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Ann Patchett Q&A

Ann PatchettAnn Patchett answered questions on State of Wonder, our July 2012 book club novel. 

Q: I'm fascinated by the idea of Amazonian women becoming addicted to the tree bark, & chewing it directly from the trees - does this come from anthropological studies? It's a great read. Harrikat

A: I made it all up. I decided on everlasting fertility as the highly profitable drug that was being developed and then I had to figure out how it might happen.  My husband, who is a doctor, came up with the idea of the moths laying their eggs in the split bark.  It was a great touch.

Q: I also loved this idea and the author takes us there and we are wrapped up in the story in an unputdownable way! Is there any evidence that this happens and if not how did this author come up with this captivating and controversial notion?  randomangel59

A: I am a professional imaginer.  I make things up for a living. It’s a little like gymnastics – you just train yourself over a long period of time.

Q: I found State of Wonder fascinating and would like to know if any such tribes exist that use the tree bark and mushrooms described in the story, and whether the author knows of groups of people with such immunity to malaria? whenim64

State of WonderA: All fiction.  I am very interested in malaria though, and I enjoyed reading Wade Davis’ book, One River, which had a lot to do with Richard Evans Schultes, the famous Harvard ethnobotanist who did a lot of work with hallucinogens. 

Q: Was there any truth in the tribe/research etc? Not sure that in our culture a woman would choose to have a child in later life. Magwis

A: It’s a terrible idea, isn’t it?  I like to say that it’s a horror novel. Everlasting fertility is NOT a good idea.

Q: I am really enjoying your book..it is so different..do you think they might make a film or tv film of it? weather

A: I’ve had a few film offers but I’ve turned them all down.  In the past my association with film people has driven me out of my mind. The reason I write books is because I don’t enjoy working with other people, and film is all about working with other people.  I’ve decided I’m much happier leaving the book alone.

Q: It's obviously not a very naturalistic novel - there's magic, and dream sequences and in some ways a preposterous basic idea (about extended fertility). I wondered to what extent you were using the jungle to explore ideas about modern American society? Very enjoyable read! Sneetch

A: The basic idea for me was about being an adult and finding the teacher who changed your life.  Students remember their favorite teachers but teachers, alas, forget us.  They’ve had too many students.  The fertility part was just a sideline to bring Marina and Dr. Swenson together again. As for the jungle, I just hate cell phones, texting, all of that.  I wanted to the characters to be isolated from technology, to be off the map, fending for themselves.

Q: I am quite interested in the long-distance relationships in the book - Anders and his wife, Mr Fox and Marina. Particularly how the lack of communication makes it almost an imaginary relationship (as Anders never received Karen's letters etc) - do you think that's accurate? (Certainly rang a bell with me!) effblinder

A: (see above.) I have no idea how to write a novel in which all the characters can communicate with one another all the time.  How can you have plot without misunderstanding?  I’m very troubled by this. I’m always working to separate characters from their phones so that they can be lost, miss one another, dream. When I was a child and my mother was late picking us up from school, my sister and I were sure she was dead. That is the dramatic place a child’s mind rushes to.  Now your mother just calls your cellphone to say she’s running late.  How does anyone grow up and separate anymore?

Q: State of Wonder inevitably draws comparisons with Evelyn Waugh's horribly chilling Handful of Dust and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible. Were you influenced by these books, intentionally or unintentionally? Or do you find such comparisons annoying? (If so, sorry!) Praxis

A: I haven’t read Poisonwood Bible (I feel so guilty about that!) but I was definitely drawing from Handful of Dust.  I love that book.  This book also owes a debt to The Ambassadors (a character is sent out to find someone who is missing, only to discover that that person is happier where he/she is) and also the jungle films of Werner Hertzog.  I never find comparisons annoying, as long as I am being compared to writers who are better than I am.

Q: Have you spent time in the rain forest yourself? If not, how do you make the descriptions so detailed and so vivid? At times it made my skin crawl. Grannyruth

A: I did go to the Amazon when I was about halfway through writing the book.  I loved it for about three and a half days.  I stayed for ten days.  By the time I left I hated it.  I would have sold my only sister to get out of there.

Q: Dr Swenson is so extraordinary - is she based (even a teeny bit) on anyone real? In fact, are any of your characters based on people you've met - and would they recognise themselves? Would it worry you if they did? Damealice

A: My stepfather is a doctor and so is my husband.  Doctors love to tell stories about their insane, larger-than-life teachers in medical school and later in their residency, so Dr. Swenson was readily available to me.  She was the easiest character to write because she was so domineering and certain of her ideas. I rarely base characters on someone I know.  They’re usually a composite of many people with a lot of imagination thrown in.

Q: I've enjoyed just about every aspect of this novel. The characterisation is great, with some very interesting and unusual characters. For once, a novelist who isn't trying to show how 'ordinary' the characters are. Dr Swenson is a great invention. Quite a bit of the plot is preposterous, when you think about it, but hey, this is a psychological adventure story and part of the craft of spinning the story is the way that the author weaves an atmosphere that is quite dreamlike, on the edge of nightmare - and then there are the 'real' dreams and nightmares that the characters experience. My question to Ann Patchett is 'How did you dream this story up? Where did it come from?' Thanks! nanakate

A: The part that’s a challenge to dream up is the structure, the plot, the reason to tell the story (finding your most important teacher again and realizing that all the stuff you’ve carried around wasn’t what you thought it was.) The other things -- the jungle, the fertility, the butterflies, the other people in the lab -- that’s the fun part. And hey, everyone thinks this plot is so far-fetched but don’t you read about older and older women having babies?

And hey, everyone thinks this plot is so far-fetched but don’t you read about older and older women having babies?

Q: Am enjoying it too. Took a while to get into it
though but now am hooked and finding it compelling - am about two thirds through! Finding myself drawn into the density of the rain forest. The characters of Marina and Dr Swenson are very well drawn. Dr Swenson is single minded strong and ruthless and Marina trusting and naive. Feel she is being drawn deeper into something....... Find it quite interesting that Mr Fox is not given a christian name which makes his and Marina's relationship seem even more distant. Was this deliberate to highlight Marina’s isolation? Silverbirch

A: Marina doesn’t call Mr. Fox Mr. Fox to his face, it’s just how she thinks of him in her head because he is her boss.  She can’t stop thinking about him as her boss. Also, my husband and I have been together for 18 years and he still calls me Miss Patchett which is, well, weird.

Q: I thought it was very clever the way you manipulated our feelings about Dr Swenson. I was convinced she was really malign for much of the book. Was it part of your intention to play about with the reader's perceptions? Were you in some sense writing a book about they way we look at things? Timeout

A: No.  I have to say I always liked Dr. Swenson.  I’ve read reviews that called her a villain but to me she is simply clear-headed and focused.  She wants to find a vaccination for malaria and save 800,000 people a year.  She wants other people to stay out of her way.  She’s very clear about that.  A friend of mine who read the book said Marina and Anders were the villains for bumbling around in her world and wrecking things.  That’s an interesting take as well.

Q: The Bovenders were great characters. They seemed incredibly vivid, although they didn't belong in their setting, somehow. Are you fascinated by misfits and eccentrics? Were they based on people you'd met or observed? I thought in many ways they were utterly repellent, and brilliantly written! Clodhopper

A: I’m on the board of my local public library.  Just before I started this novel the library had a big fund-raising gala with a silent auction.  I said whoever paid the most money to the library could be named as characters in my novel (not their personalities, only their names.) The Bovenders won.  They are short, polite, and very rich. I thought it would be fun to have Bovenders who were as unlike the real Bovenders as possible.

Other things you might like:

Q: I found Marina a bit infuriating. A lot of the time she seemed unreflective and obtuse. Was it part of your plan to make her unreliable and emotionally unintelligent?   (I must admit that for me this cast a shadow over the book; it got in the way of the story. I kept thinking, 'oh, don't be so useless!' But perhaps you didn't want us to identify with her too closely?) rosebud


A: I thought Marina was pretty plucky, but everyone sees things in different ways.  I wanted to write about a character who gets thrown completely out of her comfort zone and has to fend for herself.  At every stage she loses something.  With every loss she finds out more about herself.

Q: I really enjoyed the book. What's your view about the way women think about menopause? In your research, did you look at how women react to the loss of fertility in different parts of the world? (It's sometimes said Japanese women cope much better than women in the west because they're not so obsessed with youth - I don't know if that's true). Was it your intention to comment on the way society treats women once they've passed childbearing age? Flopsybunny

A: No, really fertility and aging were not central to how I was thinking about this book. I like the fact that most all of the women in this book, with the exception of the beautiful Barbara Bovender, aren’t vain or obsessed with their looks.  They’re smart, they care about science.  I didn’t do any research into how women feel about their loss of fertility but I DID reread Pinocchio, which is a says that when we get exactly what we want it turns us into Jackasses.

Q: Yes, like others I wondered at first when the story would take off, and then it did and I was hooked. Marina, emotionally stunted by her terrible mistake as a young doctor and also her cultural confusion has chosen a career that doesn't involve much social interaction and an older "father figure" partner. I've known people like that. The Bovenders just have a lot to learn. Freeloaders, because they can. In a way, it's all about couples, relationships, even Dr Swenson still holding a torch for Dr Rapp. My questions are all about what happened next. I'm curious. Did Easter make it back? What about Marina and Mr Fox? Can she settle in Minneapolis ever again or is she Swenson's natural successor...I sort of hope not, although the relationships she had in the jungle are so much more meaningful than her solitary life at home. Is she now purged of her guilt as a doctor? How do Marina and Anders continue in their working life after what happened? The only solid thing seems to me to be the Eckman family. There's so much in this novel. Thank you Gransnet. Boomerbabe

A: I believe a novel should stop at the moment that the reader has enough information to take the story forward for herself.  You have to figure out what happens next. However, you’re missing one important point (and many people have): Marina is pregnant at the end of the book. Remember the Lakashi women are repulsed by the bark from the moment of conception.  Marina wakes up her last morning in the jungle planning to go get bark to take home, and the thought of it makes her sick.  Now what do you think will happen to her?

Q: Oh yes, another thing (sorry!)... We know that female fertility is heightened by chewing the bark. Marina does this. She then has unprotected sex with Anders. Result pregnancy? Boomerbabe

A: I should have read ahead.