Turning a news story into a novel
by Ann Patchett
I have an erratic relationship with the news. I don't own a television and I don't subscribe to the local paper. I listen to NPR while I eat my breakfast or drive around in my car. About four days a week (depending on the circumstances of the week) I manage to read The New York Times. If something happens on a day when I skip breakfast and don't pick up a paper, it is completely possible that an event of major world importance could pass right by me.
Despite these lax practices, every now and then there's a news story that consumes me completely. The takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru in December 1996 drew me to the radio and held me there. I read everything about it that I could. I made it a point to drop in on friends during the evening news so that I could see the pictures on television. A terrorist group known as Tupac Amaru had commandeered a dinner party of 450 people at the Japanese embassy. By the end of the week, they had released all but 74 of the hostages. The terrorists, from what I could tell, were not especially terrifying, or at least they were nothing like the members of The Shining Path, the group with which they were so often confused. Their goal was to force the government into freeing some 400 political prisoners from Peru's notorious high altitude prisons. They seemed to have all the time in the world to wait.
Very few disasters happen in slow motion: plane crashes, school shootings, earthquake -- by the time we hear about them, they're usually over. But the story in Lima stretched on, one month, two, three. The media could not sustain its interest. The story fell off the first page, and later off the fifth. Many days the news didn't mention the hostages at all. It seemed that the world had gotten used to them being there. An embassy wasn't such a bad place to be stuck and, after all, no one was getting shot.
But I couldn't stop thinking about these people. There is no such thing as a good kidnapping, but I heard the hostages played chess with their captors. I heard they played soccer. There were rumors of large pizza orders. Many of the terrorists were young and they liked to watch soap operas on television. I don't know how far things had gone when I realized that I was reading about the novel I was going to write next. The story had all the elements I was interested in: the construction of family, the displacement from home, a life that was at once dangerous and completely benign. I started to put together my list of characters. I gave the hostages an opera singer, one woman kept, though in real life all the women had been released. They needed an opera singer, I thought, the story was so operatic. The plot taking place in my imagination moved forward while the one on the news seemed to stagnate.
And then a friend called me. "Come quick," she said. "It's over." The military had tunneled up into the compound and then shot all the terrorists, saving all the hostages. That was that. The story was over. There were many things I wanted to write about when I started Bel Canto, music and language and people's ability to communicate with one another. I wanted to explore the idea that if we were forced out of our normal lives for a time, taken away from everything we know, we might be given the opportunity to see the world in a new way. But more than anything, I wanted to find a way to grieve for something I had read about in the paper. The disasters I find there make me dizzy. They reel by me in a state of constant abstraction. Seven children shot in a school, 258 people killed in a plane crash, 10,000 lost in an earthquake. These are numbers I can't understand, and I find myself thinking that these are things that happen someplace far away, to people I don't know. How could I begin to separate out every life, to acknowledge it, grieve for it, and learn from it? I couldn't do it every time, but with this story I thought, just once I wanted to try.
Bel Canto, being published this month by HarperCollins, is the fourth novel by Ann Patchett, author of The Patron Saint of Liars and The Magician's Assistant.