Your new novel, The Children’s Crusade, is about the life of a California family over the course of five decades. The parents are mismatched, and the novel traces the effect of their troubled marriage on their four children. The mother has a certain amount of antipathy toward the youngest, and the book focuses to a large degree on that. Kind of depressing, no? What made you want to write such a novel?
I didn’t. A common misconception of those who don’t write fiction is that those who do know what they’re doing when they set out. There’s an idea that we have clear intentions and that writing the book is a matter of, well, “just writing it.” Alas, that isn’t how it works. We start with very little and have to make it up as we go along, sentence by sentence, often word by word. There’s no “it” until it comes into being via language. At least, that’s how it is for me.
In the early months of writing The Children’s Crusade, I didn’t have a marriage in mind at all, or a multi-decade time period, or a desire to write about an ambivalent mother or a problem child. What did I have? An idea of a man in trouble, returning home to his sister for help. A curiosity about how and why people might form intentional communities. An image of a woman with a long gray braid, seen from behind. A memory of a conversation I once had about first principles.
Words to live by. Ideas to live by. A friend once asked me, “What’s your first principle?”
And you said?
I mumbled something about how people should be mindful of children’s well-being, especially their psychological well-being.
So what does this have to do with the book?
The father is a pediatrician, and he has a kind of motto, or first principle—a thing he says, that his children pick up on in childhood and mull over for the rest of their lives. “Children deserve care.”
And his wife disagrees?
She has her own concerns.
Other than her children.
Other than her children, yes. And that’s a large part of what goes wrong between them. But shouldn’t we talk about something else? Why will people read the book if we tell them the plot?
Do you really think people read you for plot?
I don’t like your tone.
Sorry. Moving along, what challenges did you face as you wrote the book?
Early on, I faced the challenge of staying in my chair when I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing. Later, once I’d arrived at a structure, I faced the challenge of being fair to all of the characters.
You’re talking about the mother again.
What did you have to do to be fair to her?
In the first draft of the book, I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for her and in fact sort of made fun of her as I went along. That’s not something that’s ever happened to me before in writing—scapegoating a character—and I took note of it but didn’t try to stop myself or analyze it, either. I thought, “Let’s see where this goes.” And when I showed the first draft to some early readers, it was clear that the other characters felt round, to use the EM Forster term, but the mother was flat. Really a caricature. With every subsequent draft I worked to make her if not sympathetic then real, a character with as much depth and conflict as the others.
What’s her name?
Penny Greenway Blair.
What’s the significance of the name “Penny”? Were you trying to say something about money and therefore about value? Or were you referencing Penelope, from Greek mythology?
I can’t believe you used “reference” as a verb.
I can’t believe you aren’t just going with the flow here! What’s your problem?
This reminds me of a scene in the book. Toward the end: the oldest brother and the youngest brother are arguing, and the oldest uses the term “per se,” and the youngest calls him on it.
Wait, sorry, I’m still back at the previous question. Penny GREENWAY Blair?
Greenway is her maiden name.
Yeah, but you used that name in your last novel. Didn’t you?
That’s just weird. You couldn’t think of another name?
I didn’t remember that I’d used it until it was too late.
You didn’t remember?
The other Greenway is a minor character.
Fine, let’s move along. You said the oldest brother and the youngest brother. There are four kids in this family?
Yes: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James.
You couldn’t think of another “R” name? I’m seeing a trend here, problems with naming your characters. Do you know when this started? Do you think it’s a function of your age?
The parents named him, I didn’t. Anyway, this is kind of what the book is about, so maybe—
Ah, so there’s a plot after all?
I knew this was a bad idea.
You mean the interview?
Try anything once, right? Let’s go back to the three Rs and James. That’s a lot of kids. Did you grow up in a large family?
No, I just have one brother. And when I first thought about writing this book, I had in mind just a sister and a brother. But as soon as I began writing the first scene in which all the children appear, I found there were these other kids burbling up from my unconscious.
Was it hard to differentiate among them?
No. If it had been I probably wouldn’t have needed or wanted all four of them.
Each of the grown kids takes a turn narrating part of the story, and those sections are interspersed with others that dip in and out of the family’s history over many years. How did you keep track of all that?
An Excel spreadsheet. I went a little far, perhaps, with color-coding and sub-spreadsheets laying out how old the children were at various points, what grade they were in, etc.
Do you feel like you aren’t really working during the time you put into efforts like that?
Sort of. It’s definitely a whole lot easier than writing, although I have to confess there were a few times when I thought I’d made a mistake in the timeline and kind of lost it.
So what’s your process like? Do you have a set schedule?
Really? You’re going there?
People might be curious.
I always think that question is a substitute for something else. Or, if it’s asked at a reading, it’s because there aren’t enough hands up and someone’s being polite.
Maybe I’m being polite.
Fine, this was a bad idea. But you try asking the questions next time!
We have to write another book first.
“We.” I think this is a good stopping point.
ANN PACKER is the acclaimed author of two collections of short fiction, Swim Back to Me and Mendocino and Other Stories, and two bestselling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, which received the Kate Chopin Literary Award, among many other prizes and honors. She lives in San Carlos, California.