‘I feel that I would have been a really good parent, but I didn’t want that ... and it’s turned out super anyway’
Commonwealth is the seventh novel from award-winning US author Ann Patchett. Emily Hourican talks to her about marriage, love, divorce and the joys of not having children
Rumour may have reached you already - if not, let me be the one to say it: Ann Patchett's Commonwealth is a remarkable book. Delicate, clever, subtle and very moving. Set across several US States and 50 years, it is a profound examination of devastating domestic upheaval, but also how the simple passing of years, the span of lives, can change the things that happen to us.
Commonwealth is Patchett's seventh novel, and she has form in quality. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. State of Wonder was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Wellcome Book Prize.
Patchett herself is just as subtle and clever as her books, but with an added, irresistible sense of the absurd that makes her conversation funny as well as wise. She looks years younger than 52, with a face that is round and clear, almost child-like.
Commonwealth starts with an illicit kiss at a party - someone's wife, someone else's husband - and from there takes off on a long journey that drags six children from two marriages into each other's orbit in a way that changes all their lives.
It is, Patchett readily admits, the most autobiographical of her novels. She was born in Los Angeles; she and her older sister moved to Tennessee when Patchett was six and her mother - a great beauty, just like Beverley in the novel - left her police officer husband, Ann's father, and remarried. They later moved many more times, enduring the gruelling back-and-forth of children of separated parents.
She is quick to point out "the people in this book are not the people in my family. But emotionally, the things that we went through, the things that we felt - the frustration and the anger and the camaraderie, those are very real emotions".
Or, as her mother put it: "None of it happened and all of it's true."
So did she find it hard to write? "I struggled with the idea of doing it, then I made up my mind to do it, and I talked to my family about it, and then it wasn't hard. What I said to them was 'I've been very careful to not write about us, but in not having access to your life, I also don't have access to my life. If I want to have access to my life - my whole brain, my whole experience - it means, by way of overlap, I'm going to touch on some things in your life as well'."
In the book, Franny, one of the main characters, has a relationship with a famous writer who hasn't written in many years. As she tells him about her childhood - the trauma of displacement, the step-siblings and strange, almost Lord Of The Flies way in which these children were thrown together - he is so struck by it that he writes a version of her story, and it becomes his finest novel. Franny, when she reads the finished work, wants to "retch".
It was, Patchett says, a way of playing out her deepest fears. "What if I hurt someone's feelings? What if I hurt someone I love? What if I am giving away something that is not mine to give away? These were all of my concerns. By putting them in the book I felt that I had neutralised them in a way."
There is, as Patchett says, "loads" of parental neglect in Commonwealth - although she is quick to point out that one of the central moments, the death of a child, is the result of something other than neglect. Initially set in the 1960s, the book moves through those decades when 'childcare' was not a hot concept. There were, she says, clear divisions between the worlds of children and adults then.
"We moved a lot as a kid, and I remember getting very upset with my mother when she said again, 'we're selling the house and we're moving', and saying to her 'if you decided to move one day while I was at school, you wouldn't even tell me until I got home', and my mother said, 'no, why would I tell you? It isn't your house'. I was horrified, it really stuck with me, but I look back on that now and I think 'way to go Mom'!"
The love affair between Beverley and Bert that signals the beginning of Commonwealth and throws their six children together, doesn't last.
They too divorce and go on to other relationships in a way that is almost casual. Everything they do negates the idea of the sacred pursuit of one truelove. This, too, is far more true of actual life, than the idea of love conquering all.
"One of the most shocking things my mother, who was married three times, ever said to me," says Patchett with a laugh, "was said very casually when she was married to her third husband. We were going through photos - and she said, 'oh, you know, I probably should have just stayed married to your father'.
"My father was her first husband. I was like 'seriously? We went through all of that and your take-away is this'? I thought, I'm really going to have to go sit in the pantry with my head between my knees…"
So is she buying this idea - that one marriage, unless there is something terribly wrong with it, is pretty much the same as another? Yes, but also no, is the answer.
"I was married for a year when I was 24, and then I got married again when I was 40, to someone I had been with for 11 years. I never saw that person I was married to for a year again. I can't imagine it would have been as good. I couldn't stand him… You build up this mythology - it had to have been really bad to justify the fact that you left.
"But there was that moment where I thought 'oh my God, maybe it is all just compromise and paying your taxes and taking the trash out?' And we can't face that, so we build all the other stuff, the soul-mate stuff, into it. Really what my mother was saying was fantastically honest."
Patchett's husband, Karl VanDevender, is a physician and 16 years older.
They were together but lived three blocks away from each other until they got married. When she says that Commonwealth is her most autobiographical novel, she singles out a particular bit, where Franny is on holiday with her famous novelist boyfriend, many years older than her, in Long Island, and they are beset by visitors.
"The really soul-crushingly autobiographical part of this book is that chapter in Amagansett," she laughs.
"That's my life. We have tons of house-guests. My husband works really hard. He gets up in the morning and he goes off.
"If I'm working my ass off, I'm working like four hours a day. So I clean the house and do all the grocery shopping and pay all the bills and do the ironing... But that feeling of having all these people in the house, and then they leave and they didn't strip the bed.
"And they're nice people, and I'm happy to have them, but it never ends. And I was trained, raised, bred, to be that person. It's my role, and I'm good at it and I'm completely invisible in it."
She and her husband have a joke that works as a kind of shorthand for all this: "People will say to him 'oh my God, what is it like to be married to Ann Patchett? Is it so thrilling? Do you have amazing conversations?' and he says he wants to say 'well, the food's good ...', because that's what I'm doing with my life it feels like half the time. And I can't get mad at anybody because it's my own fault.
"One of the reasons why I waited 11 years to marry the man who I loved, is I knew this was going to happen.
"Not because he's a bad, flawed person, but because I'm a bad, flawed person."
Her husband, she says, talks a lot about retiring, and about what he might do with his time. Patchett herself has no intention of it. "At this point in my life, writing is my job. I've got a small industry going. This isn't my artistic dream," she says.
"This is what I do. And there's a difference. When my husband talks about retiring, sometimes I'll say 'you know, if you retired, if you would take care of the business, the house, the grocery store, the dry cleaning, I could make so much more money.
"And then he says 'I think I'm going to keep working…'"
Patchett is great at owning the business side of her creative life. "I think it's time for the writers to get out of the cottage," she says. "They've been coddled and babied for a long time. The industry needs our help. We need to get more involved in the industry that supports our business."
As well as writing books, she part-owns a bookstore - Parnassus Books - in Nashville, where she lives. She doesn't work in the store, but she clearly works hard at it.
"Interviewing is the new fashion in book touring," she points out, adding mischievously. "Writers are getting lazy." So more and more big-name authors are agreeing to come to Parnassus Books, on condition that Ann interviews them. This, obviously, involves prep on her part. "Zadie Smith came, and she is a little bit smarter than God, so it's like you're sitting for your oral exams."
For years, Patchett had to put up with the kinds of questions only women who don't have children get - the endless 'will yous?', along with sly recommendations - 'you really should...' Now, she says, that is behind her, and "I just feel like I won the lottery. I feel like I listened to myself, I was true to myself."
Her parents always encouraged her not to have kids: "Both my mother and my father always applauded me wildly from the get-go for not wanting children."
And her role models were also without children. "I went to Catholic school for 12 years, I was raised by nuns, and they were career women. They took control of their lives and they made choices. And the only thing they seem to be afraid of is Thai food.
"I think that would have been a great life," she says, of having kids, "but I don't for a second believe that I could have done both. Some people can. Emma Donoghue, she has two children, but - and I don't mean this as a joke - she's a higher life form than I am. That is a more complex life form."
Patchett insists that: "I can do one thing really well. I can make dinner and keep the house clean, and write books. And that's it. I don't have the energy to have children. If I'd had children, that would have been it. I would have done it well.
"I am loaded with domestic skills and I'm very patient, and calm. I have no temper, I'm not emotional.
"I think I would have been a really good parent, but I didn't want to do that. I made a choice. And it's turned out super.
"I don't have a stressful life. I have money, I'm in great health, I love my husband, we have more than one bathroom - what else is there?"
She's joking. But only sort of.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is published by Bloomsbury, £18.99