Ann Patchett Gets Inside a Man’s Head
The award-winning author discusses her decision to give "The Dutch House" a male first-person narrator
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Ann Patchett’s 13th book is a testament to building a life under adverse circumstances. The Dutch House follows the lives of siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy, starting in the late 1960s when their relatively poor family moved into what was called The Dutch House with their parents, Cyril and Elna. The book’s title comes from the prominence and importance of the house, outside of which Maeve and Danny regularly sit to reminisce about their lives. It’s these conversations that drive the narrative forward, as does the twist of an ending.
For the Conroy family the house itself comes to them lavishly furnished, complete with portraits of the previous owners’ ancestors and with hired help, Jocelyn, who had been looking after the property since the previous owner died. Unfortunately, Elna leaves not long after they move in because she’s uncomfortable amongst such luxury and would rather help the poor in India. After she leaves, it’s just Cyril, Danny, and Maeve, plus Jocelyn and her sister Sandy. The three women become Danny’s surrogate mothers, and this caretaker role of women to Danny is central to the way Patchett looks at relationships, family, and the privileges afforded men.
Ann and I chatted about The Dutch House, the choice to write from Danny’s perspective, and the ways in which car conversations differ from face-to-face conversations. We also discussed the way Danny is catered to by all of the women in his life.
Sarah Boon: Your press release focuses heavily on the fact that The Dutch House is written in first person, and I’m curious about the emphasis on this and why you chose to write as Danny, not as Maeve.
Ann Patchett: My decision has a lot to do with [my previous book] Commonwealth, and the fact that it was an autobiographical novel. I’d always said that I’d never write an autobiographical novel, but it went really well and I really enjoyed it. So I thought, “what else did I say I’d never do?” I said I’d never write another first-person novel because I did that when I was young and didn’t want to go back to it. I’m always looking for something challenging, and I had it in my mind that first-person was really easy because that was where I’d started. But that was a long time ago, and now it’s really hard. I hadn’t done it since 1993. Everything is a muscle: you use it or lose it, and it took me some time to get it back.
Plus, the book really lent itself to first-person, and it never occurred to me to write it in the first person of Maeve. I mean, it really is a book about Maeve as seen by Danny. And since it’s a first-person novel narrated by a man, the male gaze was all I had to work with.
SB: It’s fascinating to me that the Conroys buy this house but they keep everything in it from the previous owners—including the portraits. I got the sense that they were squatting until the real owners returned. What was your rationale for having them keep the house as it was when the previous owners lived in it?
AP: The Conroys were so poor at this time, it wasn’t as if they had their own stuff. Cyril walks into this house that’s completely furnished and gorgeous. He wouldn’t know anything about putting a house together, so I think for him it was just wonderful. It was a whole ready-made package and way of life, including wealthy ancestors. The portraits were quite beautiful, they were very well painted. I don’t think that Cyril would look at such beautiful paintings and say “oh, I have to get rid of those.” He does have the idea that he’s going to have his and his wife’s portraits painted. Of course, it doesn’t work out, and he ends up with only a portrait of Maeve.
SB: A lot of the action in the book revolves around Danny and Maeve sitting in a car outside the house. How did you keep the narrative moving forward when every time they come back and sit in the same place in front of the house?
AP: Because they’re reminiscing or talking about ideas. When they’re young [and poor] they’re almost stalking the house, they’re hurt and angry [at having been kicked out]. But as they get older, and their lives get more full, parking in front of the house becomes a space in which they can relax, let down their guard, and talk about what they really want to talk about. At one point Danny says “I’m not from the Dutch House, I’m from the street outside of that house. That’s where my life has really consistently taken place.” So it doesn’t strike me as strange that the story would move forward easily while two people are sitting in a car talking because they’re talking about things that really matter to them.
When you’re in a car and you’re talking, you’re not looking at one another. It’s like therapists always say, if you want to have a really important conversation with someone, go for a walk. It apparently is the least threatening way to have a conversation because you’re both looking forward but you’re also engaged in another activity. Of course, being in a car is not going on a walk, but there is that side by side and you’re stuck in place and you know what the rules are…it’s a good place to talk.
When I first started writing this book I started with a scene of Danny and Maeve in their 20s sitting in a parked car in front of the Dutch House. I didn’t keep the scene and I didn’t write the book that way. But after I wrote it, I thought “oh this really works, I like them here. I’m going to keep coming around and using this as a motif.”
SB: Much happens in the late 1960s/early 1970s, though the book also covers the present day. During this time, Maeve hides her diabetes, doesn’t admit to her formidable math talents, and works at a frozen foods company. She’s fierce and focused, but she works behind-the-scenes to help Danny. Was it difficult to write such a strong character who sublimates her own desires to help her brother?
AP: It’s funny, because now that you’re saying this I’m thinking that really is my sister. I didn’t base Maeve on my sister, but your description of Maeve would be a good description of my sister. She is smarter than I am, she has way more talent than I do. She always puts her energy into promoting other people. She used to work on political campaigns, which to me is the ultimate in putting your intelligence behind somebody else. She puts an awful lot of time into her kids and into other people. But when you think about it, most people do. If you’re working in a law firm, you’re working on other people’s problems and issues, if you’re a doctor you’re helping other people, etc.
In my life, all of my intelligence, talent, and energy goes into something that’s completely me. I also put all of my energy into one thing as opposed to 20 different things. I never for a moment questioned that someone who was smart and opinionated and independent, like Maeve, would work on behalf of other people.
SB: Danny is fairly oblivious. He doesn’t realize that Sandy and Jocelyn are sisters. He treats his wife carelessly, and is happy as long as she’s there to make his life easier in some way. Like his father, he buys her a house she doesn’t like. Was that intentional, to make Danny into a younger version of his father—so much so that, when he sees his stepmother again, she thinks he is his father?
AP: Yes, on all counts. Danny is like so many men that I know, and really like and care for. He’s smart, he’s happy, he’s a pleasure to be around, and he’s a good guy. But he is oblivious. He has no idea that his world has been built on the foundation of these women who support him.
There’s a terrible sentence near the end of the book, when Danny’s back at the Dutch House and he’s in the kitchen with Sandy, and he says something like “it was so nice to be back here with the table and the clock and Sandy and the coffee.” And that’s what it’s like for him, Sandy might as well be the table or the clock, as he expects her to be in that landscape. But he doesn’t understand that there’s anything wrong with thinking like that.
SB: He’s the main male character in the book since his father dies early. And it’s all the women around him who are helping him, propping him up, pushing him forward, etc.
AP: Yes, and everybody is thinking how wonderful he is. And he is! But I also just put a lot of my general annoyance into his character.
SB: I’m thinking about when Jocelyn/Sandy/Fluffy look after Celeste and her kids, they constantly tell stories about the Dutch House, and it turns out that everyone has a different perspective on the same events. Do person-specific stories run through your books? That everyone has a story to tell about the same event, and that story might differ depending on who’s telling it?
AP: That certainly is something that’s very interesting to me. It’s also interesting how I can misremember something. I’ll be so sure about something that happened, and then I’ll get some piece of evidence—a letter, a photograph from childhood—and I’ll think “oh, I didn’t remember it that way.”
I was in downtown New York on September 11 with a very good friend, and years later we talked about that day. But it was as if one of us had been in Iowa and the other in Arizona, as our memories were completely different. We were side by side all day long, seeing exactly the same things, but it was such a traumatic day, and trauma really messes with your head and your ability to see things clearly and to remember. And so the answer is you never know—you never really do know what happened.
Danny is very interested in that—he’s always trying to dig into stories and figure out what the real story was, even though he doesn’t have any more access to it than anyone else. He’s oblivious in some ways but he’s also very smart. He learns things like chemistry. Then he moves on to buildings, auctions, and property rights. He’s very good at things that are important to him. He can figure out how to make money without having any money—it’s extremely clever and it took him years to work it out.
But in terms of emotional, interpersonal relationships he’s clueless. And yet, how many men do you know that you could say that about? “Oh, he’s really good at business and the things he’s interested in, but he’s not so great at reading the emotions of the person who’s in the room with him.” That’s pretty standard for a lot of men. I don’t think Danny’s in any way exceptional, I don’t in any way think he’s a bad man or just an oblivious man. I just think he’s a man.