“When you hear of a fourteen-year-old girl in crazy love with a twenty-nine-year-old man, the next line you hear should include the word `shotgun,’ but the fact is, I was the girl, and I never loved anyone like I loved Joe Peretti.” From Starfish, by Patty Dann
Patty Dann’s novel, Mermaids, was made into a popular 1990 film starring Cher as the glamorous, eccentric mother, Mrs. Flax, Winona Ryder as Charlotte Flax, the conflicted teen who falls hopelessly in love with an older man, Bob Hoskins as Lou, a stable friend of the family, and Christina Ricci, in her first film role, as Kate, the youngest member of the Flax family. The long-awaited sequel to Mermaids, Starfish, continues the saga of the Flax family and has been greeted with cheers from Dann’s many fans.
Like so many of her readers, Dann has wondered for years what happened to the Flax family. “I could never picture it,” she said during an interview. “Then a few years ago, I could see them all sitting on the porch in that same house in the fictional town of Grove, Massachusetts. I could hear a phone ringing, but not a cell phone, so I decided to set Starfish before we all had cell phones – in 1991, at the start of the Gulf War. Mermaids took place the year President John Kennedy was assassinated. I like to show how global events impact a small town.”
In Starfish the family reunites for Mrs. Flax’s birthday. Mrs. Flax is as glamorous and eccentric as ever. Charlotte returns to settle in Grove only to find that a housing development has replaced the neighboring convent, where Joe, the older man she fell in love with, once worked. And Kate, an unwed mother, surprises the family with a toddler son.
“There are seeds of my real life in my fiction,” Dann said, reflecting on the plots of Mermaids and Starfish. “I did indeed grow up in a small town next to a convent, but it had closed by the time I was a teenager and there was no handsome caretaker that I know of. The nuns were a calm presence next door in my childhood –and they played basketball. I could hear them laughing as they played.”
The movie adaptation of Mermaids was an exciting time for Dann. “It was wonderful and a bit overwhelming,” she said. “I would be sorting socks on the bed and get calls like, `Barbra Streisand wants to do the movie,’ and I’d just say, `sure,’ and then Cher ended up playing the mother. It was a wild experience. I like the movie very much. The first time I saw it without music it had a very different feel, and it took a while to get used to the soundtrack. When I wrote it, I never thought about music in the background, but now I put the music on sometimes when I clean the house.”
Sweet and Crazy, set on 9/11, has a different set of characters. Dann also has written two memoirs, Baby Boat: A Memoir of Adoption, about the adoption of her son, and The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss, about the death of her first husband from brain cancer. Her work has been translated into Japanese, French, Dutch, Italian, German, Portuguese, Korean and Chinese.
Dann, whose writings have appeared in the New York Times, Redbook, O Magazine, The Chicago Tribune and many others, has fond memories of her early interest in writing. “My mother was a journalist, and I used to tag along with my notebook and pen when she interviewed people. Even before I could write, [I would] pretend scribbling on the pages,” she said. “Once she took us to a play of Little Women and the character of Jo wrote something and then crumpled it up and threw it off stage – that was just a scribble too – but I caught it – like catching a bouquet.”
Dann holds a BA from University of Oregon and a MFA from Columbia University. “When I was at the University of Oregon I had a writing teacher, Ralph Salisbury, a poet,” she said. “I confided in him that my best writing was done when something difficult had happened, and he said, ‘luckily or unluckily you will have enough sorrow in your life to write seven or eight books.’ I’m working on my sixth now.”
Favorite Authors? “That’s a bit like asking about one’s favorite child,” she said. “But right now I’d say one of my favorite authors is Howard Norman, who wrote The Bird Artist. He has a spare and startling quality that amazes me. I also love Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome is my favorite book.”
Cited by New York Magazine as one of “The Great Teachers of New York City,” Dann has taught at Sarah Lawrence College and currently teaches at the West Side YMCA. She has served as a judge of the prestigious, Scholastic Young Writer’s Awards, the annual program that recognizes and honors young writers.
“I mainly think of myself as a large ear,” she said about her teaching. “I love stories, and it brings me great joy to help people write the stories they have never dared to write before. Teaching fuels my writing and writing fuels my teaching. A week of listening to their stories, editing them, and writing – along with swimming and walking – is heaven for me.”
Fans of Patty Dann’s writing can look forward to more of her works in the future. “I realize I’ve written every other book fiction and non-fiction, and in fact the book I’m writing now is called Writing Your Head Off, about writing and teaching. I write essays, when the spirit moves me – I just wrote one about putting up a double bed in what we call the boys’ room, the same room that once held my son’s crib.” Dann is married to journalist Michael Hill, has one son and two stepsons.
“I hope to be able to keep writing and teaching until I keel over,” she said with a laugh. “Writing is a rigorous art form, but unlike ballet it doesn’t matter what shape your knees are in.”