Patchett studied fiction writing with several noted authors – Grace Paley, Allan Gurganus and Russell Banks among them. It was Banks who told the young Patchett that she needed to be "vigilant": her early fiction was deft and polished, but "shallow … I skated along the surface, being clever." He told her that only she could push herself to dig deeper. "'You have to ask yourself … if you want to write great literature or great television.'"
That was decades ago, before we understood just how great TV can be, but Banks had a point; facility lapses all too readily into formula. This hasn't been a problem in Patchett's fiction; she describes that consultation with Banks as "a single conversation that changed everything I did from that day on". But not quite everything she writes abides by his dictum to try harder; her short non-fiction – done mostly for the money and often subjected to the demented, too-many-cooks editing process of American glossy magazines – takes few risks and, consequently, pays fewer dividends than her wonderful novels.
Patchett writes of her early determin magazine contributor: "flexible and fast, the go-to girl". She is clearly an editor's dream; her style smooth and charming, her voice companionable and mildly self-deprecating, but not without a certain bite, when it's called for. You can tell that she filed on time and that editors looked forward to the 15 minutes or so of chatting when they phoned her with an assignment.
She can turn out an amusing, colourful piece on travelling the American west in a Winnebago for a week or checking into Hollywood's Bel-Air hotel to get away from the demands of everyday life. She can complain ruefully of the indignities of book tours, without sounding spoiled. Whatever she writes will feature a novelist's eye for detail: the roadside diner where "pancakes are two for $1.05", and the swans in the Bel-Air's gardens looking like "enormous floating ottomans with slender white necks". She can suggest an entire, untold story by observing a few interactions between a couple she briefly describes. The piece will roll itself up after 2,000 breezy words with a modest and not-too-sappy takeaway about the perfection of a dog's love or how the best vacations make you appreciate home anew. It will be exactly the sort of article someone wants to read while nervously killing time in a doctor's waiting room or aeroplane seat – which is to say it will inevitably be rather pat.
You can't fault Patchett for this. The tidy little bow of insight or life lesson that typically tops off the contemporary magazine essay