PEN/Hemingway Keynote Address Delivered at the John F. Kennedy Library, 19 April 2015

By Patchett, Ann | The Hemingway Review, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

PEN/Hemingway Keynote Address Delivered at the John F. Kennedy Library, 19 April 2015


Patchett, Ann, The Hemingway Review


Each year the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and PEN New England award the PEN Hemingway prize for the year's best first work of fiction. The award is presented at a gala reception at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. The 2015 PEN Hemingway prize was awarded to Arna Bontemps Hemenway for his book, Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande). This year we are pleased to present the keynote address of Ann Patchett. Patchett is author of six novels, most recently State of Wonder (2011) and numerous works on nonfiction, including This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (2013). Her books have been New York Times bestsellers and New York Times notable books. She has won many awards for her work, including the PEN/ Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize. Patchett has been named one o/Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. A fierce defender of independent bookstores, Patchett co-founded Parnassus Books in Nashville in 2011.

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I'm honored to be here, to have the opportunity to take a small part in the great happiness of this day. And I'm going to break with tradition just a little bit and address my remarks to the people that we honor here today, the writers who have won the PEN/Hemingway and the PEN New England Awards--and also, the general audience is welcome to listen, that's fine--in hopes that you will file the moral of this story away in the back of your minds and take it out later at some point if it's useful.

This is the story of the happiest day of my life. The story starts not far from here in the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where in 1990 I had won a seven-month residential fellowship, and where I wrote my first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. When I got my acceptance letter, I was a waitress at a TGI Fridays in Nashville. I was serious about wanting to be a writer. I had been considered very promising in school, but I was also a really good waitress, and I knew that either life was a real possibility for me.

As one can imagine of a twenty-five-year-old waitress living at home with a graduate degree in creative writing, life had not turned out exactly the way I thought it was going to. So, when I moved to Provincetown, I made a deal with myself: for seven months, I was going to put writing first. I was going to do my absolute best work every single day and not let anything get in the way of my novel--not love, not despair, not any of the thousands of attractive distractions life so freely offers up to us every day.

And I was true to my word. While I was at the Work Center, I wrote the entire book, start to finish, all four hundred pages, in seven months because I knew that when it was over, I was going to have about thirty-seven dollars to my name, and I was going to be a waitress again.

On the happiest day of my life, I was in my tiny apartment, upstairs in the blue house where I lived. My downstairs neighbor, a poet, was driven mad by my work habits and would often open up the door into the stairwell that separated our apartments and scream, "Stop typing!" But I never stopped typing, not through the entire long winter. My time was almost up, and I knew I was in the general vicinity of the novels end, but I had no idea when or how it was coming.

It was mid-April in 1991, about one o'clock in the afternoon. The fellowship would be over in a couple of weeks. I was writing and writing and writing, and then suddenly I typed the last sentence. And it was as if I had been driving across country for 6 1/2 months as fast as I could possibly go, and then all of a sudden I saw my house and I hit the brakes with everything I had, and I took my hands up off the keyboard.

I was twenty-seven years old, and I had written a novel. I had known for my entire life that writing a book was the thing that I was meant for. Since earliest childhood, I promised myself, my parents, my friends, and anyone who would listen that I was going to write a book. …

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