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Ann Patchett and the ghost of Lucy Grealy

 Anatomy of a friendship

They were the closest of friends: Lucy Grealy, a difficult, gifted writer disfigured by cancer, and Ann Patchett, writer and good Catholic girl. But after Grealy died of a heroin overdose, the now famous Patchett made their bond the subject of her new book.

“THE thing you can count on in life is that Tennessee will always be scorching hot in August.” Ann Patchett's opening sentence in her latest book, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, is unequivocal. I double-check the hotel address, then the calendar. Yup, I'm definitely in Nashville, and it's definitely August. So how come the day is so flawlessly surreal and clear-skied, 30C with no humidity?

 

“Nashville has never known an August day as perfect as this,” Patchett laughs when I raise the contradiction. “Never. Not ever.” The benign weather, it seems, is a meteorological fluke involving storms in Canada, extensive cold fronts and unprecedented wind flows. Or just dumb luck. Either way, I'm told to count myself lucky to have escaped the hellhole it usually is in summer. And I'm inclined to do so -- as befits the youngest daughter of a Nashville nurse and a Los Angeles police officer, the Patchett demeanour has enough of a briskly no-nonsense edge to it to instil deference.


As germane to her character are these three facts: she has never owned a television set, she has shunned red meat for 31 years since she was given a pet pig at nine, and she is rated by many as among the world's better novelists. If her childhood was solidly grounded in working-class values, her fiction training was literary blue blood (Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where her tutors included noted American authors Alan Gurganus, Russell Banks and Grace Paley; a stint at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop; a later residential fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, Massachusetts).


Her four novels have won fans and awards from the first, The Patron Saint of Liars in 1992, which received a James A. Michener/Copernicus Award and facilitated a Bunting fellowship to Radcliffe College. Taft in 1994 won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and The Magician's Assistant in 1997 earned her a Guggenheim fellowship. Her great leap forward, however, came with her last, Bel Canto, a dazzling tragicomic fantasy of terrorists and opera that took out both the PEN/Faulkner Award in the US and Britain's Orange Prize in 2002.


All of which makes Truth & Beauty an enigmatic departure, given it is her first work of nonfiction, and that it is deeply and hauntingly personal. In spare if straightforward prose, it charts Patchett's 17-year friendship with flamboyant poet Lucy Grealy, whose own memoir, Autobiography of a Face, was an international sensation in the mid-1990s. At the age of nine, Irish-born Grealy had been stricken with Ewing's sarcoma, a cancer that led to the removal of a large part of her jaw and condemned her to 38 gruelling -- and failed -- operations to salvage her face before she died in December 2002 of what the coroner ruled was an accidental heroin overdose.


Described succinctly by novelist Joyce Carol Oates as “a Carson McCullers character, part waif, part vampire”, Grealy was neither “survivor lit” heroine nor novelist's idealisation: in Patchett's story, she is needy and emotionally greedy, brave and cowardly, loving and exasperating, brilliant and brilliantly self-destructive. Yet the book, although unflinching, is also a poignant, sometimes humorous and always evocative insight into women's friendship generally, and these women's friendship in particular. Its true beauty lies in its beautiful truths, uncovered amid layers of anecdotes and asides.


* * *


PATCHETT and her partner Karl, a surgeon in charge of a Nashville hospital complex as extensive as a small city, meet and greet me by whisking me off on a scenic tour past the Grand Ole Opry and other country music icons then along grandly sweeping avenues of grandly sweeping homes to the Cafe Loveless, an outskirts-of-town institution famed for its spicy fried pork with grits. Then it's down to business back at their home after a tense appraisal from house boss Rose, an eight-year-old bitzer who is the apple of the Patchett eye -- who else but the besotted would brush their dog's teeth every morning?

 

Patchett's home is like her: a neatly coiffed package, sophisticated yet unassumingly welcoming. Upstairs is a spacious, well-ordered writing loft; downstairs it is Home Beautiful with discernment, classy artworks and quirky ornaments. We settle on the patio, where Rose rides chaperone shotgun on Patchett's knee. Earlier, a hotel busboy had spotted my copy of Truth & Beauty and was quick to tell me the writer was a local. When I mentioned the book was about friendship, he grew philosophical. “Somebody told me,” he said, “that the difference between men's and women's friendships is that men stand shoulder to shoulder and stare out into the distance while women stand face to face and stare at each other.”

 

If it were an axiom, it still seemed prescient and Patchett is equally impressed. “Men's friendships also revolve around doing things, while women are more likely to sit together for hours, just talking. But I know nothing about men; women I'm very good at.”


She believes people are variously oriented towards friendship, family or love, and she is hot-wired towards the first, a facility encouraged by “12 years' grooming at a Catholic girls school”, even if the nuns did frown on special closenesses. “When I was in my 30s,” she says, “my mother told me that my high school principal -- a nun I despised -- once said, `You know your daughter is a lesbian, she's always holding hands with other girls and they sit in each other's laps. You need to do something about it.' God bless my mother for never telling me that, it would have had a terrible impact on me to think there was anything sinister about my friendships at that time.”


Grealy and Patchett both attended Sarah Lawrence College, where Patchett was the self-confessed industrious Catholic swot and Grealy the brightest star on campus, but they became friends only after they were flung together as housemates at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. This was a friendship more complex than others Patchett had experienced, tied in not just with closeness and Catholic conscience but also with literary and life aspirations. “We weren't close because she was sick,” says Patchett with some emphasis, “although that made it more demanding than a friendship between two healthy people -- with Lucy, you had to physically show up at the hospital and bathe and carry and dress wounds, and there's a real intimacy in that. But I didn't lose my only friend when she died, and I wasn't her only friend -- she surrounded herself with a network of close friends. It was her need, her joy and her strength.”

While her friendship with Grealy was a passionate bond, it also carried certain obligations -- she was difficult and infuriating and fey and charismatic ... “All true, and that's why I wanted to write the book immediately after her death because I was afraid that if I left it until later, I'd forget those things.” Death, she says, has a way of making us gloss over what was difficult about a person, “and what was difficult about Lucy figured in greatly with what made her wonderful. I wanted to remember her for who she was totally, and not make a pretty package later on.”


About three weeks after Grealy died, Patchett wrote an article on her for New York magazine, which became the genesis of Truth & Beauty “because I thought of so many more things I wanted to say. It was a six-month period of constant writing and recalling.” And yes, the process was eventually cathartic, although “it wasn't as if I finished the book and felt better. There was a lot of struggle around getting permission from her family to reprint Lucy's letters in my book, and the literal struggle obliterated the emotional struggle after a while. The family resisted a lot, they just wanted it to be over, they didn't want this in their face.”


They still don't. About a week after our interview, Grealy's sister Suellen accused Patchett in Britain's The Guardian of hijacking the family's sorrow. “My sister Lucy was a uniquely gifted writer,” she wrote. “Ann, not so gifted, is lucky to be able to hitch her wagon to my sister's star.” There was more. Patchett, Suellen said, had approached the family when they were vulnerable and had treated their sensibilities with disregard. Lucy's twin sister Sarah “and I have been travelling too long in the land of grief,” she noted, “and we would like to come home, to prop our pictures [of Lucy] on the mantelpiece and get on with our lives. But there is the book: what can we do with a grief thief?”


On top of comment in US literary circles that Truth & Beauty was published too soon in the US (in May this year, less than 18 months after Grealy's death), her sister's attack might be expected to have hit Patchett hard. But when I ask, she emails that “blessedly, I've somehow been protected from that article, although I got a note from a friend of Lucy's saying, `I just wanted to tell you I was appalled by what Suellen said in The Guardian and no one thinks it's true.' But that's all I heard about it.”

As for her response? “In the book and after the book, I've been supremely respectful of Lucy's family and have not talked about them at all. To respond to the article, I'd have to read it, and that's not going to happen.”


This sentiment is consistent with our meeting in Nashville where she told me I could write whatever I liked about her “because I never read reviews of my books or articles on me”. She also said then that when she received the last signature from the Grealy family permitting use of Lucy's letters, “That was when I felt my great relief. The letters were integral because they make the book a real conversation, and a conversation of style too, because I am a very straightforward writer and Lucy was the moon and the stars when she wrote, she was much more acrobatic and passionate.”


This, of course, is as self-denigrating as Suellen Grealy's slight was cruel and when I mention overt modesty, she laughs. “They taught us a lot about that at Catholic school too, but it's not disingenuous to me.”


They taught them a lot about discretion at Catholic school too, yet her book confronts awkward truths about Grealy and herself with unsparing candour. “There's no way I could write it today,” she admits, “because I could not be as honest and open about her, or myself. But in that time of devastation and grieving, I just didn't care.”

 

Nor is she embarrassed at the self-exposure because she believes it was the only way to deal with grief, “which is just to go right through the centre of it and remember everything. I had pictures of Lucy all over the house, I collected tapes of her giving interviews, I made up tapes of her favourite music and listened to them over and over again, in the car, in the house. It killed me at the time but in the end it helped me.”


While the book is a meditation on friendship, it's also the diary of a literary love affair, and a discourse on the art of art -- art as a guiding force, solace and platform for idealism. “And art as a business,” she adds. “We loved our art passionately but we also wanted our art to take care of us -- we wanted to be able to eat off of it and not be secretaries who came home and wrote at night.”


Unlike Grealy, whose literary fame came in her 30s, Patchett found writing recognition very early -- although that depends, she says, on how you define writing: “I mean I was the contributing editor at Bridal Guide for several years, I wrote for Seventeen on how to decorate your locker ...” And you had a short story published in the Paris Review when you were 20. “That was a big, big deal, but it was a story that happened out of order -- the rest of my work then and for some years after was just good college fiction. It attracted attention but I was incapable of writing anything else that good. And not for several years.”


Now, having written a book to confront her grief, she has also created a circumstance where “everybody wants to talk to me all the time about Lucy. Normally other people don't want to be involved in a never-ending conversation about the person you have lost, but not a day goes by when I don't at least get one letter, and sometimes 10, about Lucy. And people call, her friends, my friends, people who have read her book or who have facial deformities, and they all want to talk about her.”


Initially, she was reluctant to reply “but now I think it's a gift and a responsibility -- it keeps Lucy in my life and keeps residual grief from getting stuck. If grief is a sludgy river, better to keep it moving until the water is completely clear.”


Look, she says tangentially, “Lucy was a terrible pain in the arse when she died, the last year and a half of her life was dreadful. Heroin does not make us good people -- she was a liar, she was weak, she just wasn't as smart. That's a horrible thing to say, but she said it. By writing this book, I brought myself back to the beginning of the story. And when I looked at the whole picture, I saw that here was someone who should have died at nine but who made it to 39 -- that's pretty good.

 

“Lucy really did something: she wrote a beautiful and important book, she loved deeply, and was deeply loved by many people, she inspired people. People write to me to say her book made them overcome restrictions caused by their deformities. If that's what your life is remembered as, you've done a good job. She had a really tough life and she did a really great job with it, if only for her ability to tell a joke, or be the first one to get up to dance, or always be the one to say, `Let's have the party at my house.' “


Nevertheless, by the time Grealy died, writing had pretty well given her up. She had failed several times to deliver a novel for which she had received a celebrity's advance and her life was spiralling downwards, fast. When they were young, Patchett says, Grealy wanted love and success equally. “After she achieved success, she forgot she ever wanted it -- all she could focus on was love from men. That was the real tragedy.”

 

Yet that was more to do with her personality, I suggest, than with her disfigurement. “I really believe it was, but she always believed that if she had a jaw like everybody else, she would have had true love. She used to say, `If I can't have beauty with a small-case b, I'm going to have beauty in art; and if I can't find the truth of my existence, I'm going to find the large-case truth of what meaning is itself.' “


Her pursuit of love, however, became desperately undiscriminating. “When she was growing up,” Patchett says, “she believed she would die a virgin. So when she started to have sex, the sky was the limit. But then she thought she would find love through sex. And the issue was always whether someone wanted to have sex with her, not the other way round. It was a recipe for disaster, and it was her disaster.”


And the heroin? “She had an addictive personality in many ways. At 11, she was taking eight codeine tablets instead of one. But God knows, she was always in a huge amount of pain. And heroin became the great passionate love affair she had always wanted: `I'm trying to leave you, oh here you are again, well just one more night between us and then it's goodbye forever.' She also believed she had conquered death because she should have died so many times before, and somehow survived.”


* * *


A BORN-AGAIN LOCAL, Patchett is unlikely to be recruited as a home-town spruiker any time soon. “I'm sorry you had to come to Nashville to meet me,” she says more than once, as if it were a terrible infliction. She seems unconvinced by reassurances that even to a non-country music aficionado, an evening spent wandering amid cowboy-hatted buskers and bustling, blaring downtown bars is not permanently scarring.


She, it transpires, lives in non-tourist Nashville because it is “absolutely boring”. That's a plus because it means she can lead “my boring life -- it's lovely, it's my life, but it's boring, a Eudora Welty kind of life”. My bemusement amuses her. Look, she explains, “Karl and I have been together for 10 years but we've never lived together. We see each other every day and we'll separate only when one of us dies, but I really, really like living alone. And writing is all about being alone. I like other people, I'm very close to my family but so much of what I do involves sitting on the sofa and staring like an idiot. If I'm engaged by other people all the time, I just don't need to engage with writing.


“That's why [Mississippi writer] Eudora Welty has been a huge comfort for me because she proved you can be a single woman, go back to the boring town you grew up in and have a great life of the mind. Sometimes being in the place you came from can be comforting. I feel the same way about Catholicism -- I don't really agree with anything in the politics of Catholicism but it's where I came from, it's mine. I don't love Nashville but it's mine and I understand it. If I were in Prague, say, or New York, I'd be overstimulated and going to very good parties or dinners every night of the week. But my deeper satisfaction comes from doing work that is important to me -- this is how I learn, this is what keeps my mind engaged.”


Yet even in boring ol' Nashville she has become prey to the excitements of what she calls “Ann Patchett Enterprises -- I'm like a little country now, Bel Canto has become the gift that keeps on giving, driven by a small army of people dedicated to pushing my interests. My first two books took six months apiece, Bel Canto took three years, the next one? God only knows.” That next one, a novel where “the Brothers Karamazov meet Joe Kennedy”, is what's most important “yet opportunities and seductions distract me daily, for screenplays, books, talks -- what kind of fool wouldn't leave the house to get $10,000 for a 30-minute reading? But the danger is that one day you wake up and a dozen years have gone by.”


As if to prove her point, Bel Canto the movie deal is signed the very weekend we talk, with Bernardo Bertolucci confirmed as director and shooting scheduled to begin in Italy in March. Bel Canto the opera is well advanced, and her crisis du jour is whether to accept an Andrew Lloyd Webber push to make Bel Canto the Broadway musical.


Credibility is the key, she says. “I'm a snob, I try very hard to do literary fiction, it's what I care about. And I want to resist those very sweet enticements to dumb myself down ... It's not about needing more money, because I want for nothing, but a Lloyd Webber musical means untold millions for the rest of your life. And you could do a lot of good with that kind of money.”


Later, when I return to my hotel, I encounter a perfectly country coda to the day: at the foyer's entrance stands a plaque embossed with the lyrics of one Andrew Gould, artist and songwriter.


“Thank you,” it read, “for being a friend.”

 

 

Published in The Weekend Australian, 23 Oct 2004 Copyright (c) Murray Waldren

 

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