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Author Ann Patchett has a confession to make — and she’s rather embarrassed by it. Kenya, one of the main characters in her upcoming novel “Run,” was inspired by the daughter of her step aerobics instructor in Nashville.
“My teacher had a daughter who was a real running prodigy and she would come to these classes and sit around and she was such a mesmerizing kid….Oh no, it’s going to be in WWD that I used to take step aerobics,” Patchett groans, suddenly self-conscious of its very unfashionable connotations.
No matter, it’s worth the cringe factor as Kenya is, in many ways, the heart and soul of “Run.” Set over the course of 24 hours in Cambridge and Boston, the novel, out this week from HarperCollins, tells the story of Bernard Doyle, a white widower and former mayor of Boston and his two adopted black sons, Teddy and Tip, whom he desperately wants to follow in his political footsteps. However, they seem more drawn to religion and ichthyology (the science of fish), respectively. Mid-argument one evening, after a Jesse Jackson lecture at Harvard, Kenya’s mother, Tennessee, pushes Tip out of the way of an oncoming car, and ends up in the hospital herself. Doyle and his sons take Kenya under their wings, opening a Pandora’s box of family history that reconfigures their lives.
Patchett first had the idea for the book while working on her 2001 prize-winning “Bel Canto” and did extensive research, reading political biographies, speeches and visiting Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where many of Tip’s scenes are set. In particular, Joe Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan, proved an influence in crafting Doyle.
“Not in his personality, but in the idea of trying to raise a son to be president. I mean, he had all of these sons and he just kept pitching them out like baseballs: The first one’s killed in the war, OK, let’s bring up the second one; he’s killed, let’s bring up the third one,” says Patchett. “That is just an incredible American story and a story of enormous sacrifice: being able to sacrifice your children for a greater good of mankind.”
Patchett’s own story is one with a clear trajectory. Born in Los Angeles but raised in Nashville by a police officer father and nurse mother, she knew from a very early age she wanted to become a writer.
“I actually think that is the great gift of my life: always knowing what I wanted to do and never wavering from that,” she says.
She attended Sarah Lawrence and, at 21, studied at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But it is perhaps her Catholic school upbringing that has most influenced her novels, which many critics have characterized as having an otherworldly quality.
“I always think I’m writing these hard-boiled realistic stories and everybody tells me they’re magical and that is one way in which I think Catholicism does play into it,” says Patchett, 43, who, though not practicing, identifies herself with the religion. “It expanded my idea of what’s possible, what’s real, in a very good way. Because I do think that what is real and what is possible are always larger than what we can actually see and understand.”