talking to. But then when you talk to them, then I think it’s really important to talk to them and not talk to the piece of paper in your pocket.
Ann Patchett: Yes. Yes. I interviewed Tom Hanks, in D.C., back in the fall, and I did that; I read his book, I wrote my questions down, I left … and we were standing backstage being introduced, you know that moment when you’re behind the curtain and the introduction is going on and on and on, and I turned around and I said “So I do this the Alan Alda method. I don’t have any questions for you, we’re just going to wing it.” And he said “Oh that’s brilliant.” Then we get on stage and he says “She’s completely unprepared. She has no questions for me.”
And it was such a funny interview because right before we went on, he said to the people who were hosting, they said ” Wrap it up in 45 minutes or an hour and that’s what we do.” And he said “Well what if we’re having fun?” And the woman said “Well we’ve paid for the theater for the whole night, if you’re having fun you can stay as long as want.” And so, after an hour, I said “How are you? Do you want to keep going?” And he said “No. I’m still having fun.” We stayed on stage for two hours-
Alan Alda: Oh my God. That’s amazing-
Ann Patchett: … just talking.
Alan Alda: And, you know, I’m sure that wouldn’t have happened if you had 10 questions that you’d stuck with.
Ann Patchett: You’re absolutely right. I hadn’t thought about [00:29:30] it in that way, but that is exactly right. If I had come out with an agenda, part of the agenda would’ve been to wrap it up at 8 o’clock.
Alan Alda: Right.
Ann Patchett: But those people who came into the theater that night got an amazing show, because we didn’t have any idea where we were going, and it was improv.
Alan Alda: Yeah. Yeah. And it brings … one of the things improv does, and probably why you had such a good experience with Tom that night, was that improv brings out who you [00:30:00] really are; the vulnerable you. You’re usually not putting out the ‘you’ that you reserve for company. This is the family ‘you’. This is the ‘you’ that has always been you since you were eight years old. That comes out in improv and that’s the most attractive part of you, it’s the most human part of you. It’s more possible to have fun with two ‘yous’ there than two ‘special strangers’.
Ann Patchett: But boy is it easier to do it with somebody who’s been trained in improv-
Alan Alda: Yeah, that’s true.-
Ann Patchett: … which Tom Hanks had a big, big background in improv.
Alan Alda: Was he with The Second City, or with one of those improv companies, do you know?
Ann Patchett: No. No. He was, like, Community College in Los Angeles. I mean really rock bottom little improv groups in classrooms and no audience. But that was his training, that’s where he came from.
Alan Alda: I really think, eventually, improv will have contributed so much to the culture without people really know it. So many fine actors have an improvisational background. And the way acting is taught is so different, but the way it filters out into the rest of the culture is sort of under the radar, but there are a lot of companies that teach improvisation to make people in business, in banks, other kinds of companies, better at relating to one another, and it helps the company.
Ann Patchett: But there are people who don’t get it. One interview that I did and I actually will say the person’s name, it was just a disaster, and someone I like tremendously and respect: Chelsea Clinton. I interviewed Chelsea Clinton on stage. It was like playing badminton by yourself. I just … I kept lobbing the birds over the net, but it wasn’t the ones she was expecting. She had come with 10 answers.
Alan Alda: I know what that’s like.
Ann Patchett: Ah! Ah!
Alan Alda: That’s so hard.
Ann Patchett: And that’s really hard. Lovely before we went on stage, lovely when we got off, but on stage she had a message and she just wanted to get her message across, and I think politicians are the very hardest people to play ball with.
Alan Alda: I think you’re right. I think that they, probably, are constantly afraid that if they let the real ‘them’ slip out it won’t be the ‘them’ that’ll get votes.
Ann Patchett: Right. It hasn’t been the ‘vetted’ them. The ‘approved’ them. So you should get a politician to do one of these?
Alan Alda: I shrink from that at the moment. Eventually, we will, because it’s part of lives and it’s part of how are lives are affected by communication, and we’re going to have to deal with that at a certain point. I don’t want to be political, that’s the thing, I want to try to find somebody to talk with me about what the process is like without needing to make political points. I’m sure such a person exists somewhere. If not on this planet, maybe, another one!
How does all this affect you? You wrote a book, what’s the title of it, ‘The Story of a Happy Marriage’?
Ann Patchett: Yeah. ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’.
Alan Alda: Are all the things that you know about empathy and being so evocative about people’s feelings, in your book, and that kind of … does that all play out in ‘A Happy Marriage’?
Ann Patchett: I’m not sure I can make that leap. So last night I went out with Jenny Koh-
Alan Alda: Yeah, the violinist.
Ann Patchett: The violinist.
Alan Alda: Wonderful violinist.
Ann Patchett: A wonderful violinist who has become a good friend. And she said, and this is answering your question in a roundabout way, she said something so interesting, she said “I used to think that love was a thing that you got. I got love, here, now, we have this thing and we can both hold onto it.” She said “Now I think love is an action. I think love is a habit and an effort and a decision, and that it’s all active and moving forward. Instead of, okay, you know, I have love I have this thing, it’s this thing that you have to live with and take care of.” And, certainly, that’s a lot about empathy and compassion.
I was telling the story to Karl, my husband, this morning, and I said “So love isn’t a dog that you just get but then you don’t ever feed it, or walk it, or take care of it. You have to treat it as this living thing that you take care of all the time.” And, of course, I guess we all know that, but sometimes someone just says it to you in a way that makes you stop and think about it again.
Alan Alda: That’s great.You know, I’m having as much fun as you and Tom had, and we could go on for hours more. Let’s stop for now and pick it up the next time we get together and talk.
But first, I don’t know if you know we do these seven quick questions at the end where … are you game for this-
Ann Patchett: Sure, yes-
Alan Alda: … seven quick answers?
Ann Patchett: Alright.
Alan Alda: Something fun may come of it.
Number One: what do you wish you really understood?
Ann Patchett: Wow, Alan. How many hours do you have? Okay. The first thing that pops into my mind is physics, because we just had a house guest who was a physicist. I’ll stick with that: physics.
Alan Alda: That’s it. It comes up more than once. That’s interesting.
Ann Patchett: My second answer was God, so please go ahead.
Alan Alda: Well they may be the same thing, you never know?
Ann Patchett: Right. After physics. Exactly.
Alan Alda: So Number Two is: what do you wish other people understood about you?
Ann Patchett: That I would like to be alone.
Alan Alda: That came so good and fast.
Three: what’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Ann Patchett: I once was giving a talk and someone stood up and said “Do you write your novels in order to praise God?” That was really a tough one. I mean I think that was really the only time I was ever asked a question when I was on stage that I had to stand there and say “Uh?” And my answer was “Three days a week.”
Alan Alda: Three days … the other four days you write to please yourself?
Ann Patchett: Exactly.
Alan Alda: Okay. Well that’s interesting.
So, this is … I’m always interested in this. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Ann Patchett: Boy, that is an interesting one, and I’ve had a lot of experience with it, in a lot of different roles. If someone is compulsively talking to me, as an author, or they’re talking at an event where there’s another writer, and I’m the person who’s supposed to shut it down, for the most part …. and I’ve seen so many different writers handle this, I don’t try anymore. What I try to do is pay attention. What I try to do is think “What if there’s a lesson here for me and I’m trying to shut it down?” So it’s kind of like walking into the wave. Just say “This is happening. This is going to happen and there really might be something in this for me to learn.”
Alan Alda: That’s so interesting to me. I’ve written about that. That, to me, is the secret of talking to somebody. What is there in what they’re saying that might change me for the better?
Ann Patchett: Right.
Alan Alda: No matter how cockeyed it is, or disconnected it seems, something under it may be beneficial to me.
Ann Patchett: And it’s an opportunity to love someone. That kind of really heroic, when someone’s coming at you and they’re crazy or they’re boring or they’re whatever they are, and just to think “How can I love you?”
Alan Alda: That’s great. That’s that active concept of love again.
Ann Patchett: Yeah.
Alan Alda: Okay. Well these are supposed to go quickly-
Ann Patchett: Okay, crack on-
Alan Alda: … but they always come out so interestingly, the answers, that I want to linger over them.
So, is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Ann Patchett: Oh gosh! Sure. My father was one of the arresting officers for Charles Manson.
Alan Alda: Oh my God! Really?
Ann Patchett: I have no empathy-
Alan Alda: Wow!-
Ann Patchett: No compassion. Zero. Which doesn’t mean that I believe in capital punishment, but, you know.
Alan Alda: How do you like to deliver bad news? In person? On the phone? Or by carrier pigeon?
Ann Patchett: It depends on what the bad news is and how bad it is. I think that basically bad news should be given quickly and succinctly, but there is some news that you absolutely have to give in person.
Alan Alda: Okay. The last question: what, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Ann Patchett: Someone who tried to get between me and my husband. I once ended a friendship, a long time ago, with someone who was a friend of both of ours, who called my husband and said “You don’t want to be with her. She’s bad news.” And then later apologized to me. And I said “No. That’s a deal breaker.”
Alan Alda: Wow!
Ann Patchett: Yeah.
Alan Alda: Boy. You’re full of stories.
Ann Patchett: I know. That’s my profession!
Alan Alda: Thank you so much Ann.
Ann Patchett: Thank you Alan. This was great fun.
Alan Alda: It sure was.
This has been Clear+Vivid, at least I hope so.
Ann Patchett and her husband, Dr. Karl VanDerVender, who I’ll be interviewing in an upcoming episode about doctor patient empathy, are dear friends of mine. If you’re in Nashville, please visit Ann’s bookstore, it’s called Parnassus Books. You can find all the details about Ann, Parnassus, and her newest book, which is titled, “Commonwealth” on her web site at:
Ann’s best selling book “Bel Canto” is being made into a film starring Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe. Renee Fleming, lends her voice to film. I interviewed Renee in an earlier episode and, if you haven’t heard that conversation you might want to go back and check it out — she has some interesting stories about about Bel Canto and Ann.

This episode of Clear+Vivid was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, and our publicist is Sarah Hill.
I’d also like to thank John DeLore for being our in-studio sound engineer for this episode.
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Thanks for listening.

Bye bye!