Novelist Ann Patchett has a knack for taking her readers to completely new places. In 2002's Bel Canto, she blended terrorism and opera and now — several acclaimed books and almost a decade later — Patchett's out with a new novel about an Amazonian expedition.
State of Wonder follows medical researcher Marina Singh as she joins her former mentor in a search to discover a promising and valuable new drug in the Amazon. Patchett tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that she spent 10 days in the Amazon to get a feel for the book's setting.
"For the first three days, I thought it was the most extraordinarily beautiful, fascinating, all-encompass[ingly] gorgeous place I had ever been to in my life," she says.
But the reality of life in the Amazon soon caught up with Patchett.
"It's just so oppressive. The jungle squeezes in on you from every side and you can't go anywhere by yourself," she says. "You can't take a walk unless you have a guide with you because there's so many little, tiny things out there that can kill you."
The Lakeshi Tribe's 'Cautionary Tale'
Among the things protagonist Marina Singh encounters on her voyage are poison arrows, hungry snakes and the fictional Lakeshi tribe, where the women enjoy lifelong fertility.
"This is a very isolated tribe," Patchett says. "They're cut off from everyone and these women have no idea that all women in the world don't have fertility forever."
Before the book was finished, Patchett says, women often recoiled when she told them about her fictional Lakeshi tribe. She acknowledges that it is a bit of a "horror novel," but it's also meant to address some women's desire to keep their childbearing options open.
"It's a bit of a cautionary tale," Patchett says. "There's so much discussion about how you can freeze your eggs, you can get a surrogate, you can have children as late as you want. And this is a story in which I say, 'Yes, you can have children as long as you want. But, in fact, it doesn't really look so good.'"
Into A Woman's 'Heart Of Darkness'
Patchett cites Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Evelyn Waugh's Handful of Dust and Henry James' The Ambassadors as major influences, and it's no wonder — as the story develops, Marina seems to be journeying both into the wilderness and into herself. She's a reluctant adventurer; a smart, brave woman who, in the course of the book, loses nearly every belonging she brought with her. Patchett hopes her tale of endurance will inspire.
"She finds out so much about herself as she loses her luggage and her cell phone and her contacts with civilization and ultimately her clothes. She really finds her own strength," Patchett says. "She's telling us, 'If you are thrown off a cliff and into an ocean, you're gonna figure out how to swim.'"
It's the kind of lesson Patchett has put to use in her own writing career, where tackling so many disparate, exotic elements in one novel can quickly become daunting.
"Every single time I'm writing a book, I get to a certain place where I think, 'I cannot do this. I can't pull this off,'" Patchett says. "And the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I have always pulled it off before."
JACKI LYDEN, host:
Whether you've read the novelist Ann Patchett before, or never read her, she's a writer who will take you someplace you've never been. Patchett has, by now, established herself in American fiction as a novelist of many gifts who can transform unlikely elements into mesmerizing plot, as she did in "Bel Canto" in 2002 in which she blended terrorism and opera.
Now, several other acclaimed books and almost a decade later, Patchett is out with a new novel called "State of Wonder." Ann Patchett, it is a great pleasure to have you back on NPR again.
Ms. ANN PATCHETT (Author, "State of Wonder"): I'm very glad to be here.
LYDEN: You know, as I was reading this, I thought "State of Wonder" is packed up with so much to talk about, so many plot lines and so many fantastic things that happened, it's going to keep book groups happy all summer.
Ms. PATCHETT: I hope so.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: Would you just sort of talk about the beginning, talk about the mission of your heroine, Marina Singh?
Ms. PATCHETT: Marina Singh is a pharmacologist who works in Minnesota. And she does studies on cholesterol. And her office mate of seven years, Anders Eckman, has been sent to the Amazon to find out what's going on with a major research project that the company is funding. And while he is away he dies. So, when the book opens she's just getting the news that her friend has died in the Amazon and the company asks that she now go down there, both to find out what's going on with the drug and to find out how Anders died.
LYDEN: You make the Amazon come so alive. I mean, I could practically smell it. Would you read a description of the Amazon for us, please?
Ms. PATCHETT: Sure, I'd be happy to.
(Reading) Her scalp was soaked, her underwear, the ground beneath her feet loosened as streams of water sluiced between the trees. They heard a high whistle piercing through the thunder and wondered if it was their imagination. Imagination played a major role in the jungle, especially during a storm. They stopped and waited until the whistle came again and then a silence.
Marina turned her head and saw that what she had taken for a tree to her left was actually a pole. There were four poles. And five feet about her head was a platform and above that platform a palm roof. Four Lakeshi leaned over the edge, watching. Dr. Nkomo looked up, waved and the four waved back.
LYDEN: Now, the Lakeshi are a fictional tribe at the heart of this. But I just want to ask before we get to them, did you go to the Amazon, I kept wondering, to research any of this?
Ms. PATCHETT: I did. For the first three days, I thought it was the most extraordinarily, beautiful, fascinating, all-encompassed, gorgeous place I had ever been to in my life. But unfortunately I stayed for 10 days and by the end I was pulling my hair out, I wanted to get out of there so badly.
LYDEN: Because you were sick? Because of the bugs, the heat?
Ms. PATCHETT: You know, it was so claustrophobic. It's just so oppressive. The jungle squeezes in on you from every side and you can't go anywhere by yourself. You can't just say, I really want to have a moment and get away. I'm going to go take a walk. You can't take a walk unless you have a guide with you because there's so many little tiny things out there that can kill you.
LYDEN: Which you do a brilliant job of describing. And I just want to get back to Marina. Who is she trying to find? We had started to talk about this secret drug that's being developed for Vogel and it's being developed by her former intimidating mentor, a 70-something female doctor called Annick Swenson.
Ms. PATCHETT: Yes. Dr. Swenson was Marina's teacher in medical school, and Marina was both terrified of her, in awe of her, wanted to shape her life in order to please Dr. Swenson. I think this is probably a pretty common case in medical school, in residency, that you have this sort of terrifying overlord and then a group of young students who will do anything to please and toe the line.
LYDEN: She's a great character. I mean, I kind of adored her. She's really crusty. I kept thinking of Katherine Hepburn in "The African Queen." But I also kind of thought she's sort of like a more benign version of Mr. Kurtz, Joseph Conrad's rogue ivory trader in "The Heart of Darkness."
Ms. PATCHETT: It's true. And a lot of people have been saying, oh, this is "Heart of Darkness" for women, which definitely "Heart of Darkness" figures into this book but so do about five other novels.
LYDEN: I'm really glad you said that, though, Ann Patchett, because if you hadn't said that I was going to have to call you on that and tell you (unintelligible)...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PATCHETT: Oh, listen, I own up to my plagiarism fully. Evelyn Waugh, "Handful of Dust," Henry James, "The Ambassadors" - it's all in there.
LYDEN: All right. So, Annick Swenson's mission - I think we can say this without giving anything away; you let me know - Dr. Swenson is developing a drug based on tree bark eaten by the women of this fictional tribe. Yeah? I mean, you wrote it.
Ms. PATCHETT: Yeah, yeah.
LYDEN: These women were astonishing because they have lifelong fertility. Boy, that struck me as interesting terrain.
Ms. PATCHETT: That's very funny because whenever I've given a talk in the last year and somebody asks me what I'm working on and I say, oh, it's a book about a tribe in the Amazon where the women have everlasting fertility, and the women in the audience gasp and recoil in horror. And I always say, yes, it is a horror novel. But, you know, this is a very isolated tribe. They're cut off from everyone and these women have no idea that all women in the world don't have fertility forever.
LYDEN: What are you saying about our society here? At first I thought, women, everlasting fertility, why go there?
Ms. PATCHETT: Well, it does seem that women want to keep all of their options open forever. So, it's a bit of a cautionary tale. I do think there's so much discussion about how you can freeze your eggs, you can get a surrogate, you can have children as late as you want. And this is a story in which I say, yes, you can have children as long as you want but in fact it doesn't really look so good.
LYDEN: Marina is always a heroine that I think we'd all like to emulate. She's in her early 40s, she's smart, brave, funny. She loses every gadget and possession she's got, barely ever looks in the mirror. You gave us a reluctant adventurer who somehow thrives.
Ms. PATCHETT: It's true. She is reluctant and she doesn't want this to happen to her. There's a moment in the book where she says she prays for this cup of Brazil to pass over her. But she finds out so much about herself. She just does what she has to do. So, I think that Marina is a good role model. She is telling us if you're thrown off a cliff and into an ocean, you're going to figure out how to swim.
LYDEN: You know, I also love the relationship between the two women - the older Annick Swenson, the younger Marina Singh. Annick Swenson tells Marina at one point: The brain is a storage shed. You put experience in there and it waits for you. And I wondered if that holds true for you as a writer because you put together so many elements, including here, in all your novels I think and you make a really compelling story where one would think it might not work.
Ms. PATCHETT: I think that is really true for me because every single time I'm writing a book I get to a certain place where I think I cannot do this. I can't pull this off. And the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I have always pulled it off before. And so that ability must be in me somewhere. The hardest book for me to write was my first book because I didn't know that about myself. I wasn't sure I'd be able to make it. But now every time I come up against the wall of my own doubt, I think this is that moment where you come up against your doubt and you always push through and you always find your way.
LYDEN: Ann Patchett. Her newest novel is called "State of Wonder." You can read and excerpt at NPR.org. She joined us from Nashville. It's been a great pleasure talking to you.
Ms. PATCHETT: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.