|photo: Melissa Ann Pinney|
When the news of the death of her colleague is announced with no details, Maria Singh sets out to find the truth about his research project and mysterious death deep in the jungles of the Amazon. What she finds is a whole different kind of life in the rain forests of Brazil, where every step and every breath can be threatened by bugs, snakes and disease. All of the odds are stacked against her until she uncovers, in tiny wisps of information, that this research may change all of humanity. Is it possible to extend human fertility well into our 80's? Can the bark of an indiginous tree wipe out malaria? These are a few of the subplots in this beautifully crafted novel.
Ann Patchett's powers of description are truly rare. One can almost feel and smell the humid scent of the verdant jungle. Her characters are substantial and not always likable, but you will care about them. A young deaf boy from a native tribe becomes a quiet hero. And, as Maria pieces together this puzzle, you will root for her every step of the way.
Ann will be visiting Kepler's on Wednesday, June 15th, at 7:00 PM. For more information, please follow this link.
Megan Kurashige: State of Wonder is your sixth novel. Can you tell us about some of the ideas or influences that became the engine driving this particular story?
Ann Patchett: I've done a lot of convocation programs in colleges where the in-coming freshman class all read the same book. Without ever meaning to I tend to write books with very little sex, very little swearing, and some sort of strong moral center, so I'm a popular pick. People always ask me to recommend a book for next year. I've had so many people ask me to recommend a contemporary work of fiction with strong female characters who aren't falling in love or falling out of love or being in some way defined by men, and I could never think of one. I think those conversations were probably my first step down the path to State of Wonder. I also wanted to write about a relationship between a former teacher and an adult student. That was very compelling to me.
MK: The novel is filled with such dense and interesting detail in both setting and incident. Why did you choose to write about scientists and the Amazon? Are there certain pleasures and challenges in writing within worlds and experiences that are so different from your personal history?
AP: I love making things up. I love to do research and to think about worlds outside of my own. To me this is the great pleasure of writing fiction, the freedom to imagine things. Once I decided I wanted to write about a teacher and a student I thought, okay, what did this student study? My husband is a doctor and I've always loved his stories about how barbaric medical school and residency programs were at times. I knew this was a place to develop some very strong characters. As for the Amazon, I wanted a setting that had malaria (I was always heading towards malaria) as well as great possibility for developing new drugs. Africa and India have more malaria but fewer pharmacological opportunities.
MK: You draw an incredible portrait of the effect that a teacher can have on a person's life and memories, and the imbalance that's inherent in most teacher-student interactions. Did you have any teachers who had an irreversible effect on the way you think?
AP: Absolutely, though they were nothing like Dr. Swenson. Allan Gurganus and Grace Paley had such a huge impact on my life. It isn't enough to say I admired them, I really wanted to shape my life so that it would be like theirs (though in truth I knew nothing about their lives). I was a quiet, hardworking kid at Sarah Lawrence, a place where flamboyance reigned, so I wasn't the kind of student anyone would notice. The two of them had an untold number of students over the course of their lives. In short, I shaped myself in their image and they really had no idea who I was. (disclaimer - Allan and I later became good friends.)
MK: You have written both fiction and non-fiction, and done so with both grace and a wonderful, intense lucidity. How does your process differ depending on what you're working on?
AP: In a nutshell, fiction is hard for me and nonfiction is easy. Fiction requires making up every single thing. You have to make all the people and their houses and jobs and all the trees and the leaves and decide who gets to fall in love and who has to die. Nonfiction is writing down what happened, recording what I saw, what I felt, where I went. There's almost no comparison. Writing nonfiction for me is closer to making a shopping list than it is to writing a novel. Please note, I do not feel this way about other people's nonfiction, only my own.
MK: How can stories change the world?
AP: Fiction gives us empathy. When done well, it forces us into other people's skin, it makes us live their experiences. One of my favorite books in the past several years was What Is the What? by Dave Eggers. I was so intrigued by why he chose to write that story as a novel, but it had a kind of life force that I think would have been very hard to achieve in nonfiction. It made the reader march through Sudan with those boys. It made it impossible to look away from their suffering because it became our suffering. That changes the world.