Excerpted from Songs Without Words by Ann Packer. Copyright © 2007 by Ann Packer. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Ann Packer is the author of two best-selling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, the latter of which received a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award, and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vogue, and Real Simple. Also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories, she lives in northern California with her family.
Ann Packer is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)
Q: SONGS WITHOUT WORDS is your first novel since The Dive From Clausen's Pier. Did the success of Dive surprise you?
A: It was a huge surprise. The first hint I had was at a booksellers' dinner just before publication, when I was surrounded as soon as I arrived and asked rather passionately how I could have ended the book as I had. I remember thinking it was strange that they seemed to care so much. Then several of them told me they'd been unable to put the book down, and I was really surprised–I'd had no idea it would be suspenseful. Funny how
little you can know about the other side of the experience.
Q: SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, like Dive, explores the ties that bind both family and friends. Does the friendship in SONGS mirror one in your own life?
A: Not a single friendship, no. I think it comes more from the sense I have from many of my friendships, and also from observing other people, that the dynamic between people can remain the same for a very long time—often way beyond its usefulness. In general, I'm very interested in how we rely on, or try not to rely on, each other.
Q: The main characters in SONGS WITHOUT WORDS—Liz and Sarabeth—lead different lives: Liz is a suburban mom who goes to yoga class and makes dinner for her kids while Sarabeth lives alone and routinely forgets chores like washing the dishes. Do you think the bonds we forge in childhood outride our differences as grown-ups?
A: Yes, I think that's the case a lot of the time. We have friends in order to be known—that's one of the reasons, anyway. And we have the idea about our oldest friends that they know us better than others do because they've known us longer. Also, I think enjoying the same activities or living the same kinds of lives as your friends becomes less important as you grow older—especially for women.
Q: You are a mother of two and your daughter is around the same age as the teenage girl, Lauren, in SONGS WITHOUT WORDS. Did this make it easier to write this character, or harder, given the difficulties Lauren faces?
A: It's funny—I started writing the book when my daughter was nine or ten, not focusing on the fact that it would take a while and that when it came out she might well be fifteen, Lauren's age in the book. I had Lauren in mind before I ever had a teenage daughter. Writing Lauren was surprisingly easy for me—she was by far the easiest character in the book, and the one who changed least as I revised.
Q: SONGS WITHOUT WORDS deals with the anxieties of contemporary parenting (Liz is a stay-at-home mom who feels tremendous guilt about not recognizing her daughter's cry for help). Is this a common fear among parents: the fear of helplessness, of missing warning signs from their children? And have you had personal experience with teen depression?
A: I think fear in general is incredibly pervasive among my generation of parents: of missing warning signs, of making poor choices, of doing the wrong thing. The idea of not seeing something until it is too late and your child is really in trouble: the specter of that—really, of the regret it would create—is very powerful. It could be depression we're afraid of missing, or it could be something very different–though of course with depression the stakes are terrifyingly high. As for me and teen depression: I don't think I have any experience as an observer—certainly not as an adult observer—but I was a depressed teenager myself, though not nearly to the same degree as Lauren.
Q: SONGS WITHOUT WORDS looks at the impact of a teenage girl's attempted suicide on her life, and the life and relationships of her family. It also gives us a portrait of a woman, Sarabeth, whose mother committed suicide decades before the main action of the book. Do you think tragic events such as this redefine the way people look at the world?
A: I think events like this can have an enormous influence. What I find especially interesting is the way the influence can be occult: not something you could easily observe or identify, and yet fundamental to the way people look at or live in the world.
Q: In interviews about Dive, you responded openly to questions about your father and his suicide, and suicide plays a large role in SONGS WITHOUT WORDS. Is it hard for you to write about this or does writing provide an outlet to deal with the feelings you have about his death?
A: It isn't hard, but it isn't really an outlet, either. At least, I don't think of it that way; I don't choose themes in order to process my experience. But of course that's what happens. Though not exactly: it's not really a matter of processing, it's more a matter of making something—art, one hopes—out of what you've got. Transmuting might be the right word. And having done that can bring you to a different stance about your experience.
Q: Your novel is bound to touch people in similar circumstances. Can novels help us through difficult experiences?
A: I think novels help us know how many different ways there are to experience life. I think they can be tremendously helpful, but I suspect the help is often not immediate. Reading a book about loss may prepare us for losses we have yet to face, just as reading a book about people much younger than ourselves may help us understand who we were at an earlier time of life. When I think of the books that have meant the most to me
emotionally, I come up with a map of life experience, but with the territories completely out of order.
Q: In SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, Lauren's depression is treated by therapy and antidepressants. Teens and anti-depressants are a hot button issue these days. What are your thoughts on medicating teens? Are you nervous to address something that is so rabidly debated in the press?
A: It is a hot button issue, and I particularly didn't want the book to come down on one side or the other. My understanding is that if suicide has been attempted most doctors will medicate, so that's what I chose for Lauren. Since finishing the book, I've learned that in the studies that prompted the worry that anti-depressants can cause teens to attempt or commit suicide, medication was given at a point in the illness when the kids in question were so severely depressed that they had almost no energy. It's thought that the
medication offered just enough relief, restored just enough energy, that these kids regained the capacity to act. I was glad to learn this—it made sense, and it's heartening.
Q: The protagonist in Dive used sewing as a mechanism of escape and to help cultivate her identity. Sarabeth in SONGS WITHOUT WORDS makes artistic lampshades as a therapeutic—and somewhat lucrative—hobby. Why are you drawn to the metaphor crafts allow in your writing? What does the lampshade-making represent?
A: When I first started writing Sarabeth, I had a sense that she had a kind of patchwork existence professionally, but I don't remember how I came to lampshade making as one of the things she was going to do to earn a living. She had to make something—her life would have been too barren otherwise. I don't think analytically in the early stages of writing, but I can see now that it was a way of planting some hope for her, some idea that her feeling of being not whole might wane a little or even be replaced by something steadier and more satisfying. If she is able to complete these objects, the thinking would have gone, objects that are going to be useful to other people, then readers will have reason to believe she might eventually be able to complete...what? Her development, I suppose. Or continue it, anyway, picking up from where it was stalled, first by her mother's life and then by her death.
Q: What's next for you as a writer?
A: My next book will be a collection—a novella and stories. I'm working on the novella now. It's based on some pages I wrote a really long time ago, and it's been fun finding my way back to this old material, remembering what drew me to it in the first place but also seeing things I'll have to change in order for it to be interesting to me now.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Ann Packer has been praised for the lifelike quality of her fiction. Do you feel that the friendship depicted here seems especially true to life? Do you find yourself choosing sides with either Liz or Sarabeth?
2. Why does Lauren attempt to kill herself? What are the immediate and the more suppressed causes? How does Lauren herself explain it?
3. Liz tells Brody that she feels completely guilty for Lauren's suicide attempt. “I know, it sounds crazy,” she says, “but the point is: if it was your fault, then you weren't powerless—you weren't at the mercy of stuff just happening.” To which Brody replies: “You're always going to be at the mercy of stuff just happening, no matter what” [p. 335]. What different ways of looking at life do these two positions represent? To what extent are they “at the mercy of stuff just happening”?
4. Thinking back over her relationship with her daughter, Liz imagines herself “bowing to Lauren, acknowledging Lauren. Had she somehow failed to do that? She couldn't think of anything more important for a mother to do” [p. 143]. Why would nothing be more important than this kind of acknowledgment of one's child? Why does Liz choose the word “bowing”?
5. After Lauren has returned from the hospital, Liz admits to Lauren that she and Sarabeth are “having some problems.” After that, Lauren occasionally asks her mother about her relationship with Sarabeth. Do you think Lauren is intentionally pressuring Liz to talk to her? Do you think it's Lauren's place to pressure her mother about Sarabeth?
6. Liz and Sarabeth have a long history together. Do you think that, without Lauren's attempted suicide, Liz and Sarabeth would have ended up in the same place anyway?
7. Why do you think Lauren is drawn to Sarabeth? Do you think it has more to do with Sarabeth's experience with depression and suicide, or with Sarabeth's knowledge of art and her less-conventional life? Or something else entirely?
8. Why doesn't Sarabeth call Liz immediately when she learns of Lauren's suicide attempt? Is her reaction selfish or merely self-protective?
9. Why does Liz tell Sarabeth, “I'm not your mother” [p. 257]? Is she justified in saying this? How does it affect Sarabeth, immediately and ultimately?
10. Brody describes Sarabeth as “five feet of chaos” [p. 278]. In what ways is this statement true of Sarabeth?
11. What is the effect of tragedy—the suicide of Sarabeth's mother and Lauren's attempted suicide—occurring in such seemingly ordinary, and in Lauren's case loving, families?
12. Near the end of the novel, after Joe has won at poker, he thinks: “The cards didn't really matter. What mattered was how you played. What mattered was your face” [p. 359]. In what ways might this apply to the lives of the characters in the novel?
13. How are Liz and Brody able to repair their marriage? Why does Lauren's attempted suicide create such anger and distance between them?
14. What do you think about the hostility between Sarabeth and Brody? Do you think they would have gotten along better if not for their relationships with Liz?
15. How are Liz and Sarabeth able to restore their friendship? Why is the gift of the bench so important?
16. What is the turning point in Lauren's recovery? What is it that really begins to restore her optimism and interest in life?
17. Songs Without Words, though much of it is concerned with suffering, depression, and suicide, ends happily, with the restoration of Liz and Sarabeth's friendship and Lauren choosing to embrace rather than hide from life. Why does this ending feel right? How does Packer keep the novel from achieving too easy a closure?
18. What does Songs Without Words reveal about both the strength and fragility of human relationships?