Patrick Ryan and I met in Italy in 1999 and have been pretty much inseparable ever since. What more do you need to know? He’s the brother I always wanted. Given the circumstances of our friendship (part of this book was written in my house), our regular author interviewer and Musing editor Mary Laura Philpott decided to take the day off and let me drive the interview bus. Here are the results of that conversation. – Ann Patchett
I just reread The Dream Life of Astronauts and I found that I loved it even more this time around, which surprised me because I didn’t think I could love this book any more than I already did. I know you worked hard on this one for a long time but when it was all finished did you think, this is really special. This is exactly what I’d hoped for.
PR: Better than I’d hoped for because, if it weren’t for my editor, Noah Eaker at Random House, the book would have been loaded with two or three extra stories. It was Noah who nudged me to keep considering the common thread of place. So I think the finished book is pretty lean and tight. It’s more cohesive than I thought it would be.
None of the stories are really about Florida and the space program, but Florida and the space program are certainly the ties that bind this book together. Your last book, Send Me, was also Florida based. I’m not digging for autobiography here, but to what extent is Florida your muse?
PR: It took moving away to realize how interesting it is — truly a catch-all kind of place. Florida is the pool filter of the nation. Everything flows through it eventually, and some stuff gets stuck there. I grew up surrounded by people from all over the U.S., some passing through and many having relocated from somewhere else. Twenty different accents on any given day. I have yet to tire of thinking about it for material, so I guess that helps it qualify as a muse.
Talk about your relationship to the short story as opposed to the novel. We’ve been friends a long time, and I’ve seen you start a lot of novels that drifted away before you finished them, and at the same time you’re writing the strongest short stories of anybody out there. Are you content to be a brilliant short story writer or are you still looking for the right novel? Do you feel publishing pressure to write a novel?
PR: Wow — thank you. I am very content to be “a brilliant short story writer.” (Hell, I’d settle for being just a good one.) My relationship to the short form and the long form are tied up in how much I value economy in writing — both as a writer and as a reader. Sometimes, when I’m attempting to write a novel, my sense of economy slips away as I think of the broad canvas — all that open space I have to work with. And so a scene that should take, say, two pages goes on for twenty. That doesn’t happen to me when I’m working on a short story.
The only pressure I feel to write a novel comes from inside me; it’s something I want to do: write a proper, grownup novel. And I think the only way that’s going to happen is if I trick myself into thinking I’m writing a short story the whole time. A really long short story.
I just read George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (coming out next February), and I think that’s what he did. I think he wrote a really long George Saunders story that happened to work beautifully as a novel.
Is there any one story in this collection that’s closest to your heart? It’s so well balanced, like Salinger’s Nine Stories (which is the nicest thing I could possibly say about a collection of stories). I keep going over the stories and changing my mind about which one I feel the most connected to — “Fountain of Youth,” “Go Fever,” “You Need Not Be Present to Win” — I can’t decide. Just when I think your special genius is writing about the elderly, I remember your special genius is writing about children. And the middle-aged.
PR: This may be a little obnoxious, but I think the two stories I hold closest are “The Way She Handles” and “You Need Not Be Present to Win.”
The former because it started off being a kind of standard first-person narrator writing about childhood, but then it became something different. It became a story about parenting and addiction and how some people change while other people don’t. It projected into the future in a way that surprised me. And every time I look at it, it makes me sad in a very satisfying way.
The latter because I got brave with the point-of- view — letting it drift back and forth between two characters (I know that’s a walk in the park for you, but for me it was like an expedition to a distant pole; I needed maps, equipment, a backup plan!). Also because the message behind that story — and I say this as someone who never thinks about “messages” when writing stories — is that if you don’t treat people with loving kindness and respect, they will go away. No free passes because of special friendship bonds or even blood ties. You can’t toss out the golden rule without consequences. That’s something I firmly believe.
Yes. The ending of “The Way She Handles” takes that story to an entirely different level, the way it telescopes out into the future, that way Robbie, who is such an important character, just drops away. But the truth is you nail every ending in this book like a Russian gymnast springing off the balance beam. I remember there was one ending you were really struggling with and now I can’t remember which one it was. All evidence of struggle has been eradicated from the final copy.
PR: I struggled with almost all of the endings at one point or another. I struggled with the ending of “The Way She Handles” in part because I was trying to bring Robbie back — in order to avoid having him drop out of the story. That’s when I started to realize the story wasn’t Robbie’s, or even Robbie and the narrator’s. That was eye-opening for me. I struggled with the ending of “Summer of ’69” because I think I was trying to be artsy or grand or heavy or something, and my editor (or was it you??) said, “End on the bug! It’s perfect.” So I ended on the bug.
When you start a story, you’re batting your eyes at it, taking it to dinner, going out with it for a stroll. You’re flirting with it and hoping it will flirt back. When you end a story, you’re basically saying, “This has been really nice, and I think we should both move on.” (I spend anywhere from one to six months on a story.) So it’s more exciting to start, but it’s more hopeful and, in a weird way, life-affirming to write the ending.
You were an editor at Granta and now you’re an editor at One Story (which I love — all you short story lovers out there, get yourself a subscription to One Story). Tell us what short story collections we should be reading — old or new, it doesn’t matter. We’re a bookstore. We can get them in.
PR: The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams. The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann. Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.
It’s been a real pleasure. We can’t wait to have you back at the store.
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Meet Patrick Ryan on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, when he’ll discuss The Dream Life of Astronauts with Ann Patchett at 6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books. This event is FREE and open to the public. Meanwhile, check out the book trailer: