Patchett muses about marriage and more


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When readers finish a collection of essays titled "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage," they will likely experience a newfound appreciation for Ann Patchett's depth.

The last essay, "The Mercies," is a heartfelt salute to women who chose a simple but demanding path by joining the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic order of nuns founded in Ireland. One nun, Sister Nena, taught Ms. Patchett the skills that led to her success.

"You can't put too fine a point on the fact that she taught me how to read and write" and much more, Ms. Patchett said in a telephone interview.

Behind the author who gave us "State of Wonder," "Bel Canto" and "The Magician's Assistant" stood Sister Nena, a determined lady in a blue polyester dress armed with flash cards and plenty of encouragement. Teacher and student lost touch for years, but Sister Nena called one day to ask for help.

"I realized all of the other things she taught me about modesty and humility and happiness not being how much money you have."

Ms. Patchett, who speaks Monday night at 7:30 in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall, closes the Ten Literary Evenings series at the request of her friend, Jayne Adair, who is retiring in May as the executive director of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

Besides writing, Ms. Patchett is busy promoting Parnassus Books, an independent shop that she opened 21/2 years ago in Nashville, Tenn.

Ann Patchett

Where: Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Literary Evenings at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday.4/7

Tickets: Sold out; call 412-622-8866 for wait list.

The store runs a first editions club, and members receive a book signed by its author each month. Ms. Patchett's success has helped her land signed editions that any reader would covet. She interviewed J.K. Rowling at Lincoln Center in New York City.

"We had the only signed first edition of J.K. Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy,' " the writer said, adding that the bookstore sold 300 copies of that novel when it came out in 2012.

"Those are the only 300 in the country," she said, a deep note of pride in her voice.

Parnassus Books is doing well.

"I have no idea about the down side. I'm sure if I worked there, I would feel differently. It's just a blast. I love the people who work there so much. ... It's like being able to walk into a sitcom and laughing and having smart, witty repartee and then, poof, you're gone," the author said.

Parnassus Books is not your jumbled affair with dusty piles of old volumes threatening to avalanche at any moment.

"It's sort of like Danish modern -- clean and open and crisp. It's like the ikebana bookstore," Ms. Patchett said.

The store recently received a grant from author James Patterson, who has been giving out grants to independent bookstores all over the country.

"Jim said, 'I don't care if you fix the floors. I don't care if you have a party.' His gift is the publicity. What the money buys him is the bully pulpit to go on the news and the 'Today' show and say, 'We have to start supporting independent bookstores.' " she said. "God bless Jim Patterson."

Now 50, Ms. Patchett was 21 when she was accepted at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. During the past 30 years, the number of schools that offer master's degrees in creative writing has grown exponentially.

"Nobody needs an MFA in order to write. ... What an MFA gives you is time to write and a community of people to bounce your work off of. The chance to see other people fail speeds up the working process by about 200 percent."

Her advice to aspiring writers is to wait until they obtain funding before enrolling.

"You should not go into debt for these things. If you don't get funding, apply next year. There is a free ride out there. Wait and get it," she said.

She still follows opera. She loved the elegant white outfit and earrings her good friend, Renee Fleming, wore to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

"I know she can sing the national anthem. That's like shower singing for Renee. What do you wear that is appropriate? Not a sweatshirt and jeans. I was so blown away by her outfit. She looked stunning. She fulfilled all the expectations. She just took it to such a higher level."

Recently, Ms. Patchett heard from Ms. Fleming, who was in Abu Dhabi, catching up on her email during a stay in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

"What else would you be doing in Abu Dhabi? -- shopping? Sightseeing?"

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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