The Rumpus Interview with Ann Packer


Ann Packer has distinguished herself as a chronicler of emotional nuance. She writes from the home front, holding relationships and family up to the bright sun, reaching beneath dark foundations to extract a complicated network of roots. Her first novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, dared to challenge the cult of defiant independence as the surest route to a realized life, and her second, Songs Without Words, explored the notion of friends-as-family in all its potential and limitation. In her most recent novel, The Children’s Crusade, she tells a multigenerational story of a single household, four children of a mother and father who can’t and won’t maintain a united parental front. The very form of the book suggests the dispersal of growing up and out of family. At first, the narrator moves through the heads of all four children with a fluidity and responsiveness that recreates their shared existence and hints at their burgeoning differentiation. As they grow, their points of view separate with them, emphasizing with each new solitary perspective their emergence from childhood, their alignments and betrayals, and presenting their parents, who become irrevocably estranged, in multifaceted light.

Ann and I both live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and sat down to discuss The Children’s Crusade, artistic mothers, the writer and her “first principle,” and the fight to like your own characters.


The Rumpus: In the first chapter, we get the book’s only glimpse into the point of view of Penny, the mother. I love this moment early in her relationship to Bill, before they’ve married or had children:

“Have you been across the Golden Gate Bridge?” she asked him.

“Across it, no. I’ve been under it. I’d like to go across it someday. I’d like to walk across it. Would you?”

She’d been thinking of a ride in a handsome car, with herself wearing new lipstick, but she nodded enthusiastically and said, “Yes, that’s my dream!”

The distance between Penny’s interior wish, even one this small, and how she represents it to Bill is something that she’s ultimately unable to sustain. In a way, Penny loses pretense in the book, becoming a character who is hard to like though easier to understand than one might wish. Unlike Bill, she doesn’t know what she wants until she’s made all kinds of commitments, had her children, found out what she doesn’t want in a way that dramatically impacts her family. How do you feel about Penny, and how did her character develop over the writing of the book? Did you discover her and her dramatic role the way she discovers herself or did you always see her as a catalyst for the rest of the family’s issues?

Ann Packer: Writing Penny was a real departure for me, in that she started out as a caricature, a true monster mother, and I gave that impulse free rein. Usually I’m very careful to find a balanced view of my characters—to be “fair” to them, to make them round as opposed to flat, to refer to E.M. Forster’s way of looking at this. Working on the first draft of The Children’s Crusade, I allowed the narrator to mock Penny, by which I mean to emphasize those aspects of her that were a little comical and unsympathetic. And I stayed away from her interior otherwise, spending much more time in the minds of the children and her husband. The book itself seemed to be against her, one early reader said, and so in the next draft I worked hard to increase my own sympathy with her so that she would become more nuanced and complex. This turned out to be a battle I would fight throughout the writing of the book. With each draft I’d feel I was finally being fair to Penny, and each time I’d realize there was still more to do. This was complicated by the fact that I didn’t want to spend a ton of time in either parent’s head. I wanted glimpses but not much more, since in my mind the book is primarily about the children, and I wanted the reader to have a necessarily limited view of the parents just as the children did.

All of this said, I think I did discover her as she discovered herself—that’s a nice way to put it. I never saw her as merely a catalyst. I knew that her desire to become an artist was deep and real. And I knew from early on that she was not going to become a wildly successful and famous artist and also that she was not going to fail entirely. I didn’t want the book to be about the cost to a family of a great artist’s career, but I also didn’t want Penny’s efforts and her passion to be merely a distraction from the difficulties of family life. The cost is to the family and also to her, as becomes evident at the end of the book.

Rumpus: The final gesture from the adult James—the youngest, most troubled member of the family—ties him directly to his mother. We see James as part of a sculptural piece Penny has built that includes figures of her own family complete with tiny photographs of their faces. James steals his own figure, and in our last glimpse of him, he’s affixed it to his bike, where we see it sway as he goes about his errands for the group he joined called “the Barn.” It’s striking how he’s replaced his own family (or supplemented it? healed it?) with the Barn, and that his penultimate decision is to sacrifice his own personal romantic desire for the greater good of this group. The book seems to land on this fact, and on the wonderfully complicated suggestion that coming to terms with Penny, who has not sacrificed her desire for the greater good of the group (her family), has enabled him to do this. It’s almost as though in preserving the group, he has preserved his own capacity for self-care. James has an interesting conversation with Penny in which she tells him that his father’s “care” for her had been a one-way street, that he had not wanted or needed her care for him.

This tempted me to think of the concept of care in terms of all the characters. Robert, the eldest, seems to have difficulty accepting care. Rebecca, the next-eldest, perhaps cares expertly, professionally. Ryan, third-in-line, maybe cares too much, but enjoys the reciprocity of care, to be sure. And James ends up with a mature, painful perspective on caring. Can you talk a little bit about all the different ways of giving and receiving care explored in the book? And the way these must change as characters move from childhood to adulthood?

Packer: One of the seeds of the book was a question posed to me by a friend: What is your first principle? It hadn’t occurred to me that I had one, but it didn’t take long for me to come up with an answer. I said I thought people should be very careful with children and pay attention to their needs, physical and psychological. Many years later, some hundred or more pages into The Children’s Crusade, I gave this notion to the character of Bill, along with slightly more elegant language with which to express it. He says, “Children deserve care,” and this becomes the battle cry and moral fulcrum of the book.

So you’re right; giving and receiving care is central to the book’s concerns. Bill is, of course, the main or ideal caregiver, at least to his children (as you point out, he is not so good at this when it comes to Penny)—and then there’s his profession of pediatrician. Penny is whatever the opposite of ideal is—she tells herself the convenient story that her children don’t need her care, that they have Bill, that they have each other—all of which her absence serves to reinforce. Perhaps for her, care is what you give your work.

Growing up, the children have internalized the ideal of care and deliver it sometimes authentically, sometimes automatically, and sometimes not at all. Rebecca and Ryan, at least for most of the book, are of the four children the most active in giving care, but I think they come at it—or to it—in different ways. I see Rebecca as governed as much by intellect as by feeling in the way she offers care to others, including, of course, the stray girls she brings home. Ryan acts from the heart and is therefore the purest of the caregivers—in childhood and later as an adult himself. Of course, both are to a large degree focused on James—but now that you’ve raised this interesting issue, I can see that in focusing on James they are perhaps failing to fully see—or see the needs of—Robert. As the oldest, he is in the awkward position of not easily giving care himself and not frequently receiving it. His idealization of his father gets in his way for much of the book, and it’s only at the end, when he sees the three Rs in the concrete and understands that in some way Bill didn’t want—or at the very least expect—James, that he is able to soften a little. I cut some material about the meaning for him of at last having a baby girl like Ryan—but in my mind it still exists and has something to say about how gender informs the questions of to whom we can give care and from whom we can receive it. The most purely loved character in the novel is Katya, and as I look back this seems to have been necessary, given that Ryan is her father. But what made me give him a daughter rather than a son? I don’t know.

Rumpus: This is the first I’ve heard a writer talk about the concept of a first principle. And how interesting that you’ve given it to a character and allowed it to inform the book that way. Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, I have been trying to imagine the first principles in other books I’ve read, and in my own work. It occurs to me that sometimes we start with first principles—or other principles, the second and third?—already known, and other times we discover them along the way. When you look back over your other books, do first principles stand out to you? Are there other principles you share with other characters in The Children’s Crusade? I’m wondering specifically about Penny’s when it comes to artistic pursuit?

Packer: It’s funny, but taken in the abstract, the idea of giving characters any of my principles—doing so consciously and deliberately—sounds like a really bad idea, as if I were writing fiction in order to have a platform to speechify. But of course we can’t help creating characters who reflect aspects of ourselves, and I think that’s what I did with Bill and the idea that children deserve care. Thinking about my other novels, I look at both The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words as books that, among other themes, test the principle of “loyalty above all.” That principle is not one I hold, but it has a lot of resonance for me, obviously, which is why I took it on twice. Actually more than twice—it comes up in my short fiction, and it comes up in The Children’s Crusade, too, in the way the family views Penny’s behavior. I suppose this is why one review of the book called me a “connoisseur of the selfish act,” which I certainly intend to have engraved on my tombstone. Penny’s drive to make art at any cost is actually not something I share at all—but perhaps I was again testing a principle, as in the previous novels. Rebecca embodies an analytical viewpoint that has helped me a great deal, but I’m not sure what the principle would be. I suppose I really should have started this answer with an attempt to define “principle”!

Rumpus: I love the question about gender influencing to whom we are able to give and from whom we are able to receive care. James, significantly, connects with his mother at the end—not a traditional maternal connection, but they do seem to comprehend each other somehow. Closely related to the issue of care seems to be the nature of comprehending the people closest to us. James and Penny seem incomprehensible to the rest of the family, and to each other, while Robert seems only to imagine the motives of others, which seem a little off: I guess the word I’d use for him is constant projection. Do you see a connection between care and comprehension?

Packer: What an interesting question! I think comprehension is necessary, or nearly necessary, to good care—how many times have we seen (or experienced) well-meaning, caring gestures that go wrong because the carer is not able to comprehend the caree? Comprehension is incredibly challenging—largely, I think, because it’s hard to comprehend others without having some comprehension of ourselves, which of course is very difficult! I think that somewhere in this calculus we would need to factor in forgiveness. Perhaps comprehension + forgiveness = good care? Not at all sure, but it’s very interesting to ponder.

Angela Pneuman is the author of the recent novel Lay It on My Heart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the story collection Home Remedies (Harcourt). She lives in Northern California and teaches in the Online Writers’ Studio at Stanford, where she was a Stegner Fellow. More from this author →