We talk to Ann Patchett about her novel The Dutch House; a powerful and moving story of a bond between two siblings and their childhood in suburban Philadelphia.
Is there a real Dutch House that inspired this novel?
There is no actual Dutch House. It exists in my imagination and in the reader's imagination. Everyone has a house or houses they think are spectacular. It may have been someplace you lived or someplace you drove past once. It could have been a museum or a historical home. The important thing is that the Dutch House in the book conjures up that feeling. I've taken bits and pieces from great houses I've been in over my life and run those details together carved wooden panels, the dining room ceiling, a tiny kitchen in a grand house, the staircase, the ability to see through certain houses. I love that.
Maeve and Danny were thrown out of their childhood home by Andrea. She's almost a fairy-tale evil stepmother. Was that the intent?
I was interviewing Zadie Smith about the idea of writing an autobiographical novel. She said she was writing about the kind of mother she was afraid of being. You can write something very autobiographical that has never happened to you because it's what you're afraid of. And I wanted to write about the kind of stepmother I would be afraid of being.
What about Elna?
One of the strangest things about writing a novel is that where you wind up is almost never where you think you're going to wind up. I wanted to write a novel about somebody who didn't want to be rich. The character of Elna is the character I started off with. Elna was poor and now she has this gorgeous house. It's the place where everyone wants to live but for her it's just much too much. She wants to walk away from wealth. As I wrote the story I became more and more interested in her children, the people who are left behind. It's still a book about wealth and poverty but ultimately I decided to write from the other side of the story; from the point of view of Danny and Maeve who grow up very rich and become poor.
Why did you write this novel from the point of view of Danny, not Maeve?
The book was always going to be told from Danny's point of view. Even though I think of it as Maeve's book, it was important to have his perspective. Maeve isn't the kind of person to tell her own story, which is really the first thing you have to ask yourself when thinking about writing a first-person novel. I did try to write it in third person but it didn't work.
Can you tell us something about the jacket for The Dutch House?
It was very important to me not to have any part of a house on the cover of the book. I wanted the portrait of Maeve to be on the cover. This turned out better than I ever could have imagined. I called my friend Noah Saterstrom (who also lives in Nashville) and asked him to paint Maeve's portrait. I gave him the two pages in which the painting is mentioned in the novel and based on those two pages, he did the painting in three days. It's not a portrait of a real person. I bought the painting from him. It's hanging in our den. I never get tired of it.
There are so many things I love about the painting, one is that it's actually part of the plot, so at some point the reader will look back at the cover and think, wait a minute! Also, you almost never see a woman or girl on the cover of a novel who has a direct gaze. Women's faces are very often turned away, half-covered by hats, or chopped off. It drives me crazy.
What are you reading now and what would you recommend others read?
I've just read Emma Straub's wonderful new novel All Adults Here which comes out in July. It's smart and funny and warm, the kind of novel you fall into and don't ever want to end, which is exactly what we need now. I'm also reading 100 Poems by Seamus Heaney. I find it helps. Didn't we always mean to read more poetry?
Louise Erdrich's newest masterpiece The Night Watchman is an epic tale of people who are determined to do the right thing and, against all odds, succeed. I'm putting my money on it to be a big winner this year. There's nothing more engaging than David Copperfield, or maybe this is when you finally get around to Sense and Sensibility. Sometimes stepping out of this modern age is just the thing