Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, grew up in California and attended Yale University and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received a James Michener Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker and in Prize Stories 1992: The O Henry Awards. She has previously published a story collection, Mendocino and Other Stories. Ann Packer lives in northern California with her family. She is at work on her next novel.
Robert Birnbaum: I understand that your book is doing very well.
Ann Packer: Yes it is.
RB: Are you surprised?
AP: I am totally surprised, completely surprised. It was a really, really long writing process. I thought that I hit the jackpot when I finished it and sold it. Everything since then has been gravy, in a way.
RB: Your last book was a book of short stories published in the early ‘90s. Was it family life that affected the completion of this book?
AP: I don’t know how much it was family life and how much it was just what it took for me to write this novel. I did have children during the 10 years that I was working on the book. But I was working pretty steadily. I took some time during pregnancy and my children’s early infancies, when I wasn’t working. It was a question of rewriting it over and over and over again, 9 different times before I finally felt that I was finished.
RB: Wow! In reading The Dive from Clausen Pier, I thought about whether it mattered to me what Carrie, the main character, ultimately resolved. Do you see this novel as plot driven or mostly concerned with ethical issues of loyalty and commitment?
AP: Well, I wanted them to play off of each other and for the meanings of the book to arise from the way they played off of each other. So that I always felt that the structure, the shape of the story was very important, in addition to what goes on more internally for the character.
RB: Is it hard to create this fresh, young character like Carrie who has not much world experience and have her play out this larger moral dilemma?
AP: She was not as young when I started the book. Not much younger than I was when I started the book. I thought there was something interesting about giving such difficulties to such a young character. I thought that time of life is such an—undetermined time of life—that there was some richness in exploring where someone would go, given these events in their life.
RB: There is some weight to claims that we are accelerating our children’s leap into adulthood…that perhaps we are spoiling that time for them.
AP: I don’t know a lot of people in their early 20’s right now, but I can’t imagine it’s changed so much since I was in my early 20’s, 20 years ago. Yes, there are certain things that come earlier now in life than they used to, some kinds of knowledge. I still think that the first 5 to 10 years out of college or even high school, are times of self-discovery and self-invention. No matter whether you started wearing lipstick at 10 or not.
RB: You did an excellent job of making Carrie a credible, convincing character. On the other hand, when I step back and think about a 23-year-old girl who has been dating the same person since high school, who has never left her home town (Madison, Wisconsin), I have doubts about her weight or presence or whether she is interesting enough to deal with her problem. That would seem to be the problem you have overcome, the challenge you faced. Was it?
AP: Not consciously. My take is more that everybody has very interesting experiences just from being human and having survived childhood. There is a story in every apparently mundane life. For me it was a matter of inventing background and psyche and playing them off each other and seeing what would happen.
RB: That’s a very generous view.
AP: (chuckles) It’s true for me. It’s how I view the world.
RB: Did you always have the same ending in mind—I don’t want to give it away—for this novel?
AP: Yes, in the 9 drafts that I wrote, the ending never changed. It was always that ending.
RB: Somewhere I saw a reference to your Cadillac training…
AP: That was in the Publisher’s Weekly review.
RB: Where were you born?
AP: I was born and raised in Stanford, California.
RB: And you went to Yale.
AP: I went to Yale.
AP: Because—I could (laughs). I wanted to go away to college and I had some choices. Partly because my father had gone to Yale. Although, in some ways, it made it harder for me to go there.
RB: And then you went to Iowa City, the Writers’ Workshop. Which is not mentioned on the dust jacket of your book.
AP: Yale wasn’t either. I made a choice. I’m 43 years old and I don’t think I need to talk about where I went to school. I’m too old.
RB: What did your publisher think?
AP: My editor left it entirely up to me. She thought it would be fine either way. At some point, the author bio did include my education, and I later thought what I just told you, I’m a little old for this. I was not interested in hiding the fact that I went to Iowa. I got a lot out of that experience and I’m proud that I went there. I’m not of the school, pretend you learned it all yourself. You just pick and choose; it’s hard to decide what identity to create for yourself on your book flap.
RB: When were you there?
AP: ’86 to ’88.
RB: Was it fun? Was it hard? Painful?
AP: Both. All three. Fun, hard and painful. Keep coming at me with adjectives…It was a great learning experience. It’s a place where you get to live and breathe writing. It’s also a place where there’s a lot of feeling among and between the students about what’s going on. Writers are very, very envious as a group, and it’s hard to feel that someone else is getting the strokes that you want to get or the financial aid that you want to get. There are aspects of it that are difficult for just about everyone.
RB: When you finished your MFA, where did you go?
AP: I went to Madison and had a creative writing fellowship there which was to help young writers with their first books.
RB: Your book of short stories?
RB: Then back to California?
AP: No…A year in France, which is where I started The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. And then 4 years in Eugene, Oregon, and then California.
RB: Why were you in Eugene?
AP: My husband was getting a degree in architecture.
RB: It took 10 years to complete this novel with 9 drafts. Was it the size which it was published?
AP: It was a little bigger. The first 4 drafts were very different in terms of voice. It was in the third person. In its original incarnation. It was always the same story, in terms of the outward signs. What I was working on in all those revisions was refining the characters and their relationships and the meanings of what they did, what they understood about what they were doing. In about 1996, I suddenly decided to start over in the first person. I hadn’t realized until I did that, how dead it had become for me. The way I discovered it had died was that it suddenly came back to life. For the next 3 or 4 years I did several drafts in the first person, slimming the story down. Taking out extraneous material and refining the characters.
RB: Tell me again this long project came alive and what was the evidence for that?
AP: How I felt doing the work, I started over using the first person.
RB: Do you start from scratch?
AP: Pretty much from scratch. I had a hard copy somewhere near me, but a blank computer screen. It’s not about crossing out ‘she’ and writing ‘I’. It was finding an entirely new voice to tell the story. In doing so, the story changes.
RB: It’s a long time to work on something. Is the story finished?
AP: It’s finished for me.
RB: Could you see writing more about these people?
AP: I don’t think so. For me, this is what I wanted to do with these characters. I have no idea whether in 10 years I’ll think, “I should check back with them and see what I can come up with.” Even the question I am asked frequently, “What’s going to happen after the book ends?” I’m torn between saying, “Well, I imagine this or that…” and saying what I think is really the truer answer, which is that, “This book is just a collection of sentences I put together and I put all the sentences together that I’m going to put together. It’s over.”
RB: If you wanted to talk about what was going to happen you would have written more.
AP: I suppose so. I take it as a testament to the fact that the characters seem real, that people want to know what happens after the last words.
RB: That’s generous, too. When were you done with this book?
AP: The final draft after the book had been bought was in April or May 2001.
RB: How much work on it after that?
AP: None. This was the draft that I did after the editor bought the book and had given me her notes. One more draft after she bought it but it was a very light edit.
RB: Have you been able to get on to your next project?
AP: I’m working on it mentally. I’d gotten in to it, which is a very, very good thing for me and for my conception of my future, but since this book came out I haven’t actually written. I’ve just been thinking and making more notes. I haven’t read the pages again since I stopped writing except for maybe one time. It’s because The Dive From Clausen’s Pier has done so well that the period of promoting it has been extended.
RB: Was the novel the total focus of your writing efforts in the 10 years you were writing it?
AP: I was dabbling—I wouldn’t say I was dabbling…
AP: I was working in periods I had the book out for readings. After each draft I would ask a handful of people to read it for me. I’m a great believer in finding out what’s happening on the other side of the page, so to speak. I couldn’t have the perspective to go from draft to draft without feedback. I really rely on that. During those periods I would work on stories.
RB: Does the length of what you are writing matter to you? Or is it the idea and wherever it takes you?
AP: I’ve never started something and discovered that it was going to be 200 pages longer than I originally thought. When I set out to write a short story I write a short story, when I set out to write a novel I write a novel. I really enjoyed writing this novel. I really like the form, but I don’t feel I am finished with the short story form. I love the short story.
RB: What do you make of writers—it doesn’t sound like you are one of them—who say when they start something, they don’t know what’s going to happen? Basically, they enter some mysterious process that ends up creating something.
AP: Hmmm. I am like that to a degree. I said I knew the shape of the story. But I didn’t know the texture of the story or what so and so was going to say on page 183. I actually work pretty intuitively. I never plan or outline. It’s why writing is such a good fit for me. In other parts of my life I am a lot more controlling. It’s kind of an escape from that.
RB: Other parts of your life?
AP: Family life. I’m pretty attached to my calendar. I plan a lot. I worry about the future and imagine various possibilities. Whereas I can get into a book and just be content with the sentence at hand.
RB: Did you think about how it would be for your book to be a critical success and not also a commercial success?
AP: That was how it looked the first month or two. I got these extraordinary, lovely reviews. I was blown away by that. When the book was chosen to be on the cover of The New York Times Book Review that was the most extraordinary thing I could imagine. I was in New York finishing up the tour. I went home and thought, “Wow! I had a critical success, this is so amazing. I feel like a writer.” It was only a few weeks later the best seller part of it started to happen. One thing is, obviously, I have some financial security that I couldn’t count on before. I still feel like every book I write is going to be a long gamble, in a way. I have to take that on.
RB: Any thoughts on why this has become a commercial success?
AP: I have a theory. Which is that the main theme of the book hits a nerve with people. By “main theme” I mean, the conflict between our desire to be loyal to the people we love and to take care of the people we love and our need to be true to ourselves. And to pay attention to how we are feeling about things. Again, it hit a nerve because that kind of conflict, while given a treatment on a grand scale in the book, is also something comes up in daily life all the time, for everyone. So, we live life negotiating between loyalty to others and taking care of one’s self. Our senses of our selves depend quite a bit on the kinds of negotiations we make around this stuff. You’re reading the paper and your kid says, “Mom, read me a story.” And what do you do? And how do you live with your choice? That, magnified, happens in the book. People respond to that because it gives them closeness to an intense, daily problem.
RB: That sounds plausible. But I wonder if it’s that proximate or accessible for most of us. It doesn’t seem that there are those conscious, moral decisions and for the most part when they are presented people make self-serving decisions.
AP: The key here is in the word ‘conscious’, you use. People are often very unconscious about how they live and the kinds of choices they make and how they feel about themselves given the kinds of choices they make. Maybe the book enables them to get close to considering that aspect of life without actually opening the personal part of it.
RB: Who does Carrie, the protagonist, love?
AP: Carrie loves Mike.
AP: Oh yeah, I think so. Carrie loves her mother and Jamie. I think she loves Rooster. And she loves Kilroy—and Simon and Lane too.
RB: I wasn’t sure.
AP: About Mike?
RB: No, about her capacity for love. I couldn’t grasp it.
AP: It sounds like you are talking about whether her behavior and thoughts towards some of the characters in the book represent love as you may have been thinking about it when you read the book.
RB: In part, yes. It would appear what she opts for finally would be an affirmation of love…
AP: (laughs) To really continue this discussion we would need to define love.
RB: Right. Can you talk about what you are working on?
AP: A little bit. Not out of superstition, but I tend to prefer to keep it in my mind at this stage. It’s a novel about the friendship between two women, one who lives in a family of 4 with 2 children and the other is single. They go way back. It’s about the two of them, separately and together.
RB: There’s no way of knowing when the noise of your success is going to die down, but when it does, do you have any sense that it will take you as long to do the next book? Is that lengthy deliberation part of your creative process?
AP: I hope not. (laughs) The fact that I have an editor who is waiting for my pages—there will be a difference because I won’t have the luxury or the burden of…it might be a bumpier process, but I expect it to be a faster one as well.
RB: How does this place you in the literary world?
AP: I’m not sure how much it’s the literary world and how much it’s another world. I’ve been invited to a lot of things. Some of which seem very literary, like the PEN/Faulkner benefit in September. I’m still being invited to give readings. I don’t think a lot about where it places me.
RB: Were some of the people who where your early readers people you went to school with?
AP: Not that much, actually. You mean Iowa?
AP: I’m not in close touch with anyone from Iowa at thus point. I’m not really sure why. It may partly be geographic. It may have to do with the enterprise of writing.
RB: If you lived in New York, you would probably be in touch.
AP: I think you are right.
RB: There’s New York and then there is the rest of the country…
AP: Exactly. Whenever I’m in New York I think, “Oh my god, I have to get back in contact with this.” Especially because I did work in publishing for 5 years before I went to Iowa. I had a period of my life where I was very much—in my mind at least—plugged into literary New York and what was going on. I get drawn in very rapidly. I also think it’s good for me as a writer to not live there.
RB: What did you study at Yale?
AP: I was an English major.
RB: Thinking that you were going to write?
AP: No, no. Definitely not. I grew up the daughter of a writer and the sister of an aspiring writer [George Packer] and it was the last thing I was going to do. It wasn’t until I was a senior at Yale that a friend talked me into applying for a fiction writing class. It must have been what I wanted or needed to do because he didn’t have to talk that much.
RB: Did you go from Yale to New York and then to Iowa?
AP: I went to New York from Yale not knowing what I was going to do. I landed a job in publishing and 5 years later I moved to Iowa for the Workshop.
RB: How did you make the leap from working in publishing to going to this hallowed institution?
AP: It was always in the back of my mind that I had stopped writing a year or so after starting—after that first class at Yale, I had found something that meant a lot to me. I thought that writing could well be what I wanted to do. Of course, life in New York, if you are going to make a living, it didn’t allow for me to dig into writing the way I would have had to, to get serious about it then. After 3 or 4 years at my publishing job I thought it was time to get back to this and so I applied and got in.
RB: What was the job that you actually did?
AP: I wrote paperback book blurbs. Cover copy.
RB: You submitted those with your application, I’m sure. Don’t you have to send in writing samples?
RB: So what did you send in?
AP: I sent in the stuff I had written in college and maybe one new story that I wrote for the application.
RB: Do you regularly read the New York Times Book Review and Publisher’s Weekly and the rest?
AP: I do read the Book Review. I read the New Yorker. I read San Francisco Chronicle Book Review and I’m a very, very avid reader of contemporary fiction.
RB: Has the Chronicle‘s book section been reborn?
AP: What happened was that they folded it into the Weekend Date Book, which is an entertainment guide/restaurant review. After a couple of years they pulled it back out and gave it its own section again.
RB: Due to reader demand or a crisis of conscience?
AP: I don’t know. Interestingly, when they brought it back, they brought it back as a full-page section rather than a magazine-size section.
RB: I saw Laura Miller of Salon on a panel at the BEA, and I thought it was interesting that she said their book coverage has no commercial benefit to them so they cover the books they want to cover.
AP: That’s great. In The case of the Chronicle the books that have been reviewed invariably land on the bestseller list.
RB: I’m interested in what you are reading…
AP: I’ve just finished reading Three Junes. It’s a really wonderful book. I’m reading with her [Julia Glass] at the end of the week.
RB: Has it struck you that this has been a very active summer for new novelists?
AP: Absolutely, for literary with commercial possibilities. Very much so. Spring and summer. With Everything Is Illuminated, which came out around the same time as my book. And The Lovely Bones, which I haven’t read yet.
RB: Anything else?
AP: This is not a recent book, but I was blown away by The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert. It was published maybe 2 years ago.
RB: We don’t care about old books.
AP: Let’s forget that. It’s in paperback already. It’s a beautiful novel. I loved it. I’ve been reading The Whore’s Child.
RB: Russo is really a terrific guy.
AP: Everyone says he is. I actually met him about 13 years ago. He interviewed me for a job. I’m sure he doesn’t remember. It was at Southern Illinois University.
RB: You wanted to teach at Southern Illinois at Carbondale?
AP: No I really didn’t. In fact, I turned the job down, but I wanted a job.
RB: Getting back to your reading habits. Are you distracted by or affected by reading contemporary fiction?
AP: I’m sure there’s an effect. I don’t know if I can define it. I like to be in the world that I am writing for and to know what other books are out there. I’m not always reading as a writer—well, I suppose I am always reading as a writer. I’ve been a reader for a lot longer than I’ve been a writer. For 30 years or whatever. It’s a very natural need on my part to read novels. I just have to do it.
RB: In a piece called State of The Art, Jonathan Yardley (Washington Post, July 11, 2002) as he surveyed American Literature and commented on the rise of creative writing programs asserts, “Of far more serious import was the isolation of writing school students (and teachers) from real world America. The campus, for all its attractions, is a poor place to get any feel for life as most Americans live it, yet the campus had become not merely the training ground for ostensibly literary American writers but the only place they knew anything about. Apart, of course, from their own psyches.” It seems to me none of the writers we talked about represent that.
AP: I hear that idea bandied about quite a bit. This notion of the insular damaging writing program experience. I don’t think it exists. Yes, you spend a couple of years there, and it’s insular in that it’s what you are doing and what you are talking about and who you know. But you lived your entire life up until the point that you went off to Iowa or Irvine or Ann Arbor or whatever as a human being with experiences and as an American with experiences living in this cultural moment. It’s not like you forget all of that just because you are sitting in a room in a circle with other writers.
RB: Yardley goes on to refer to a New Yorker cartoon, “Two people are in a book store. One stands in front of a section called “Self Improvement” while the other is browsing “Self Involvement.” That exactly summarizes the state of the art of literary fiction in these United States in the year 2002… It is rarely interested in anything except the inner lives and private experiences of the author surrogates who are its central characters. It connects with itself but has little to say to the world outside, indeed makes surprisingly feeble effort to connect with that world. It is flat and lifeless—by way of example, consider all those who have followed in the train of that echt minimalist, Raymond Carver, the Jehovah of the writing schools—and just about the only people who appear to read it are other riders in the writing-school circuit…The pity is that so many writers who represent themselves as serious and worthy of respect now decline to take up the storytelling challenge. They are content to tell us about themselves, blissfully unaware of how uninteresting they are. Even when they do try to take on big subjects and themes—e.g., Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections, Richard Russo in Empire Falls, David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest—too often the self gets in the way of the ambition, and (less so in Russo’s case) one is left with the feeling that what is taking place is a bravura performance (Look at me!) rather than an effort to tell a story that will help us see the world in a new light.
AP: I don’t want to go near that. It’s a very odd view of what a story is and how a story can illuminate a reader’s life to say that it has to be one kind or another. I really adored The Corrections. I couldn’t put it down, and if it was about Jonathan Franzen so much the better. I was happy to be in his company. I wished it had been longer. I really do.
RB: Isn’t transparency a great value for writers? That is, it’s a better story if the reader is not thinking about how clever the writer is while he or she is reading?
AP: Well, it’s a different experience. I hope there is room for all kinds of writing, and I, as a reader, hope I can respond to stories in which the writer reveals himself in any way. To suggest that you can write anything without having it be exactly who you are strikes me as, perhaps, fanciful.
RB: Is literature important today?
AP: I hope so. Reading is important to some people and not to others. Literature as an idea that encompasses books from the past is important to some people. Very, very important to some people and not to others. I would wish for those others that they would make some discoveries and read more because it would enhance their lives.
RB: Are your children readers?
AP: My kids love books. My daughter is much more of a fiction reader. She loves stories. My son is the thirstiest person for knowledge that I have ever known. Whether he is on chemistry or geography, he is reading, but he is not as interested in stories as yet. He’s younger, though. He’s 7.
RB: Well, thank you.
AP: Well, thank you.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing