There was an illicit behind-the-scenes thrill to Ann Patchett's panel at the Southern Festival of Books. Billed as "A Conversation" between Patchett and her friend and fellow writer Edith Pearlman (whose short story collection is a finalist in this year's National Book Awards), watching two authors chat before a considerable crowd in the War Memorial Auditorium was a glimpse into the writer's world that stood out from the crowd of readings and panel discussions.
The talk focused on the differences between writing short stories and writing novels, although there were plenty of detours along the way. Both authors were comfortable on stage, and they managed to make their discussion (which they had planned out over dinner the night before) feel polished, but also lively and spontaneous. Patchett couldn't say enough good things about Pearlman's work, which she learned about while editing Best American Short Stories 2006. Pearlman was equally complimentary of Patchett's prowess, saying to the audience, when Patchett expressed doubt that she could make a love story seem fresh, "Oh, I think she could—don't you?"
Highlights included Pearlman's explanation of her desire to write short stories and only short stories, despite people asking her if she was "smart enough" or "man enough" to write a novel. "Writing short stories is the way I live; it is my main pleasure," she said. She writes about six stories a year and publishes about six stories a year "though they're not the same six stories!" She expressed appreciation for novels, saying that "so much can happen in a novel" and that she admires the form but can't work with it.
Patchett, on the other hand, said she wasn't "generous enough to be a short story writer," explaining that novelists only really needed one idea, whereas for a short story collection, you need as many ideas as you have stories. (A arguable but interesting claim.) Though Patchett, like other MFA grads, started out as a short story writer, once she started writing novels "it was as if I had stretched out," she said, explaining that going back to the format would be similar to moving from a small apartment into a house and then saying you had to move back to the apartment. Interestingly, Patchett doesn't feel the same way about essays. (She's currently working on a collection of them and writing them "feels like a vacation" because she doesn't have to make anything up.)
Like any good small business owner, Patchett couldn't pass up the chance to deliver an impassioned plea for supporting local stores (especially her soon-to-open bookstore, Parnassus Books). "Although I've never been on Facebook in my life, find us on Facebook, 'like' us on Facebook!" she laughed.