Conversation: Ann Patchett

July 2, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The book is “Bel Canto,” this year’s Penn Faulkiner winner for fiction. The author, Ann Patchett, has set her novel in an unnamed South American country where guests at a lavish party have been taken hostage at the Vice President’s mansion. The fiction closely echoes a real event.

In 1996, terrorists took 400 people hostage at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru. Both stand-offs lasted for months, but in Patchett’s retelling, the clash of language, culture, and fear behind the mansion’s walls also becomes a story about the power of music and the power of redemption.

Ann Patchett, welcome and congratulations.

ANN PATCHETT: Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: What was it that happened in 1996, at this hostage taking in Peru, that suggested this novel to you?

ANN PATCHETT: Well, I definitely have a theme running through all my novels, which is people are thrown together by circumstance and somehow form a family, a society. They group themselves together. So as I’m watching this on the news, it was as if I was watching one of my own novels unfold. I was immediately attracted to the story.

GWEN IFILL: One of the critics– and you got a lot of very good criticism about this book– wrote, and it struck me, he described this as a novel about the power of music, also about the power of love which is not quite the same thing although related. What is the relationship between these two things as you tell it in this novel?

ANN PATCHETT: I think it’s all about beauty. It’s all about the call to some higher form of life and existence. All of these people… half the people, the terrorists are very poor, very young, coming from a life of terrible struggle. The other half, the hostages, are very wealthy, very driven, strong, powerful businessmen for the most part. But they are two groups of people that have never had a moment to slow down and reflect. During this period that they’re held hostage for four months, they’re taken outside of society totally, and they’re left to sit and think and reflect. And the thing that they most reflect on is on is opera music.

GWEN IFILL: That is interesting to me. What about opera? What is it that placed itself in the setting? And how were you drawn to it?

ANN PATCHETT: When I was watching all of this unfold on the news– and the book is about 98% fiction– I thought this is so operatic what’s happening in Lima. The only thing that’s missing from this story is an opera star hung up with the rest of these people, which is the nice thing about being a novelist instead of a journalist. When you see a story that is crying out for an opera singer, you just stick an opera singer into the story.

GWEN IFILL: Were you an opera fan?

ANN PATCHETT: No, I didn’t know anything at all about music, but I knew enough to know something was operatic when I saw it. So I buckled down and started doing my research and became an opera fanatic during the course of writing this book, and I’m still an opera fanatic.


ANN PATCHETT: The people who grew up with it I think are more controlled and tasteful. The people who come to it in their middle 30s, it’s like being a religious convert: You become frantic on the subject. I now corner people at cocktail parties and talk to people about opera.

GWEN IFILL: Just like the people in your novel.


GWEN IFILL: You talk about the protagonists, both sides end up being protagonists. Even the terrorists end up being protagonists. Could you read a passage for us about one of them — Carmen, who becomes one of the central kind of sympathetic figures in the book.

ANN PATCHETT: Sure. Of course in my book there is a terrorist named Carmen.

“There was one other person there who understood the music, but she was not a guest. Standing in the hallway, looking around the corner to the living room was Carmen, and Carmen, though she did not have the words for it, understood everything perfectly. This was the happiest time of her life and it was all because of the music. When she was a child dreaming on her palette at night, she never dreamed of pleasures like these. None of her family left behind on the mountains could have understood that there was a house made of bricks and sealed glass windows that was never too hot or too cold. She could not have believed that somewhere in the world there was a vast expanse of carpet embroidered to look like a meadow of flowers or that ceilings came tipped in gold or that there could be pale marble women who stood on either side of a fireplace and balanced the mantelpiece on their heads. And that would have been enough. The music and the paintings and the garden, which she patrolled with her rifle, but in addition, there was food that came every day, so much food that there was always some wasted no matter how hard they tried to eat it all. There were deep white bathtubs and an endless supply of hot water pouring out of curved silver spigots. There were stacks of soft white towels and pillows and blankets trimmed in satin and so much space inside that you could wander off and no one would know where you had gone. Yes, the generals wanted something better for the people but weren’t they the people? Would it be the worst thing in the world if nothing happened at all? If they all stayed together in this generous house? Carmen prayed hard. She prayed while standing near the priest, in hopes that it would give her request extra credibility. And what she prayed for was nothing. She prayed that God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone.”

GWEN IFILL: That is how the terrorists were seduced into their setting and ended up staying there for months and months. But also, the hostages were also seduced in a way into the comfort of this creation that you’ve written for them, this place, this comfortable place where they didn’t have to worry about their lives. How did you avoid kind of the clichés of just writing about Stockholm Syndrome?

ANN PATCHETT: I read a lot about Stockholm Syndrome. Patty Hearst was a huge childhood fascination of mine. I’ve always followed her story. I think that the differences, with the Stockholm Syndrome people are somehow fooled into thinking that they identify with their captors. In this book, they actually do. I don’t think that it is a syndrome. I think that they have so much compassion for these people, who are mostly children who take them hostage, and they spend so much time together, they play chess together, they play soccer together. They enjoy the music together. They really do find their common humanity.

GWEN IFILL: Even though this book begins– and I don’t think I’m giving anything away– it begins and ends with kind of a burst of violence, none of your heroes seem particularly heroic and none of your villains seem particularly mean.

ANN PATCHETT: One of my great shortcomings as a novelist is that I have no talent for villains whatsoever. Any time I have someone who I think, “a-ha, this is my villain,” once I’ve written about them for three pages I fall in love with them. I think that whenever you get close enough to see who someone really is, you can find out the soft spots, the tender spots in their character. So I do… I fall for them all.

GWEN IFILL: One of your main characters is the translator, the one person in the room who can speak these tower of Babel of languages which have been assembled for this big party.


GWEN IFILL: I wonder if this isn’t the story about the power of language as well as of music and of love.

ANN PATCHETT: Well, it’s about the power of language originally; how much everyone wants to be able to communicate through their own language and the traditional means they’ve always communicated before. But I think that it’s also about going beyond language. And they come to realize finally they can communicate through their love of music, they can communicate through romantic love. They find ways to rise above language. So Gen is incredibly necessary at the beginning of the book, but in a way he falls off towards the end.

GWEN IFILL: Was there any peril for you in trying to fictionalize, even though you say it was 98 percent fiction in the end, fictionalize something that had its roots in a real terrorist incident?

ANN PATCHETT: It didn’t seem a problem to me. And what was interesting was when I sent this book around to different editors– of course it didn’t come with a piece of paper from me saying, this is the based on the takeover of the Japanese embassy– no one knew. Not one person recognized the real events of the story. I think that since the book has been out and it is in the publicity materials so it turns up in the reviews of the book, everyone knows.

But it’s the reason that I call the country “The Host Country” instead of Peru, because I thought by the time this book comes out no one is going to remember this. Tragedy, in my experience, is always replaced by tragedy. We hold one crisis close to our heart until the next crisis comes along and it obliterates the one before. So we tend not to remember things that happened six years ago in South America.

GWEN IFILL: Were you surprised to win this award?

ANN PATCHETT: I was so beyond being surprised. I was… just to be nominated was incredible. And I knew about the nomination probably a month before I found out that I had won. And then I won. It’s so wonderful and I’m so inarticulate in the face of it. I keep thinking if my career goes bust next week and I never do anything, I’ll always have this and I’ll always be so proud of it.

GWEN IFILL: It hardly seems likely, Ann Patchett. Thank you very much for joining us.

ANN PATCHETT: Thank you.