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Zale Writer Practices Tough Optimism

November 19, 1999

Robyn L. Loda

Writer Ann Patchett spent the final week of October on campus as Newcomb College's 15th annual Zale Writer-in-Residence. A Nashville-based author of the critically and popularly acclaimed novels The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft and The Magician's Assistant, Patchett is also an accomplished short-story writer and essayist, with works appearing in both popular and literary publications like Vogue, The Paris Review, The Village Voice, GQ and Gourmet.

Molly Travis, associate professor of English and Zale committee member, says Patchett is exactly the kind of writer the committee hopes to attract. "How wonderful to come upon a young writer who unflinchingly looks at painful truths, yet who's unendingly generous in her treatment of characters and subjects," said Travis.

A major facet of the Zale writers residency is to serve as a role model for aspiring writers at Tulane. During her stay at Tulane, Patchett made herself available to the Tulane community during classroom visits, a public interview and reception, a reading from her works, and a students-only brown-bag lunch discussion.

During these sessions, Patchett gave students no-holds-barred information on a variety of topics, including how to apply to an MFA program, what to expect from graduate school, what it's like to rub elbows with magazine editors and how to get a literary agent. Though a realist, Patchett maintains a sense of optimism.

"I think that if you do the work-you edit your work well and rewrite and edit and get input from people you trust-you will get published," she told an audience during an Oct. 29 brown-bag lunch program. "It's hard work finishing it all, but when you do, there is no reason that an agent or a publisher won't be interested in it. There is a market out there for books, and these people are constantly looking for new manuscripts; that's what they do."

"She's great with students, which is a big part of the Zale residency," said Travis. She's got a wicked sense of humor and an incredible wit. She tells it like it is, even if it's painful-but she does it with heart, not with cynicism, and that's very rare."

Only 35, Patchett says her prolific career is driven by the desire to be challenged. "I so admire ambition more than anything else," she said during an Oct. 26 public interview at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women.

"Give me a failed story-give me a story that falls on its face-but give me a story that tries, that takes on something deep and something real, something important in life. I try really hard to be ambitious in my books," she said. "I really set up problems in my books that I think I can't possibly do; I keep raising the bar for myself."

Upping the ante once again, Patchetts current work-in-progress includes more than 60 characters forced together during a hostage crisis with none of them speaking the same language.

The Zale Writer-in-Residence Program was established by Dana Zale Gerard upon her graduation from Newcomb College in 1985, and is supported by an annual gift from Gerard and the M.B. and Edna Zale Foundation.

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