Moni Boyce on Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
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Books discussed in this episode:
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Taft by Ann Patchett
Run by Ann Patchett
Parnassus Bookstore, Nashville TN (takes online orders and ships! Support indie bookstores!)
Bitter Falls by Rachel Caine (part of the Stillhouse Lake Series)
Business for Authors: How to Be an Author Entrepreneur by Joanna Penn
Julie Strauss: Hi, Moni. How are you doing?
Moni Boyce: I’m doing excellent. Thank you.
JS: And thank you for joining me today. And thank you for bringing this book back into my life.
MB: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thank you. I really appreciate it.
JS: I’m so eager to talk to you about this book and I’m so eager to get into all of it. But before we start, I want to find out how you got to this book. What is your reading life like in general?
MB: Well, at the time I read this, I was working in film and I was a producer, so I was always reading everything I could get my hands on, whether it was books or news articles or what have you. Anything that could be turned into a good story, essentially. And I’ve always been an avid reader ever since I was young, so I forgot even how I stumbled upon Ann Patchett’s work. At this time, I cannot recall whether I was just in the bookstore and it looked like a good book so I picked it up. Or if I had read about it somewhere, I was like, Oh, I’m going to read that. But I read it and I actually read it in a matter of a few days because I was just so engrossed in the way that she described this abundance of characters that you came to care about. And I think, from one writer to another, between you and I, we know how difficult it is to make a reader care about so many characters at once. You know, it’s hard enough getting them to care about two protagonists in a romance. Add to that now a bunch of terrorists that are in the book and you come to care about all of these people. And it’s so just like hauntingly beautiful by the time you get to the end of the book.
JS: Can you describe the plot of Bel Canto for our listeners who maybe have never heard of it? Yes.
MB: There’s a country in South America somewhere – they’re kind of vague about that. But they were looking for a Mr. Hosokawa, who is the head of this giant company in Japan, to basically set up shop there so that it can help their economy. They host a birthday party for him and buy all of these ambassadors, bankers from all over the world to come and celebrate his birthday. And the one draw that Mr. Hosakawa, for him that brings him to the country for his birthday is they have gotten one of his favorite opera singers, Roxanne Coss, to come and sing at his birthday. So while they’re all there, a terrorist situation happens. The lights go out and all of a sudden the place is swarming with terrorists to take them hostage. They want the president of the country, but he stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. So what you think is going to be over in a matter of like a few hours or even a day turns into months of the hostages and terrorists living together inside the vice president’s mansion. And they become friends. They begin to care for one another. These people that have been thrown together in this violent situation. And it’s so beautiful because, again, you’re dealing with people from all these different areas of the world so everyone doesn’t speak the same language. And so that’s the other beauty of it, is that many of them are communicating without being able to fully understand each other. And so, of course, but in the novel and it inevitably does come to a very tragic end. But it’s a beautiful book.
JS: And I found myself, as I was reading it, thinking, of course this appeals to you because you are a travel writer and travel extensively. And that must have had such tremendous joy for you. I mean, though it is a sad situation, all of the people in a room together is the most fascinating dynamic.
MB: You know, it’s funny because I read it and it was pretty close to, I want to say, the 2012 Olympics. My sister and I went to the 2012 Olympics in London. And there are times when I because I went back and read this, me knowing that we were going to talk and there were times I was reading this and it made me think about my experiences of being in London for the Olympics because, you know, you’re in London – they speak English for the most part. I mean, yeah, there are pockets of the city where you might hear other languages. But being there at that time, I mean, you could be on the subway and hear like, five different languages at any given time because people were there for the Olympics from all over the world. It gave you that sense of like, we’re all here for you. Yes, I might be cheering on America or you might be cheering on Mexico or Russia or whoever, but it was very interesting to all be there with this kind of singular focus. We’re here to cheer on these athletes who worked their butts off, like literally their whole life to compete. Even sitting in the stadium and just being there was this collective thing. Even though yes, I did want America to win on the times when I saw them compete in whatever event we were watching, there was still kind of just the sense of, like, this is amazing. It doesn’t really matter who wins, we get to be here and see this. I got to see Usuain Bolt run. And that was just something I’ll never forget. And so it was that sense here in the book, where it’s like you’ve kind of been thrown together. We don’t know each other. Some of us can’t understand each other. But it was just this nice moment of like, we’re here and we’re together. And it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s going to win. It was just this nice sense of togetherness. And that’s what I love about this book. I love even the moments where she gets into talking about how Mr. Hosokawa met Jim in Athens, of all places, to meet another Japanese person for him. That was amazing. Somebody that he took to heart almost instantly. And that’s the beauty. I know I’m kind of getting off topic of the book, but that is one of the beauties of when you travel, is that you made these amazing, extraordinary people that you might not ever see in everyday life. But you have this, like bond, your connection that literally last like a lifetime.
JS: It’s always intensified when you travel, isn’t it, like sort of compressed and becomes very intense?
JS: How many countries have you been to?
MB: Thirty three. Oh, trust me, I know people that have been sort of like double that, that I’m jealous.
JS: Were all of these as an adult? Or did you travel a lot when you were young with your folks?
MB: There were a few that I hit as a child. My dad was military growing up, so we lived in Germany as a kid. I have very fond, vivid memories of it. And so we did a bit of traveling then, but I definitely started traveling even more as I got older, just because to like growing up in a military family, I was used to moving around and not being in one place. It was always kind of like this need. I’ve got to go somewhere. I’ve got to, see something, to be somewhere other than here at this point in time. And so that was always usually for me, especially working in film. You usually work for so many months on a project. Afterward, I would usually take some time and be like, I’m going to go someplace. So me and my sister – I’m a twin – she’s usually my travel buddy. We would go someplace, you know, whether it was for a couple of weeks. I remember when we did the Olympics, we were gone for a month. We did a week in London for the Olympics. We hit Ireland and hit Scotland. And then I’ll never forget we came back here and we hit Wyoming just for the heck of it.
JS: Did you have a reason?
MB: it was supposed to be a trip the year before that we had to cancel because of work. We werere like, oh, we’ll just tack it on. I was like, the Europeans take a month-long vacation. We’re going to do it. Why not?
JS: I was reading it in this time that we are living, this strange quarantine time, I was thinking about that captivity aspect of it. But it didn’t occur to me to think about how far away that travel experience is for most of us. And that great feeling of when you go to a big city and you’re surrounded by so many different languages. And I love that feeling, that really disconcerting feeling, but also thrilling. As we’re recording this, we’ve just heard, the Olympics are cancelled, and sporting events are cancelled. And it’s going to be a long time till any of us are in that situation where we’re surrounded by different faces and different languages. And that’s such a shame.
MB: Yeah, that is the one thing for me. Because quarantining in itself hasn’t been that difficult as a writer for me. Although in my head, like it initially happened, and I was like, oh, I’m going to be able to write forever. But you forget, like, the reason why it’s like you have all this free time, but subconsciously you haven’t forgotten. So it was a little bit of a struggle at first to maintain even writing. But either way, I didn’t have that much of a problem being like, OK, I’m going to quarantine. But then it’s like you said, as times wear on, you know, it just kind of like, oh, wow, OK, that trip that I had planned now has to maybe be pushed all the way down next year. And that is kind of the sad part.
JS: I love like seeing people do kind of like the social distancing vacation where, you know, aquariums and places that made live feeds available and that kind of thing, which is awesome. But of course, as a traveler, nothing beats being able to be there and touch, breathe in the air and whatever. I keep thinking, well, how much sweeter it will be when this is over to be able to experience that again.
JS: What was it like for you to reread this book during quarantine times? Because for me, this was my second time reading it and it was a completely different experience.
MB: No, you know what’s funny about it? It was a completely different experience for me, too, because in my head I was like, why don’t I remember that from before? Part of it I chalk it up to being older and maybe being able to pick up on things and maybe initially missed before. Part of reading the main character, for instance, like when the novel first started to maybe the first third of the book, I didn’t really like her. She seems kind of like, you know, I mean, for lack of a better word, I mean, just very like arrogant or I should say privileged. I mean, she’s been a very world-famous opera singer. She’s used to people catering to her. I mean, I think about the scene where, you know, they’re letting all the women and children go and she’s like almost out the door. And then the guy’s like, no, you you’re going to stay. And she totally does that whole kind of like diva thing. I’m going to walk out of here. You know, she goes to walk and he literally snatches her by her hair. And I’m like, that is only privilege that would let you mouth off to a guy with a gun. In my head, in a real life situation, I was like, that could have got yourself killed or other people killed for your disobedience. In that moment. I didn’t like her because she was so just kind of like, I’m the opera singer, you’re going to let me go. I didn’t remember having those feelings toward her when I initially read the book. And I don’t know if it’s just given everything that’s in the news that we’re just like, really, I need you to take one for the team if they need your help.
JS: Yeah, yeah. It’s a tough thing to read in these days of, you know, Ahmaud Arbery was just shot, and like it is kind of incredible to read that white woman privilege. There’s even a line in there, “Nobody would shoot a soprano,” which made me laugh out loud. You know, your mouth kind of drops open at that, like, really, honey, it’s so nice to be you.
MB: Yeah, exactly. That’s funny that you said because I remember reading that line and going like, oh, God. Like, that’s horrible. That’s like what those actresses do. Do you know who I am?
JS: Yeah, exactly. I loved the portrayal of time in this. Mr. Hosokawa, you know, he’s he can’t speak to her, Roxanne, the opera singer, but now he’s in captivity with her and he’s listening to her sing every day. And there’s this line where he says he could never completely shake what he knew to be the truth, that every night they were together could be seen as a miracle for 100 different reasons, not the least of which was that at some point these days would end would be ended for them. He understood that these were extraordinary times, and if their old life was ever restored to them, nothing would be the same. And it would seem like so perfect for this moment that we’re in where we’re in this weird, flattened out time in captivity, all of us, the sort of constant present. And yet at the same time kind of looking at each other like you’re quarantined with your family. How long has it been since you’ve been with your family for this long?
MB: It’s an extraordinary thing. Yeah. I actually quarantined myself pretty early. March 9th. I remember the day because I had literally just been at a Virginia RWA meeting the day before. Not a care in the world. And then literally, like the next day on the news, they’re talking about how this is growing in New York and, you know, be careful who you’re around, because at that time, it was a lot of people that had traveled outside the country that were coming back and now had it. And so, of course, I was like in my head I was like, oh, my God, I was just with like 12 other people. I’m in Northern Virginia. So, we’re pretty close to some of the areas that they were, you know, especially this area where a lot of people are in the military or they travel for work and things like that. So I was really terrified. We went to not even just the meeting, we went to a restaurant. Oh, my God. I have asthma. What happens if I get this and I can’t shake it or I’m not, like, asymptomatic and I just had the virus, but, you know, not any of the symptoms. And so I was just like, I’m going to lock myself away and I’m not coming out until they, like, literally say it’s OK. And so, like you said, reading the novel, I totally forgot and that they were in captivity so long in terms of the hostage situation. It stretched on for months. It’s kind of interesting, though, choosing this book, given that we’re kind of in our own, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a hostage situation or anything like that, but having to stay in one place for such a long amount of time. I am quarantining with my parents right now, so I wasn’t by myself. And what’s interesting is that when you’re older, being here with them has given me a chance to learn about my parents as people, I guess you could say, and not just mom and dad. I mean, I’ve always had a pretty decent relationship with them. But now, having all of this time where it’s just like we’re just here in the house. If I’m not writing, then we’re doing something. I might go for a walk with my mom or my dad. And I love TV. So sometimes we sit and watch. We have a conversation and it’s so it’s nice to be like, we’ve got these stories about things that happen to them. Pre, you know, being parents and husband and wife and those kinds of things. And that’s always nice to get to learn about your family, more so than what you knew before. That’s actually kind of what I like. I keep hearing these stories even from my other friends who have kids, and it’s like, oh, we’re baking bread together, we’re doing all of these things that usually don’t have time for. Usually we’re always like, oh, I’ll do that another time. Oh, we’ll get to that. We’ve got to run here. We’ve got to do this. It’s always, like, the crazy schedules and now everybody’s kind of like, oh, you know, we did something today that we’ve never done before. I painted or I read a whole book in an afternoon. It’s kind of nice.
JS: Yeah. There is definitely a sweetness to it. And that was what I was noticing as I was reading the book, is that she was really captured that sweetness that sort of comes with difficult times. I was really careful in my head not to equate the situations because I fully understand there is nobody with the machine gun at my front door not letting me out of the house. I get that it’s not the same thing. But it is similar in the way, you know, our options have been taken away from us if we want to stay healthy. And as distressing as what’s going on outside my door is, there is definitely a sweetness to this time that I did not stop and appreciate before this time with my family. Or time with art, which is another thing that I love so much. The way the entire book changes when the hostage negotiator brings in a box full of sheet music so that Roxanne – didn’t you love that as an artist?
MB: It’s funny because when I worked on a film sometimes you would get people that would be kind of snarky about it. Oh, it’s not like you’re curing cancer or whatever, you know? And I was like, no, I beg to differ because obviously, like, no, we’re not curing cancer, but from someone who knows what art can do to heal. I hear stories all the time where people are like, you know, this person’s music helped me through a really rough period. That film made me see something different. And I love that in her book, it was art that kind of brought them together. You see, like the young kid, Cesar, who starts being taught by Roxanne, how to sing opera. And he has a really great voice. I love it because it’s, again, just another thing besides just the close proximity, it’s the thing that kind of draws all of them together. They sit in the mornings and they listen to Roxanne sing, you know, and it’s just such a beautiful imagery in my head. I’m just like, oh, my God, that’s just like a gorgeous thing you have. And I mean, at this point in time, it’s three women and all of these men. All of these men with guns are in such awe, of her singing. And it’s like this peace that descends when she does. I love that moment of, like you said, bringing the sheet music. And it just kind of transformed that whole situation a little bit.
JS: And it had to be opera. I couldn’t think of anything else, any other artist, she could have been in that situation to bring that kind of joy because it had to be something that basically nobody understood except for Mr. Hosokawa. But nobody – they all had all these different languages. So all they heard was the music of it and the sound of her voice. And they weren’t really knowing what the words of it were, and I thought that was just so perfect and so wonderful that the art, the art itself is what drew them in, it wasn’t like, oh, this is my favorite one, because it’s about this uprising in my country. And it was nothing like that. It was like really the art that brought them all together as a group. It was so beautiful.
MB: Yeah, I loved that. And that’s why because I mean, I think a lot of times we get so caught up in each other’s differences that we don’t always stop to think about the things that do make the commonalities that we have, the similarities. And then that’s one of the things I love. I’ve always been a huge fan of movies and TV and that kind of thing. But I adore music and I love all types. And I can remember being like eight years old. I don’t know if you remember, they used to bring operas on PBS or some of those like local channels or whatever. And it was funny because the rest of my family was like, why are you watching this? But, you know, I guess being an eight-year-old kid, I thought it was beautiful. Even though I had no idea what the woman was singing about. But I’m trying to remember – I would click onto these stations and I would just watch and listen and be kind of enthralled. This is gorgeous. And how does she get her voice to go that?
JS: Do you listen to opera now?
MB: Some. Not as much as then. I think there was like a purity in it then. Now I’m a little like – I’d like to kind of know the story before I get caught up in what exactly is being said here. So I got lost a little bit of that, like, I would tend to like one or two. And that was nice. I love being there in the presence of it. I think for me, opera’s one of those things where I like going and having like the full experience, just sitting and listening to it. I enjoy classical. But to me they’re two different things. So for an opera, it’s like, I want to get immersed in the actual – let me go and watch it play out on the stage as well as getting the music. So, not so much anymore, but I remember as a kid being very just like, oh my God, this is amazing. Entrancing.
JS: I don’t know anything about opera. I’ve always wanted to. It always happens that way in the movies. I’m thinking of Moonstruck and what else? Pretty Woman. Where they don’t know the language and all of a sudden, they’re weeping. And I’ve met people who love opera who insist that they weep while they’re at the opera, which is amazing. But I wouldn’t even know where to start.
MB: If you get to people like, oh, I don’t listen to music, I’m like, you must have a sad life, because how could you have just one art in your life? I mean, it’s what makes – you know, I can’t think of how many conversations have gotten started or gone on to the wee hours of the morning that didn’t relate to some type of art.
JS: Yes, exactly. That was the real genius that Ann Patchett does in this book, too. Because even though I don’t know anything about opera, I felt like I did as she described it. She didn’t say, you know, this is her singing Carmen, because that wouldn’t have meant anything to me. But she describes, how the tenor of the room changes when she sings this or that, and what it sounded like. And I thought that was an incredible feat because it feels like you listen to an opera after you’ve read this. What I assume it feels like.
MB: Yeah. The way that she wrote that, because like you said, it gave you a sense of awe. It’s not that I understood it more, but being able to kind of understand it or appreciate it the way that these characters did. Even the vice president’s sister was trying to ask if her father could come listen. At one point she’s like, even if he has to sit in the kitchen or the garden. He must really love it. If even if I could listen from outside, I would be happy. It’s like, the thing that you would feel that way about that – even if I could just have a crumb of whatever it is, I would be to be that close to the greatness.
JS: And that was a neat thing also that, I believe it was the priest who said, a voice like that can only come from God. So be near her was a God-like experience. He was reconciled to this. There’s nothing else in this except God because her voice is so extraordinary. The priest was one of my favorite characters. Every single one of the characters really. They’re so well drawn.
MB: It’s so full, it’s almost like a character study, her book, because there’s so much. Without that I think is it would just be like another story that I would have passed right by. But she gets so into the character’s minds and what they’re feeling and thinking that that’s what really sustains the book is that you are living every moment, every breath through what is going on with these characters.
JS: Have you read other Ann Patchett?
MB: Yes, I’ve read a couple of other ones. The Patron Saint of Liars, I read that one. Run, and Taft are the two other ones.
JS: Oh, I forgot about “Run.” Oh, my God. That one’s so good.
MB: It’s funny, I feel like I want to go back and read her work and familiarize myself with some of her other books or even just get some of the newer ones or whatever. I love her writing because it just sucks you into the story and almost makes you feel like you’re a fly on the wall or like they’re in the room or whatever is happening that you’re like seeing it firsthand. And I love that. It’s so immersive.
JS: I have read several of her books and this one is my favorite, which is saying a lot because I haven’t disliked any of her books. And this one that makes me angry, it’s so friggin good. I slammed it down a few times as I was reading it, like I can’t – I will never be able to do this. It’s is incredible how subtly she can create like this. It’s just breathtaking. Oh, it makes me so angry! But I’m also so grateful I get to read it.
MB: Yes, I know. I have a couple of writers. Sometimes it’s like you read their work and you’re like, man, I want to be able to write like this.
JS: She owns a bookstore. Did you know that?
MB: No, I did not. Where’s it at?
JS: I think Nashville.
MB: No way!
JS: I might be wrong about that, but I think so.
MB: Oh, I’m so going to look that up, because if I ever go that way, I definitely want to hit that up.
JS: Moni, what are you reading right now? Are you in the middle of anything?
MB: I am actually in the middle of two different things. It’s funny because I besides reading a lot of romance, I’m also a huge mystery/thriller reader. I love those kinds of books. And so right in the middle of reading Rachel Kane’s fourth book in the, uh, this one’s Bitter Falls, I can’t remember the series name. But it’s so great. Obviously, there are tons of male protagonists in the mystery/thriller world, so it’s so great to get this book written by a woman about a woman. When she starts out in the first book, because there’s been four at this point, she starts out literally the wife of a serial killer, and she didn’t know. Right there, she had me. This is interesting. I’ve never, had a character with this premise before. And she just writes it so well. It’s almost kind of like Ann Patchett. It’s almost like being the parent of a kid who’s like the school shooter almost. So here this woman is who’s hated and vilified by the world because of what her husband did. And so she’s kind of on the run with her kids, even now it’s years later after the trial and he’s sitting in jail and she’s still kind of being hunted by this mob that thinks that she had something to do with it because she was married to him. And so now she’s kind of living this. Before she was the unknowing kind of housewife where you were just like, how did you not know? I’ve never been so tense reading a book before my life. She’s so good. And it’s funny because she writes in other genres. I think she writes like paranormal romance or something like that, which I haven’t read any of that, but the next book was coming out, I was like, one click.
JS: I’ve never even heard of her. Those are the best books when you have that full body reaction.
MB: Usually I read one fiction and nonfiction at the time. So my other one I’m reading now is one of Joanna Penn’s books. How to be an Authorpreneur. Because I try to, you know, I want a little education and to be entertained.
JS: Keep both sides of the brain working.
JS: Will you tell our listeners how they can find you?
JS: Moni, this has been such a delight talking to you. I’m so glad we finally got to do this and I’m so grateful you got me to read this book again. It was just a joy to read.
MB: Oh, good. It was so great to talk to you about it. That’s always the great thing, is talking about art with other people who enjoy it just as much as you do.