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Ann Patchett Answers Frequently Asked Questions About The Dutch House

Posted on 24th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

Even by her own stratospherically high standards, Ann Patchett has produced a literary tour de force with her latest novel The Dutch House. The Waterstones Book of the Month for May, the book is a meditation on the bonds of family and youth, rich in metaphor and flawless in tone. Here, Ann Patchett answers a  number of questions she received from readers about The Dutch House.    

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about The Dutch House, more than I can possibly answer individually, so I’ve put together a list of answers. I hope this covers any questions you might have.

Is there a real Dutch House?

There is no actual Dutch House. It exists in my imagination and in the reader’s imagination. Everyone has a house or houses they think are spectacular. It may have been someplace you lived or someplace you drove past once. It could have been a museum or a historical home. The important thing is that the Dutch House in the book conjures up that feeling. I’ve taken bits and pieces from great houses I’ve been in over my life and run those details together — carved wooden panels, the dining room ceiling, a tiny kitchen in a grand house, the staircase, the ability to see through certain houses. I love that.

Interestingly, the vice president’s house in Bel Canto was based on an actual house — the president’s house at Sarah Lawrence College. I used to babysit the president’s daughter and spent a lot of time in that house. I later moved the whole thing into my novel, china closet and all.

Why did you set The Dutch House in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania?

The reason I set the book in Elkins Park is because of my friend Erica Schultz (née Buchsbaum). Her family lived in Wyncote, and I used to go home with her for the weekends and holidays when we were in school. I wanted to set The Dutch House somewhere near New York and so this seemed like the perfect location, plus there was the added benefit of being able to ask Erica and her sisters and her parents questions about where Danny and Maeve went to school, what trains they would take from the city, and where they would live as their fortunes rose and fell. All the Buchsbaums were tremendously helpful. I thought about setting the book in Evanston, Illinois, and Chicago. My friend Melissa Pinney lives in Evanston and I’ve never seen so many gorgeous houses in my life, but a big part of Commonwealth took place in Chicago, and I didn’t want to set another book there.

Can you tell us a bit about the jacket?

It was very important to me not to have any part of a house on the cover of the book. I wanted the portrait of Maeve to be on the cover. This turned out better than I ever could have imagined. I called my friend Noah Saterstrom (who also lives in Nashville) and asked him to paint Maeve’s portrait. I gave him the two pages in which the painting is mentioned in the novel and based on those two pages, he did the painting in three days. It’s not a portrait of a real person. I bought the painting from him. It’s hanging in our den. I never get tired of it. 

There are so many things I love about the painting, one is that it’s actually part of the plot, so at some point the reader will look back at the cover and think, wait a minute! Also, you almost never see a woman or girl on the cover of a novel who has a direct gaze. Women’s faces are very often turned away, half-covered by hats, or chopped off. It drives me crazy.

Why did you tell the story of The Dutch House from Danny’s view point?

The book was always going to be told from Danny’s point of view. Even though I think of it as Maeve’s book, it was important to have his perspective. Maeve isn’t the kind of person to tell her own story, which is really the first thing you have to ask yourself when thinking about writing a first-person novel. I did try to write it in third person but it didn’t work.

How did you research The Dutch House?

I had a lot of help with the research for this book. The Buchsbaums, of course, for Elkins Park. My lawyer, James Gooch, read an early draft and did the research to figure out how Andrea could wind up with everything. I had several people who had dealt in real estate in New York since the late sixties help me figure out how Danny made money without having money (that was really tricky!) And my dear husband Karl Van Devender practices internal medicine so he gave me all the details about medical school, internships, and residencies. There’s one part that takes place in an emergency room that came to me compliments of my neighbor, Jay Wellons, a paediatric neurosurgeon at Vanderbilt.

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