The Beatrice Interview

Ann Packer

"What I remember about the beginning of the writing processs is just sitting down and writing."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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As The Dive From Clausen's Pier opens, Carrie and her fiancé Mike have been together since high school, but at twenty-three, Carrie is beginning to have second thoughts about the relationship. When Mike makes that dive into unexpectedly shallow water and becomes partially paralyzed, Carrie tries to suppress her longing to break free out of a sense of responsibility, but the pressure gets to her and, to the astonishment of everyone around her, she flees from Minnesota to downtown Manhattan. This first novel has an "emotionally autobiographical" resonance for Packer, whose father was paralyzed by a stroke when she was a child, "in a different way than Mike is in the novel," she points out, "but paralyzed nonetheless. That event led me to certain kinds of questions about life that come up again and again throughout my writing," in short stories as well as in this debut novel.

RH: What was the first aspect of the story that made you start writing it?

AP: I actually know the answer to that one, and I don't know a lot of the answers to the "why did you write this book?" sort of questions. But I have an entry in my notebook from about eightteen months before I started writing the book: "A woman whose husband is injured, maybe in a hunting accident." I have to assume that I was thinking about how people cope with both the unthinkable tragedies that happen in life and their own reactions to those tragedies. I wanted to see what that woman would do in response to some of the terrible, terrible conflicts within herself.

I don't know how I got from there to the novel. It was incredibly unconscious. What I remember about the beginning of the writing processs is just sitting down and writing. I don't know how I thought about it, but I knew the story, pretty much the entire trajectory, when I started writing, though of course it fleshed out as I wrote, acquiring characters and details.

RH: You mentioned reactions, and there's an important moment in the book, where Carrie's mother shares her idea that we aren't good or bad people, we're people who respond to events in ways that can be either good or bad.

AP: Right, and those reactions can only be understood in relation to the life that precedes them.

RH: Everyone around Carrie berates her for her decision to leave Mike and accuses her of selfishness--and she beats herself up about it as well-- but it strikes me not as a uniquely selfish act, but as the most blatant example of something many of the characters around Mike struggle with, in very different ways, even if they refuse to admit it. It's easier for them to point to her in accusation.

AP: She gives them a way to relieve their internal pressure. Saying "How could you?" frees them from having to look at their own conflicts about what's going on, their own sense of their shortcomings. Everybody, in the face of one person's extraordinary loss, is going to feel survivor guilt to some extent. So Carrie in a perverse way helps them all by acting out an extreme form of self-preservation.

RH: It's been eight years since your short story collection, Mendocino and Other Stories, was published. I know that you had children during that period, but was the writing process a factor in that interval?

AP: Sure. In fact, it was more than eight years, because I actually started the novel in 1990. During my pregnancies and my children's early infancies, I didn't work a lot, it's true, but it took me so long to write because I kept revising. I went through nine drafts of the novel in the space of nine or ten years. It was a matter of exploring what the book was about through the revision process, refining my intentions and the characters as I matured. My view of the story was about, even though the plot never changed at all, changed significantly from 1990, when I started it, to 1999, when I got my agent and she began to try to sell it.

RH: So you knew all along that you wanted to write a novel, as opposed to being a short story writer who decides to try doing a novel.

AP: Well, I was a short story writer who decided to try writing a novel, but I really wanted to do it. I had a sense of a story that wasn't a short story; it could only be a novel and it was never otherwise, although I did have a moment after the first or second draft when I wondered whether I should write it as a series of linked stories looking at different characters from their own points of view. I didn't follow up on that passing idea, which might have been anxiety, but it did cross my mind. At that early stage, I was still figuring out what I was doing, so alternatives more easily presented themselves.

RH: And because you were already comfortable with short stories, it was a natural option.

AP: I was familiar with writing stories; it was what I'd been doing all along as a writer. But writing a first novel, if you've been writing short stories, is about learning how a novel differs from a story. Writing a first novel is always about learning how to write a novel, in any event. I hope every novel will be about learning to write that novel, but it's especially true of the first one.

RH: What were some of the most important things your first novel taught you?

AP: I learned something about developing an sustaining a problem over an extended period of time, so that I never lost sight of a few central threads and tried to make sure I had at least a sense of where each thread was at any given point. I also learned how to leave things out in order to sustain forward momentum and keep the story on track. So there are a lot of subplots that ended up being cut from the final version of the novel.

RH: One of the things that interested me about the ten years you spent on the novel is that there's a certain ambiguity about exactly when the novel takes place. There's some very contemporary cultural references, but the sense of what it costs to live in New York seems more like the late 1980s or early 1990s.

AP: I fudged it. (laughs) I really didn't want to choose a specific time to set it in, and I'm not sure why, perhaps because it took so long to write. I kept thinking that if I set it at the time that I started writing it, it would feel dated by the time I finished. I wanted it to be contemporary, but I think there's probably holdovers from my period in New York, which was the early '80s. I did have a friend who lived in a crumbling brownstone for no rent back then, although that's probably impossible now.

RH: Long before you started learning firsthand how hard it is to write a novel, you grew up with an intimate awareness of the difficulties of the writer's life.

AP: Growing up with a mother who was a writer, and had many friends and students who were writers, I knew that it was not easy. I knew it was full of, at the very least, intense challenges, and often full of failure. But when I was growing up, I never intended to be a writer, so it didn't really matter. By the time I started writing, I think I was able to look at it as something I was going to invent for myself, do in my own way, separate from what I had seen, or imagined I'd seen, as a child.

RH: Did those experiences help you deal with, for example, the isolation of spending eight years between your first and second book?

AP: I think it did. I probably have made myself in a way that the isolation and lack of certainty actually worked for me. I didn't do I put this? It's always been okay for me to not get what I want. That's suited some aspect of myself that's served to hold me back and keep me invisible. So in a way, selling the book and having it reviewed have been greater challenges for me than the lack of certainty I faced while writing it.

RH: How are you dealing with the success and the great reviews?

AP: I'm actually dealing with it very well. I'm actually able to enjoy it and not feel overwhelmed. I've been surprised and pleased by the extent to which I'm letting myself be happy about it and enjoy it.

RH: Who are some other writers who provided inspiration and examples to you as you were learning to write?

AP: Ann Beattie was a big influence on me in the early 1980s. That was a period when I wasn't writing; I was living in New York, working in publishing, but I was reading the stories that were published in the New Yorker, including hers, and they influenced me a lot in terms of how I thought stories could work, specifically about how subtle they could be and still be effective. I revere Charles Baxter's stories and novels. Alice Munro has been another huge influence on me; I probably adore her writing above all.

RH: What have you read recently that you enjoyed?

AP: Atonement by Ian McEwan. It blew me away. I read it in about 36 hours, and he's such a fine writer that I was in a constant state of conflict about how fast I should read. I wanted to go really slowly to savor the gorgeousness of the prose, but it's also such an incredible pageturner. I couldn't stop myself from devouring the book, and I'm eager to go back and read it more slowly in a year or so. I also liked Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; it's another thoughtful and provocative book where you're desperate to find out what happens next.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Whitney Otto | Complete Interview Index | Marisa Silver

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