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Ann Patchett on the friendship that came from quarantining with Tom Hanks' assistant

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I get asked sometimes, who's your favorite author? And I'm always taken aback because it feels a little like asking a parent, who's your favorite child? Which, you know, I couldn't possibly choose. And if I did have a favorite, I definitely would not admit it publicly.

So it feels significant to say out loud that if there is one author whose books I am guaranteed to gobble up, who I will read every time, it is Ann Patchett, and she has a new one out. It's nonfiction; a collection of personal essays titled "These Precious Days." And Ann Patchett joins us now from her home in Nashville. Ann Patchett, welcome.

ANN PATCHETT: Aw, Mary Louise.

KELLY: (Laughter).

PATCHETT: I really, really appreciate that.

KELLY: Well, it's really, really true, so it was a pleasure to get to say it to you instead of just pining to my book club about how I wish you had another book coming out.

(LAUGHTER)

PATCHETT: Well, thank you.

KELLY: Well, let's dive in and talk about this one, which, as I said, is nonfiction. It's essays. And I want you to explain why that felt easier to write during a pandemic than fiction. It has to do with fearing death. You explain it in the opening chapter. Tell us.

PATCHETT: Yes. So every time I am writing a novel, once I get about a third of the way into it and I really know what I'm doing and I love my characters, I start to think, well, what happens if I get hit by a car? What happens if I fall down the stairs? Because then, it won't just be me, it will be the entire world of people in my head.

And the only time I ever feel paranoid about death is when I'm in the middle of a novel because I don't want the novel to die. Like, I really understand that I'm going to die, but I don't want the whole novel to be wiped out.

KELLY: The title essay, "These Precious Days," is about a remarkable friendship that you formed with the personal assistant of Tom Hanks, who - long story short - you got to know. You all did a book event. And this led to you meeting Sooki. Would you just paint us a picture of her? Who is she?

PATCHETT: So I first met Sooki Raphael backstage when I was interviewing Tom for his collection of short stories. And it's such a funny thing. The three of us were standing back of the theater in the dark. Tom and I are waiting to go on. And I keep talking to Sooki, and I just think, this is the most interesting person I've met in I don't know when, which is odd because, of course, I'm also meeting Tom Hanks for the first time...

KELLY: (Laughter).

PATCHETT: ...You know, who's terrific, right? He's really interesting. But my eye keeps going to her. Then, we ended up staying in touch very lightly. You know, an email every month or two. Hey, how are you? And then I found out that she had had pancreatic cancer, that she had had a Whipple, that she had gone through chemo and radiation, that she had been pronounced cancer free, that her cancer came back. She was looking to get into a clinical trial for recurrent pancreatic cancer and not finding one that had room or matched her cancer.

My husband is a doctor, and I was telling him about this one night. And he said, oh, well, ask her if she wants to send me her files. I'll see if I can get her into a trial here in Nashville. And he did. It turns out that the trial that they were running at the hospital where he worked was exactly the trial she needed.

KELLY: And the timing of this - she comes to live with you while she's doing the treatment, and this turns out to be the beginning of the pandemic.

PATCHETT: Right. So the trial was supposed to start at UCLA a couple of weeks later. She was just coming out for, really, a matter of days so she could start it here and then fold into the UCLA trial. And the trial at UCLA was canceled because that's what COVID did. And she couldn't fly because the flights were canceled and also she was very low on white blood cells. So there she was, stuck with us. And we had the most amazing time.

KELLY: Yeah.

PATCHETT: It was so incredible and joyful to be together and to make that kind of a friendship that you make in college, you know, with your roommate, with this total stranger who you are assigned to live with who then becomes your best friend.

KELLY: Wow. Yeah. It's clear this was hard to write about when you turned to actually try to capture Sooki in an essay. But you write that what you loved was finding someone who sees you as your best and most complete self and that she did that for you, and you think you did that for her. And it's so unexpected to come across a friendship like that at this point in life.

PATCHETT: It really is. And certainly, I have made some close friendships as an adult, but there is a quality of youthful friendship that is based on wasting time together; having just whole days where you're not making plans, you're not entertaining one another.

Everything was tremendously present tense for Sooki. We talked about what we were going to make for dinner. We talked about what we were reading and what we wanted to accomplish that day. And we were living exactly in the moment.

KELLY: Speaking of friendships that we make in college, early in life when we - it feels like we have all this time to just live in the present, tell me about another essay - "The First Thanksgiving." This unfolds in your college dorm freshman year.

PATCHETT: Yeah. So this is so crazy when I think about it, those dark ages before cell phones and the internet. But I was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, and my cousins had brought me home for Halloween my first year of college 'cause I was really homesick. And that was so sweet, but what it meant was I couldn't go home for Thanksgiving. So all the other girls went home. It was just me in the house. They had turned off the heat...

KELLY: Oh, God.

PATCHETT: ...Or they turned it down to whatever level would keep the pipes from freezing. And I found maybe five other kids who had done the same thing and decided that I was going to make Thanksgiving dinner. And I had never done anything like that before.

There was a little kitchen in the dorm, and I got a book, and I made Thanksgiving dinner. But the only information I had was in the book. And so when I looked up dressing, you know, it says, start with a loaf of day-old bread and make cubes. It doesn't say, go get a sack of Pepperidge Farm.

KELLY: Right.

PATCHETT: Every single thing was from scratch. And when I was young, the two things that were unbelievably expensive were long-distance phone calls and plane tickets. And so I couldn't call my mom. I really could call once, and I wanted to call her after dinner. I wanted to call and tell her how it had all turned out.

And so I just relied on a book to get me through. And the moral of the story is that really is what I have been doing my whole life ever since. Common sense and a book - that's all you need.

KELLY: Well, I will say to you, Happy Thanksgiving. And also, congratulations on the book. And also, you have a 10-year anniversary that you're celebrating.

PATCHETT: We're very excited. So I am the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. And we have been open 10 years the month of November.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Ann Patchett, my favorite author, sharing with us...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...Her new collection of essays, "These Precious Days." Ann Patchett, thank you.

PATCHETT: Mary Louise, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS AND JULIA STONE SONG, "PAPER AEROPLANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.