BB: Your new book, Commonwealth, covers five decades in America and you had to get them right in each period as all these different people. These are times you’ve lived through too. When did your research differ from memory?
AP: I didn’t do any research for this book. I think I made it all up.
BB: It’s interesting because State of Wonder is an astounding piece of writing about the Amazon. How did you research a book with such tropical density?
AP: For State of Wonder, most of the research was medical. I met with people who worked at Merck and Eli Lilly and tried to come up with a pharmaceutical plan that would make this possible, and they told me it would absolutely not be possible, but I got them to enter into the fantasy of it. I went to Bethesda Naval Hospital and met with the head disease specialist about Malaria. I know a lot about mosquitoes now. And I spent a lot of time with a friend who’s an OBGYN about how one could do cesarean sections in the tropics. I did go to the Amazon, but it seems in my memory that the medical was more of the research, the Amazon was more of the atmosphere…
BB: Did you go up the river on a boat?
AP: Yeah, but I went through it in Peru for a whole host of strange reasons…I couldn’t find the right kind of boat in Brazil.
BB: Has anyone perished fighting a snake because of the temptation to try based on your book?
AP: When I was just in Peru I was in a small open boat with someone I didn’t know who pulled an anaconda out of the river onto the boat. It was a giant 15 foot anaconda and it turned out this guy was a professional snake handler…but I didn’t know that at the time. So that was definitely a case of going down and putting yourself in to the environment and waiting to see what happened.
BB: And that shows up in your book…but you become the young character saying “Why would you do that? Why would anyone do that?”
AP: Why would someone pull an anaconda into a boat?! Yeah. But boy it was interesting. And things that I never would have known like: snakes emit an unbelievably wretched odor when frightened. I didn’t know that.
BB: Well we all do because of the things you know. I think that’s an interesting part of being an audience for your book is that we begin to learn the things you know, the things that fascinate you make their way onto pages. What about your memories fascinated you all over again as you wrote your new novel?
AP: With few exceptions, the things that happened to people in this book didn’t happen to my family. I took the emotion of the situation and then stuck it on an invented situation so it wouldn’t be too true. There were a lot of parts where my mother said, “None of this happened and all of it’s true.” Every little moment wasn’t the moment as we experienced it and yet it was definitely the way we were feeling.
BB: Even though it isn’t stenciled from your life, it’s at least spiritually autobiographical. How did writing a book so close to your own past make you look at your own life?
AP: I think the thing is all of the books that I’ve written, this is my 10th book, have all been very much about my own life and very much about this story of two families merging.
AP: In Bel Canto, there are two groups stuck together in a house for an extended period of time and they have to find some kind of peace. I could break every single one for you and say it is the same story without meaning to write the same story. I just kept doing it. So in this case what I decided to do was forgo the research and the elaborate sets and costumes and, you know, leave off the snakes, opera, mosquitoes and the dead fish and all the things that I used in my other books to make it less about my family. I just kind of finally told the story in a more direct way. I don’t feel that I’m breaking new ground because I really do feel that all of those books are the same book about my parents getting divorced and me growing up with a bunch of people who weren’t actually members of my family but who I became very attached to.
BB: You knew pretty early that you were a writer.
BB: Did you write any stories as a child?
AP: I did. I wrote a lot of stories as a child. I wrote a lot of poetry as a child. Bad poetry. And bad stories, but I wrote all the time. That was my distinction. If you went to my high school class reunion, everyone would tell you I was the kid who was gonna be a writer.
BB: It goes to say that if you’re one of the TIME 100 most influential people in 2012, people are going to wonder what you did.
AP: Well you just ended up talking about something that I never ever talk about.
BB: I have a lot more of that to cover with you when we get on stage together in Traverse City on October 22.
AP: I can’t wait!
Benjamin Busch is the author of the memoir, Dust to Dust, and a member of the Traverse City National Writers Series Board. Ann Patchett, is the best selling author of Bel Canto, Run and State of Wonder. Listen here to Patchett tell about her most autobiographical book to date, Commonwealth.