Ann Patchett Really Is This Nice

The bestselling author’s new nonfiction collection These Precious Days is, among other things, an ode to unconventional friendships.

Some writers write to understand themselves; others write to understand people around them. Ann Patchett belongs to the latter camp. The four-time New York Times–bestselling novelist — whose work has been adapted to films, plays, and even an opera — is fascinated by human relationships. “How other people live is pretty much all I think about,” Patchett writes in her newest book, an essay collection called These Precious Days, which is out today.

Patchett, 57, belongs to a rare breed of authors who have successfully traversed the tricky divide between popular and literary fiction — you can read her work at the airport as well as in the pages of the New Yorker. Best known for her novels, she has recently turned more attention to essay writing. These Precious Days is her most intimate work yet, demonstrating her mastery in depicting connections between people.

Patchett is a grande dame in the literary community — she hosts author events, mentors young writers, collaborates with other authors, and even co-owns Parnassus Books in Nashville. I met her early one October morning at this bookstore, which she opened with publishing veteran Karen Hayes back in 2010. Patchett takes all her interviewers here. Wedged between a Sherwin Williams and Fleet Feet in a strip mall in the posh Green Hills suburb of Nashville, the shop might have been easy to miss. But inside the store, not yet open to the public for the day, was a cozy book lover's paradise, filled with comfy chairs and carpets and dim lights dangling from the ceiling.

Settling into a black leather chair across from me, Patchett put me at ease, gracefully sliding both legs over the armrest as her 15-pound rescue dog, Sparky, hopped up and nestled into her lap. At one point during our conversation, when I struggled to remember my next question, she gently reassured me: “This is normal, you’re only human.”

At the heart of her new collection is a 66-page story about her transformational late-in-life friendship with Sooki Raphael, an artist and the longtime assistant to actor Tom Hanks. This title essay highlights Patchett’s unique aptitude for creating and nurturing friendships — her friendship with Lucy Grealy was the subject of her book Truth and Beauty — and how she deftly weaves these connections into riveting narratives.

Parnassus Books

Patchett’s writing, in line with her demeanor, demonstrates a wholesomeness almost unique among popular writers these days. It’s not political, edgy, or cool. Her cheery yet reflective outlook doesn’t subscribe to the self-consciousness that many younger authors seem inclined toward today. Her characters wouldn’t be called “mean-spirited,” for instance, as Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonists have been. (The latter author once told the Guardian that she often feels similarly to her characters, and that it may be better to be “detached.”) Her work doesn’t exhibit the same inventiveness that Carmen Maria Machado has been credited for. And she doesn’t perform the same cultural probing as Jia Tolentino does in her essays.

In contrast, Patchett is a better fit in the club of “feel-good” essayists, an older generation including writers like Anne Lamott or Calvin Trillin or the late Nora Ephron, whose stories are accessible and uplifting. (Yet even Lamott started her latest collection reflecting on climate change.) It’s this very vulnerability — her warmth, sincerity, and lack of pretension — that makes her a trustworthy guide. She’s a narrator who takes her readers by the hand, leading them through life’s ordinary events and spinning these events into something magical. Unlike many essayists today, Patchett does not fixate on polarization, the climate crisis, or global instability. Or, perhaps, she approaches these pressing issues from the other side. Through her eyes, the global pandemic offers a glimpse into our humanity. It is an opportunity for a new connection. It offers someone a new lease on life.

Born in Los Angeles to a police officer and a nurse, Patchett relocated to Nashville with her mother and sister when she was 6, following her parents’ divorce. She knew from childhood that she wanted to be a writer, and as a diligent literature student at Sarah Lawrence College, she published her first story in the Paris Review in 1984. In 1985, at the age of 22, she enrolled in the venerated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which she told me was a “poker game; some years, the teachers are unbelievably brilliant. Other years, they’re a little flat.” Patchett spent years writing articles and short stories for publications from Seventeen to Bridal Guide. For many of those years, she also waited tables at the TGI Friday’s restaurant on Elliston Place in Nashville. In 1992, at the age of 27, Patchett published her first book, The Patron Saint of Liars, officially launching her career as a novelist.

But it was 2001’s Bel Canto — a novel about terrorists coming to a party and taking the opera singer and audience members hostage, which was based on a true story and later became a feature film starring Julianne Moore — that earned her widespread acclaim. After the initial publication of 30,000 copies, the book became a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, and in just two years had reached a circulation of 700,000. She became, as she describes in These Precious Days, “rich.” “I had so much money I no longer knew exactly down to the last dollar how much I had,” Patchett writes. She went on to publish 2011’s State of Wonder, 2016’s Commonwealth, and her most recent novel, The Dutch House, a Pulitzer finalist.

Patchett’s work often contains elements of magical realism, fantasy, and mystery. Her stories are told from different perspectives and present a range of different plots, but many center on a set of complex characters and relationships — whether they are family members or a group of partygoers — that she writes deftly. It was a bit later into her career that Patchett began swiveling her (fictional) lens toward herself. She released her first essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, in 2013. A couple of years later, Patchett wrote Commonwealth, a story about a blended family in California in the ’60s, at the age of 52 ‚ it was her “first autobiographical novel.” As she once told the Guardian, “I’ve been writing the same book my whole life — that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family and it’s not your choice and you can’t get out.”

Patchett as a narrator comes across as refreshingly young at heart and kind — the kind of person you’d want to sit down with and share your life story with (as many have done).

Patchett has found essay writing — especially during the pandemic — far simpler than writing fiction, and noted that it offers quicker rewards. Her essays, which have appeared in outlets from the New York Times to the New Yorker to the Wall Street Journal, have come almost naturally: “Facts have a way of popping up, their buoyant truth shining all the more brightly with time,” she writes in the introduction to These Precious Days. “I decided to go all in.” They are widely accessible, universal, and personal — captivating due to their insight, rather than shock value. In contrast to other mainstream essays today, they can feel a bit Pollyannaish, a little vanilla, but Patchett as a narrator comes across as refreshingly young at heart and kind — the kind of person you’d want to sit down with and share your life story with (as many have done).

Her approach to writing fiction and nonfiction is the same: She does not follow the advice of some other writers — keeping a journal, sticking to a concrete schedule — but instead waits until an idea strikes.

“It takes me a long time to come up with ideas,” Patchett told me. She’s just starting a novel now, for instance, and has been “thinking about it for three years. I could have started it three years ago or two years ago or six months ago, but I would have thrown it out.”

She does all of her brainstorming without taking notes. “Part of it is forgetting. If it's good, I figure I'll remember,” she told me. “And if it's not, something else will come by.” After she has put pen to paper, no matter how much the story evolves, Patchett sticks with it. “Once I write, I get very attached to it; I try to make it work,” she explained. “So I let things change and change and change.”

Kristine Potter for BuzzFeed News

Ann Patchett at home in Nashville

These Precious Days touches on topics ranging from being raised by “three fathers” to not wanting children to a story about how author Kate DiCamillo turned her on to children’s literature.

Patchett's story about her friendship with Sooki Raphael is the ultimate reward in the collection. The pair met at a 2017 book event that Hanks invited Patchett to moderate, during which Patchett noticed Raphael’s gorgeous coat. Her “eye kept going to her, the way one’s eye goes to the flash of iridescence on a hummingbird’s throat,” she writes in These Precious Days.

The meeting led to Patchett asking Hanks on a “lark of the highest order” if he would narrate the audio version of her novel The Dutch House — the ensuing conversation between her and his assistant, Raphael, kicked off an “affectionate exchange” via email, and ultimately a long-distance friendship.

Patchett learned that Raphael was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she was “struck by an overwhelming sense of wishing I knew her, of not wanting to miss Sooki while she was here.”

She turned this wish into reality. Patchett invited her new friend to come to Nashville for treatment — and to move in with her and her husband, Karl. Little did the trio realize that they would soon be riding out a global pandemic together — cooking meals, practicing kundalini yoga, and walking Patchett’s dog.

About a month into the experience, Patchett knew she would write about it. “I needed to write it to process it, I needed to just get it down,” she said. Raphael was resistant at first, but, using her trademark charm, Patchett persuaded her. She would write the piece and then share it with Raphael. It would be “between the two of [them],” Patchett said, and they would decide together what to do with it.

The result is a uniquely heartwarming tale of an unconventional friendship, offering a window into Patchett’s way of existing in the world — open, welcoming, and engaged.

Patchett’s essay was first published in Harper’s in January 2021 with Raphael’s blessing. Raphael died from pancreatic cancer a few months later, in April 2021 — the epilogue in These Precious Days tells the story of Patchett’s final days with her friend. Patchett believes that her essay was “the biggest gift she could give” —even more than offering her home during COVID-19 — because she believes it ultimately helped Sooki “feel seen and understood” as the wonderful person all those knew her to be.

When Patchett left Nashville at the age of 17, she “didn't ever want to come back,” she told me. Returning for a visit when she was 30 — after Patron Saint of Liars, before Bel Canto — she ended up out on a couple of dates with a man named Karl, and started renting an apartment by the month. “I said to myself, ‘this is nice, but this is not what I’m doing with my life,’” she recalled. “I’ll go on when I break up with this guy.”

She never broke up with him.

Opening Parnassus cemented her place in Nashville, and Patchett believes her role as a bookstore owner, joining the ranks of other writers like Louise Erdrich, Emma Straub, and Jeff Kinney, is more culturally significant than her role as an author.

“As a bookstore owner, I’m bringing people every book they want; as a writer, I’m bringing them my book,” she explained. “It’s the difference between bringing one voice and bringing many voices and lots of choices,” respectively.

In this role, Patchett has also gotten an insider's glimpse into the publishing industry. Success is not about where you went to school, she said — going to Iowa, for instance, didn’t matter that much, in that regard — but she believes that “great always wins.” If the writing is great, she said, “there will always be a market for it.” Beyond producing great writing, Patchett’s been heavily involved in every step of the publishing process.

Jonathan Burnham, the president and publisher at Harper Division who began working with Patchett in 2011, remarked on her unique engagement — in everything from writing to reading to editing to promoting. She is a “dream author” who “takes it upon herself to really understand each aspect of what's going on. I've never seen that with other authors,” Burnham said.

Patchett has a knack for making, and maintaining, friendships with other writers. And this cannot simply be attributed to her role inviting authors to speak at Parnassus, from which several friendships have emerged. One of her longest and deepest writing friendships is with author Elizabeth McCracken, whom Patchett met at the Provincetown Writers Colony in 1990. In 2020, the pair had planned to return there for their “30th anniversary of knowing each other.”

From the start, McCracken took note of Patchett’s dedication to her craft. “I knew I couldn't be friends with her unless I worked hard,” McCracken said, and pretty quickly, the two began exchanging work.

“She’s the friend that gives me the book that is exactly the book I need.”

McCracken was the first to read Patchett’s first book, Patron Saint of Liars, on her twin bed at the residency. For many years, she would be her first reader — although now McCracken says that she is part of a “pipeline” of authors that Patchett leans on for editing guidance. The collaboration has helped McCracken, too. “If I write, I want to write something that she will admire. That itself improves my work.”

Barbara Kingsolver, another in Patchett’s pipeline, first knew Patchett by reputation before she “became her fast friend, as so many do.” Kingsolver spoke of Patchett’s uncanny ability to find the right book for every reader. “She's the friend that gives me the book that is exactly the book I need,” she said.

(At the end of our interview, I followed suit, asking Patchett for a book recommendation. She landed on a book that was at her house, a galley she would give to me. “Just follow my car,” she said. McCracken later informed me, “that doesn’t make you special; Ann takes everybody home.”)

Patchett’s goodwill toward the literary community is unusual, Kingsolver said. She’s “one of the truly most generous souls I've ever met,” wanting the best for all writers and readers, she continued. It’s unique in the literary world, which Kingsolver calls “notoriously ungenerous.”

“If you're doing well as a writer, you're at risk of being despised by other writers and being taken down by any reviewer,” she said.

A recent friendship has developed between Patchett and Lily King, author of Writers and Lovers. They met at the Southern Festival of Books

“I saw her in the museum in rubber rain boots, and she kind of reminded me of Christopher Robin, in that magical and lovely way,” King said. “She was so kind and so warm, immediately.”

In March 2020, at the start of COVID, they held a Zoom event together, which King describes as “the most magical experience. We started talking and forgot about the audience. It was like we were in person, with no one else around.” Since then, “a COVID friendship has blossomed,” King said. “It's been really one of the very best things about COVID for me.”

On top of these long-distance friendships — which include Maile Meloy and Kate DiCamillo and Patrick Ryan — Patchett has a handful of writer friends in Nashville and nearby. She swaps work with local Nashville authors Mary Laura Philpott, Margaret Renkl, Kevin Wilson. “We also talk about the books we're reading and the movies we're seeing and what we made for dinner — and we send each other funny pictures of our dogs,” she said.

Patchett’s ultimate goal seems to be a life well-lived, in service of those other important lives around her. For instance, she didn’t just encourage McCracken in her writing; she pushed her friend to learn how to operate a vehicle.

“Ann made me learn how to drive,” McCracken recalled. “I really didn’t want to; she was forceful.”

I asked Kingsolver — who was born in Kentucky — if Patchett’s warmth might be partially attributed to her Southern upbringing. She agreed that Southern women are often “well-schooled in kindness and hospitality and reading other people's needs.”

But “not everybody lives it the way Ann does,” Kingsolver stressed.

After our interview at Parnassus, I followed Patchett home so that she could give me an advanced reader’s copy, which she said was suited exactly for me. Later, sitting across from Patchett in her living room, drinking a seltzer, I sensed that I had become initiated into some kind of club — that others before me must have had this same feeling being in the company of Ann Patchett.

I mentioned something about how she welcomes people into her home. Other interviewers, she responded, have been nearly confused by her brand of hospitality.

“That’s the dirt on me,” she said with a laugh. “I’m nice.” ●

  • Hope Reese

    Hope Reese is a freelance journalist based in Budapest whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Vox, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @hope_reese.

    Contact Hope Reese at

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