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Ann Packer: Swim Back To Me
Packer - Swim Back To Me

Packer - Swim Back To Me

Writer Ann Packer won rave reviews with “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.”  We’ll talk with her about her latest work: “Swim Back To Me.”

Novelist Ann Packer goes right for the toughest human interactions and brings them with a kind of cool compassion that tells all, feels all, but does not exactly judge.

In her bestseller “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” she won legions of fans with a story of one fateful dive and its all-too-human fallout.

In a new collection of work, Packer goes at sex, drugs, death, abandonment.  All in leafy settings that ought to suggest a calmer world.  She’s a genius at revealing what we really ought to know.

Ann Packer and “Swim Back to Me.”

- Tom Ashbrook


Ann Packer is author of two bestselling novels, “Songs Without Words” and “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.” Her latest book, “Swim Back to Me,” is a collection of short stories.

Excerpt: Swim Back to Me
From “Walk for Mankind”

September 1972. It was the first week of eighth grade, and I sat alone near the back of the school bus: a short, scrawny honor-roll boy with small hands and big ears. The route home meandered through Los Altos Hills, with its large houses sitting in the shadows of old oak trees and dense groves of eucalyptus. Finally we came down out of the hills and arrived in Stanford, where the last twenty or so of us lived, in houses built close together on land the University leased to its faculty. A couple of stops before mine, a clump of kids rose and moved up the aisle, and that’s when I saw her, a new girl sitting up near the front.

To my surprise, she shouldered her backpack at my stop. I waited until she was off the bus and then made my way up the aisle, keeping my eyes away from Bruce Cavanaugh and Tony Halpern, who’d been my friends back in elementary school. Down on the bright sidewalk, she was headed in the direction I had to go, and I followed after her, walking slowly so I wouldn’t overtake her. She was small-boned like me, with thick red hair spilling halfway down her back and covering part of her backpack, which was decorated with at least a dozen McGovern buttons, rather than the usual one or two. There was even a Nixon button with a giant red X drawn over his ugly face.

She stopped suddenly and turned, and I got my first glimpse of her face: pale and peppered with freckles. “Who are you?” she said.

“Sorry.” I was afraid she thought I was following her when I was just heading home.

She came forward and offered me her hand. “Hi, Sorry—I’m Sasha. Or maybe I should say ‘I’m New.’ We can call each other Sorry and New, and then when we get to know each other better we can switch to something else. Shy and Weird, maybe.”

I had never met anyone who talked like this, and it took me a moment to respond. “My name’s Richard.”

She rolled her eyes. “I know that. I didn’t mean who are you what’s your name—I meant who are you who are you. Your name is Richard Appleby and you live around the corner from me, in the house with all the ice plant.”

Now I got it: she was part of the family renting the Levines’ house. Teddy Levine was spending the year at the American Academy in Rome, and the Levine kids were going to go to some Italian school and come back fluent and probably strange. The Jacksons had spent a year in London, and afterward Helen Jackson had been such an oddball her parents had taken her out of public school.

The girl’s hand was still out, and though I’d never shaken hands with another kid before, I held mine out for her, and she pumped it up and down. She had blue-gray eyes with very light lashes, and a long, pointy noise.

“Sasha Horowitz,” she said. “Happy to know you. I was waiting for you to come over, but it’s just as well we met like this—if you’d come over I’d’ve probably been a freak. Plus my parents would’ve co-opted the whole thing. Do your parents do that? Co-opt everything? When I was really little my dad would always try to play with me and my friends—he’d give us rides on his back like a horse, and he’d kind of buck sometimes, and one time a friend of mine fell off and broke her wrist. Her parents were really overprotective—she was never allowed to come over again.” Still looking at me, Sasha shrugged off her backpack and ran her fingers through her heavy, carrot-colored hair. She gathered it into a thick ponytail and secured it with a rubber band from her wrist. She said, “There, that’s better. So do you love San Francisco? We had a picnic in Golden Gate Park on Saturday, and we saw a guy on an acid trip—my little brother thought he was in a play. The only thing is, I’m expecting to be miserable about missing winter.”

“Are you from somewhere cold?” I said. “Did you have snow?”

“New Haven. And God, yes—we had mountains of it. It was a huge pain in the ass. Do you want to come over? You should, because my mother’ll ask me to tell her about school otherwise and I really don’t feel like talking to her.”

She stood there looking at me, waiting for me to answer, and I thought of my mother, in her shabby apartment across the bay in Oakland, where she had lived alone for the last seven months, an exile of her own making. I looked at my watch. In two and a half hours my father would bike home from his office on campus, and after he’d had a drink we would sit down to a dinner that Gladys, our new housekeeper, had left us in the oven. Telling him about school was my job, just as asking about it was his.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll come over. For a little while.”

Within two weeks I had eaten dinner at Sasha’s house three times, had gone with her and her father to buy tiki lamps for the backyard, had driven to San Francisco with all four Horowitzes to have Sunday morning dim sum. On election night, the five of us squeezed onto the living room couch and yelled at the television set together. In December I ate my first ever potato latkes at their house, and on New Year’s weekend my father allowed me to skip a visit to my mother in favor of an expedition with the Horowitzes to Big Sur.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That first day, once I was home again and my father and I were in the kitchen just before dinner, I found out what had brought Sasha’s family to Stanford. According to my father, her father had been denied tenure by the English Department at Yale and had accepted a one-year renewable appointment at Stanford—which, my father said, was “quite interesting.”

“Usually you’d stay on for a year or two, try to publish some work, get your CV in order, then go on the job market for a tenure track position somewhere else.” He paused and drew his lips into his mouth, as he often did in thoughtful moments. He was a straight-backed man with neat gray hair and hazel eyes: handsome enough. But when he did this thing with his mouth his chin took over, and he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

He let his lips go. “Maybe there was some bad blood. There often is in a case like this.”

I said, “Maybe he just wanted to leave.” I had met him—Dan—on my way out, and he’d seemed far too friendly for whatever my father might have in mind. “Richard Appleby!” he’d said. “Excellent to meet you! Tell me, are the natives amicable? May we count on you for guidance? You must tell us what the customs are. The customs of the country. You’ll help us, won’t you? Correct our clothing, teach us the vernacular?” And all the while Sasha stood there rolling her eyes but unable to keep from smiling.

“I could ask Hugh Canfield,” my father said. Hugh Canfield was my father’s closest—really, his only—friend outside the History Department. They’d been at Princeton together. Hugh was chair of the English Department and therefore someone who’d have information about Dan.

“You don’t have to ask,” I said. “I don’t care.”

“No, of course not,” my father said. “Though it’s curious. To have been at Yale, he must be very promising.”

He was far more than promising to me. He was promise fulfilled, one of those people who makes the most ordinary occasion brilliant. Build a blanket fort in the living room, which Peter, Sasha’s little brother, loved to do? With Dan’s help we built Peter a blanket civilization, with a theater and a civic center and a mausoleum for Peter’s stuffed hippopotamus, whom we named Hippocritz, the Czar-King of Egypt-Arabia.

Excerpted from “Swim Back to Me” by Ann Packer, published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf.

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  • Mike Naeve

    Ann–How wonderful to hear your latest! I’ll be rapt! Mike

  • C’mon now

    Look, I like a good book just as much as the next guy. But isn’t there some kind of imbalance when we devote the first hour to everything important, and then devote a second hour to everything that isn’t important? If we often run out of time, and lack the ability to reach the crux of matters, isn’t it socially responsible to devote more time to it, or ask questions in a more directed manner.

    Second related note: Oftentimes speakers will side-step questions. Tom, it’s your DUTY to not let them side-step, and you’re letting them more and more often.

    • Isis321

      What are you referring to? I’m assuming that you mean that the first hour is related to world news, etc. and the second to something else. Some of us need and want a break from the news. I look forward to these types of programs because it gives me something else to think about and to discover a new book or author that I’d not heard of.

  • Will

    Listening to the Ann Packer interview this morning, I thought again that one of the treasures of OnPoint is that it gives the entire hour to one topic, be it Kings OR Cabbages.
    Personally, I like! Tom’s non-guiding interview style. I suspect that if he guided the interviews more in the direction of his political and societal positions, then the show would not be as attractive to a broad audience.
    Ganbatte! Tom.

  • Biodoc65

    Listening to Ann Packer interview, Tom the man made a bad laughing comment on Mother Theresa when he gave his AS USUAL LiBERAL view point that she was too religious and hopefully Packer the author did not follow the ‘meaning of life’ as enunciated by the religious ONPOINT! What a hypocrite and a liberal atheist is our Tom, the man! What Packer is writing is most probably burrowed from Jesus teachings of the Beatitudes and I challenge Tom, the Onpoint man to do a program on Jesus teachings for the benefit of all Americans during this Easter period! we dont need to hear your liberal view points as shown by your in a disgusting manner you demonstrated by your comments on Mother Theresa!!we we need an apology from Tom, the man and my email: biodoc65@gmail.com, Prof, Neil DeSilva, St. Louis, MO

    • Isis321

      There was hardly a comment on Mother Teresa. He was simply saying, and Ms. Packer agreed, that she was not proclaiming *to be* a Mother Teresa type by not condeming people but finding out why they behave as they do.. He didn’t say anything about Mother Teresa being too religious. You took an innocent comment way out of context.

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