Long Walk, Best-Selling Pier 

Little did Ann Packer know that the ten years she spent writing her novel would lead to Good Morning America.

Ten years ago, when Ann Packer began her first novel, she couldn't imagine the kind of success it would enjoy, because that particular kind of success simply didn't yet exist. The immediacy and ubiquity of the Internet were not yet foregone conclusions, and, more significantly, book clubs had not yet become weapons in morning-television ratings wars.

The Dive from Clausen's Pier was a critical darling and word-of-mouth phenomenon even before Good Morning America chose Packer's novel to inaugurate its "Read This!" book club earlier this summer. But that choice made a difference. It increased the novel's sales by more than a thousand percent in Barnes & Noble stores, and in literally no time its online sales skyrocketed. Packer had become -- well, the queen of Amazon.

"I feel overwhelmed at times," the San Carlos author and James Michener Award-winner confesses. "There are certainly aspects" of her sudden success "that have been quite difficult. But this is an amazing moment. I don't want to squander it." For someone who actively tried not to become a writer, then gave in and got rather used to plodding away in what she calls the "isolation and something close to despair" that comes with it -- and wondering whether the book would ever be finished, let alone published -- the shock won't wear off for a while.

Packer knows a lot about shock. The Dive from Clausen's Pier is a tale of catastrophic events and their aftermath. Before its first chapter even begins, the narrator's fiancé breaks his neck, leaving each of them with a kind of paralysis -- physical in his case, emotional in hers. Thereafter, in 350 well-tempered pages of taut, insight-peppered, resonant prose, Packer offers her prognosis, a complex equation of grief, guilt, commitment, and self-expression that adds up to a young woman's ownership of her identity.

"That is an ongoing interest of mine," the author says now. "The way we make ourselves. What happens when you need to make a new self -- or you want to make a new self? When I look back on my life I can see moments where, through great chaos, I forged a new identity for myself. But I'm a great believer in the fact that we bring forward our entire past all the time."

Without dwelling on it, she allows that her father's paralyzing stroke, when Packer was ten, and his subsequent suicide have profoundly affected her life and informed her work. "I think in a sense I'm fortunate to have a creative outlet to play with it and put it through all sorts of permutations," she says of her own personal catastrophic event and its aftermath. "Yet I think it would be reductive to identify it as the sole big thing."

Packer, who grew up in Stanford, had a mother and brother who were both writers. "I was going to do anything but," she laughs, recalling her youthful determination. "But the problem is, I enjoyed reading. I was a very bookish person." A college friend talked her into taking a writing class, where Packer "very quickly discovered that it was something I had some capacity for." She worked in New York's publishing industry for five years, and then joined the University of Iowa's fiction MFA program. That, she says, brought the necessary clarity. "It was almost a homecoming ... all the questions about where my life was going were answered."

Gradually she accumulated a collection of short stories, published individually in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and other journals, and together in 1994 as Mendocino and Other Stories. Meanwhile she toiled away on The Dive from Clausen's Pier.

"I was ready to write a novel. The material came in the form of a novel because that's what I wanted to be writing. I didn't put any in a drawer; I kept this one out of the drawer and kept reworking it." She paused to "make a new self" for herself as a mother, twice over, but even that could not keep Packer from finishing the novel.

It has rewarded her patience by teaching her about the creative process, about the value of meticulous revision. And there's no denying it rewarded her patience by making her a suddenly famous debut novelist.

"The most surprising thing has been the passion with which certain people have complained about the ending," she says. "I'm fine with that. It's great, because that means it's real to them." The ending, Packer adds, is one of the few elements that never changed during the novel's decade-long gestation.

Her next project is another novel. Packer has learned not to make many predictions, but she can say that it's about the friendship between two women, and it's set on the Peninsula and in the East Bay: territories that appeal to her, she says, for their variety of lives, invented and otherwise.


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