The title essay of Ann Patchett's latest book, This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage, isn't exactly what it sounds like. It's actually the story of an unhappy marriage that ends quickly in divorce and results in a strongly defended refusal to marry that lasts many years. But eventually, it does lead to the happy marriage.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan describes the essay as "a spirited contribution to the larger story of romantic relationships that aren't, well 'romantic' in the swooning ways we're used to reading about or seeing in movies." She adds:
"Patchett's down-to-earthness also sets the tone for her essays on the easily sentimentalized subject of caregiving: She writes here about tending to her beloved dog, an elderly nun friend and her 90-something-year-old grandmother. That particular essay, called 'Love Sustained,' is a must-read for anyone in the draining role of caregiver."
In the book's introduction, Patchett describes her essays as "made from the things that were at hand — writing and love, work and loss. I may have roamed in my fiction, but this work tends to reflect a life lived close to home."
Patchett tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about her experience of getting married and divorced young, and how it changed her.
On getting married at 24 and knowing it was wrong
You're in a relationship and you know it's not right and you just think, "It's too late, we've been together too long. Oh, we're living together; how would I get another apartment? Oh, we got engaged; how could I break it off? Oh, the invitations have been mailed." And the fact is, there comes a day when you gotta go. And you go and you look back and you think, "It would've been so much kinder if I had gone when I knew I was supposed to go instead of lying to myself and thinking it might work out and staying too long."
On how she approached her next serious relationship differently
Getting out of that marriage when I was 25 was so hard. I really had that sort of Scarlett O'Hara as-God-is-my-witness-I-will-never-be-hungry-again: I will never get trapped; I will always know the location of all emergency exits at every moment.
And so I thought, "You know what? This is going to have to work on my terms, which [are]: I want to live alone, and I'll be true, I'll be faithful, I'll see you every day, we'll have dinner together every night, but I don't want to get married and I don't want to live together." It just made perfect sense. And I kept saying, "But relationships don't all have to go the same way." And I really believe that. Every relationship doesn't have to follow the same formula. ...
It was good, I loved it. It was genius. And there were times where Karl and I, in that 11 years, would have problems and I would think, "It's so much better to have a fight and say, 'I want to go home,' instead of have a fight and say, 'I don't want to live with you anymore.' " I mean it really gave us both a tremendous amount of space. Karl needed time to get over being divorced and I needed time because I had psychological problems and didn't want to live with anybody ever again, and it really gave us a very healthy, solid foundation for what is now our marriage.
On how things changed when, after 11 years, they finally got married and moved in together
It changed in two big ways. One was that after we got married, Karl loved me more and that was amazing. There was something about getting married that allowed Karl to say, "OK ... I've been holding out on you. There's like a secret storeroom of extra love, but because we weren't married I was always afraid that you were going to leave." And so that was a wonderful bonus. He was just relaxed because he always really wanted to get married.
The other thing that was fantastic about being married is that we didn't have to talk about it anymore, and we had been talking about it for 11 years — not just with one another but with everyone. ... Everyone had an opinion about our relationship. ... The day that we got married, all of that noise just went away and it was like 80 percent of our conversational life opened up to other topics. It was fantastic.
On taking care of her grandmother in her final years
It all goes back to love. You just roll up your sleeves and you do the job that's in front of you and that's what people do. And you know what? It's easy for me to say this now that I'm years on the other side of it, but it's a privilege to see someone through that time in their life. And the trick of it is to love them for who they are that day, to never look at that person and think, "I remember when you were my grandmother and you used to knit me sweaters and make me dumplings and wash my hair. I remember when you did all of these things and I'm mad that you can't do all of these things for me anymore."
If you can let all of that go and just be in the moment with that person and love them for who they are and what they're capable of that day, it can be pretty great even as it is incredibly hard.
On bookstores like the one she opened in Nashville, Tenn.
Bookstores — and I think this is true for so many writers and, obviously, all readers — they're home. It's the place that you go and you feel comfortable. I never go into a bookstore and feel like, "Oh, I have to buy something." It's not like a dress store where someone is watching me and I think, "Oh, I've tried on 20 things I really need to buy something."
You can pick up 20 books and you can talk to the booksellers for two hours; you can just sit in a chair and read. It's not about "I'm going to buy a book," although, yes, I hope everybody goes into their bookstores and buys books. ...
I'm never lonely when I'm around books. It's the world of endless possibility and opportunity to be in that building full of books.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The title essay of my guest Ann Patchett's latest book "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage" isn't exactly what the title suggests. It's the story of an unhappy marriage that ends quickly in divorce, results in a strongly defended refusal to marry that lasts many years, but eventually leads to the happy marriage.
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan described the essay as, quote, "a spirited contribution to the larger story of romantic relationships that aren't, well, romantic in the swooning ways we're used to reading about or seeing in movies" unquote. Maureen adds: "Patchett's down to earthiness also sets the tone for her essays on the easily sentimentalized subject of caregiving. She writes here about tending to her beloved dog, an elderly nun friend, and a 90-something year old grandmother.
"That particular essay, called "Love Sustained" is a must-read for anyone in the draining role of caregiver," unquote. Patchett describes her essays as made from the things that were at hand - writing in love, work, and loss. She says she may have roamed in her fiction but this work tends to reflect a life lived close to home. Patchett's novels include "Bel-Canto" and "State of Wonder."
She's also known as the co-owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville which opened in 2011 after the city's two bookstores closed. Ann Patchett, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thoroughly enjoyed your book of essays. Thank you for being here.
ANN PATCHETT: I'm so glad to be here.
GROSS: One of your essays is about how you got your start writing for women's magazines, including the teen magazine Seventeen. And, you know, fashion magazines are always filled with, like, advice columns and lots of pictures of fashion, which is really what people buy them for. And so writing for those magazines you write you didn't think of writing as the art. You thought of that writing as the writing that you would do that would pay for the art.
That would pay for you to do the novels that you were writing. But how did those magazines shape you as a writer?
PATCHETT: They taught me how to work. And at this point in my life, it is so much all about work and knowing how I work and knowing what I have to do. I feel so far away from creativity and inspiration and the muse. It's just am I going to be able to sit down and work. And that was the lesson from magazines, and especially in those early days at Seventeen. You know, they needed a piece, it needed to be 600 words.
They needed it on Thursday. That is not an inspiration-driven event. You just sit down and you do it.
GROSS: And you write that it was great to write and not be that invested. I mean, you were writing to suit your editors.
GROSS: But I was thinking it might have been liberating to know that probably your friends weren't reading Seventeen magazine. Maybe you hadn't even read Seventeen magazine.
PATCHETT: Oh, I did.
GROSS: Did you?
PATCHETT: Yeah, I did. Oh, yeah. I loved Seventeen magazine. And all those magazines, you know, happen too early. So you read Seventeen when you're 13.
GROSS: Exactly. Right.
PATCHETT: You wouldn't be caught dead reading Seventeen when you're 17.
GROSS: Exactly. But did you have the sense that you weren't going to be judged by your peers because they weren't 13?
PATCHETT: No. You know, my peers not only weren't judging me, they really wanted my job. My peers thought that it was fantastic back when I was in my 20s that I was writing for Seventeen because we were all looking for the same thing. We were all looking for a way to make money and to support ourselves. So they thought it was terrific. I never had any procrastination issues and a lot of my writer friends had procrastination issues, deadline issues, and they were really tortured by magazine writing.
So I think for the most part they really admired the fact that I could just kind of get in there workman-like, knock it out, and go home and go back to fiction.
GROSS: I'd like you to read an excerpt of the title essay from your book, "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage." And it's about your second marriage. Your first lasted less than a year. And you write about, like, the history of divorce in your family. Like you had a divorce, your parents divorced, your mother divorced again and remarried. Your grandparents divorced, your great-grandparents divorced.
PATCHETT: We were really good at it.
GROSS: So this is an excerpt about after your parents separated and your mother followed her boyfriend to Nashville. So you and your sister went to Nashville too.
PATCHETT: (Reading) One night, my mother and Mike came home from dinner and announced that they were married which, much to our horror, seemed to mean that he wasn't going home. Several months later I came in from playing to find a boy a few years older than I was in the kitchen. I told him to get out of my house and then he told me to get out of his house. That is how I discovered I had four step-siblings.
(Reading) And that was how my step-brother, Mikey, discovered his father had remarried. I can only assume those books about how to discuss divorce and remarriage with your children had not yet been written or that no one in this time-strapped, cash-strapped family consisting now of six children, had the resources to go to the bookstore.
GROSS: I can't believe you found out that way.
PATCHETT: Yeah. Well, and you know, as weird as it was for me it was so much worse for my step-siblings because they didn't know that their dad had remarried. I mean, they got off the plane, they went in the house, and nobody had told them.
GROSS: You know, you write in your book that a lot of writers feel like they have one story that they tell over and over in different forms.
GROSS: And that your one story is the story of a group of strangers who are thrown together. And I was wondering if that comes from your mother's remarriage and suddenly living with this other family.
PATCHETT: Yeah. I think that if I stopped writing and buckled down and went into therapy I would find that that's what it was really all about for me. You know, I come back to the "Magic Mountain" and "The Lord of the Flies" and "The Poseidon Adventure" and all of those stories in which a group of people are thrown together and everything changes and they have to figure out how to be in a society.
But probably it does have to do with the idea of being in one family and then waking up and being in an entirely different family and learning on the fly.
GROSS: Now, you got married for the first time when you were 24. It lasted less than a year. And you write that you knew it was wrong but that you did it anyways, which I think I understand but explain.
PATCHETT: I think a lot of people do this. You know, you're in a relationship and you know it's not right and you just think it's too late. You know, it's too - we've been together too long. Oh, we're living together. How would I get another apartment? Oh, we got engaged. How could I break it off? Oh, the invitations have been mailed. You know.
And the fact is there comes a day when you've got to go and you go. And you look back and you think it would've been so much kinder if I had gone when I knew I was supposed to go instead of lying to myself and thinking it might work out and staying too long.
GROSS: You write that you wish there was a sacrament for divorce. What would it be?
PATCHETT: Hmm. That you can forgive yourself. You know, I think that it's all a lot about forgiveness, confession, that you could go somewhere and say, listen, I really screwed this up. I lied. I lied to myself, I lied to the person I promised to stay with for the rest of my life and I would like to be forgiven. And hopefully there would be some center or some source that would say, yeah. You know what? Go on.
You'll do a better job next time. We still love you and forgive you. And ultimately, that's what you have to do for yourself.
GROSS: After you got divorced you didn't want to get married again. And you write that it was actually kind of liberating to date men while thinking you weren't interested in marriage. And there's an excerpt of an essay about that that I want you to read.
GROSS: And this is from the title essay in the book "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage."
PATCHETT: (Reading) Right. And this is really true. Here's a failsafe recipe for popularity - be 26, cheerful, and completely over the idea of marriage. Not in a coy way, not in a way that says you secretly hope someone will talk you into it. Wash your hands of wedlock and watch the boys fly in. At the moment that other women my age were starting to ask their boyfriends if their intentions were serious, I was explaining to mine that life was short and this was fun and that was all.
(Reading) Well, that's not entirely true. I remained serious about love - I just gave up the notion that marriage was the inevitable outcome of love. I took my mother at her word and had some wonderful long relationships with people I deeply enjoyed but would not have wanted to marry for a minute. Once I decided I liked someone well enough to want to spend time with him I set aside my judgment. Did he leave his clothes in a twisted pile on the floor? Fine by me. I wasn't the one picking them up. Was he always late? For everything? That could wear over the course of a lifetime but for a year or two it wasn't really a problem. Did I find his father impossibly grating? Yes, but who cared? We were not going to be spending holidays together for the rest of our days on Earth. Not only was I dating for the first time in my life, I could put aside the constant assessment of character that talk of forever inspired. I decided instead to fall in love with a good sense of humor, a compassionate understanding of Wallace Stevens, an ability to speak Italian or dance on a coffee table.
GROSS: And that's Ann Patchett reading from the title essay in her collection "This Is the Story Of A Happy Marriage." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ann Patchett and her latest book is a collection of essays called "This Is the Story Of A Happy Marriage."
So you were determined not to marry. You are married now.
PATCHETT: Yeah, I am.
GROSS: And you were with the man who...
PATCHETT: Funny how that works.
GROSS: You are with the man who became your husband for 11 years before...
GROSS: ...you agreed to get married because he had wanted to do marry much earlier. He had been married. His wife left him and he, he's the kind of guy who feels like he needs to married, which was the opposite of how you felt after your divorce. So you lived separately for a long time. Why was that right for you at the time? Did you feel it was like the best of both worlds, being in a long-term relationship, yet having the kind of privacy and independence that living alone can bring?
PATCHETT: Well, I loved him and I wanted to stay with him. But getting out of that marriage when I was 25 was so hard. I really had that sort of Scarlet O'Hara, as God is my witness, I will never be hungry again. You know, I'll never get trapped. I will always know the location of all emergency exits at every moment. And so I thought well, you know what? This is going to have to work on my terms - which is: I want to live alone and I'll, you know, I'll be true, I'll be faithful, I'll see you every day, we'll have dinner together every night, but I don't want to get married and I don't want to live together. It was good. I loved it. It was genius. And there were times when Karl and I, in and of 11 years, would have problems and I would think it's so much better to have a fight and say, I want to go home than to have a fight in say, I don't want to live with you anymore.
I mean it really gave us both a tremendous amount of space. Karl needed time to get over being divorced and I needed time because I had psychological problems and didn't want to live with anybody ever again. And it really gave us a very healthy, solid foundation for what is now our marriage.
GROSS: What got you ready for marriage was a health crisis that he had. Do you want to explain what happened?
PATCHETT: Yeah. Karl is a doctor and he's an internist. He went up to the Mayo Clinic because he said he wanted to have a physical and he just wanted to get away and not go see one of his friends. And he failed a treadmill test and it turned out he had a cardiomyopathy. And I went up to Minnesota to be with him and the doctor said, basically, half the muscle tissue in his heart was dead. Heart muscle tissue doesn't regenerate and it looked very bad, it looked very dire. Some virus he'd picked up in the hospital somewhere and didn't know what it was about. And I thought, immediately well, we have to get married because if something bad happens, if a decision has to be made - and I was really thinking respirators, you can't help somebody as their girlfriend, you have to help somebody as their spouse.
So we were in the airport in Rochester going home and I said well, so I guess when we get home we'll get married. And he said yeah, I guess we will. And that was it, you know, we got home and got married. That was it.
GROSS: And you didn't have like a wedding, per se.
PATCHETT: No, we did not have a wedding, per se. We got a marriage license. We have a friend who is a priest who runs a homeless shelter, and he came by the house and he signed it for us. And that was great. And that was kind of interesting because I realized that so much of my anxiety about getting married was that I was so anxious about being a bride. I didn't want to have a wedding. I just completely didn't know how to handle that again - that I think would've killed me. But being married, you know, as opposed to being a bride, being married was really fine, it was great, actually.
GROSS: Well, you know, you were so worried about divorce and you didn't want to have to go through a divorce again.
GROSS: But did the thought that maybe he was going to die of a heart problem almost, like, eliminate the fear of divorce because there was a greater fear?
PATCHETT: Well, yes, actually. Actually, it did because that was the clearly marked exit. Oh, well, the answer is he going to die and so that's going to be might out. But as it turns out, not only did he not die, he got better a couple of months after we got married. It turned out that it was a misdiagnosis, and that the heart muscle tissue had been stunned, had been paralyzed because the virus was still active, and that he didn't have dead muscle tissue in the heart; and he was completely fine, he was over it, nothing ever happened.
And it was kind of hysterical because I kept thinking wait a minute, wait, I sold my house. Wait, I got married. I went against everything I always swore I would never, never do again. But, you know, it was great and I don't know that I could have ever gotten to that place had it not been for that crisis.
GROSS: OK. A kind of technical question. So part of the reason you got married was that so you could be the next of kin with the right to make decisions for him medically, and get all of those rights and privileges that are only afforded official family in a hospital setting and other legal situations. But you could have still been married and lived in your own home and not sold it. So what made you think that if you were getting married for these like technical reasons...
PATCHETT: He was sick.
GROSS: Right. OK.
PATCHETT: He was sick. You know, we, I needed to get going. Like I put my house on the market - my stepsister is a realtor and she put my house on the market and it sold in four hours.
PATCHETT: And because I lived three blocks away, I just kind of put everything in my car and drove back-and-forth for couple of days. But I needed to be there for him. And, you know, make no mistake about it, this is the love of my life. I love Karl with the full force of my life. And even though I thought wow, I have seen marriages fail and fail and fail. I failed at it, everyone in my family failed at it. I love this person so much I don't want to fail with them, so I'm going to come up with a new way to do this, a new way to be with them forever. And it's going to work. I'm not going to mess it up because I'm not going to be married. It wasn't like oh, I really don't want to be with you or I only want to be with you part-time. I was trying to do a good job.
GROSS: How did being married change the relationship, even though you'd been together for 11 years and, you know, you were - was it fair to say you were already middle-aged?
PATCHETT: I was 41 when we got married and Karl was 57; he 16 years older than I am. I'm 50 now. It changed in two big ways. One was that after we got married Karl loved me more, and that was amazing. There was something about getting married that allowed Karl to say OK, now I'm - there is actually, I've been holding out on you. There is like a secret storeroom of extra love. But because we weren't married I was always afraid that you were going to leave. And so that was a wonderful bonus. He was just relaxed because he always really wanted to get married.
The other thing that was fantastic about being married is that we didn't have to talk about it anymore and we had been talking about it for 11 years - not just with one another, but with everyone. You know, you go to a restaurant and the waitress will say, what, you're not married? Well, what are you going to get married? Well, if you're not getting married, then maybe you ought to date my sister.
PATCHETT: Everyone had an opinion about our relationship. And it wasn't so hard for me because I work at home, but Karl's a doctor and he's kind of a big presence in the community. And so people really hassled him about it all the time. And then the day that we got married, all of that noise just went away and it was like 80 percent of our conversational life opened up to other topics.
PATCHETT: It was fantastic.
GROSS: Now you write that merging your bank accounts was really a moment of trusts and commitment...
GROSS: ...the likes of which most wedding vows couldn't touch.
PATCHETT: It's true. We are 100 percent co-mingled down to the last dime.
GROSS: Had you considered not doing that? Because, you know, not everybody merges their bank accounts now.
PATCHETT: We actually didn't do it for the first, I don't know, year or two we had a joint account. And we would each write a check for, you know, $3,000 when the account was empty and then we would pay all of the bills and the credit card and everything came out of that account. And I went into Karl's office one day and I said oh, you know, the joint account is empty and it's time to put more money into the account. And he said, I have such a fear that someday you're going to walk in and say, it's time to put money in the joint account and I'm going to say, I don't have it. Which was just anxiety, just a baseless fear, but it broke my heart that he would have one second of that concern, you know, am I always going to be able to do my share and pull the load? And I said, then, we should just merge every single thing we've got in the world, and we did the next day and it was great. I - again, everybody's marriage is different but I really recommend that as a way of relaxing into things.
GROSS: Why was it great?
PATCHETT: It was great because you just weren't worried about it anymore. You weren't keeping tabs on anything. And also, you know, we're good about all of that. We trust each other. We're both generous people. Karl never gives me any grief about anything. You know, if I came in and say ah, I did this, you know, he always just says, great, I'm really proud of you, that's wonderful. The only thing that's tricky about it is buying gifts, because everything is completely together so it's hard to say oh, I'm going to get you this really expensive, amazing birthday present and then having to see the bill...
GROSS: With your own money.
GROSS: Ann Patchett will be back in the second half of the show. Her collection of personal essays is called "This Is the Story Of A Happy Marriage." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Coming up, and Patchett tells us why she never wanted to have children but always wanted a dog. And we'll talk about why she decided to start a new independent bookstore in Nashville. She co-owns it and her dog works there.
Also, Ken Tucker reviews the debut album by the new quintet Hard Working Americans - led by singer-songwriter Todd Snider. They sing a lot about hard-working Americans.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ann Patchett her novels include, "Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder." Her latest book is a collection of personal essays called "This Is the Story Of A Happy Marriage." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan called it a terrific, wide-ranging collection.
So we talked a little bit about how you were married and divorced and then with another man for 11 years before you felt ready to marry again. Even though you loved him very much, you didn't think you wanted to get married until he got really sick and you decided to get married. And then he got incredibly better, but you were really glad you're married.
But you also, you never wanted to have children - and you don't have children.
GROSS: But you always did want to have a dog.
GROSS: And you had a dog. And I want you to read a section from your essay, "This Dog's Life."
GROSS: Which is, of course, a play on the Tobias Wolff book, "This Boy's Life."
GROSS: So can you read an excerpt of that for that?
GROSS: And your dog's name was Rose.
GROSS: And, OK.
PATCHETT: Since I work at home, Rose was able to spend her days in my lap, where she was most comfortable. We bonded in a way that some people looked upon as suspicious. I took Rose into stores like the rich ladies at Bergdorf's do. I took her to dinner parties. I took her to the Cape for vacation. As I have almost no ability to leave her alone, when I had to go someplace that foolishly did not allow dogs, I'd drive her across town and leave her with my grandmother. Look at that, people would say, looking at me and not Rose. Look at how badly she wants a baby.
A baby? I held up my dog for them to see, my bright, beautiful dog. A dog, I said. I've always wanted a dog. The truth is, I have no memory of ever wanting a baby. I have never peered longingly into someone else's strollers. I have, on occasions too numerous to list, bent down on the sidewalk to rub the ears of strange dogs, to whisper to them about their limpid eyes.
Maybe you don't even realize it, strangers said, friends said, my family said. Clearly, you want a baby. Look at the way you're holding that dog, my grandmother said. Just like it's a baby.
GROSS: But really, you wanted a dog.
PATCHETT: I really wanted a dog. When my sister and I were kids, my sister, from the time she was a little girl, was obsessed with hyper-realistic looking baby dolls. And I would say hyper-realistic looking baby doll are to this day the one thing that just completely creeps me out. And I always wanted stuffed dogs, that was it. My sister went on and had a couple of babies, I went on and had a couple of dogs.
GROSS: Do you know why you never wanted to have children?
PATCHETT: No. But here's my analogy to it. People would say to me - and I will tell you the best thing about being 50 is nobody asks me anymore and I'm so grateful for that.
PATCHETT: But it would be like if somebody said your car keys are in the drawer and you go and you open the drawer and not only are your car keys not in the drawer, there's nothing in the drawer, the drawer is empty. And you come back and you say the keys aren't in the drawer. And they say no, go back and look again, they are in the drawer. And you go back and you open the drawer and it is empty. And that's, that's how I always felt, like people were always saying to me go back and look again. Examine the inner contents of your heart, you will find it. And I never did. Not when I was tiny. Not when I was in my 20s. And I, you know, I don't think it's a big deal. I think that the world must be full of people who just don't want to have children. I like children. I'm really glad other people have children. I'm happy to be around children. I just didn't want them.
GROSS: I think there's only been a brief time in history when women actually had the choice of whether to have children or not.
PATCHETT: That's true.
GROSS: Because, you know, unless you were infertile, it would be impossible to have sexual relations with your husband or anybody else without the constant chance of getting pregnant. And now through birth control, and through changing social expectations, it's possible to not have children and still be an accepted person in society without being looked on as like a pitiful...
GROSS: ...you know, childless woman.
PATCHETT: But wait. Here's a really interesting point that I've just started thinking about it in the last few years. I went to Catholic school for 12 years and I was, I mean I wasn't raised by nuns - I had a family - but I was with nuns the whole time I was growing up and they were my role models, they defined my moral code, they set the rhythm of my days, and they were career women who didn't have children. They were women who said I have this thing that I really want to do. I want to devote my life to God and not get married and not have children. And those were the women that I was around from the time I was five until I was 17. And it was really much, much later in my life that I thought, I had a ton of role models - of strong, smart women who said, you know, basically I want to follow my career. My career is God.
GROSS: That's a really interesting perception. I hadn't really thought of it that way, that nuns were the women who decided not to have children.
PATCHETT: Yeah. At some point in history I'm sure that a lot of women who didn't want to have children became nuns because that was a really good way out of it.
GROSS: So we were talking about how you never really wanted to have children, but you always wanted a dog and you did have a dog who you really loved - a little white dog named Rose. And Rose used to sit with you while you wrote, so you had a very close relationship. But you have a later essay about her death. She was 16. By the time she died she was blind. She was deaf. She couldn't walk for the last year of her life. You had to give her medicines, administer fluids. I know some people who have had pets who've died after long illness that were both upsetting and time-consuming as well as expensive, that, you know, I know people who have said I can't have another pet for a while and it's in part because I love my pet so much, you know, I'm still in mourning, but it's also like I can't make that kind of commitment again.
PATCHETT: I don't understand that.
GROSS: And I was wondering if you got another dog.
PATCHETT: Yeah. Yeah. We have Sparky.
GROSS: You named your dog - you are a writer and you named your dog Sparky?
PATCHETT: You'd have to meet the dog. Go on the website, the bookstore website, there are all these fantastic pictures of Sparky and you will look at him. In fact, right after we got him we were walking through the park and a woman says to the dog, hey there, Sparky.
PATCHETT: Because Sparky's just his vibe. But anyway, we waited I think eight months because I really wanted to get over Rose. I didn't want to sort of do it from a place of grief and also because I thought, wow, I don't know if I can do this again. And then we picked a day, we went to the humane shelter, we got the dog. And it was a fantastic story because we had planned to go to two shelters and the pound and look at all the dogs and make an assessment. This is me. This is my plan. This is the way my brain works. And Karl and I walked into the Humane Society and he went to the first bin and there was Sparky jumping up and down in the first bin. And he leaned over and he picked him up and he said, OK, this one's great, let's go.
PATCHETT: And I said, shouldn't we even look at the other dogs? And he was standing there holding the dog, and he looked at me and he said, you do whatever you need to do and we'll wait here for you.
PATCHETT: And in four minutes we were out the door and we had a dog. And I look back on the eight months between Rose and Sparky, you know, the time that we didn't have a dog. Those were very sad months. Being in the house without a dog was really sad. And in retrospect, of course, it was great because we got the right dog and he works in the bookstore and he likes everybody and he's fantastic.
GROSS: I like the way you say he works in the bookstore. What does he do in the bookstore?
PATCHETT: He works. He works really hard. You walk in the front door of Parnassus Books...
GROSS: Is he a greeter?
PATCHETT: ...and he - he does. It's just like Wal-Mart, he comes over, he gets you your cart. Children can not only pet him, they can mess with him. You know, they can scream and chase him in circles. And he's flawless, and he doesn't shed and he doesn't bite and he doesn't bark and he's a fantastic store dog.
GROSS: Yeah. And for people who don't know, my guest is Ann Patchett and she, among other things, in addition to writing novels and essays, she owns or co-owns a bookstore in Nashville and opened it after the other bookstores folded.
Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist and essayist Ann Patchett. Her new book is a collection of personal essays called "This Is the Story Of A Happy Marriage."
You also write about your grandmother and taking care of her when she was very sick. And I think so many people have been through similar experiences. Your grandmother was in her mid-90s when she died. She had dementia. She had broken a hip. And you write: Even after she broke a hip, she seemed held to life by about three silk threads. But she didn't die. She simply got worse. And that experience of like knowing that death is inevitable, knowing that like true healing isn't going to happen, but watching that slow and fast, then slow and fast descent - and this is a really difficult question to ask or to answer, I think, she wanted to die at some point - or at least she said she did. Did you ever get to a point of almost wishing that she'd die because it was so difficult to watch the pain that she was in and the disorientation she was having and the lack of, lack of capacity that she had any more to do anything or experience anything?
PATCHETT: Oh my gosh, that's not a difficult question at all. I wanted her to die every day and she wanted to die every day. And that is absolutely what I wished for her with all the love in my heart. She had the most excruciating endless death. I mean really, she was 96. She was blind. She was demented. After she broke her hip she couldn't walk and her teeth were falling out. It was just terrible. And we took fantastically good care of her and for some reason she just kept going on and going on. And not only is that not what she would have wished for herself, nobody would wish that for themselves.
I mean I think that anybody would want a better, faster death than that, and there's nothing in the world wrong with wishing that someone would die. But the lesson is, you can wish all you want and it doesn't mean a thing. Your wishes don't have any impact on the outcome of life and death.
GROSS: You say that with such ease, that there's nothing wrong in wishing that someone would die. But I think so many people, when having a loved one for whom death is inevitable, you know, in the near future, who's like really sick and really incapacitated, and even though that person might feel I wish my loved one would die, that they feel really bad and guilty for even daring to think that.
PATCHETT: That's so sad. They shouldn't. They shouldn't at all. You know, you put all the energy that you have into loving that person and into caring for that person and you wish ardently for their release. And again, whatever you wish doesn't make any difference. But why we should beat ourselves up in our hearts for what we feel? No, no, I don't believe in that.
GROSS: You hadn't expected to be living in Nashville, where your grandmother and your mother lived. You write in your book: I had planned to live far away from my family and miss them terribly. I had every intention of feeling simply awful that I wasn't with my grandmother in her years of decline, because I loved my grandmother, loved her more than anyone.
But even though you'd planned to live far away from your mother and grandmother, your relationship with Karl, who became your husband, brought you back to Nashville. Why was it your intention to live far away from your family and miss them terribly?
PATCHETT: Isn't that everybody's intention?
PATCHETT: It was a great idea, you know, I was going to go off into the world. And I did. I did go off for a while. And my sister, who was so tried-and-true, she was the one who was going to stay in Nashville and take care of everybody and do the hard work. That was sort of the unspoken agreement. And then something shifted and she moved away and I moved home and things got worse and things got harder and I was there every day.
And, you know, it all goes back to love. You just roll up your sleeves and you do the job that's in front of you and that's what people do. And you know what? It's easy for me to say this now that I'm years on the other side of it, but it's a privilege to see someone through that time in their life. And the trick of it is to love them for who they are that day, to never look at that person and think, I remember when you were my grandmother and you used to knit me sweaters and make me dumplings and wash my hair. You know, I remember when you did all of these things and I'm mad that you can't do all of these things for me anymore.
If you can let all of that go and just be in the moment with that person and love them for who they are and what they're capable of that day, it can be pretty great even as it is incredibly hard.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about the bookstore that you co-own...
PATCHETT: Please. Please do.
GROSS: ...which is called - is it Parnissus or Parnassus?
GROSS: Parnassus. Thank you. I'm one of the people who didn't know what the word meant until I read but it meant in your book.
PATCHETT: I didn't know either.
GROSS: Which makes me far less embarrassed than I otherwise would have been. So tell us what it means.
PATCHETT: It's a mountain in Greece where poetry and dance and literature and all important artistic muses were born. And it works very well because Nashville is the Athens of the South and we have this full-sized replica of the Parthenon and Parnassus is a great name for a bookstore, but - but, you know, I thought nobody's going to know what it means because I don't know what it means.
And it's going to make people feel stupid and they won't know how to spell it. But it's worked out really well.
GROSS: It was your co-owner who named it.
PATCHETT: Yes. Karen Hayes. She had a vision.
GROSS: So you decided to open a bookstore in Nashville after the two existing bookstores closed. And you write you wanted the kind of bookstore that valued books and readers above muffins and adorable plastic watering cans, a store that recognized it could not possibly stock every single book that every single person might be looking for and so it stocked the books that staff had read and liked and could recommend.
Talk a little bit about what bookstores have meant to you in your life as a reader.
PATCHETT: Bookstores, and I think this is true for so many writers and obviously all readers, it just - they're home. You know, it's the place that you go and you feel comfortable. I never go into a bookstore - never go into a bookstore - and feel like, oh, I have to buy something. You know, it's not like a dress store where somebody is watching me and I think, oh, I've tried on 20 things. I really need to buy something.
You can pick up 20 books, you can talk to the booksellers for two hours, you can just sit in a chair and read. And it's not about I'm going to buy a book, although, you know, yes, I hope everybody goes into their bookstores and buys books. But it is the comfort that I've always felt being around books. I'm never lonely when I'm around books. It's the world of endless possibility and opportunity, to be in that building full of books that can come home with me.
GROSS: So even though you have a bookstore now, do you ever buy books online? Because as you...
GROSS: As you pointed out, you know, your store, independent stores like yours, little independent stores like yours, can't carry everything.
PATCHETT: Right. Well, we can order it for you if you need it.
GROSS: I see.
PATCHETT: No, of course I don't buy - I don't buy books online. And you know, it's not that I think no one should buy books online. I mean, I really think I shouldn't buy books online. But there are a lot of little towns that don't have bookstores. Or you might not enjoy going to the bookstore. And I think that that's fine too. Buy books online.
But I think that what's important is if you value a bookstore, if that's something that you want in your community, if you want to take your children to story hour, if you want to meet the authors who are coming through town, if you want to get together for a book club at a bookstore or come in and talk to the smart booksellers, if you want to have that experience of a bookstore, then it is up to you.
It is your responsibility to buy your book in the bookstore. And that's what keeps the bookstore there. And that's true for any little independent business. You can't go into the little gardening store and talk to them about pesticides and when do you plant and what kind of tools do you need and use their time for an hour and their intelligence and then go to Lowe's and buy your plants for less. That you cannot do. So that's my message.
GROSS: So when you write now, is your dog with you?
PATCHETT: Unless he's at the store working. Yeah, Sparky.
GROSS: Unless he's in the store working. Right. Exactly.
PATCHETT: I mean, honestly, sometimes Karen will call me and say it doesn't matter if you can come in but we really need to see Sparky. A lot of people have been coming into the store. He hasn't been to work for a couple of days. And I'll drive over and drop him off and go home and go back to work.
GROSS: Ann Patchett, thank you so much for coming on FRESH AIR. It's really just been great to talk with you. I really enjoyed it.
PATCHETT: I have to say this is, like, a life goal for me. So I'm thrilled.
PATCHETT: I very much appreciate the invitation.
GROSS: Ann Patchett's collection of essays is called "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage." You can read her essay about getting her start writing for teen and women's magazines on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.