Where You Are: An Interview

ZZ Packer

ZZ Packer is always on the move. As it turns out, so am I. Since initiating our interview, I’ve internalized sprinting, shuffling, and power walking as normal forms of transportation. Throughout our three week correspondence—this interview’s timeframe—we occupied many spaces: Nick Flynn’s old office, a food truck line, my car. Almost always on our feet, our exchanges felt like real conversation: spontaneous, sincere, and always on the fly.

One can detect this same athleticism in Packer’s prose. Voice, movement, resonance: this is what her stories promote. They capture and record life’s forward motion like fingers on a pulse—always listening, considering. Now at work on a historical novel, Packer is ever evolving and transitioning; that’s just her style.

A recent Houston transplant, Packer is no stranger to acclimation. Having lived in places like Atlanta, New Haven, Iowa, and Austin, she understands the routine of de- and re- familiarization. As such, she’s employed this model in her stories, disrupting her characters and pushing them out of their comfort zones. With a humor and style all her own, she stretches the limits of what it means to be brutally honest and heartfelt, a skill from which writers across all genres can learn.

While place looms largely in this interview, our conversation journeys through topics such as Houston’s literary scene, short stories versus novels, and the merits and pitfalls of writing workshops. Whatever the subject, Packer is always frank, yet careful in her responses, often meandering through alternative questions before reaching an answer. I suspect she does this when writing as well: composing, considering, revising, and above all, never staying in one place.

Amanda Scott: Since being in Houston, what do you make of its literary scene compared to other places that you’ve visited?

ZZ Packer: Well, the first thing that I would say about the literary scene is that I only sort of found out about it probably a couple years prior when I had friends who were actually in the UH MFA and PhD programs. And before that, I didn’t know anything about the scene at all. I just think I had the normal default position that Houston was a place of big oil and energy and there was nothing else to it.

Scott: And if there was a literary scene, it was sort of closed off or isolated?

Packer: Yeah, maybe more underground. Around the time my book of short stories came out, I was able to do a reading at Brazos, and my friend Colson Whitehead was also teaching here and I had no idea until I went to Brazos how many [people were interested]—I mean so many people showed up. At first I just thought like "Oh, some of my friends are teaching classes and mandated that all their students come to the reading"—and that was part of it [laughs]. But also the Houston literary scene is so vibrant and people care so much about the arts. I’m not just saying that because I’m here at UH; it really just is the case to a surprising extent. But I didn’t have much else to do with Houston after that. I do know that every time you look at Poets & Writers, which does have a kind of ranking system, which I sort of decry that kind of thing because it’s sort of a way to quantify things, [UH's program is always highly ranked].

One of the things that a ranking system can’t possibly take into account is what is best for the individual person.  I mean if you grew up in Alaska and wanted to write and part of what you wanted to concentrate on was the natural beauty of Alaska or you’re into environmental writing and you feel as though you want to be a part of a certain community, going to Fairbanks and that program is probably the best thing for you. So, then those rankings may not mean anything to you. But despite all that, there are rankings. I think UH has been, at least in the past couple years, always in the top 10th or so, so that may contribute to the fact that there is a thriving community here. But I think just coming here now to teach, it still is surprising to me because even though I’ve known for years that Houston has been this way, you just kind of forget because most of the things that have to do with Houston still very much are colored by industry. So, I think that it’s great.

I recall just the other day I was at an Inprint dinner and I was talking to one of the members and she was kind of upset, had a sort of chip on her shoulder. She is a Houston native and she just feels as though a lot of publishers do not bring writers to Houston. When they have a book tour, they have writers go to Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Iowa City, and maybe some other places like Atlanta, sometimes even Dallas before Houston.

Scott: And even when these writers do come to Houston—even well-known writers—I only see it announced in a tiny blurb in a certain section of the newspaper or through niche outlets. Even the big names that come through aren’t widely publicized.

Packer: Then, what that sort of says to me is that even though the arts scene is thriving and there’s a big art scene, relative to everything else, it’s not wholly represented in terms of how it truly is. So in the public imagination, the scene doesn’t seem as large, even though the artistic community puts up a lot of money and spends a lot of time and energy to get people to come to these events, so it’s known to them. But then it’s a matter of getting it known to other powers that be. And so, I think that that’s pretty much the case for Houston: it’s a successful, thriving community. However, I do think there’s probably a little bit of a disconnect between how successful it is and how it’s represented.

Scott: You live in Austin. What’s the community like there?

Packer: Well, Austin just makes things more well known. It has sort of this reputation as an arts hub and depends upon it. So, they have things like the Texas Book Festival, which I was talking with someone about at Inprint. And you know they said, "Well, it’s really just the Austin Book Festival," because it’s always hosted in Austin and it’s mostly Austin writers.

Scott: There’s almost a permanent base in Austin.

Packer: Yes, the base is in Austin. And it hadn’t even occurred to me that, you know because I live in Austin [laughs], that I just think "Oh, I’m just going to go to the Book Festival this year and be a part of it." And it never occurred to me that "Oh, well this is the Texas Book Festival, couldn’t it be rotating? Couldn’t it be in San Antonio one year, in Houston another year, in Dallas another year?" So, there’s something to be said for allowing it to really be pan-Texas, but I would say that—getting back to the point—Austin, you know you will always hear people say “Austin: Live Music Capital of the World” or “Austin: Writers and the Arts,” so it’s just sort of known for that. And the truth is there are probably more artists in Houston; Houston just is bigger in terms of sheer numbers, and perhaps, even in terms of percentages. Who knows? But, I mean, once you have PR, then it sort of self-perpetuates. So because it is known for the arts, the people who would like to go to another place, they tend to go to Austin because they think "Well, Austin is all arty," and they don’t really think about Houston, and definitely not Dallas. [Pauses] And I wouldn’t think of Dallas, either [laughs].

Scott: Me either [laughs]. Switching gears a bit, this question is also related to location, but more so in terms of the writing process. The title story of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is set on the Yale campus, of which you are an alumnus. Are there any specific places that you’ve visited or lived that have informed other stories you’ve written or would like to write?

Packer: Well, I’ve lived in so many places, so I almost feel as though I’m not a native of any one place—though, I definitely consider myself a Southerner. I was raised in Louisville, Kentucky and Atlanta, Georgia. But other places in terms of writing: I’ve written about Baltimore quite a bit, even though in terms of the percentage of my life lived in certain places, Baltimore probably occupies a very small percentage. It’s just been a large part of my imagination in terms of where stories are set. I think that with the novel that I’m working on now, a lot of it has been set in the West just because I did live in California for about eleven years or so. But the book actually covers Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, so those are places that I visit often. But sometimes as a visitor you almost feel as if you’re never going to fully understand that particular place. You feel as though you’re not quite as competent enough to write about it, so it’s sort of strange. Even though I’ve lived most of my adult life outside of Kentucky, I’d probably feel more qualified to write about Kentucky than other places, you know. I don’t know if I’ve ever written about California—I mean I can’t recall writing any story that was set specifically in California, even though I spent pretty much 12 years there. But it really has to do with comfort.

James Baldwin once said that he wasn't able to really write about America until he left America. And I have this feeling that if you’re in a place, sometimes it’s very difficult to write about it honestly because you’re still dealing with your living in that place, and you don’t have as much perspective. Whereas, if you leave a place, then everything that that place means to you comes into sharper relief, compared to where you’re now living. And there’s something very strong about memory, which on the one hand can distort, but on the other hand can sort of chisel and shape thought. So, I kind of feel as though if I were to live in [pauses] New Mexico, let’s say, I’d feel that lack of confidence in writing about it—even though I write about it. [Laughs] And even with Texas, I feel as though there are so many different Texases, that it’s hard to pinpoint what you mean by Texas.

Scott: Can you talk a little about the novel that you’re writing? I hear that it’s about the Buffalo Soldiers.

Packer: Yeah. You know I’ve said that for so long, you know, and it’s taken so long for it to come out, I just feel as though there’s something—like the soul of the novel gets snatched out of it by talking about it so much. And it then also calcifies you a little bit and pins you into one spot because on the one hand, Yes, it concerns the Buffalo Soldiers, but probably at its heart, it’s about Reconstruction and what occurred during that period.

Scott: Right. And that topic is so specific, so having something like that tagged to it when there are so many other things that inform the narrative can prematurely shape the way people think about it in a way that you may not be totally satisfied with.

Packer: Yes. Also, the literary community is so small anyway compared to society at large. I mean, how many people really read seriously. So, it’s probably a bit of a joke for me to be that concerned because really, we’re talking about a hundred people maybe [laughs] in America who even care one bit at all. So, you know, I could just write a whole other novel and people might just say "Well, oh okay, well, that’s what she was writing." [Laughs]

But I have been working on this novel for a long time. It’s a historical novel. It feels weird sometimes to call it a historical novel because I think that term sometimes gets taken as a genre, as opposed to just an assignation of time period. You know, historical being, in the simplest form, before the author’s time. I think when people think of historical novels, they think of a class of novels written because a particular audience’s form of escapism is by way of history. And there are certain expectations: the novel should be about six hundred pages, sometimes a thousand with this sort of James Michener vein. For it to be, on the one hand, of the kind women read, which tend to be in the vein of romance novels and tend to have a female character and generally follow her life. And then there are those that men read that tend to be sort of like the “larger” Westerns. And that’s sort of for better or worse, even if that’s the general idea of what historical novels are, I think if I were to want to align myself with a certain type of historical novel, I would say maybe the type that E.L. Doctorow writes—you know Ragtime and Billy Bathgate. That’s the kind of stuff that I like because they’re novels that you feel have some significance for you, and they just so happen to be set in a different place in a different time period. And hopefully, it’s not necessarily pure escapism; it does elucidate to some extent what’s going on in current society.

So, for me, I wouldn’t be much interested in a period of history if it did not, in some way, show us something about our present time. Or if the present time could not look back at this time and sort of see something in it that is—I hate to be so pedantic as to call it a “lesson,” definitely not a “moral”—but some sort of way of being that we have forgotten about. So, that’s what interests me about setting something in another time period; not only the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, but Reconstruction in general. It was just something I couldn’t shake. My way of being interested in something is writing about it.

Scott: What’s the process been like going from the shorter form of a short story toward a longer form? Did some of the ideas for the novel start out as shorter pieces that you developed and eventually fused together to form a novel?

Packer: I think primarily I consider myself a short story writer, in terms of what I like to write, given a range of all possible choices. Because even though I like to write poetry, I don’t think I’m a very good poet; I do love reading poetry. In terms of novels, I don’t think that I was setting out immediately to write a novel. I think that, you know, a novel is sort of a commercial vehicle—a kind of monster. [Laughs] And in terms of publishing, people really want novels because more of the American public seems to read novels. I think that accounts for some of the hybrids we’re seeing now. Like a novel in short stories or a ring of stories—linked stories. Because what then else is there for the person that wants to write stories, but also doesn’t want to be forgotten. [Laughs] You know, if not commercially viable, in the public arena or imagination, and so sometimes you’ll have people just do that. And I kind of feel it shouldn’t be done lightly or artificially or just for market purposes.

However, I do feel as though I’m primarily a short story writer and writing this novel—I think that I’ve approached it unfortunately as though I’ve been writing, you know, just about three hundred separate little short stories. [Laughs] Which takes a lot of time. One of the aspects of a short story, similar to poetry versus a longer form—I mean the longer the form, the less tension there is between the language and the subject. So, poems require maximum tension and attention to the language qua subject; short stories, definitely more than novels. Novels tend to be more structural, with certain kinds of devices. Short stories definitely depend on structure, possibly even more than novels.

So, I like the tension and pressure on writing that a short story demands. I’m probably just missing something with the structure of the novel. I like writing it—it just takes me a long, long time to do it. And I sometimes question myself and think, "Is this even interesting to other people?" To me, it’s interesting, but I don’t know if it would be interesting to someone else. I have no gauge. Whereas with a short story, I think I have a pretty good gauge of what’s interesting.

Scott: Are there any memorable workshop experiences that you’ve been a part of [both laugh] as an instructor or as a student? I’m sure there are many…

Packer: I’m sure people in Houston probably just sort of think, “Oh, this is her first time in Houston, her first time teaching a college class,” but the fact of the matter is that I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years. So, even though it’s new for me to be here, I’ve been teaching for a while. And I change things up a lot. Like, I won’t ever have all the same stories or even all the same elements of fiction that get taught. You know, I’ve taught people who’ve been in the same issue of The New Yorker with me as a young writer. Some people might say, “Well, isn’t it weird, now they’re at the same level.” But I love that. I think it’s really amazing. Two of them [writers] were not in my workshop per se, but in seminars. So, like, Daniel Alarcón and Yiyun Li. Yiyun Li, she would give me her stories and I would read them and comment on them and they were just amazing. And some of these would eventually end up in The New Yorker or The Paris Review. She’s just an amazing writer. So, there’s that—seeing some of my former students go on to do great things.

In terms of notable experiences, I’d have kids write a story in class where there’d be like a baby in a blender. I mean, and you’d have to discuss all sorts of things and try to argue, “Ah, well, just think of Jonathan Swift and let’s see what you’re doing different.” So, there’ve been all sorts of different, weird things that have occurred in class. One student turned out to be part of what they called the “American Taliban”—I mean like… [Laughs]

Scott: In terms of emerging writers, can you talk about some of the common mistakes you’ve observed over the years?

Packer: Well, you have those writers that have read so much that their mistake is that they’re trying to stuff too much into a story. And they’re trying to be too mature—well, not trying to be, just happen to be. And that’s sort of a better mistake than [not having read at all]. One mistake is from, you know, being educated in how to write in a particular way. But being educated that way without also being a reader means you are only doing what someone else said to do. And that kind of shows. The writers who make mistakes in the other direction, of being extremely wordy or mixing metaphors or piling too many metaphors or tying to be too adult, are the writers who, even though the mistakes can grate on you in some way, hopefully you can see the mistake. This is the type of person that has read X, Y, and Z, they’re really excited, and so even though this writer makes a mistake, you’re (as an instructor) still gratified by it. So, it’s a mistake that someone needs to make. And the other thing I think is that when you’re writing…you know people have this idea that to be a success, you start off as a success. You know, people will say, "Oh, this person, she’s such a good writer," you know, on the first day of class, but you have to make mistakes or else you don’t ever get better; I think many people say that, but I just don’t think people believe it.

I remember when I was in college, I had a teacher who I gave one of my stories to and she would run away from me because I kept trying to get comments on it . I kept saying, “But what did you think!” [Laughs] And it was obvious that she just hated it, it was so horrible. I can see looking back on it that it was really bad, but it was also probably bad in the right ways. I know when students come to me with stuff that is very bad, I can see the good impulses. So, for the latter, I think it’s really great to have these mistakes that you’re inevitably going to make. But they’re mistakes that come out of the right impulse for trying to be a writer.