There is perhaps no more fertile ground for writers than people navigating personal storms and loss. And reading masters like the eloquently detail-oriented Ann Packer (The Dive from Clausen’s Pier) almost feels like voyeurism. In this bestselling author’s new book of short stories, Swim Back to Me, she examines with deft precision human souls experiencing deep loss or family strain.
Read more books about marriage at Kirkus.
Troubled love seems to be a favorite topic of yours.
I would be a little broader and say troubled relationships are where stories happen. Romantic relationships—marriages, love affairs—are just one kind of relationships where I’m interested in investigating what trouble looks like and how people handle it.
Like the father-daughter relationship in the final novella, “Things Said or Done.”
There’s an example of where it’s not a love affair, but it resembles what a troubled loved affair might look like. There are ways we act out certain roles and bring them to other kinds of relationships.
In the story “Molten,” indie music is cranking throughout much of the story. Do you write with music?
I absolutely don’t. I write in total silence. The music in the story is central, and that’s what motivated me to write it. Music falls into the category of aesthetic experience, and if I think back over my career, I can see that a lot of my characters have sensory experiences that are important to whatever story is unfolding around them.
Any songs from that story you still listen to?
These days I’m mostly listening to NPR.
You dedicate some of these short stories, like they’re songs.
The book as a whole is dedicated to my brother, the journalist George Packer. Two of the pieces are dedicated to other individuals. “Molten” is dedicated to a student of mine who sort of made himself responsible for my musical education in the late ’90s. He made me a lot of mix tapes and that got me writing the story. And then there’s a connection with the person to whom “Jump” is dedicated to.
I’d never done that before, though. I didn’t dedicate individual stories in Mendocino and Other Stories. It just felt right for this one.
Your characters have a lot going on in their heads, but don’t always say what they’re thinking.
I personally am interested in what people do and don’t represent about their thought processes to each other. I guess that it’s one of the interesting things about interpersonal relationships to me. The approaches we take to intimacy, and the ways that we fail at intimacy for fear of what might happen if we actually speak our minds.
In “Dwell Time,” you leave the reader hanging at the end, kind of like a John Sayles movie. Why?
I didn’t want to wrap it up. I wanted to leave her and the reader with the recognition of the cost of making a decision. I wanted the reader to see how difficult it would be to either pledge herself to remain in the relationship, or determine that she wouldn’t, and what those possibilities would mean for her.
What she really knows at the end is that it’s no longer a foregone conclusion that this marriage is going to be sort of simple and satisfying...The idea that he was this guy she’d be able to count on for honesty was not a solid idea after all.
So many of your characters have gone through great losses. Why is this such an interest of yours?
I can’t really explain why something interests me. I do think that it’s one of those obsessions writers have. We can look for simple explanations, but there probably aren’t actual explanations. Those are the stories. Those are the life experiences that strike me. What I said earlier about stories being about problems, that particular kind of problem, a really wrenching situation and how we survive it, has some kind of hold on me that I don’t think I can explain.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new book. I’m pretty sure it’s a novel, but I never want to make an absolute claim. I’m just in the early stages. But I would predict I’ll be writing this for a few years before it ever sees the light of day.