Ann Patchett on Writing Non-Fiction and Fiction: “I always feel like I am on a vacation when I’m writing nonfiction.”

From a post by Monique Brouillette headlined “What happens when a superstar novelist is asked to profile a superstar actress? Ann Patchett writes about Reese Witherspoon: No celebrity dirt, a storytelling structure, lots of dialog about books and houses and feminism”:

When I let myself indulge in celebrity profiles, I expect an enjoyable mix of gossip, gawking and who’s who. The successful mix usually includes a broken marriage, a rift with a parent or a glimpse into an admirable social life.

That is what I thought I would be getting when I tucked into the profile of Reese Witherspoon in the March issue of Vanity Fair. It’s Reese Witherspoon after all, whom I mostly associate with beyond-spunky Elle Woods, the sorority girl turned Harvard law student as played in the 2001 rom com “Legally Blonde.” I had a vague sense that it might be about the actress reinventing herself mid-life, making the leap from perky starlet to entertainment mogul. That would have been a good read, hitting all the marks. . . .

I spoke with Patchett about her process in crafting this profile.  Our conversation is edited for length and clarity, then followed by an annotation of the text.

When Vanity Fair approached you to do this profile, did the editors give you any guidance on what they wanted it to cover?
No. And not only that, but when I asked how long they wanted the piece to be, they said “anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 words.” That is a big gap. A 2,000-word piece is one thing and a 5,000-word piece is a completely different thing. It was very strange for me to go in with that kind of open space. And they pay by the word. They were basically saying that I was allowed to decide how much I wanted. Claire (Howorth) was like, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

How did you decide on structure?
I default to chronology and structure a piece around how the day is structured. I type up all my notes and pull out the good quotes. I run a highlighter over whatever I think is actually interesting. And then I just tell it like a story.

I’m a novelist. So it’s like, this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. Then I looked for the transitional moments where I could fold in the things about (Witherspoon’s) past or her career or the project she’s working on. But I use the actual time that we’re together as the scaffolding and then look for places to stick in the backstory.

What do you see as the difference, if any, between this kind of writing and your fiction?
Oh, there really is no overlap (laughs)! Except that I know how to write. But nonfiction is so much easier for me than fiction. In fiction you have to come up with everything —  endings, characters, everything. I always feel like I am on a vacation when I’m writing nonfiction.

But, in nonfiction, I worry about hurting people. You can make up your mind about somebody before you meet them and use their words for them or against them. . . .

But is there any overlap between character development in fiction and non-fiction?
In fiction, something that I think about goes back to a writing class I took in college. My teacher used to say that when you read Chekhov, if a postman delivers a letter, you have some sense of that postman even if even if the guy is on stage for one sentence. Through the words, you have a sense of that person. So I think that as far as minor characters are concerned, that is something that I get from fiction. Reese’s son walks in the room. I don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want to embarrass him, or drag him into it. He’s a teenager. He’s got his private life. But I can say he walks in the other room and plays piano. You have some sense of this kid, but it’s respectful.

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