Love and loss haunt Ann Packer's powerful new collection
Ann Packer found a devoted audience with her first two novels, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words. Though her latest work is a collection of stories, she still manages to write female narrators who stick with you for days—especially the mother in “Molten,” a story about a woman who copes with the death of her teenaged son by listening to his rock music collection.
The stories in Swim Back to Me take place in California, but we were curious about how else Packer feels they are linked—and whether she’ll return to the form that made her famous, the novel. Read on for those answers and more.
How do you feel that the stories in Swim Back to Me fit together? In what ways are they linked?
I'm drawn to writing about people who find themselves in situations that challenge their assumptions about who they are and how they can and do live their lives. Loss is obviously a big theme for me, and in these stories my characters deal both with loss of the actual—divorce, the deaths of loved ones—and also loss of their dreams, by which I mean the stories they've told themselves about how life will go. And lest this seem grim, I mean the loss both of positive stories—stories of long and happy marriages, for example—and also negative ones, stories in which pessimism has played such a central part that good fortune and possibility can be so surprising as to be initially uncomfortable.
Do you have a favorite from this collection? Although it was incredibly wrenching, I keep returning to “Molten,” which is filled with such wonderfully raw—and oddly humorous—moments. (“The nerve. That was all Kathryn could think: the nerve.”)
I don’t have a favorite. Whatever I am writing at any given time matters most, in that I am consumed by the task of making it work. I have fond memories of writing “Molten,” despite its difficult subject matter, because it offered a unique opportunity for me to use another language (the language of music) to animate the story.
As the daughter of two Stanford professors, do you identify with either Sasha or Richard—both professor’s kids—from “Walk for Mankind”? In what way?
I identify with both of them, but probably no more so than other characters. Creation of character is in a sense a prolonged act of identification. That said, the time and place of “Walk for Mankind” had special resonance for me. It’s fun to delve into memory to create a setting.
Swim Back to Me comes full circle in the closing story, where a kid from the opening novella is an adult and watching over her dad at a wedding. When you wrote the first story, did you know you’d revisit the Horowitz family many years later? Besides a brief mention, Richard is absent from this story—why?
It was always my intention to open with “Walk for Mankind” and to close with a return to its characters, but for a long time I didn't know how I’d do that. I knew I’d focus on Sasha and her father—I started with his voice, complaining to her that he thinks he’s dying—but I didn’t know Richard would be absent entirely. It just ended up feeling right. I thought it was true to life that a relationship that had been hugely important to one person might turn out to be much less so to another.
Though your first published book was a collection of stories, you received widespread acclaim for your novels—especially the well-loved The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. Why did you return to short fiction? (Or had you been writing short stories all along? You mention in your acknowledgements that these stories were written over many years.)
I wrote these stories over the course of at least a dozen years, usually between drafts of my two novels, so it feels less that I returned to short fiction than that I finally got to a point where I had a group of shorter works that felt like they worked together as a book.
Can readers expect another novel from you?
Definitely. I’m just getting started, so it’ll be a while, but I am pretty sure what I’m working on right now will turn out to be a novel.
What books have you read lately that you’d recommend?
I loved Carol Edgarian’s new novel, Three Stages of Amazement. Jennifer Egan’s award winning book A Visit from the Goon Squad. And I am always reading and recommending Alice Munro.