Songs Without Words by Ann Packer
September, 2007 -- 352 pages -- $24.95
Kelly Hewitt: The relationship between Sarabeth and Liz is really interesting. From the very beginning of Songs Without Words connects these two characters in an almost silent way. We see them in their youth living together and yet spending time apart in a very comfortable way. I am interested in what the process of beginning to write these two characters is like. Does one come to mind first, did one character inspire the other? Or do they first appear to you together as characters?
Ann Packer: I had Liz before I had Sarabeth. Interestingly, given the novel's focus, I actually had Liz's husband, Brody, before I had Liz. I started with an idea of a father in the middle of trying to cope with his daughter's serious depression. From there I moved to the whole nuclear family--father, mother, girl, boy--and from there to the idea of the mother's childhood friend, a character who would function as a counterpoint to the family and as a complicating factor. That said, there was not a lot of time between my first imaginings of these characters. Liz somehow needed a Sarabeth to be in the book with her, and so she got one.
Kelly: I saw the other day that the Washington Posts' Book World review of Songs Without Words starts by saying "Ann Packer has been looking in our windows." The comment is obviously a testament to the intense intimacy that your write about and the close relationships you develop in your characters. I certainly felt like I knew these people. Do you find that you spend time listening to stories and the lives of people around you in order to attain that sense of intimacy, to achieve the feeling that you have looking in on private lives?
Ann: I'm very interested in the texture of how we live: what our lives look like, sound like, etc. I wouldn't say that I spend time listening to stories IN ORDER to attain intimacy in my writing so much as that I'm interested in dailiness and how people's minds work and how they relate to one another, and I bring that interest to my writing. My aim is to find a way to show people in the process of making some of the small, often hard won changes of which we're capable.
Kelly: In another interview you have said that Lauren, Liz's fifteen year old daughter, was perhaps the easiest of the character to write. Which of them was the most difficult for you?
Ann: Brody was the hardest character for me in this book. The difficulty was manifest in my giving him three different occupations in the course of the writing. At first he was, as he is in the final book, an executive at a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, but in that earlier version his company was failing. Next, he was a doctor, albeit a doctor no longer practicing medicine: he was an executive at a biotech company, a doctor without a stethoscope. And finally he returned to the computer industry but in a company that was thriving. All of that said, I think the switches of career probably represent a deeper struggle to figure out, or create, this man in a way that would complement the other characters and enhance the book as a whole.
Kelly: In addition to writing novels such as Songs Without Words you have also written collections of novellas and short stories. How do you prepare differently when writing a novel as opposed to a novella or a short story?
Ann: I haven't had to do research for a story in the way that I did for both this book and my first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. But beyond such practical matters, I don't think there's a difference in preparation--except maybe that there's inevitably more to think about with a longer work.
Kelly: A lot of readers have labeled Sarabeth, definitely living a much more careless life than Liz, as bohemian. Do you think that's a good way of assessing her as a character?
Ann: I've used that word myself about Sarabeth, and in fact I don't think it's really quite the right one. To me, "bohemian" means rejecting certain conventions in favor of a more free-form kind of life--making that choice--but Sarabeth hasn't rejected convention so much as she's been unable to place herself in it. As is often the case with people who've lost a parent in childhood, she yearns for the stability of a family, even as she fails, again and again, to make one for herself.
Kelly: I have read that your next project will be a collection consisting of a novella and some short stories. Can you tell us any more about that project?
Ann: The novella takes place in the early 70s and is about a thirteen-year-old boy whose life is changed when a new family moves into his neighborhood and he is befriended by the very charismatic teenage daughter of this family. There will be several short stories as well, including two I've already written that have in common a parent grappling with the loss of a child. There will be some lighter material as well.