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Photograph by Jerry Bauer

Maximum Over 'Dive': A decade of work has paid off for Ann Packer.

'Pier' Pressure

Ann Packer's unflinching look at emotional tension and physical trauma has everyone buzzing about 'The Dive From Clausen's Pier'

By Jessica Neuman Beck

Ann Packer's The Dive From Clausen's Pier begins with something unremarkable: a couple, Carrie and Mike, high school sweethearts now freshly out of college, are on their way to a party at Clausen's Reservoir. Carrie has begun to think she wants to end the relationship. She knows she doesn't want to marry Mike, but hasn't found a way to put it into words. Then Mike, trying to impress her, dives into the reservoir. He breaks his neck, and everything changes.

Dealing with a loved one's tragedy isn't always pretty, but Packer takes a subject most people shy away from and looks unflinchingly at the choices Carrie makes when her life is in turmoil, and the way those choices affect the lives of everyone around her. Her book has obviously hit some kind of nerve, as the critical and popular response has caught even the author herself off guard. And as she comes to town for a reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz, we caught up with Packer at her home in the Bay Area.

Metro Santa Cruz: It sounds like this book was a long time in the making.

Ann Packer: It took me 10 years. It was a very long process, lots of revisions. It's a matter of finding words for something that in this paradoxical way doesn't exist until you've found the words. You have the idea, but it doesn't come into being until you give it language. It takes a long time to go through that process and feel like the language and the ideas have finally come together in a way that you're finished with, that you're ready to let it go.

How has the response been?

It's been incredible. I've had a really overwhelming positive and thrilling response, really--people have been buying this book in numbers that have really surprised me. It's done very well commercially and critically and it's been great.

You've also published a collection ('Mendocino and Other Stories'). Did you get this kind of response to your short stories?

Oh, not at all. My story collection was published very, very quietly. It didn't get very much review attention at all and sold, you know, a few thousand copies. This is completely different. It's actually nice because the stories had gone out of print, but now my new

publisher has brought them back into print, so that book gets a second life because of the novel.

Do you feel a connection with the character of Carrie in 'Clausen's Pier'?

Not directly. I had a traumatic event in my childhood. My father was paralyzed in a different way from Mike--he had a stroke--but I think that I sort of have imprinted on me the idea of disaster and what happens afterward. In a lot of my work, not just in this novel but in stories as well, I tend to worry that question: what happens after a traumatic event? And Carrie ... I think I wanted to imagine a person who would have to go through something really difficult and I wanted to invent a life and a story for her, and I'm sure that I in some sense was sorting out how would I handle this. But of course she is not me, she's my invention, she's my sentences, but at the same time I would say that I feel connected to all my characters. It's so different for the writer because it's all stuff you've made up in service of something, whereas readers can like certain characters and dislike certain other characters. For the writer, it's more a question of is it all coming together to make something that I'm satisfied by.

A central theme in the novel is the relationship between Carrie and her best friend from childhood, Jamie. As the book opens, Jamie and Carrie are already beginning to drift apart, and after Mike's accident they seem to be almost at odds with each other, each of them looking for something from the other and not getting it. Do you think that's common for people who have been so involved in each other's lives for so long?

Well, I don't think it's uncommon. I think that people who are in a crisis of any kind tend to have difficulties in all their relationships. Carrie obviously is in a crisis before the novel starts, and it's deepened by the accident. I would say that Jamie in her way is in a crisis as well, although a much quieter one, at the beginning of the novel--a crisis about loneliness and identity, and it's hard. It's hard to grow alongside someone at the same pace. Some friendships can get through that and others can't.

I liked what you said about how you think people going through a tragedy have a glow.

I do, yeah. I think that for me as an observer that's true. And I think for me when I've had to face really difficult challenges that it's true also, so from both sides. Not that people necessarily should be able to see it, but that I feel it's there on me, whether people see it or not.

In the aftermath of Mike's accident, Carrie talks a lot about how she's reacting in the 'wrong' way to everything that's happening. But you seemed to present it as though there was no 'right' way to react to it. Nobody was reacting in a textbook sort of way.

I think that it's kind of a comforting idea that there is a right and wrong way to do things. It kind of narrows the range of what we think of as acceptable. I think feeling that you could do anything at all can be a really scary idea because fantasies of really acting out are scary fantasies. I guess I would say that one of the things that I was trying to do with her character was move her through a moralistic position and a moralistic community and get her to a point where she had a little bit of freedom from that.

A lot of the other characters in the book were pretty judgmental.

Yeah, and I think that people are. I don't think that it's bad of them, I think it's just kind of a way to sort of preserve a sense of self-worth. If you judge someone harshly for doing something that you consider bad I think it makes you feel that you're good, because you wouldn't do that. Whereas maybe we're all just doing what we can, and doing what we have to, and struggling.

Most of 'The Dive From Clausen's Pier' is set in Madison. Have you lived in Wisconsin?

I did. I lived in Wisconsin for two years. I was there on a fellowship for the first year, a fellowship to the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing to work on the first book, so I was actually working on the story collection at that time. I stayed on a second year to fill in for some people who weren't there, to teach.

You're from the Bay Area, right?

Yeah, I grew up here, went away to college, stayed away for 18 years ... and then came back.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a new novel. I'm not really very far along so I can't really say very much about it except that it's set in the Bay Area.

Ann Packer will read from and discuss 'The Dive From Clausen's Pier' on Thursday, June 26, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.423.0900.

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From the June 25-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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