Ann Packer is the author of two best-selling novels, Song Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier which was selected for Good Morning America’s “Read This!” book club, won an American Library Association Award, a Great Lakes Book Award, and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. She has also published two collections of short stories, Mendocino and Other Stories and, most recently, Swim Back to Me. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vogue, and Real Simple. Packer is a graduate of Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received a James Michener Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Her writing reverberates with both simplicity and complexity. Just like Packer herself, who surprises by first appearing reserved only to bubble over with humor and warmth.
Let’s start at the very beginning, with childhood. Your parents were professors at Stanford. Was your mom heading the writing program at that point?
Not heading it, but she was enrolled as a student, as a Stegner Fellow to study writing. She and my father had married in ’58. She was living in Alabama and she moved out [to Californa with him]. She needed something to do, structure – so she enrolled in the Stegner program and studied with Wallace Stegner. Then, gradually, over the years, she moved from that to a lectureship, to Assistant Professor, and she just stayed on for thirty years or so.
A lot of people I speak to have had to struggle to make their families understand exactly what it was they wanted to do, but you grew up in a household where writing was valued.
It was highly valued and so it was really the opposite – I had to make my way to the thing my family valued. Which is not to say that I wasn’t a reader. I was always a reader, but I never imagined that my life would ever have anything to do with literature or writing fiction…
Why do you think that was?
My little brother, who is a journalist, was more the one who was into all of that. He had avid interests in books and sports, in the presidents, in all kinds of things, and I was more the kid who was sort of observing – which is of course the ideal terrain for a fiction writer; that’s really the way we all start out. But for whatever reason, whether it was rebellion or insecurity or some combination of those things, writing just wasn’t something that I was at all interested in doing.
Had your brother sort of claimed it?
You know, he did claim it. He wrote poems, he wrote stories… Every summer my mother would abridge a Shakespeare play for him and his friends to perform on the patio.
You were not involved in that?
No, I was involved as a member of the audience. It wasn’t until I went to college. I was an English major, of course, because I wanted to keep reading, and I actually didn’t have something else that I wanted to do. But, when I was just starting my senior year, a friend of mine talked me into applying for a writing class. I was very resistant at first but I took this class. We started out doing little fiction writing exercises in dialogue or setting, and I just fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. I couldn’t believe it counted as work! [Laughs.]
I started writing short stories, and it came very naturally to me. There was something about my orientation toward life that made making up stories –actually it’s even more than that, putting together sentences – a good fit for me.
So why do you think you felt such resistance toward the idea of becoming a writer?
You know, the other part of it wasn’t just the actual practice of writing, it was what I observed about what it meant to have a life as a writer. It seemed that what I saw in my mother and her friends and colleagues and students was this kind of misery at the heart of it. I think the difficulty in getting published loomed very large either for them or just for my perception of how they were living. I felt that there was a lot of doing the work and then stopping short of having it actually reach an audience. And that just seemed unbearably frustrating.
Interestingly, the whole submission process has turned out to be less frustrating and onerous than I would have imagined. It’s not that I’ve had an easy time at it, I just don’t mind the frustrations in the way that witnessing people around the Stanford creative writing program in the ‘60‘s and ‘70‘s and ‘80s led me to believe that I would.
Most people who want to become writers don’t have any sense of what life as a writer might entail, but you already had an idea.
Yeah, and interestingly to me, the vision was never about writing. The vision was never about what doing the work would actually be like. I think that was unimaginable, and of course now it’s central, it is the work – doing the work is the work. It’s about sitting there. Which, you know, on some days is really not fun. But when it is, there’s nothing like it.
So, what was your first move after college?
I came and worked at Ballantine, a division of Random House.
Was taking a job in the publishing world a conscious choice in order to move toward the literary life?
No, my plan was to move to New York and write and find some way to support myself. I think I actually had a fantasy of being a waitress.
The writing-waitress thing, they do go kind of hand in hand.
Yeah! Fortunately, that never came to pass. A friend of a friend was working at Ballantine, for the business manager, and he wanted to hire someone part-time. It was in publishing, which had some cache, even though the job actually had nothing literary about it. I could have been doing the same thing for any product. But I got this part-time job and I started making a young person’s life in New York – you know, the life of a 23, 24-year-old – and I completely stopped writing.
Why do you think that was?
I think I was too busy figuring other things out at that point. I don’t think I was driven or confident enough to really throw myself into writing. I was making my way in the city, having a little studio apartment in the village, and going out with friends and working in publishing. After about a year or so, a position opened up in the copy department. It was a full-time assistant position and I needed a full-time job by then, so I sort of fell sideways into that job. I started working for the Copy Chief, I was her assistant. Then I started writing cover copy, and moved up.
Where were you living during that time in New York?
When I first came, I lived with two roommates in an apartment on Hudson Street. It’s funny, I was wandering on Hudson Street a couple years ago and passed the entrance to the building where I had lived. The ground floor had been a hardware store, and I mean like the old kind of hardware store where you walk in and it’s sort of musty and dark and the screws are in little open boxes and you can buy one. And that was now occupied by a shop selling you know, mid-century vases…
The New York Evolution right there.
Things have changed! [Laughs.] But amazingly, the door into the upper floors of the building was open and there had been a fire or something, a lot of damage, and I was actually able to go upstairs and then the apartment door was open.
So I was actually able to walk into this apartment I had lived in twenty years, no – oh my god! – 30 years earlier.
How was that?
It was so strange! My room in that apartment had been almost a triangle. I mean it was a triangle with one point blocked off so that there were actually four sides, but really, a triangle. And what I remember distinctly about that room is that I bought a carpet remnant and my roommate’s mother, this very industrious person, actually got a carpet cutter and cut it to fit the footprint of the room. [Laughs.] That was gone, no more carpet. That may have caused the fire. [Laughs.]
And so, were you living that New York roommate life?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, going out, cooking, having parties… At that point the East Village was still slightly dicey, so we had some friends living in the East Village and we would sort of venture over there for parties, kind of looking over our shoulders as we crossed from you know, Avenue A to Avenue B. [Laughs].
A lot of my friends from Yale were in New York, a lot were in law school, and there were people I was meeting in publishing, people they were meeting in law school…it was kind of a crowd.
But you weren’t really hanging out with writers at that point?
No, no, not at all.
But you know, in the back of my mind, there was this, this thing that I had sort of loved and then quickly moved away from. I really only took two writing classes in my senior year [in college] and that was it. But I started thinking about writing again. Obviously, I was reading avidly the whole time, all the fiction that was being published. And I started writing a new story. And I decided to apply to MFA programs.
I applied to a whole bunch of them and ended up going to Iowa. It was kind of a mirror experience to beginning to write when I was a senior in college in that I discovered really, really quickly how comfortable and natural it was for me – and it was less about writing than it was about thinking about writing. From the first weeks of being at Iowa – sitting in workshop, talking about a story, trying to figure out what he or she was doing, and then, was there a way to make it better? – it just was…it was as if I was suddenly speaking my mother tongue. [Laughs.] You know I just felt very, very much at home with the process.
For a lot of people, going into the writing workshops can be a very sort of break you-down-to-build-you-back-up process, but for you it was sort of more like an “Aha” experience?
There wasn’t a lot to break down, because I didn’t have that much at stake as a writer, I hadn’t written that much yet.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a tough place. It was a very tough place in the late 80s – very, very competitive. But really, really valuable for me. You know, it gives you two years. It gives you a focus and it gave me sort of – not permission – but it gave me the place and the time and the reason to really see about writing.
And did you find your tribe as well?
Oh yeah. I definitely found my tribe as well. And that’s been true since then. My closest friends are all writers.
Thinking back on your time in graduate school, was it just a very intense incubation for writing or was it also a social time?
It was very social. The social life was definitely focused on workshop life but, you know, there’s a couple of bars in Iowa City that the writers hung out at and still hang out at. It was a lot of fun, it was great.
And living in Iowa city after living in New York for five years was, I don’t know… There’s something romantic about being in the Midwest in a small college town, with one bar for every ten football players. And then you get in the car and you drive twenty miles and there’s a store with broken crockery, and old gas cans, and it just seems so quaint.
You wrote a story that was published in The New Yorker before you graduated from Iowa – that’s sort of the greatest triumph of an MFA graduate!
Well, it was. It was a stroke of luck, that’s for sure. It was my first publication.
Incredible. I spoke with Jennifer Egan and her first submission that was accepted was for The New Yorker, and she was like, “It’s all happening now.”
[Laughs.] It was amazing, it was very exciting. You know, everybody was submitting stories to The New Yorker and there was a hierarchy of rejection letters…
Ah-ha, so you could compare, too!
You could get just a form rejection, and then you can get a form rejection onto which one of the editors had written: “Try again.” And signed with their initials. I had gotten several “please try us again”, signed “DM”, which I knew to be Dan Menaker, so I started submitting to him. It have been March of that last year that I submitted a story to him and instead of getting the stamped, self address manila envelope, somewhat battered looking, with your own handwriting on it, coming back into your own mailbox with your own dirty xerox tucked in – because, of course, there was no digital submission in those days – I got a little business sized envelope with The New Yorker’s return address and somebody else’s handwriting with my name and address. And it was a letter saying, “We really like this, it came very close, we weren’t sure about these things though. If you wanted to rewrite it, we would value the chance to see it again…”
Top of the hierarchy of rejection letters.
Yes, you could really not get a better rejection letter than that. I sent in a revision several weeks later, and he called me up and accepted it!
A great way to round off graduate school.
That was a pretty great way to end.
And what was your next step after graduate school?
I was a Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, so I had known during that spring, before I had gotten The New Yorker acceptance, that I was going to be moving to Madison, Wisconsin and that I had this one year fellowship. It was a year during which you could work on your first book, and all they asked of you was that you teach one introductory creative writing class per semester.
It was. It was really great.
Was that your first teaching experience?
The second year at Iowa I had what they call a teaching-writing fellowship, so my first experience teaching was in my second year at Iowa.
And so what was that year in Wisconsin like? Did you move out their alone?
I moved with my boyfriend, whom I had met at Iowa. And there were a couple of people who had been in Iowa City who had now lived in Madison, so we kind of had a network of friends really quickly. We had an apartment in a house near one of the lakes. We stayed a second year and both taught.
Was your boyfriend a writer as well?
Yeah, he was a writer also, we had met at the workshop. Toward the end of the second year [in Madison] he had decided that it was too risky – he hadn’t been publishing, and he decided he wanted to do something completely different. We had gotten married the summer between the two years in Madison and I applied for a grant that was given out to graduates of Iowa, sponsored by James Michener, and what was then called the Copernicus Society of America. I got a grant and the two of us went to France for a year.
That’s where I started writing The Dive From Clausen’s Pier.
Where in France where you?
We were in the south of France, we had a couple of different places, you know, a month here, five months there. We finished up with six weeks in Paris or something like that.
And did you speak French?
Ah, a little French, I had studied French from you know, seventh grade on. For having seven years of French, I was terrible, but I could get by.
You could buy a baguette.
I could buy a car. I bought a car in France.
That’s pretty good! What was that year like?
My husband decided he wanted to apply to a graduate program in architecture, so he was putting together a portfolio. I wrote the first couple hundred pages of the first draft of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. Then when we came back to the United States we settled in Eugene, OR, and he enrolled in an architecture program and I kept writing and over the next four years had two kids. And I just kept working on The Dive From Clausen’s Pier.
It’s sort of a different beast to be working on a short story as opposed to be working on a novel. Was it difficult to move from a shorter to a longer format?
I think it was pretty organic. What slowed me down was being pregnant, having babies, and, you know in retrospect, not knowing how to write a novel, by which I mean, not knowing how to just keep going, and get to the end of a draft and think really big picture and start again. And so, for the first five years or so I did go through a whole bunch of distinct drafts, but I wasn’t making very big steps in between the drafts. When I look back on it I think, “Wow, I was really kind of running in place for some of that time.”
On the other hand, maybe that’s how I had to do it. Because I didn’t find the form of the book until I had been working on it for five years. You know, when I first started writing the book there was a third person narrator. I actually started over with a first person narrator halfway through my ten-year history of writing that book. If I had been able to do that a couple of years earlier, well, who knows, things might have been different.
Were you having this struggle with yourself the whole time or did you show it to anybody?
I showed it to people as I got to the end of a draft. I would send it to a friend or my husband. So I was getting feedback all along. Feedback has always made a big difference for me, I really like to know what the reader’s experience is. What is going on as they go from one place to the next.
Your husband had all these doubts and decided to change tracks completely. How about you, did you suffer from doubts during this period of time?
Not really. I think I had enough affirmation externally, with first The New Yorker story, then the fellowship, and then the grant, and then I got an NEA… It was just enough to sort of augment my own view of it with some external support that I might be able to make a go of it.
Of course it’s never clear, but it was not at all clear for ten years, and not till The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, that I would be able to support myself while I wrote the next novel.
Did you have to have other jobs while you were writing the first novel? Or did the grants sort of push you along?
You know, I didn’t. My husband got through graduate school, we had financial support from our parents, and then he started working and I was mostly with the kids. But I had some babysitting, so every few afternoons I would have some time to write. It was kind of a cobbled together existence.
I think I got to the end of writing that first novel, really really uncertain about whether it would ever make it out into the world.
Did you have an agent during the process that you were writing?
I had had an agent. My first book was a book of stories, published after I got the NEA.
So I had found an agent to represent that book. So she was sort of, you know, there, for when I finished a novel. But it wasn’t a great fit so I ended up finding someone else to actually sell the novel.
You had been working on this novel for going on ten years. When the time came to submit it, how did you know that it was ready, after all those drafts?
Well, the advantage of doing that many [drafts] is that you move from not feeling that it’s finished to feeling that you’re closer and closer… And I think that as I went from being 30 to 40, I of course developed a lot, I became a mother. There’s really no more complex development that anybody goes through, I don’t think, than becoming a parent, and as that happened, the novel developed, the characters became more complex, the novel became more subtle, and I think I just arrived at a point where I felt that it was enough. You know? Maybe the returns were diminishing, for each revision, and I think I kind of felt that I had done all I wanted to do with it. I knew I could write for another ten years and make it really complex, but I was finished.
What was the submission process like?
I sent it out into the world and I had a very hard time finding an agent. It took me over a year to find somebody who wanted to represent it.
Was that discouraging?
Yes, yes it was discouraging. And what kind of takes my breath away is how much harder it is now. I really feel for emerging writers, because it was very hard then and it’s much, much harder now. For literary fiction.
When you finally found an agent, what was the sale like?
Actually that ended up being a very short process, interestingly. She sold it very quickly.
And was that sort of a whirlwind? I mean, it’s such an incredible thing to be working on a project for ten years, not know where it’s going, and then all of a sudden, in a matter of probably days or weeks….
Yeah, it was pretty exciting [Laughs.] It was pretty great. At that point, it was very practical. Like, getting an advance means that our family can continue, I don’t have to worry that now that I finished the book I really need to get a job…
You know, I wanted to write a book, I had written a book and things had worked out so that I was going to get to write another book.
Was it daunting, writing the second novel after the huge success of the first one?
I think the beginning of every book is somewhat daunting. Especially because I am not a planner at all. At first I was sort of finding my way to my material, and it could be terrifying, not knowing where the next paragraph was going to take me. But it was also exciting to finally be writing something else after all those years. [Laughs.]
It takes a lot of perseverance to be working on one book for ten years!
At certain times I thought, “Well, I made the mountain and now I have to climb it.” And other times I thought, “I’m just banging my head against a brick wall.”
You have a writer’s group, right?
I have a writer’s group.
How did you find that group?
They existed before I joined them. A group of Bay Area writers was at Breadloaf, and they thought – Hey, why don’t we get together at home and work on helping each other with our writing? I knew a couple of them, and I really thought it would be a good fit. So I approached one of them and they kindly made room for me. We’ve been together for eight years, or something like that. We show each other our work at whatever stage we think we would benefit from feedback.
It’s not about someone saying: Here’s what you should do. It’s about a group of people talking about what you’ve done. And looking at where the hot spots in the book are. My favorite part is when they’ve all said their spiel – everyone writes up notes and there’s a little bit of a delivery of one’s impression – and then there’s a kind of relaxing, and they start talking, and that’s when the really interesting stuff comes out. That’s when they say: “Oh you liked him? I hated that guy so much!” That’s a really good thing for a writer to know, especially if eight people hated him. Not to say you’re going to take him out, not to say you’re going to make him likeable, but it’s good to know. I find it just hugely valuable.
Looking back after all this time, have your work habits changed from your early days to now?
My works habits have changed – my work attitude has changed. I used to be a real prima donna. I had certain requirements for the conditions I needed in order to be able to write.
Oh, time and space. And in every neurotic way you can imagine. I not only needed to have two hours today, I had to know that tomorrow and the next day I would also have two hours. I not only had to have my desk cleared off, I had to have every horizontal surface in the room cleared off.
That can lead to a lot of things that you have to do in order to get writing…
Yeah, there are a lot of things you get to do in order to NOT write!
Then I had a baby and I discovered that if I had an hour, I could use it. And that changed everything. The second big change is that I have a repetitive strain injury and I can no longer spend hours and hours and hours and hours working.
I think both of those things together make me really, really prize the time I have and use it pretty effectively – except on the terrible days when I can’t use it at all. But even those I think are necessary to the process and you have to have those – those terrible eighty-two minutes when you’d rather be anywhere else – in order to get a good chunk of time the next day or the next week.
Can you recall an early triumph?
The Dive from Clausen’s Pier being a bestseller was a great surprise. It was a game-changer. I had never imagined myself as a best-selling writer. And even in the first couple of months after it came out, I was sort of flabbergasted that people found it suspenseful. I thought it was – in fact it is – a very quiet book, actually.
From struggling to find an agent to being a bestselling writer. Tell me about the process.
So it started before pub day with the starred Publishers Weekly [review], starred Kirkus [review], that kind of thing. And I think the first sort of thrill was getting a very positive review in The Daily Times. And then maybe a week later it was going to be on the cover of the Book Review, the New York Times Book Review.
It was a matter of “Wow, great reviews, this is so exciting and wonderful…” But after about six weeks, things quieted down. Then, Oprah had shut down her book club, but it turned out both Good Morning America and the Today Show were launching book clubs in June of that year, and the Good Morning America book club chose my novel as their first pick.
It began to sell very, very well, and it was on Good Morning America and I was on Good Morning America, and because it was the first pick, every single reference in the news to the fact that they were starting a book club mentioned my book. So it sold a lot for several months.
What a wonderful moment.
Yeah, that was a wonderful moment.
But the more I do, the less important it is what happens when the book goes out into the world. It’s very, very gratifying to reach people and have people respond to my work, and it would absolutely not be the same if I could make the same amount of money and no one read it. I love making something happen in another person’s mind. But the farther along I get, the more me in relationship to the work, me at my desk, the good days that I have, are what matter the most.
Probably those exterior triumphs are important for the younger self in order to get to the point where you are sure enough of yourself to see the work itself as the most important.
Yeah, I think that you internalize some of the validation that is around you, and then you begin to not need to see it reflected because you actually have it inside.
What is the best piece of advice that was ever given to you?
I won’t call it a piece of advice, but the best philosophy that I ever received was from Jane Smiley, who was my teacher at Iowa. Her approach was, you keep redoing it – you do it over and over and over again. And she ran something called Short Story Boot Camp. We did four drafts each of two stories over the course of a semester, so everybody turned in eight draft – every other week, pretty much. And I think that’s the core belief for me, that’s how it works for me. It’s guided me well and served me well.
And if you were to offer advice to young writers, what would you say?
Well, I think it would be the same thing. I would say, “You know what? That draft you just worked so hard over and you feel so finished with, it’s not finished.” I had a student who said, “Really, when you put up a story in workshop, the only acceptable response is that you walk into the classroom and everybody stands up and applauds.” [Laughs.] But no, once you get over the disappointment that that didn’t happen, then you can start learning, then you can go home and make it better.
So I think my advice is: be open to other ideas about your work for as long as you can. At the same time, the warring advice would be: believe what you believe, you are the authority.
The two pieces of advice are somehow in opposition to each other. But they also complement each other very well.
Finally, I always wonder, is there something you would tell your younger self?
Hang in there, hang in there.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Elena Seibert