Ann Patchett remembers her best Christmas present ever

When Ann Patchett's father read a story to her over the phone one Christmas, he unwittingly helped to set on the path to becoming a writer.

Ann Patchett says that, when she was a child, her family failed at [Christmas] with real vigor.” But one year, something went very right.

Just in time for Christmas, author Ann Patchett is reminding readers that sometimes, the best yuletide present of all can be a simple story, the gift of the written word.

That’s the message of “How to Read a Christmas Story,” an essay in “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” Patchett’s just-released collection of nonfiction.

Patchett is the author of six novels and three works of nonfiction. She’s the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, and was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012. Her work has been translated into more than 30 languages, and she co-owns a bookstore in Nashville.

It’s a wonderful life in words – a life that was nurtured, in no small measure, by one eventful Christmas in Patchett’s childhood.

After her parents divorced, Patchett, her sister and her mother moved to Tennessee , leaving her father behind in California. The break-up made the holidays hard.

“I have never liked Christmas,” Patchett declares at the start of her essay. ”In my family, there were happy Thanksgivings and tolerable Easters, but Christmas was a holiday we failed at with real vigor.”

Part of the problem, as Patchett explains it, is that her father seldom knew what presents to give her.  But one Christmas Eve of her childhood, Patchett’s father read aloud to her, over the long-distance phone line, a short story he’d found in the newspaper. It was about a little girl who lives in an orphanage, where she receives a set of colored pencils as her only gift on Christmas Eve. They mean the world to her because she wants to be an artist. But the next morning, on Christmas Day, the girl gives her gift to a little girl camping nearby who’s even poorer than she is.

“I am certain this is the only time my father, or anyone else for that matter, ever read me a story over the phone,” Patchett tells readers. “There was no gift that could have made me feel my father really knew me the way that story did.”

In sharing the story, Patchett’s father helped open her to the possibilities of what narrative can do. It was a critical step in her path toward becoming a writer.

“It was the shining star, the one thing I wanted to keep,” Patchett says of the story her father shared with her.

Patchett’s new book, in turn, is the Christmas gift she’s given to us.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”  

(You can see the Monitor's full review of "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage" by Ann Patchett here.)

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