Tayari Jones and Ann Patchett join Kate Mosse in a candid conversation during the first digital event of “Building a Better World with Words”
Nottingham’s new literary series of digital events, “Building a Better World with Words” officially started on Thursday (25th June), with a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The collaboration between Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature and Iowa City of Literature brought viewers a conversation between Tayari Jones (author of An American Marriage, winner of the 2019 Women’s Award for Fiction) and Ann Patchett (author of Bel Canto, winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction), hosted by Kate Mosse – the Women’s Prize for Fiction founder.
One of the most unforgettable moments from the event was when Tayari Jones and Ann Patchett revealed that they were pen pals during lockdown. The audience was stunned, and the group chat filled with positive messages.
“Everybody has tuned in for this talk in particular,” excitedly said Mosse.
Patchett said: “It’s a little card every week and it has been such a life-line.”
“Although you resisted it the first time. I wrote to you and you replied: is this where we are; hand-writing, question mark,” said Jones, laughing.
Talks about friendship, turned into talks about support and mentorship. Jones said that Patchett took her “under her wing”, writing her supportive emails after Jones entered a whole new professional space with the success of An American Marriage.
The conversation between the writers also expanded on the difficulties of their creative processes and their achievements in publishing award-winning and widely translated novels.
Patchett said: “My goal as a writer was to write an omniscient, third person narrative. I tried it in my first book and failed, my second book, failed, my third book, failed and this is the book (Bel Canto) in which I figured it out.”
Patchett confessed that her training was – from her perspective – highly linked to writing in this narrative style. She said that she was very proud of finally reaching her goal and thanked Mosse for recognizing this main characteristic of her book.
When asked about the difficulty of reaching her vision in her works, Patchett simply said: “It certainly happens all the time and I think that the trick is to love your work more than you love yourself and your own ego.”
Tayari Jones said that for her, American Marriage, represented distancing herself from an autobiographical narrative, present in her first three books.
She said: “I wanted to write a novel engaging questions of incarceration but I didn’t know where the story was because if the novel is going to be any good, it has to be about people and their problems not problems and their people.”
The author confessed that the idea of narrating from the perspective of a newlywed couple came about from witnessing an argument between a couple in a shopping centre.
“I heard the woman say: ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ And he turned to her and he said: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. This would not have happened to you in the first place.’”
Jones said that – in that moment – she recognized a “situation of moral ambiguity.” But she was afraid to only have Roy as the male lead character in her novel because she did not want him to become a representative for black men. That is how the other character, Andre, came in the picture.
“It’s just like in real life.”, said Jones, “When you are the only person in the room from your group, you feel like a representative. Sometimes I am in a room and I feel there is a pressure for me to speak for black people and I am just one black person.”
The meeting ended with questions asked by viewers, where the guests gave advice on writing fiction. But one of the questions brought light on the topic of inclusivity in the publishing industry.
“What did your time in Iowa City (Writers’ Workshop and otherwise) mean for your writing?” asked one the viewers.
Patchett said: “Nothing. It meant nothing.”
Jones said: “I wasn’t in the writers’ workshop. I didn’t even know there was a writers’ workshop and there were all these people and they were like: ‘We’re writers’ and I said, ‘I am a writer’. They were like: ‘Not like we’re writers.’ And that is when I found out there was a writers’ workshop.”
To Jones’s answer, Mosse brought up the new 2020 Discoveries programme – initiated in collaboration with the Women’s Prize Trust and NatWest. The programme is meant to help women across the UK and Ireland by offering mentorship and guiding authors in navigating the industry.
“Discoveries is about trying to get around the fact that many people, particularly white middle-class writers, have an interpunction. They know how to do it, they know about where to go to find agencies, they know about writing courses,” Mosse added.
Even so, the event ended on a light-hearted note, where the writers kept talking amongst them as viewers were logging out of the meeting.
If it were not for the moderator of the Zoom meeting – which interrupted the discussion leaving the guests giggling – they would probably still be talking now about literature.
The next digital event will take place on 2nd July, where Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature will be collaborating with Dublin UNESCO City of Literature. Join the conversation between award-winning Irish authors Emilie Pine (author of Notes to Self: Essays) and Christine Dwyer-Hickey (author of The Narrow Land), hosted by Deirdre O’Byrne from Five Leaves Bookshop and Alison Lyons, Director of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature. You can register at: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Kr7f9_jNRMu1OnK5WxfcBA
By Emilia Roman
Feature image: Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature