Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the Ann Patchett Fan Club?
As you may be aware, last Monday I got to do an event in Baltimore where I was in conversation with Ann Patchett of the Ann Patchett fan club and--I say this completely without hyperbole--my entire life has changed.
While I am a huge fan of Ann Patchett's and she--very kindly--recommended my first book on PBS NewsHour in 2020 at the behest of Sissy Gardner, one of the bookseller's at Ann's store Parnassus, I never imagined there was a world where she and I would ever interact because she is from Heaven and I am an extra in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Where would we even cross paths?!
I spent the last month vibrating with happiness and paralyzed by stress, which are my signature colors. If you've read my last book, Congratulations, the Best Is Over! or listened to the audiobook (which Ann has!!!!) you know that my former therapist and I often bonded over our shared appreciation of Ann Patchett's books and when my first book came out, I had an event planned at Parnassus where my primary goal was not promoting my book but rather getting an Ann-themed tote bag so I could give it to my therapist, Brian, and win therapy.
When I got the email about the Ann Patchett event my first thought was "Brian is going to love this" which is why I am a pleasure to have in class.
I spent the last month re-reading all of Ann's books plus listening to interviews with her, which is such a delight and a joy. However, all of this preparation did make for a slightly awkward moment right after we met. We were upstairs at The Ivy signing book stock across from each other and chitchatting (MY VERSION OF HEAVEN!). Ann asked me what I was reading lately and I was like "Ann, I'm reading Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, with an audiobook performed by Meryl Streep, as I do every day." Ann took this information graciously and then informed me that I needed to think of something else because we were going to film a video together for Parnassus and in it I'd recommend a book.
A true fact about me is that the minute anyone asks me what I'm reading, I forget that books exist as a concept in general. It's like they do the Men in Black flash to me. I couldn't very well say to Ann Patchett "Please hold while I pull up my GoodReads to figure out the name of the book I read literally yesterday" so instead my eyes wildly searched the shelves of the stockroom until I found a book I'd read recently and enjoyed: North Woods by Daniel Mason.
If I had it to do over again, I'd also recommend Search by Michelle Huneven or Idlewild by James Frankie Thomas, my two favorite books of the year.
This is getting long so let's cut to the chase: never meet your heroes unless your hero is Ann Patchett. Her clarity about who she is and what she puts into the world is bracing and inspiring; the charm and authenticity and generosity and casual wisdom that leaps off the pages of her books, particularly her non-fiction, nearly bowls you over in person. She told me about how high a standard she has for which of her ideas become novels, remarking that she didn't want to waste her time or the reader's. And while I may have heard something like that before, from her mouth it echoed through my brain like church bells. I can't stop thinking about it and talking about it. It is not enough to say I'm inspired. I feel like I got a superpower. I want to be better in every way. I want to delete all my social media because Ann doesn't have a cell phone. (Oh my goodness, there was one moment during the event when I shared that I get distracted while writing all the time. She asked what I did when that happened and I confessed that I usually started scrolling on my phone. She was aghast. She actually said "YOU WOULD GO ON THE INTERNET WHILE WRITING?" Ann, I am sorry. I am canceling my AOL account right now.)
I'm glad she's not my mentor in an MFA program because I would truly upend my entire life trying to make myself like her and that's not the point. The point is to make myself the truest version of me that I can and let the work come from that truth.
That said, if Ann Patchett tried to sell me Amway, I'd go broke buying it.
She has such strong opinions! I asked one of the event staff if we were using handheld or lav mics. Ann said, matter-of-factly but emphatically, "You can't be funny with a lavalier." And I've never thought about it before but now I think that every lav mic in the world should be destroyed.
After we signed our stock at the bookstore, we headed out to the event venue, Church of the Redeemer, which is a five minute drive away. I walked with Ann and Emma, the owner of The Ivy, to Emma's car, and then Ann turned and asked me "Should I ride with you instead?" Obviously, this was a dream come true but also a nightmare because I did not have time to buy a brand new car in the next 45 seconds.
I keep a neat car but the backseat does tend to collect Target bags and masks. I scurried around, trying to quickly tidy up, and then unlocked the door so Ann could get into the passenger seat. As I hit the ignition, the realization came to me a moment too late: my phone automatically connects to my car stereo and will start playing whatever I was last playing. The last thing I'd played was the end of Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, which meant that when I started my car, with Ann Patchett sitting in the passenger seat, the first thing we both heard from the stereo was Ann Patchett's voice saying "Hi everybody, this is Ann Patchett, thank you for supporting your local independent bookstore and for supporting my new novel Tom Lake by listening to Meryl Streep read it to you on Libro.fm."
There were over 1,000 people coming to the event and we got caught in a line of cars coming into the church. I said to Ann--my hands glued to Ten and Two on the wheel; my driving glasses ON MY FACE--"Ann, this is a Beyoncé concert." Kindly, amazingly, she said "I'm Taylor Swift; you're Beyoncé."
To start the event, Emma was going to lead me and Ann down the center aisle of the church, down to the pulpit. Ann said, "Oh, it's like our wedding!" And that's exactly what it was. By some miracle of the universe, Ann Patchett and I got married in front of 1,000 people, including my actual husband, my former therapist, and my senior year prom date, Lisa Warren. No gifts are necessary. I have everything I could ever want.
Oh! And afterward, I asked Ann if she would mind saying hi to Brian, my former therapist. She told me to have him sent up to the Green Room. David ran out to the parking lot and looked in every exiting car until he found Brian and brought him, plus Brian's wife, and pastor, up to the Green Room, where I stood giddily to the side as the two people who have held my brain together got to meet. I was truly like a parent on Christmas morning watching this, grinning, exhorting them "TAKE A PICTURE!"
Brian brought his Tom Lake tote bag and his copy of This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (excellent, read it). Ann signed both. On the tote she wrote "Eric won therapy."
One more thing: I have such deep love and high praise for the staff at every independent bookstore I've had the privilege of visiting this year, and of course I want to give a special shoutout to the folks at The Ivy--Hannah, Emma, Gemma and everyone else who worked so hard to pull of this amazing event. Support them in person and online and support Parnassus in Nashville, the Ann Patchett mothership, where they've always been so exceedingly kind and generous to me and my work!
You can't be funny with a lavalier,