How Do You Feel About Errors and Clichés in Short Stories? or Some Thoughts On Ann Patchett’s Switzerland

ceci-nest-pas-la-suisse

I’m baffled to say the least. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a story with more factual errors. Since I haven’t read a lot of Ann Patchett’s work, I was glad to see that the September issue of One Story featured her short story “Switzerland”. To be entirely honest, I found the title a bit odd. Did she really write a story about Switzerland? Or is it only a setting? I’m not sure why, but I immediately found it a bit problematic to give a story the title of a whole country. Just imagine I would set a story in Rome and call it “Italy”. Be it as it may, I was willing to give it a try and expected to enjoy it.

The story can be summarized quickly. Teresa is a seventy-something woman from LA who just retired. One of her children, Holly, has been living in a Zen community in Switzerland for over twenty years. Teresa’s only seen her very rarely. Her decision to travel to Switzerland and not only visit her daughter but be part of the Zen community for a few weeks, eat, live and meditate with them, is major.

The stay at the Zen community is a life changer and will help Teresa come to terms with things that have happened in the past. So far so good, and I’m pretty sure, I would have liked this story if there hadn’t been so many errors and clichés. And not just little things but big things that annoyed me a great deal.

What kind of errors and clichés you may wonder. Here goes

  • Teresa takes a plane from LA to Paris and then to Lucerne. Her daughter waits for her at the airport in Lucerne. The airport and her stay there are described in detail The only problem – there is no airport in Lucerne. It’s impossible to fly there.
  • When Teresa gets off the plane she comments about the cold. It’s icy – because, of course, we’re in Switzerland and it’s September. Let me assure you, unless you’re on the top of the Matterhorn, it will not be cold in Switzerland in September. Not even cool. Right now it’s still 100°F. It might be cooler in Lucerne, but not under 90°F.
  • The Zen community sells walking sticks that have been made from original Swiss stone pine. Hmmm. This tree doesn’t really grow in Switzerland. It’s a Mediterranean tree.
  • She mentions two newspapers Le Matin and Blick and then says Holly didn’t buy them because she can’t read German so well. Well – Le Matin is obviously French. But that’s not the only thing. Someone living in a Zen community would hardly read such trashy newspapers (the equivalent of the UK Sun).
  • Teresa sees goats and, of course, the goats look like they were waiting for Heidi or her grandfather.
  • And then, of course, Swiss chocolate is mentioned. Holly eats Toblerone.

One or two internet searches and these errors could have been omitted. Teresa could have landed in Zürich. The sticks could have been made of some other wood. She could have chosen between the newspapers NZZ and Weltwoche – far more believable in this context. Upon seeing the mountains she could have thought of Meinrad Inglin or Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. Instead of Toblerone, she could have eaten a Kägi fret. Or bought Ricola instead. And what if she’d stepped off the plane saying: “Wow, I never expected Switzerland to be this warm in September.” That would have been a nice foreshadowing of the upcoming changes in her perception. Alas!

I’m not normally hunting for errors  and clichés but these mistakes are huge and annoying. How did they get past the editor? Or are these just liberties she’s taken? If that were the case, I’m not sure why she would do that. Many readers enjoy discovering other countries via literature. As an author you have a duty towards those who are not familiar with a setting—don’t misinform them.

How do you feel about such errors/liberties?

Ann Patchett: The Getaway Car (2011) A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life

In one of her wonderful Friday Five Series Jacquelin Cangro mentioned Ann Patchett’s essay The Getaway Car that is only available in e-book format. How lucky I just got a kindle for Christmas and could put it into use for the first time. I’m really grateful to Jacquelin for mentioning this essay as it may very well be one of the most wonderful pieces on writing that I have read in a long time. On some 50 pages Ann Patchett combines memoir with some advice that is useful to anyone who has ever thought of writing or who was interested in the process of writing. All the fans of Ann Patchett will love this little book as well, I’m sure. I haven’t read anything by Ann Patchett so far but I certainly will sooner or later.

There were a few elements in this book that I would like to mention, still, the take home message from this post should be – go and read it for yourself. It’s brilliant.

Ann Patchett writes about those wonderful pictures we have in our mind and as soon as we start to write them down, they start to look pale. Like pierced butterflies in display cases. What we need in order to over come the disappointment of not being able to capture our own images is forgiveness.

I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

She writes about inspiration and that one of the most important works for her was Thomas Mann’s ZauberbergThe Magic Mountain that she read when she was very young.

I think what influences in literature comes less from what we love and more from what we happen to pick up in a moment when we are especially open.

She loved it so much that all of her own novels reproduce that basic plot of

a group of strangers being thrown together by circumstances and form a society in confinement.

She also writes about writing chronologically, about chapters and pacing and writer’s block which doesn’t exist, according to her. She does write about MFA’s and whether it is possible to learn creative writing. This is especially interesting for Europeans who, I think, frown when they hear someone has taken courses in creative writing or even acquired a MFA.

Something I found valuable as well is her take on research.

As much as I love doing research, I also know that it provides a spectacular place to hide. It’s easy to convince myself that I can’t start to write my book until I’ve read ten other books, or gone to ten other places and the next thing I know a year has gone by.

Here lies the answer to why she thinks there is no such thing as writer’s block but procrastination.

It’s a short essay but it’s very well written and contains a world of valuable suggestions and stories of her own life.