For incoming freshmen, a ‘State of Wonder’

At 25, Ann Patchett hit a professional roadblock. She had thrived in college, she said, and become a teacher at a small school. But within a few years she had found herself living with her parents and working as a waitress at TGI Friday’s.

As she bundled silverware, however, and married ketchup bottles, she began sketching the outline of a story in her imagination, keeping in mind the goal she had set for herself as a kid: becoming a writer.

“I knew that writing a short story wasn’t going to get me out of this trouble,” Patchett explained. “That’s when I knew I was going to write a novel.”

Patchett discussed her rise from waitress to famous novelist with members of the incoming freshman class on Tuesday evening in Matthews Arena. The event was part of the university’s First Pages program, which requires freshmen—and encourages faculty, staff and upperclassmen—to read a challenging book that highlights critical questions facing today’s students.

This year, some 2,800 freshmen were asked to read Patchett’s “State of Wonder,” which tells the story of pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh, who sets off into the jungle to find the remains of a colleague who recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

First Pages committee chair Maureen Kelleher, director of the University Honors Program, praised Patchett’s bestselling novel as “a contemporary ‘Heart of Darkness.’”

“All of this takes place where memory, magic, mysteries and medicine coincide,” Kelleher said, adding that the novel depicts strong female characters working on global issues.

Before her talk in Matthews Arena, Patchett was the guest of honor at an intimate dinner with students and faculty. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Earlier this year, Patchett was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people, in part because she opened an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tenn., becoming an impromptu spokeswoman for local bookstores in the age of Amazon.

In a lively talk full of humorous asides, Patchett told students that becoming a strong writer in any discipline requires dedication and an ability to forgive yourself for making mistakes.

“When people struggle with writing, they say something that is insanely untrue: They say they have writer’s block,” Patchett said. “That is untrue. Today is the last day you have writer’s block. Doctor’s don’t get doctor’s block, mathematicians don’t get math block, political scientists don’t get politics block.”

She added, “You have to practice your craft to get good at writing.”

Patchett also urged Northeastern’s 115th entering class to take risks in college, a lesson she learned firsthand. After thriving in the same Catholic school for 12 years, she chose to take only classes she knew she could ace.

“I made straight As and I was an idiot,” Patchett said. “I didn’t push myself. Take a class that you are afraid you’re going to fail.”

As a writer, Patchett takes risks for the sake of getting it right in her novels. She witnessed a C-section firsthand, for example, but fainted near the end of the procedure; met with a military expert who infected volunteers with malaria to test vaccines; and traveled through the Amazon with a professional snake handler who suggested one of her characters kill a massive snake with a machete.

“And people think novelists don’t do anything,” Patchett joked. “We certainly get out there and do things.”

Patchett joins an elite group of authors who have participated in the First Pages program, including Atul Gawande, Dave Eggers and Tracy Kidder.