In an interview with Ann Packer that I heard on NPR, she said that she generally started her stories with an image and built the plot around that image. I find myself imagining which image was the catalyst for her novels while I’m reading. I also find myself encouraged by her description of her process, as it seems like it legitimizes my own writing process. Mine is much more like Packer’s than it is like the “write up an outline and do your research before you start writing” process. I always feel inferior to writers who outline their plots before they start, which tinges my pleasure in reading their work.
The plot of this book appealed to me on a couple of levels (beyond feeling a kinship to the author based on her writing process). First, I just like reading about the Midwest. I feel like the Midwest gets a bad rap, and I like when people write about it in an even-handed, warts-and-all way.
Second, whenever things get difficult in my life, I retreat into fantasies of escape, of just hopping in my car and leaving everything behind. I never take these fantasies beyond that “jumping in the car” point, but that’s just what Packer has done in this book. What happens when you get where you’re going? What happens if you want to go home again?
This is also a story of loss, and of how people (two people in particular) choose to deal with loss. Packer explores the relationship between our identities and our geographical location and the question of whether you can ever truly leave home. As someone who’s never had one geographical location to call “home” (the question I generally ask is, “Would I know “home” if I saw it?”), I’m intrigued by the idea of someone living the same place all of her life, especially when that character pulls up stakes and leaves that lifelong home. I’m quite familiar with the pulling up stakes, but not so much the staying in one place.
Packer seems very adept at painting vivid settings. With Songs Without Words, I wondered if I thought this just because I was familiar with the location of her story. But having never been to Madison, Wisconsin, and having spent less than 24 hours in New York City, I think I can safely say that the vivid image, both visual and physical, of these locations is a result of Packer’s skill as a writer. I might be totally off in what I’m imagining the look of these cities to be and the feel of the air in different seasons, but the picture Packer painted drew me in and made me lose my sense of where I was (sitting on my sofa in Salt Lake City reading her book and hoping the baby would stay asleep long enough that I could finish just one more chapter). The accuracy of my image seems pretty irrelevant in this case.