The most vivid memory Ann Packer has of her literary education is of the summer her father, a law professor at Stanford, began assigning her reading lists. He started when she was 10 years old. The lists contained nothing she might have chosen for herself -- not Frances H. Burnett's Little Princess or Hector Malot's Nobody's Girl. He insisted she read Genesis (her brother, Exodus) and then told her he expected a lively discussion about it at the dinner table. He assigned her Portnoy's Complaint and, to mix things up, gave her brother The Collected Stories of Colette, then demanded written reports, pro and con arguments. Young George Packer grew up to write 20,000-word pieces about the war in Iraq for the New Yorker; his older sister, resisting the impulse for years, eventually sat down and, for a decade, labored over a heartbreaking novel about tragedy and obligation.

She never thought she would be a writer. She imagined, at most, life as an editor, cutting a different path. When Packer's father succumbed to a stroke and committed suicide some years later, she thought she had been permanently innoculated against family dramas. And for all the "literary stuff" her mother, a Stanford English professor, offered her, she preferred reading Nancy Drew. But at Yale, a friend persuaded her to join a creative writing workshop, and she began to dabble, if only tentatively, in fiction. Even that had its practical outcome. Her first job was as a copywriter for Ballantine, where she was responsible for producing taut cover copy for paperback novels. "It's the best job a prospective writer can have," she says. "The illusions don't have a chance to take hold." Writing was work, she was learning, and true success only a remote possibility.

But something told her to try fiction in earnest. She took an MFA at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and, rather remarkably, her very first story was published in the New Yorker. A string of fellowships and grants followed, allowing her time to rewrite, recast and repolish her novel -- not to mention marry and have two children. Eventually, she published a collection, Mendocino and Other Stories (1994); and then, 10 years after she began it, The Dive from Clausen's Pier (2002). Scott Turow called it "witty, tragic and touching." Madison Smartt Bell compared it to a jewel.

She is working on a second novel that, like the first, turns on a human bond and the pivotal moment that alters it forever. "I had no idea, as I was writing my first novel," she says, "what a subterranean force my father's suicide was. The rubble is only now coming to life."

-- Marie Arana