Ann Patchett is the winner of the Orange Prize, whose books include a memoir, Truth & Beauty, chronicling her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy, as well as such bestselling novels as Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars.
Her latest novel, State of Wonder, is equal parts medical thriller and adventure story as former surgeon Marina Singh is wrested from her comfortable life as a Minnesota pharmaceuticals researcher to undertake a mission in the perilous wilds of the Amazon. As Marina struggles to find her strong-willed former professor, Dr. Annick Swenson, her dangerous new surroundings teach her enduring lessons about both failure and redemption.
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You possess such an obvious mastery of all the medical terminology in State of Wonder. Can you describe your research process?
This was easy. My husband is a doctor, an internist, and luckily we have a lot of doctor friends. There were so many people for me to call along the way, and I could always say to my husband, “Under these circumstances, what is her blood pressure going to be? What weird anesthesia could they use for this surgery?”
What was the nature of your research where childbirth is concerned?
My husband’s daughter, Josephine, is a labor and delivery nurse. I remember calling Josephine and saying, “What’s a birth defect you’re never going to see?” And she immediately said, “Sirenomelia.”
In another scene in State of Wonder, a C-section must occur in a nonsterile environment with rudimentary tools. This is by far the most riveting birth I can remember in recent literature. Have you been present at a birth like this under similarly trying circumstances?
I don’t have children and frankly the very easiest births look like trying circumstances to me. I was present 15 years ago for the birth of a friend’s child. That was very straightforward. While I was writing the book I wanted to see a C-section, and I asked a friend of mine who is an Ob/Gyn if I could come along and watch. She found a patient who was agreeable. It was probably a pretty average operation, although the baby did get stuck. I had no idea how physical C-sections are, so much pulling and tugging and sweating. My friend kept putting my hand inside the patient and saying, “There’s the head. That’s the ovary,” then she wrenched out this baby who looked like a third-grader. I made it almost to the very end of the closure before fainting. It was so embarrassing.
After Marina finds Dr. Swenson and discovers the groundbreaking nature of the research being done, it becomes increasingly clear she is a personage who is accustomed to getting her way, one to be both feared and respected. Have you had the experience of working with a person like her?
Sure, but most of the powerful women I’ve known have also been incredibly loving. Grace Paley was a teacher of mine in college, and while there was nothing scary about Grace, I certainly put a dash of her into Dr. Swenson. You’d do anything she told you to do because she was a complete force of nature. Jane Friedman, the legendary publishing impresario, is like that too. I would follow Jane Friedman straight off a cliff.
Lastly, can you tip your hand a bit and let our readers know what you're working on next?
I was talking to my friend Julie Norcross, the former owner of McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., this morning and she said, “The book is almost out! You can stop rearranging your sock drawer!" I really have been cleaning house for a long time. I’ve also been writing a lot of essays. I have an idea for a novel, but I’m not going to start it until book tour is over. It would break my heart to be writing a book and then have to stop to promote another book.