I first encountered the Ann Packer in 2003 when, like much of America, I read her riveting debut novel The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. Years later, I had the privilege of editing her essays at Real Simple. (If you want to mist up a little, read her paean to the quotidian pleasures of car-pooling.) Last week, just before a bookstore appearance to promote her new novel, The Children’s Crusade—a gorgeous, sweeping family saga with a pretty scary mother—she did me the honor of sitting down in a noisy Manhattan coffee shop to talk about fear.
My Fearless Year: What are you afraid of?
Ann Packer: I’m afraid of flying. It started when I was probably in my mid-twenties and got a whole lot worse after 9/11. It has limited me in some ways. But about three or four years ago, I took a fear of flying clinic at the San Francisco airport and it helped me a lot. It gave me a little more wiggle room—the strategy in that clinic is partly education, and partly relaxation techniques. I had already done the relaxation techniques; I’d gone to cognitive behavioral therapy for it and it hadn’t really made a dent. So for me, the education piece was really important. We had a pilot, flight attendants, we went up into the air traffic control tower and they talked to us for about an hour, we had maintenance people talk to us, we had a tour of the area. My essential feeling was: You’re not supposed to be up there. I still don’t get the physics of it, but I much more trust the experience. My thing is turbulence. Awful. And that’s pretty common. They talked about what it actually is: There’s the analogy of a lake, and that waves can be calm or choppy. One thing that stuck with me was the pilot saying that “As far as a pilot is concerned, we don’t like turbulence because it makes our coffee spill. And we don’t like it because you don’t like it. But really, it’s nothing.” I take a beta blocker, and I last a lot longer. It’s not like I love it though.
MFY: That must be difficult, since, right now, while you’re on a book tour, you have to fly all the time.
AP: Yes, right now I do. You know, it’s interesting: I didn’t know what to expect from the other students, but I was one of the least fearful people there. There were people who had not been on a plane in 10 years. On the very last day of the clinic, there was this optional flight [from SFO] to Seattle, where you could have lunch and fly back. I didn’t want to spend the extra $300 so I didn’t do it, but there were 10 of us. And of all of us, only two actually got on the plane. Some actually came and left. If you’re able to recognize that you’re not suffering all that much, that’s a good thing. And that was the case for me.
MFY: Do you have any specific writing fears? Anything you have to cope with when you’re writing?
AP: I’m afraid of being alone. I’m afraid of getting things wrong or seeming stupid.
MFY: Particularly in nonfiction?
AP: Well, yeah. That’s why I don’t really write nonfiction.
Is there anything that others are typically afraid of that doesn’t worry you?
There are people who read one bad thing on GoodReads and it ruins their day.
MFY: Is there anything that others are typically afraid of that doesn’t worry you?
AP: I’m not really afraid of what other people are going to think of me. In my experience, we get upset by the negative opinions that correlate with our own judgments against ourselves, and I’ve kind of worked out a way to–how can I put this?–cut out the middleman. If someone says something against me I can usually take the insulted or shamed or hurt or guilty feeling, separate it from the other person, and try to figure out what’s getting to me and why. So when it comes to bad reviews, I don’t like them, and there’s a sting for sure because there’s something humiliating about being the public target of snark, disrespect, condescension–frequent elements of bad reviews. But I’m not so concerned with the specifics of a bad review, the content. I’ve already thought so much about the book that there’s very little a reviewer can say that I haven’t considered. “Your book is slow.” Well, yes, it’s about the relationship of people and time. It’s paced exactly as I want it to be paced. It’s not going to work for everyone.
MFY: There are people who read one bad thing on GoodReads and it ruins their day.
AP: It’s a very vulnerable position, publishing a book, and I don’t want to sound superior or indifferent. I’ve been really fortunate in getting a lot of public affirmation and that’s made a huge difference. In terms of other fears, I’m not as afraid as I used to be of not knowing what I’m doing in my writing. I kind of embrace it. I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s not fun. But in this last book, I did enjoy not knowing how I was going to get from one paragraph to the next. I’ve never been an outliner. It used to be more anxiety-provoking, and I now believe that following an idea that doesn’t sound promising can really be the best way to arrive at something wonderful.