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Author Ann Patchett on writing about family secrets in her novel 'Tom Lake'


The writer Ann Patchett does not have children. This is by choice. And being a writer, she has written about her reasons. I have just enough energy to write, Patchett says, keep up with the house, be a decent friend, a decent daughter and sister and wife. Part of not wanting children, she goes on, has always been the certainty that I didn't have the energy for it, and so I had to make a choice - the choice between children and writing. Well, Patchett's new novel is about a woman named Lara who is many things but, at the core, a mother. The book is titled "Tom Lake."

And Ann Patchett, I am so glad to speak with you again.

ANN PATCHETT: I am so glad to speak with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this book, your book, unfolds during that surreal summer of 2020 when so many grown-up kids were moving back home, moving back into their childhood bedrooms. And Lara, the mom and your narrator, she is loving having her three 20-something daughters back home. Why put that mother-daughter relationship at the center of your story?

PATCHETT: Well, I know it was true for so many of my friends that they were saying, oh, the pandemic. It's terrible. It's horrible. I'm so glad my kids are home.

KELLY: Yeah.

PATCHETT: And even if you don't have kids, I was so glad to not be running all over the place. I was glad my husband wasn't going to work every day. And so it was very easy for me to make the leap, to imagine something good that came out of something so bad.

KELLY: Well, I will share that as I was rereading that essay I quoted from - the essay you wrote about why you decided you didn't want to have kids - I stumbled on something that made me do a double take. In that essay, you describe a real-life farm that belonged to the editor of your first two books. And on that farm lived three daughters named...

PATCHETT: Emily, Maisie and Nell.

KELLY: Yeah. And for people who have not picked up your new book, the fictional daughters in "Tom Lake" are named Emily, Maisie and Nell.

PATCHETT: So I knew that there would be three daughters, and I knew that the oldest one would have to be named Emily because the book circles the play "Our Town," and Lara, when she was an actress, played Emily. So they would definitely name the first girl Emily. And then there was a woman I greatly admired named Nell Gifford, who had something called the Giffords Circus. And she was a tremendous artist, and I wanted to name the youngest daughter Nell. So I thought, well, if I have an Emily and I have a Nell, then of course I'm going to have a Maisie. And then...

KELLY: You can't leave out Maisie of the real daughters, yeah.

PATCHETT: ...The Todd sisters got their place, yes.

KELLY: And how much of the fictional cherry farm in this book draws on that old farmhouse in a wide field, as you describe it, that you've actually visited when you were going to see your editor?

PATCHETT: Really not at all because I was going to real cherry farms in Traverse City, Mich., to do my research about cherry farms in Traverse City, Mich. I mean, the fruit belt, the cherry farms, the apple farms in northern Michigan - that is very specifically a world like no other.

KELLY: And what got you into it? Why the interest in cherries?

PATCHETT: (Laughter) Well, when I was on book tour for "Bel Canto," my publicist told me that I had to go to a store in Petoskey, Mich., called Mclean and Eakin. I had to fly to Detroit in the morning, then fly to Traverse City on a tiny commuter plane, drive two hours to Petoskey, do an event and then do the whole thing in reverse all in one day.


PATCHETT: I was like, this is cruelty.

KELLY: (Laughter).

PATCHETT: But it turns out that it was the best bookstore I'd ever been to, and I fell in love with the Norcross family. They own that bookstore. And I remember when I went back to the airport in Traverse City, Mich., you could buy a cup full of fresh cherries. And I sat in the airport and ate cherries and thought, this is the best thing that's ever happened. I became friends with them. I went back to visit them all the time. And so suddenly, I was hanging out with the cherry crowd.

KELLY: Oh, I can almost taste them. I can picture you in the airport gobbling them up. So we've established this is a book about a cherry farm. We've established it's a book about maternal love. It is also about romantic love and about great sex between Lara...

PATCHETT: (Laughter) Oh, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I'm going to go there. Here we go. This is Laura and a man she does not end up marrying and raising three daughters with. I want you to describe the force of nature that is Peter Duke.

PATCHETT: Peter Duke is funny and charming, smart, ambitious - in every sense, an actor. And he is going to make it. There's a line in the book, she says about summer stock - we were all either on the way up or on the way out, and nobody really knew which way they were going. But Peter Duke was on the way up. And I don't know about you, but I dated some people in my 20s that I would never have wound up with. But they were a lot of fun.


KELLY: At the end of the book - the very end of the book, we learn that Lara has been keeping a secret, a big secret. She's been keeping it for many years from everyone she loves. And it is such a contrast with her quiet steadiness and with how close we see her to be with her husband, with her daughters. Why does she keep that secret?

PATCHETT: Do you know - it's interesting. I don't think of that as a secret. I think of that as private.

KELLY: What's the difference?

PATCHETT: A secret is something that you are pointedly not telling someone, but something that's private is just yours. It just belongs to you. And something happened to Lara, and it was her own business. She tells the reader, but she doesn't tell her husband. And she doesn't tell her girls, and that's her right.

KELLY: Ann Patchett, before I let you go, I want to ask about another book by another author because...


KELLY: ...You have long made a point of helping to raise up other writers. And as you go out on book tour for this book, for your book, "Tom Lake," you're bringing along a debut novelist. I want you to give us the 30-second elevator pitch for Lindsay Lynch and her novel, "Do Tell."

PATCHETT: Lindsay Lynch is the buyer at Parnassus Books.

KELLY: Parnassus Books - that's your bookstore in Nashville. Go on.

PATCHETT: "Do Tell" is her first novel. It's about the golden age of Hollywood and follows the story of Edie O'Dare, who was an actress, second string, not making it but a very good gossip columnist. And it's a bit of a thriller. It is wildly entertaining. It's the perfect book for summer. And it shows us that all the progress that we think we have made, we are actually fighting the same fights.

KELLY: Why do this? Why promote another writer's book on your book tour?

PATCHETT: It is so hard to be a first-time novelist, and you want somebody to just give you a hand. She's written this amazing book. But if you can't get publicity for it, if you can't get reviews, if you can't get on the radio, no one's going to know. And so I've got that power. I can either use it for good or for evil, and I'm going to use it for good.

KELLY: That is the great Ann Patchett talking about a couple of summer reads, including her new novel, "Tom Lake." Ann Patchett, so good to talk to you.

PATCHETT: Thank you, Mary Louise. Have a wonderful summer.

KELLY: And you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.