Writers & Company

Ann Patchett on the true meaning of beauty and her prize-winning novel, Bel Canto

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company is revisiting interviews with past winners.
Ann Patchett is a Nashville-based author. In 2002, she received the Women's Prize for Fiction and the PEN Faulkner Award for her novel Bel Canto. (Heidi Ross)

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company is revisiting interviews with past winners.

American writer Ann Patchett is the author of many popular novels, including Commonwealth, The Dutch House and Bel Canto, which won both the Women's Prize for Fiction and the PEN Faulkner Award in 2002. 

Inspired by a non-fatal, real-life hostage situation in Peru — in which the captors and captives lived together for many months — Patchett added a fictional ingredient to her story: an opera singer whose powerful voice galvanizes the group. Bel Canto was made into a real opera in 2015 and adapted as a film in 2018, starring Julianne Moore.

In 2004, Patchett came out with a moving memoir, Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with another writer, the poet Lucy Grealy. Grealy's treatments for childhood cancer had required the removal of part of her jaw, stunted her growth, and left her addicted to painkillers. In the memoir, Patchett reflects on Grealy's extraordinary resilience and the close bond they shared until Grealy's death in 2002.  

Patchett spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about Truth and Beauty and Bel Canto in 2004.  

How Bel Canto came to be

"I always write the same novel over and over again — which is my attempt to plagiarize the Thomas Mann novel The Magic Mountain. I'm completely fascinated by strangers who are trapped together and to see how they form their relationships, their families, their governments, their utopias, their lives. It's the theme that I always come back to — the construction of family. 

"So when I saw the story in the news about the takeover of the embassy in Lima, I thought, 'Ah, it's a Patchett novel!' I probably didn't think that the first day but by the first couple of weeks, it seemed clear to me.

"I was also drawn to it because it was a singularly 'unterrifying' terrorist event.

"A group came in and took an entire party hostage and they let a lot of the hostages go. They were trying to bring awareness to the truly wretched prison system in Peru. They kept a large group of hostages for about four months — but it just seemed like things weren't that bad. 

The idea of bringing art in, as a way of interpreting what was going on, seemed like just the thing.

"I'm not saying that it was great, or that anybody should take anyone else hostage, but the reports were, 'Hostages order out for pizza,' or 'Terrorists learn how to play chess.' They were watching soap operas on television.

"They were playing soccer in the yard. No one was hurt and it just seemed to drag on forever. It was just mesmerizing to me. Before it all ended, I knew that I wanted to write this story. I also knew that the story was missing an opera singer.

"They had let all of the women go and I kept thinking, 'What if they had kept one woman? What if the woman had been an opera singer?' The story seemed somehow very operatic to me. The idea of bringing art in, as a way of interpreting what was going on, seemed like just the thing.

"Which is why I would rather be a novelist than a journalist."

Memories of Lucy

"Lucy had been dead about three weeks and people started calling me, saying 'Oh, you sound better today… are you feeling better today?' And I thought no, I'm not feeling better today.

"My father kept telling me that I needed to write about Lucy. But I'm a novelist. I never wanted to write a memoir. I wrote an article about Lucy Grealy. I found that when I got through with that, I had about 700 stories left over that I still wanted to tell. 

"And so I just started writing the book. I was in bed. I got my computer and put it on a cookie sheet and went back to bed and wrote the book.

It was a very, very sad time. But it wasn't a sad book.

"It was a very, very sad time. But it wasn't a sad book. I went backwards to the beginning of our relationship and our meeting and growing up together. I was able to find a whole lot of the joy of Lucy's life and of our friendship.

"We needed each other. A lot of people looked at our relationship and thought of me as very saintly, because I was always bailing Lucy out or pulling Lucy up. But in fact I needed her spark. I needed her light. I always felt smarter and more confident and more beautiful when I was around her because I felt like I was with this bright, bright light. We could sit and talk for days and days and days about anything.

"Months could go by without us seeing each other, and the second she walked in the door I felt such an enormous sense of relief."

Of love and friendship

"Lucy had a Ewing's Sarcoma which is a kind of cancer of the jaw. When she was nine years old she was playing kickball and got hit in the face with the ball and it broke her jaw.

"She was 10 before they figured out that she had cancer. They kept doing the surgery to correct the break in the jaw and things wouldn't heal. They finally figured out that she had cancer and wound up removing a third of her jaw. 

"She had chemotherapy for three years and radiation for five years. She lost almost all of her teeth. She was out of school for a long time, obviously. She was bald for years and years.

"She had a very, very difficult time. She went back to school and had a lot of taunting and torturing from the kids.

She'd had a very hard life. She was very consciously trying to be joyful and pull herself up and out of all that had happened — and all that was still happening physically and emotionally in her life.

But Lucy was a sprite. She was an energetic and tiny little person. She was a lot of trouble. She had a big brain. She could dance. She was very joyful and very depressed, though not in any kind of a bipolar way. But she had those two elements. 

"She'd had a very hard life. She was very consciously trying to be joyful and pull herself up and out of all that had happened — and all that was still happening physically and emotionally in her life."

"I think to always feel so different — so outside of everything else that was going on in the world — shaped her emotionally a great deal. How could it not?"

Ann Patchett's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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