New York Times bestselling novelist Ann Packer read on Sunday evening from her new collection of stories, Swim Back To Me at Books, Inc. on 4th Street in Berkeley. I've only read the first couple of pieces from the collection: a novella titled The Walk for Mankind, from which she read on Sunday; and a short story called Molten. Ann has a keen eye and a sharp ear for the characters she portrays, and a compelling talent for placing her characters in excruciating moral circumstances, in which no direction is "right." I couldn't put down The Walk for Mankind when I got home after the reading. I didn't sleep until I finished it.
I went to high school with Ann, in Palo Alto -- we graduated in the same class -- but between high school and our 30-year reunion, we hadn't been in touch. That 30-year reunion was just weeks before the release of Ann's second novel, Songs Without Words, which I read soon after it hit the bookstores; as I did her award-winning first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Ann was gracious when I mumbled something about having published only a few short pieces. I appreciated that. If you've attended one, you know how high school reunions can be.
I don't recall whether I knew Ann in 1972, the year in which The Walk for Mankind is set, when we were in the 8th grade at Terman Junior High. But I did take part in the fundraising event that gives her novella its title and that forms an element of its concept.
It was an early instance of the kind of thing people do now when they participate in rides and walks to raise funds for AIDS or cancer research. The participant accomplishes some physical feat, like walking 20 miles or biking from San Francisco to L.A., and solicits pledges of donations toward the cause in question. The pledges might be a fixed amount or might be tied to how fully the participant accomplishes the walk or bike ride. In the Walk for Mankind we collected pledges for how much a donor would give for each mile of the walk completed. If you pledged five cents per mile on my sign-up sheet, you were promising to contribute a dollar to the cause if I finished the whole twenty mile course, but less if I wimped out partway through.
An author might riff on Stanford & Palo Alto community participation in the Walk for Mankind in 1972 from any number of angles. Ann mined the material and evoked the era and place admirably. And she's gotten some terrific reviews, from the Miami Herald to the Boston Globe to the SF Chronicle to People Magazine ... so I won't pile on in that vein.
At the reading on Sunday, my own mood was set by her story's time and setting. That's only natural: I lived when and where The Walk For Mankind happens. While the characters were Ann's inventions, I could see some way behind the fictional curtain into the neighborhood where she lived (around the corner from my best friend's house), and it wasn't hard to recognize some of the character types in her tale. If there were direct correspondences between her characters and particular people I knew, I didn't see those. Judging from her answers to audience questions and my own experience in this vein, there's often a correspondence between aspects or traits of a character and people an author has known, but it defeats the fun & purpose of writing fiction to map directly from a real person to a fictional character. An author of fiction wants elbow room. If she wanted to write biography, that would be another endeavor entirely.
But after listening to Ann read, and vividly remembering the Stanford University campus and environs where I too spent much of my adolescence, the questions that the Books, Inc. audience asked struck me as ... awfully intimate. Though many had heard her interviewed on KQED's forum two days before, most didn't seem to know that Ann had set her novella in a neighborhood she called her own in 1972, so they likely had little idea how close to the mark their innocently-meant questions landed. Many wanted to know how she had come to choose and breathe life into her characters, her setting, the events of her narrative. Where, one asked, do you get all those details?
Ann answered gamely, admitting she was the age of her main characters in the year the novella is set, even joking that she once lived in the house inhabited by Richard Appleby, the novella's narrator. O, I fidgeted then. Was that a joke? Or was Ann really confessing that Richard was a proxy for her teenage self? Or for her brother, the journalist, author, and playwright George Packer?
My own guess? All the above. Like relations between actual people, relations between authors and characters are complicated.
But in the barrage of questions that boiled down to "how did you do that?" I decided not to ask the question I had in mind. The audience evinced an engaged curiosity about how an author pursues her craft, which seems like something you might expect at a book reading. But from the start Ann had noticed me in the small crowd -- she acknowledged the presence of "old friends and new friends" when she came to the podium -- so I felt that if I asked whether she tends to start first with theme, plot, or character as she conceives new work, she would feel too much on the spot ... she would hear the question as something like, "on which of the faculty and friends from our childhood, and which of their foibles, are you tattling?"
I didn't want to go there.
But I am looking forward to reading the rest of Swim Back To Me.
Ann Packer will be reading tonight at Bookshop Santa Cruz, and will be on tour in the midwest, on the East Coast, and back in the Bay Area through early June; see her author events calendar for detail. I have blogged about George Packer's work in Time History and Human Forgetting, posted in May 2010.
Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting