With her début, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2007), book group darling Ann Packer sold more than a half-million copies—a huge number by first-novel standards. Now follows Songs Without Words, an equally subtle, if anguished, tale that is rooted in calamity. What happens to the rock-solid, longtime friendship of two West Coast women in the aftershock of personal crisis? A hint: Neither behaves as she’d have imagined. The rewarding novel establishes that Packer can really nail the nuances of modern angst and suffering and that she’s more than a one-hit wonder. Victoria Lautman chatted with Packer, who spoke by phone from her home in Northern California.
Q: Ten years to write your last book and only five for this one? You’re getting speedy.
A: It was considerably faster! But one of the reasons is that I had people to read it for me much earlier in the process. With Dive I had the first three or four years with very little feedback, but this time around, not only did I have an editor waiting but I’m in a writers’ group. I also have a number of writer friends who are great readers.
Q: So it’s crucial to the process, having this input?
A: It is. But it’s not a matter of having people say change this or that: The comments enable me to see things as a writer that I might not otherwise. And I’m such a big . . . polisher.
Q: You’ve mentioned “retrieved moments,” when you remember the inception of a story. Do you have one for this novel?
A: Yeah, I do. It’s much more circuitous than you’d think, but I know exactly when it happened. Going back to ’93 or ’94 when I was still in the early stages of writing Dive, I started thinking about a man in a hospital corridor having an encounter with a teenage boy. I knew the man’s daughter had attempted suicide, that she had an infatuation with the boy. I wrote a short story about it, but then set it aside. But after I turned in Dive, I started thinking about it again, and began to rework it.
Q: In Dive one of the central characters becomes paralyzed; in this story, suicide is a theme. Since your father was paralyzed by a stroke and took his own life when you were 13, how emotionally autobiographical are these books?
A: I was totally aware of drawing on my own experience this time around, while in Dive I was less aware of it. But being “aware” doesn’t mean following the experience exactly. This is not my story, although I’m drawn to it because of my story.
Q: You’ve had what’s been called a “Cadillac” career. That must mean there are also Edsel careers . . .
A: My brother has said it probably didn’t look much like a Cadillac from inside the car! But it’s true I attended Yale, and the Iowa [Writers’] Workshop, and my first publication was The New Yorker. Still, it took me a year to find an agent for Dive, and I had lots of turndowns. I was 43 when it was published; the Cadillac was getting a bit rusty.
Q: Let’s extend that meta-phor: The car might have been rusty but the road was sure slick. Dive was a wild, unexpected hit. So how are you feeling with book number two? Scared? Liberated?
A: Both. I knew that my experience with the first book just can’t happen over again, so I wasn’t concerned about repeating it. Instead, I wrote the book I really wanted to write. But there is anticipation. It’s an anxious time. It has to be said that my ability to keep writing depends entirely on how well my books sell.
Photograph: Elena Seibert