A little horse-trading will bring acclaimed author Ann Patchett to St. Petersburg on Saturday.
Patchett, whose bestselling novels include Bel Canto and State of Wonder, will be the keynote speaker at the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College. She will appear as part of the conference's weeklong free reading series, which is open to the public. (See schedule at right.)
Speaking by phone from her home in Nashville, Patchett says, "I don't ever do these things."
But Writers in Paradise co-founder Dennis Lehane, himself the author of a list of bestsellers including Mystic River, Shutter Island and Live by Night (the last set largely in Tampa), didn't take no for an answer.
He had invited her before, Patchett says. "This time he emailed me and said, 'I'd like to propose a little horse-trading in which we are the horses. I'll come to your bookstore on my tour (for Live by Night) if you'll come to Writers in Paradise.'
"So he came to the bookstore last fall, and now it's time for me to pay up."
The bookstore is Parnassus Books in Nashville, which Patchett, 49, co-founded just over a year ago. "Never, never did I want to own a bookstore," she says. "It's been a very, very, very happy surprise."
Given the current state of independent bookstores, opening one might seem like folly. But a couple of years ago the last two bookstores selling new books in Nashville — "both over 30,000 square feet, both profitable every month" — closed. Patchett says, "Everybody wept and wailed. But nobody opened a bookstore."
As she recounted in a recent article for the Atlantic Monthly, Patchett got into the business almost by accident. "I found the perfect person to be my partner" in Karen Hayes, a former sales representative for Random House. "Our skill sets have almost no overlap. We marvel at each other."
For Patchett, the bookstore comes second to her writing. "Sometimes I feel guilty that I'm not there running the cash register and gift-wrapping the books."
Her celebrity as an author plays a role in the store's success. "I'm the reason Dennis Lehane comes, and Barbara Kingsolver, and Louise Erdrich," just a few of the top authors who have come for book signings during Parnassus' first year. "So I do manage to bring a lot."
Owning a bookstore has taught her, she says, "the Dennis Lehanes keep you in business. They sell a lot of books, and that lets you sell that Halldor Laxness book from Iceland that you love. Big books let you sell little books."
At Patchett's keynote speech at Writers in Paradise, many people in the audience will be conference participants who are aspiring writers, hoping to write little books or big ones. What's the best advice Patchett can offer them?
"Work." Several decades into her career as a writer, she says, she has learned that succeeding means "doing the work. Don't be precious. Don't wait for the muse. Don't rework one sentence 700 times and never finish what you're doing. It's a job."
Patchett's six novels have ranged widely in subject matter. Her 2001 book, Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, combines the world of opera with a terrorist attack. Her most recent novel, State of Wonder, published in 2011 and included on many annual "best books" lists, sends a Midwestern scientist on a riveting quest into the Amazon rainforest to find two fellow researchers.
Despite such disparate settings and characters, Patchett says, "They're all the same book. I'm just really deft."
She sums up her recurring theme: "A group of strangers are thrown together by chance and form a society to work out their problems. Sometimes I think I've been clever and come up with something different, then I finish the book and say, 'Well, there it is again.' "
Patchett says it's important for writers "not to fight who they are. The construction of the family, the responsibility we have to each other — those are the themes I just can't break from. No matter how huge my imagination, and it's pretty huge, I'm still me."
Patchett has finished her next book, a collection of connected essays that is scheduled to be published in the fall. "It's called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It's about all the things I feel deeply committed to: books, bookstores, dogs, my husband." She has just begun working on another novel.
She'll also continue to advocate for bookstores, she says. "I do really think that if you just get up on your soapbox and keep saying it, people will buy books. I'm in a really unique position because people will listen to me. So I went on Stephen Colbert's show, I went on Martha Stewart. Now that's my job."
Patchett cites a quote she heard on NPR after science fiction great Ray Bradbury died last year. "I wrote it down so I'd get it right. He said, 'I'm not an optimist. I'm an optimal behaviorist. We assure the future by doing it.' "
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.