Ann Patchett: The Line Cook Years
Being young is hard! In large part, Ten Girls to Watch is all about just how hard (and sometimes funny) it can really be, but here’s something I find very reassuring — pick pretty much anyone you admire and ask them what they were doing at 23, and chances are they’ll tell you some pretty terrible stories. Case in point, Ann Patchett, best selling author of Bel Canto, and most recently State of Wonder. I ADORE her books. You probably do too. But before we all adored them, she was getting fired from her job as a line cook in a restaurant.
And that’s just the start of her “glamorous” beginning. I asked her a whole bunch of questions about her early years, and she was gracious enough to share some of the highs and lows.
Charity: What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
Ann: I wanted to be a short story writer. I thought that was actually a job.
Charity: What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? Was there anything that made it particularly awesome or awful?
Ann: I was a line cook in a health food restaurant. I thought that if I made a living doing something mindless I would have all this energy to write. That wasn’t the case. I hurt myself a lot (cuts, burns) and the owner hated me because the cook she was in love with had a crush on me. Or maybe I was bleeding on things. Anyway, she said I was a good worker but she had to fire me for my own safety.
Charity: What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it?
Ann: I rented a room in a woman’s apartment in the LaGuardia Artists’ Housing in New York. The room belonged to her daughter who was away at school. It was tiny and stuffed full of the daughter’s stuff. Every inch closet space, every drawer, the top of the dresser, the mirror, and the rent I was paying was more than the entire rent on the huge apartment which she had had for thirty years. I think I lasted two nights.
Charity: Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?
Ann: I smoked in my twenties, and I couldn’t afford it, so I thought how many cigarettes I could afford to smoke a day, which I think was something like five. I was always quitting, not because of the cancer, but because of the expense. I never did get particularly hooked on cigarettes for this reason.
Charity: Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
Ann: I sold a story to The Paris Review when I was nineteen, a fact that I still find pretty amazing.
Charity: How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”?
Ann: When I was 26 I was accepted to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I was a waitress at Friday’s at the time. It was a really serious step forward in my life.
Charity: Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
Ann: Allan Gurganus was my teacher in college. I always wanted to be Allan Gurganus.
A big thank you to the lovely and amazing Ann Patchett for being willing to revisit the sketchy apartment years. I’m guessing you, dear reader of this post, have some stories yourself. I’ve got a story about Sad Furniture this week. I’d love to hear YOUR stories about your own Sad Furniture history. If you’re game, post a tale in the comments, and we’ll all share in the joy of commiseration, plus I just might send you an advanced copy of the book.