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Powell's Q&A

Ann Packer

Describe your latest project.
Ann Packer My new book is a novel, Songs without Words. It's about two women, Liz and Sarabeth, who've been friends since childhood, and what happens to them and to their relationship when Liz's teenage daughter suffers a debilitating depression. I wanted to look at the ways in which the roles we take on in life, and particularly in friendship, can become confining, and whether or not it is possible to change these roles in order to save a relationship.

  1. Songs without Words: A Novel
    $1.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "A quiet narrative whose emotions, we come to realize, run deep and true....Commendably ambitious and ultimately rewarding." Kirkus Reviews
  2. The Dive from Clausen
    $4.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Intricately detailed, deeply felt, compelling and utterly surprising....Wonderfully satisfying." The Boston Globe
  3. Mendocino: And Other Stories
    $5.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Precisely observed....Packer has a knack for rendering with economy and eloquence those rare interludes of grace that come upon her characters unannounced." The New York Times Book Review
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
Good liars must possess two qualities: imagination and calm. Of the first, writers are known to be very well endowed. Of the second, I'm afraid we must go to individual cases. I know some writers who are not calm at all, though they approach calm toward the end of a good day of work. That's what I feel after a good day of work, anyway; also tired, invigorated, excited, peaceful. It's pretty good stuff, the feeling of having written — especially when you've written the truth.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
The last good book I read was actually a book I reread: Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter. It's a book of wonderful essays about writing — written by Baxter as a series of talks to students and colleagues. I first read it years ago and then put it on the shelf where I keep his fiction, books such as The Feast of Love and First Light and A Relative Stranger. And then, recently, a friend who was helping me with a work in progress mentioned that she didn't know what one of my characters looked like and wondered if I was familiar with Baxter's essay on faces. I thought I was, thought it must be in Burning Down the House, and so I took the book from its shelf and began reading in it, looking here and there for that particular piece. Which, it turns out, was published years later, in a magazine, but in the meantime I had slowed down and begun not reading in the book but reading the book, rereading it, and savoring again its intelligence and wisdom. Now, rather than return it to the shelf with his fiction, I am keeping it near my writing desk.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
To achieve absolute happiness, I think each realm of life must be in good order: physical, intellectual, emotional. So I would need to be in great shape, both strong and flexible, the way I've sometimes felt when I've been doing a lot of yoga. And I would need to be stimulated by ideas, conversation, interesting things to do in the near future. And I would need to be "happy," which I'll define as optimistic about the future and at peace with the past. That's a pretty abstract answer, and I can also say that eating Scharffen Berger chocolate sauce on vanilla ice cream would run a close second.

Why do you write?
I write to give voice and words to the images I see, in which people, or outlines of people, do things that interest me. I write to figure out what I am trying to write. I write in the hope that I will make something interesting happen in another person's mind.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
I don't like being cold. Or hot. Or tired, or thirsty. I don't like having the tag on the inside of a shirt rub against the back of my neck. I don't like having splinters or headaches or food caught between my teeth. I am, in other words, The Highly Sensitive Person. Until the book of that title was published, I thought I was just really, really fussy, or picky — a prima donna. In some frames of reference, that is what I am. But now I know that I can also be viewed through this other lens, the lens of neuroscience or maybe neuropsychology — some kind of neuro other than neurotic. So, to the question: on a clear and cold day, I typically stay inside where it's warm, though I have been known to bundle up — scarf wrapped around my head, another around my neck, mittens on my hands because gloves don't do the trick — and step out into that sunshine. For a little while.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Above all others, I am inspired by Yo-Yo Ma. His artistry with the cello transcends words; every time I listen to him play, for example, the Bach Cello Suite in G Major, I'm filled with a kind of blissful sadness. I love his work because it seems in some way to exemplify, to represent love.

Make a question of your own, then answer it.
Can you walk by a bookstore without wanting to go inside?

No. I always want to go inside. Once I'm inside, I always want to pick up some books and thumb through them. Once I begin picking up books, I always want to buy one. Once I buy a book, I always want to take it home and read it right away. And yet: once I get it home, I always set it aside because I am still reading some other book, and in this way the innocent act of walking by a bookstore has led me to acquire many, many more books every year than I can ever read. Which is a nice problem to have.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
I'm a great believer in revision: typically, I take my work through many, many drafts, and an important part of the process is showing the work-in-progress to a few trusted readers, so that I can, in essence, find out what I've written. I use my readers' comments to expand my understanding of what I'm trying to accomplish and to figure out how I might best continue, and then I start again. This is reciprocal: I offer the same readerly eye to a handful of fellow writers, and as a result I get to see their work develop over time into the books that go out into the world.

Five wonderful books I've had the privilege of reading in progress:

Yellowcake by Ann Cummins

The Delivery Room by Sylvia Brownrigg

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida

Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan

Halfway House by Katharine Noel spacer

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