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ZZ Packer

April 22, 2011

ZZ Packer (1973) was born in Chicago Illinois but grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and Louisville, Kentucky. Zuwena (Swahili for "good"), was her given name, but "[a]fter a while of teachers mispronouncing my name and everyone else in the world, I began introducing myself as ZZ, and it just kind of stuck."1

Packer received a BA in 1994 from Yale, an MA from Johns Hopkins in 1995, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1999. She entered the national literary scene with a high-profile appearance in the Debut Fiction issue of The New Yorker in 2000. Her short story Drinking Coffee Elsewhere became the title of her collection published by Riverhead Books in 2003. The book was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, a New York Times Notable Book, and personally selected by John Updike for the Today Show’s Book Club.

Packer is on the faculty of California College of the Arts, and a member of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, a workspace co-operative. She lives in Pacifica, California, a coastal town near San Francisco, and is currently at work on a novel set in the aftermath of the Civil War about the Buffalo Soldiers who left Louisiana and traveled to the West.

Packer’s experiences as a student of creative writing

In an interview with the online journal Identity Theory, Packer explains that while studying At Johns Hopkins University “we had Francine Prose and that was great. It was really great because what happened was that they take everyone (everyone has been selected)—the visiting faculty don't really know what our writing was like—so to familiarize herself she asked us to submit a sample of our writing. So, there were ten of us there and there was this silence and then she said, "I'm going to read some things I like." She obviously hated what we all had put forth. And it was this incredibly—not even humiliating—imagine you have been selected to this program and this person who you have never met just basically says en masse she doesn't like our stuff. After she read what she liked and said why, I thought it was really great, this is the ultimate education. I went back and looked at my stuff in this completely different way. About a third—that would be about three people—looked at their writing but the others just rebelled and it was sad because she was right. That was one of the times that I realized to be a writer you have to have certain humility, otherwise you are not going to improve.

Then I applied to Iowa, and I got in, and the person I was with and I tried to keep things together. It didn't really work. But at that point I was at Iowa and getting used to being in Iowa. [And Iowa] is the Midwest. It's predominantly white. And it's homogenous in this way that goes beyond race. That did take a little bit of getting used to. But then after a while I began to have friends there. Actually not just friends that were in the workshop but in town. And that was good. Could I live there? Probably not. That's a qualified no. There are things that are great aspects of it, a university town, you have this small town atmosphere, you can walk everywhere and people can know each other and yet you have some of the advantages of a big city, cultural stuff and a reading population. So that is a great combination. Iowa, in particular, is on writers' tours —NY, Boston, DC, San Francisco and in between there Iowa City. At Prairie Lights, the bookstore there you get all these people and you could go to a reading twice, three times a week. And these would be big-name people. So that was really great.

There is an anthology called The Workshop [edited by Tom Grimes, 1999]. There are stories from writers and also short memoir-ish kind of pieces about what it was like being there. My story in there, "Speaking in Tongues" is greatly changed in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. It's not that I didn't like it at the time when it came out, but I knew that I wanted to go and revise that story, so I did. But in the book someone wrote that Iowa City was the one place in which you could go into a party and people could be arguing over a comma. And I actually wondered if that really happened to them or they were relayed this thing that happened to me. I remember there was this [party] and then the next day someone said, "Do you remember you were yelling at Jeremy about sentence structure?" That kind of thing does happen there and that's great, but you have to realize that the rest of the world isn't like that.

Realizing that, I moved on to Stanford for a Stegner Fellowship. I was trying to patch together funding from year to year. It sounds awful to say, but it was just this way of trying to avoid getting a job. That's what it is. The Stegner Fellowship is actually a lot less structured than someplace like Iowa. Even Iowa isn't that structured. At Stanford you just had the workshop that met twice a week—now it only meets once a week. You read other people's stories. That's pretty much it.”2

Packer on John Updike

In a ‘Book Bench’ post from The New Yorker, Packer talks about meeting with John Updike: “I read John Updike’s “Rabbit at Rest” while in Japan, and quickly worked my way backwards to the rest of the “Rabbit” quartet, and eventually through all of Updike’s stories. There seemed to me not many American novelists who were working so steadfastly in such riveting contradictions; both the patrician and the suburban, both sexual dynamism and sexual dysfunction, the commercial and the divine. There seemed a strange ability to harken both America the Beautiful as well as America the Plain Jane, and the lovely Protestant backbone in his fiction and essays, when he decided to show it off, was as progressive and enlightened as it was unapologetic.

He had, when it came to matters of race, a sort of frank voyeurism, in that he dealt with it, put it on the table, served it up, then waited to see what others would make of it. Whereas “Rabbit Redux” might seem to ask whether we’re a melting pot or cesspool, the answer ultimately says more about the person answering than it does about Updike the interlocutor—a neat trick of his.

I came to first meet Updike when he recommended my book for a televised book club. It was very like him to champion a young writer in print (he has set some people aghast by comparing young writers to Proust and Nabokov) and very unlike him to appear on television. Nevertheless, I found myself in the “Today Show” greenroom when Updike appeared, taller than I’d even imagined, his face and brows smeared with peach make-up. I introduced myself. “I’m ZZ,” I said, and he said, without missing a beat, “I’m Orange.”

We were soon met by an incredibly effusive Katie Couric who shook both our hands, congratulated me, then asked Updike, “How does it feel to be the coolest writer in America!” Updike looked at me as if to say he’d been called many things, but “cool” was not one of them. We sat down for a televised interview in which Updike was gracious and erudite, while I broke my frozen smile every once in a while to murmur a few incoherent syllables of either gratitude or awe.

When the interview was over, Couric pumped our hands once more, patted Updike on the shoulder as though his sow had just won the state fair, and disappeared. “Now that was strange,” Updike said, including me in on whatever joke had been playing out. By the time Updike and I parted ways after another session in the greenroom, I had to admit that on that day I agreed with Katie Couric: John Updike was the Coolest Writer in America.3

Packer’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker (where she was launched as a debut writer) and in Harper’s.magazine. Her short stories have been published in The Best American Short Stories, and have been read on NPR's Selected Shorts. Packer is the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award.

In her story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books, 2003) Packer dazzles with her command of language -- she surprises and delightsus with unexpected turns and indelible images as she takes us into the lives of characters on the periphery, unsure of where they belong. We meet a Brownie troop of black girls who are confronted with a troop of white girls; a young man who goes with his father to the Million Man March and must decide where his allegiance lies; an international group of drifters in Japan, who are starving and unable to find work; a girl in a Baltimore ghetto who has dreams of the larger world she has seen only on the screens in the television store nearby, where the Lithuanian shopkeeper holds out hope for attaining his own American Dream. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is a striking performance -- fresh, versatile, and captivating. It introduces us to an arresting and unforgettable new voice.


Text: Zlatko Anguelov and Denise Behrens

  • 1. http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/birnbaum103.html
  • 2. http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/birnbaum103.html
  • 3. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/01/remembering-upd-3.html#ixzz1CAX4xIKN