Author Ann Patchett Couldn’t Read Until the Third Grade, So She Made Up Stories

From a Wall Street Journal story by Marc Myers headlined “”Tom Lake’ Author Ann Patchett Couldn’t Read Until the Third Grade, So She Made Up Stories”:

Ann Patchett is an award-winning author whose novels include “Bel Canto” and “The Dutch House.” She is the owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn. Her new novel is “Tom Lake” (Harper). She spoke with Marc Myers.

In 1969, when I was 5, my mother, older sister and I drove from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tenn. My parents had divorced a year earlier and my mom, a nurse, had fallen in love with a surgeon in L.A. who relocated to Nashville to set up a practice.

At first, we stayed with the family of the surgeon’s medical partner, and I was enrolled at St. Bernard’s Catholic School down the street. Sister Nena was my first-grade teacher. But we moved around so much that my sister, Heather, and I hardly ever went to school.

When second grade rolled around, I was again with Sister Nena. After a few months, we moved to Murfreesboro, 45 minutes away. Then in the middle of third grade, we returned to Nashville, and I was back in Sister Nena’s classroom. I had never learned to read.

What I had become was a brilliant little faker. I knew how to pretend to read, to be clever, to make up stories and to be entertaining to get by. But by third grade, Sister Nena had enough. “This isn’t acceptable,” she said.

She kept me from recess and made me stay after school. Initially, I was terrified of her and hid in the coat closet. But she’d find me, have me sit down and we set to work. She explained what the alphabet was and how the letters went together to form words and how to make sounds. By the end of third grade, I not only could read but she had made me fall in love with books.

I was a positive, cheerful child. My mother, Jeanne, used to say that when I was a toddler, anybody who came to our front door got a hug, including neighbors and the postman.

I also have fond memories of my parents through the bars of my crib. I remember my dad, Frank, a police captain, combing and braiding my hair, taking Heather and me to church and teaching us to swim and ride a bike. Leaving my dad behind was awful for Heather and me.

In Nashville, when I was 7, my mother married Mike, the surgeon. At first, the new arrangement was a drag for me, especially on Christmas. Heather and I both spoke with our father by phone on the second of every month and on holidays. The one day he’d cry on the line was Christmas. He was heartbroken we weren’t there.

To complicate matters, my stepfather’s birthday was on Christmas, and he’d fall apart every year. He never had a birthday party or cake growing up, nor did his parents acknowledge his birthday. Christmas made him relive the past.

After he married my mom, Christmas became a holiday of logistics. His ex-wife would have their four children Christmas morning in L.A. Then the kids would fly to Nashville to spend Christmas night with their dad.

It was a heavy lift for everyone. The kids arrived tired, and my stepfather would be in a giant sulk because nobody had celebrated his birthday when he was a child. One of my stepsisters and I would perform to cheer everybody up.

Despite all that went on, my mother was there for me and believed in me as a writer. I didn’t make good grades, but she never worried. She thought I was smart and that I’d catch up and everything would be fine.

My desire to be a writer started early, probably because I didn’t know how to read or write at first. As a little kid, I kept thinking, “I don’t know how to do this, but I want to be able to,” which became “I want to become a writer to tell stories.”

I suppose my ability to tell a story came from my good nature and a desire to keep everyone together. Catholicism also was the perfect prep. Religion, in general, is story-based and teaches you to believe in what you can’t see, and I did.

School was hard until eighth or ninth grade. Then I got it. Nothing came easy, but I had fantastic work habits. I never put off my homework and I studied hard. This continued at Sarah Lawrence College.

My first novel was “The Patron Saint of Liars.” I was 27 when it came out in 1992. The publication of my fourth, “Bel Canto,” in 2001 was a turning point. After 9/11, the paperback sold a million copies. People wanted to read a novel about terrorists and hostages.

Today, I live in Nashville with Karl VanDevender, my husband. I moved into his pink-washed brick house after we married in 2005.

When I was a kid, my stepfather had a cousin, Ann. She and her husband didn’t have children and I stayed with them for long stretches.

Their house is near where I live now. Growing up, I rode my bike up and down this street and dreamed about living here. Now I do.

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