Prize-winning U.S. author Ann Patchett has always taken research for her novels seriously -- but never more so than with her latest, State of Wonder.
Set deep in the Amazon, the book centers on a doctor who goes in search of a former mentor engaged in research on a tribe where the women are fertile until they die -- but also touches on topics such as malaria, corporate greed and facing up to questions from the past.
Seeking to educate herself about the details of a caesarean section by watching an actual operation, Patchett -- who won the Orange Prize for a previous book, Bel Canto -- ended up mortified when she fainted and was nearly admitted to hospital herself.
In Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival, Patchett spoke about research and writing.
Q: What inspired your latest book?
A: I wanted to write a book about a teacher/student relationship in which the teacher and the student meet again as adults as equals. This is not the story of a child student but of a medical student who was so profoundly influenced by her relationship with this teacher and the teacher essentially doesn't remember her.
I think that's a very common thing. Teachers can't remember all of their students, especially the good ones. Teachers tend to remember their horrible students who really made their life hell. The ones that are easy-going and turn their homework in on time, you don't remember those people.
Q: You take your readers to the Amazon in this book, why?
A: The thing that I love about being a writer is that I love going outside of myself and my personal experiences and I like to write about things that I don't know anything about because it's a great opportunity to educate myself. I can think of something that I don't know anything about, that I'm interested in, malaria, and say I'm going to write a book in which there is malaria and it gives me the opportunity to study and research and think about it. It's wonderful.
I didn't do that in my earlier books but certainly in the last several books I have gone into places and characters and situations that are very far outside of my experience.
Q: For Bel Canto, you listened to a lot of opera for your research. What special research did you do this time?
A: I went to the Amazon, I did do a lot of research about malaria, fertility and birth in general. I actually went and watched a caesarean section. I'd seen a live birth before but that was a first. I fainted at the end, not until the very end when they were sewing her up. I blacked out in such a way that when I finally came to about ten minutes later they were making plans to admit me to the hospital. I really embarrassed myself terribly. It was like when you have to go to the bathroom when you're at the symphony and you think I can wait, I can wait and I knew I was going to faint but I kept thinking, I can wait, she's almost finished, I can wait and finally I turned to my friend and said, I have to go now and she said NURSE and they got me before I hit the floor. I was sweating and convulsing, it was terrible. I have to tell you no one who isn't in health care should ever see a caesarean - it's beyond disgusting but it was totally worth it.
Q: Do you write the outline of the books before you write and if so why?
A: Yes I do, I tend to write the scene and then do the research and I use the research to correct myself. If you do the research first you get so caught up in the details that it takes over sometimes, but when I wrote the (caesarean) scene for example I talked about the surgeon making such delicate stitches and when you actually see a caesarean it's actually like they might as well be sewing you up with twine. It was so physical. I had no idea it was physically that hard so it was great to see that and then go back and put those details.
Q: Do you outline your books before you start?
A: I do. I always know how the book will end before I start it. To me it's like planning a trip. It's like getting a map and so there's all sorts of little details that I don't know about the trip. Like coming to Australia, I know I'm here for two weeks and I know I'm going to these cities but I don't know what I'll do at night, where I'm going to have dinner. There are little things you don't know but the basic overview of the trip you do know and that's what writing a book is like for me.
Q: The characters in your books are all very diverse, the unwed mother, the middle aged black man, a Japanese interpreter. What inspires your characters?
A: I want my books full of diverse characters. It's important to me because the world is full of diverse people. It's so funny, people say to me why did you write about Japanese people or black people and I always think... do you only know white people? To me it's a natural reflection of the world and it's interesting. Books entirely comprised of white people tend not to be as interesting to me or as natural at this point in time. As much as my books are not autobiographical they reflect my interests.
Q: Will your visit to Australia inspire a story?
A: It sure could, it's an inspiring place.