The well-traveled ZZ Packer was born in Chicago and raised in Atlanta and Louisville. She attended Yale University and the Writing Seminar at Johns Hopkins University, The Writers’ Workshop at Iowa University and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. The title story of her recently published short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, was included in The New Yorker‘s Debut Fiction issue in 2000, and her work has also appeared in Seventeen, Harper’s, The Best American Short Stories (2000), Ploughshares and has been anthologized in 25 and Under: Fiction. ZZ Packer lives in San Francisco, and she is diligently at work on a novel.
The eight stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere range from the antics of a troop of black Girl Scouts who encounter some mentally handicapped white Girl Scouts ["Brownies"] to a loser father taking his bright son to the Million Man March to sell exotic birds ["The Ant of the Self"] to the title story’s examination of the protagonist Dina’s ability and tendency to pretend in various difficult situations she encounters. In Packer’s stories one meets an array of characters, from African American church ladies, white intellectuals, to inner-city dwellers, buppies and an odd group of expatriated internationals stuck in Japan, all rendered deftly with humor and poignancy.
Robert Birnbaum: Where does the name ZZ come from? It’s not an abbreviation, right?
ZZ Packer: Exactly. ZZ is just this nickname that I’ve had ever since I can remember. My actual name is Zuwena. It’s Swahili and means "good." My friends and family would just call me ZZ, but then after a while of teachers mispronouncing my name and everyone else in the world I began introducing myself as ZZ. So it just kind of stuck.
RB: And if you introduced yourself as Zuwena, they would probably augment it in some way, anyway.
ZZ: Yeah, yeah, probably. Someone else commented ZZ isn’t exactly a diminutive of Zuwena.
RB: What would be?
ZZ: Zena is sort of an elided form. It’s Arabic and closely related to Zuwena.
RB: Is this frequent topic of conversation?
ZZ: Yeah, it’s the one I can…
RB: It’s kind of an ice breaker.
ZZ: I don’t even know when I started. One of my friends from the UK said "But if your book comes out in England, you’ll be called "Zed. Zed." I said, "Can’t they just say ZZ?" And he said, "No, it’s not Z it’s zed."
RB: I was reading an introduction to Percival Everett’s book, God’s Country by Madison Smartt Bell, and he was commenting on Everett’s novel Cutting Lisa saying he had read the book and then saw the author’s portrait and asked himself if the character’s in the novel were black. So he reread the book to confirm that they weren’t black. All of which is my way of asking you, what is a black writer? You are identified as a black writer, right?
ZZ: Yeah, I almost got into my punching mode with the last interview. They asked, "Would you consider yourself a black writer?" And I said, "Of course, because I’m black. And I am a writer." (laughs) There is no other way to say that. But what he meant to say was, did I consider myself a writer who writes solely for black people? Or, who is my audience? To that I would just say, "No, I am writing for black people, but I am also writing for whites, for Chinese, for Americans." So, it’s one of those things that, yeah, the stories are definitely going to be influenced by the fact that I am black. I mean those stories wouldn’t have been written if I had been white. Also, one of the things I want to do with the stories I don’t even know how conscious I was—it’s very much this felt thing with me—they are human beings and often times in America, people will try to say this is a black story or this a white story (that’s sort of the default mode)…
RB: (Both laugh)
ZZ: There’s this wonderful white story that I read.
RB: A Caucasian story.
ZZ: So, I think people tend to racialize and in some contexts that is necessary. In the context of just being human and falling in love and all of the things that human beings do, I don’t necessarily think it should erupt. It’s a horrible thing when it does because it means that the racists have won and have convinced people that it should erupt in everyday. When I am writing these stories, I am really concentrating on the characters and what are their circumstances and motivations and what do they want.
RB: The emotional content is very vivid in your stories. I brought up the issue of race because it is troublesome and unresolved. We use these stereotypes and code words especially in an area where you would think people were smarter. On the other hand, I guess it’s a sign of progress that Scott Spencer can write a novel about a bi-racial relationship and not catch grief because he is white. Is he a black writer now?
RB: George Pelecanos‘ main character in his last three books is a black man. But as he says, that’s what writers do, they write outside themselves. Anyway, getting back to you and your brilliant career. I was a little troubled in acknowledgment that you thanked The New Yorker editors for taking a chance on an unknown—namely you. I wonder why you are thanking them instead of them thanking you …
RB: For giving them something worthwhile to publish?
ZZ: I never thought of it that way. It’s great to hear you say that.
RB: What august people are they that…
ZZ: I guess one of the things that happens—probably one of the ways that writing programs can get into your head in a way that probably they shouldn’t is— that you are sitting around with all these people who also want to write and so it [The New Yorker] becomes a sort of Holy Grail. Of course, you feel this incredible gratitude. I still, I must say, feel this incredible gratitude.
RB: Frankly, I can’t figure out the sense of publishing John Updike six or seven times a year.
ZZ: (laughs) They do publish him a lot. He is good.
RB: He doesn’t need the New Yorker.
RB: And I don’t know that New Yorker readers need him in large doses. But the small controversies that occasionally arise from their choices are indicative of how much people care about that magazine.
ZZ: It is good, you don’t suspect that as many people read it as…
RB: Read Maxim?
ZZ: Laughs. It”s funny that one of my friends got her husband a subscription [to Maxim]. I said, "What are you doing?" But it is great that people who do read the New Yorker pay such attention to the magazine.
RB: Let’s see, you grew up in Atlanta and…
ZZ: I was born in Chicago. And then we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and so I partially grew up there, and then we moved to Louisville, Kentucky. And a lot of other places, I have lived after having graduated.
RB: Did you go from Louisville to Yale?
ZZ: Yeah. I haven’t lived at home since then.
RB: Why did you go to Yale?
ZZ: As opposed to? (laughs)
RB: I don’t know.
ZZ: The other school? (laughs)
RB: Or a school that has a freer sensibility. My impression of Yale is that it seems tight sphinctered.
ZZ: I was in this math and science program in the summers and one of the things they did, which was amazing, was show us all these different colleges. There is no way in Louisville, Kentucky that I would have been able to see these colleges. People wouldn’t even have been pointing me to these colleges. So we went on these trips and they were trying to get us to these Ivy League colleges and we went around to these places. Harvard to me, when I went and visited, I just didn’t like the vibe. It seems as though people were completely conscious of some sort of…
ZZ: Yeah, entitlement. And whereas, sure there is a big segment of the population at Yale that is that way as well, that wasn’t the tenor of the people there.
RB: Did you go to college thinking that you were going to be a writer?
ZZ: Not really thinking I was going to write. There was a back and forth between whether I was going to do something in the humanities, as opposed to doing something in the sciences. Which is one of the reasons that I ended up going to Yale as opposed to a place like MIT. I wasn’t thinking that writing was something that you could actually do. I kept thinking, "I’m going to be an engineer." That’s what I was striving for.
RB: Did you have a look at Brown University?
ZZ: To me—and I really loved it—I had the prescience to know that this could be great but might actually be too great. (laughs) If I didn’t have some structure, that I could see myself…in some way I could see myself thriving in a place like that but— also and yet this might be to do with a certain immigrant syndrome—the parents that want their kids to do well—this is not just, "Oh this is an enlightening time for you because you are going to learn and meet people." I was in college to get a job. I knew that going to a place like Brown, I was already not pleasing the parents, so going to Brown would have been the last straw.
RB: You went to Johns Hopkins after Yale.
ZZ: I did, immediately after.
RB: What did your parents think then?
ZZ: They were really afraid. And they probably actually should have been. If I knew what I know now, it was scary. I was living off of eight thousand dollars a year. And trying to supplement it with tutoring, but I was so determined at that point I did know that I wanted to write. And even when I began teaching high school, I said that I was going to teach and write. I was really going to make this work.
RB: Were you able to?
ZZ: I still wrote, but it was incredibly difficult. Teaching, the students really need you. You can’t just say, "No, I am going to do this really selfish thing, scribble." (laughs) So it was incredibly hard to write and teach public high school. I actually thought I was going to do it for a lot longer than I did. It really does take a long time to become a good master teacher. It wasn’t working out, though I tried.
RB: Who was at Johns Hopkins?
ZZ: Stephen Dixon and John Barth. It was actually Barth’s last year.
RB: Was Julian Barnes there?
ZZ: He came after me. But we got a chance to meet him before he came in. It was sort of weird, the outgoing class met him at a nearby restaurant and we were sort of quizzing him—who is this really erudite Englishman here in the heart of Baltimore (laughs)? He was telling us he hadn’t even written a story before. He was a little apprehensive about teaching or rather leading a workshop in which the short story form predominated. He said that and then the next day practically, I saw this story in the New Yorker. I said what is he talking about, if that was his first one. But I never had him as a workshop leader. 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 a certain humility, otherwise you are not going to improve.
RB: Prose is certainly known and respected in the writer culture. But I wonder if there was a rebellion because she didn’t represent a certain masculine authority?
ZZ: That definitely occurred to us. There was an element of that.
RB: Okay. Louisville, Yale, Baltimore and from there to Iowa City?
ZZ: After Johns Hopkins I did teach public high school for two years and did all sorts of odd things to make money in the summer.
RB: Odd things? I won’t ask.
ZZ: They were all decent things (laughs). And then I went to Iowa.
RB: You were out in the so-called real world for a while. When did you decide you wanted to go to Iowa?
ZZ: Kind of under complicated circumstances. I would have probably continued teaching, but I thought if I am going to move somewhere I want to also apply to a writing program and see if I can get in. I hadn’t been writing as much. 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.
RB: Did it take a lot to get used to being in Iowa?
ZZ: It did just because…it’s 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.
RB: You strike me as a gregarious person. Could I be right?
ZZ: Yeah, yeah. It’s sort of weird because I am but then I’m not. That sounds odd but when I am around people, when I choose to be with people then I am really with them. Talking to people and meeting them, picking their brain and stuff like that. Sometimes there is this switch that goes on and I just have to be alone.
RB: Is that when you write?
ZZ: Yeah, yeah. It’s part of what enables me to write (laughs) instead of just going out all the time—there would be no way I could write. So that does enable me to write. And it’s really weird for anyone I have been close to. It’s been this really strange thing because I will be around and talking whatever, whatever and then I just shut down. (laughs)
RB: So no one has ever seen you write?
ZZ: (laughs) I just disappear— just this Francis Bacon, modern day—
RB: Could you have stayed at Iowa?
ZZ: Could I have? I am actually going to go back for one semester, to do a teaching segment there. So I will be back for one semester. But could I live there? (long pause) 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. (laughs)
RB: Prairie Lights is the bookstore there?
ZZ: Yeah. So 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.
RB: I remember Margot Livesey mentioning at a reading that on one walk around Iowa City she found a part of a Rilke poem on a railroad viaduct.
ZZ: There is an anthology called The Workshop [edited by Tom Grimes, 1999]. There are stories from writers and also short memoirish kind of pieces about what it was like being there.
RB: Oh yeah, I have that book.
ZZ: Don’t read my story ["Speaking in Tongues"]. It’s greatly changed in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
ZZ: Which is good. 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.
ZZ: And actually I 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.
RB: So realizing that you move on to Stanford for a Stegner Fellowship.
ZZ: Yeah, this is all—talk about credentializing—this is trying to patch together funding from year to year. (laughs) It sounds awful to say, but it was just this way of trying to avoid getting a job. That’s what it is. (laughs)
RB: What does the Stegner Fellowship involve?
ZZ: Actually it is 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. (laughs) You read other people’s stories. That’s pretty much it.
RB: And now you are a Jones Lecturer?
ZZ: Depending how many spaces there are, they will ask people who are about to be departing Stegner Fellows to apply for that lectureship and that means that you are like adjunct faculty. You teach undergraduates.
RB: So for a good period of time, you have been deeply involved in the world of writing, and you have avoided getting a job.
ZZ: I couldn’t avoid it because moving to San Francisco by myself, the Bay Area is so expensive. So I actually did end up having a job. When I first got there it was the height of the [dot-com] boom. So I said, "I am going to get some money out of this." And at that time if you were a writer and you wanted to take advantage of that situation you wrote content for a web site. That’s what I did for a while. Knowing that the place I worked at was utterly doomed.
RB: You took cash, not stock options?
ZZ: Yeah I did not take stock options. So I worked at that for a while.
RB: Did you do anything good?
ZZ: We really tried our best. We really tried. But basically the people who ran the company did not have enough of a vision. So whenever we would do any kind of writing we would have try to make a vision, "Here’s what we think." If that could be called good, it wasn’t helping anybody. It wasn’t all that gratifying.
RB: So here you are on your trail of glory with a pack of high-powered superlatives following you around. Are you feeling any pressure?
ZZ: Um, I’m beginning to think that I should feel some pressure. I don’t know. Right now I’ve just been writing this novel for a long time, and so I guess the pressure I feel comes more from that.
RB: Is that novel part of your book deal?
RB: So this novel is not a contractual obligation.
ZZ: No, no. It’s a self obligation. I want to do it for myself. I have been working on it for such a long time I really want it to be something. And so I have been working on that for so long that I am not coming into it everyday thinking, "I’m the greatest writer in the world." Or, "People are saying good things about me." I come to it with, "Okay I have to try to make this work. And I will prepare for this to be a day on which it doesn’t work." When you are doing that it is really hard for you to get caught up in any kind of …
RB: That sounds good and healthy. How is it that writers have become like models and rock stars in that they are known but not necessarily for their work?
ZZ: It’s an odd thing that is happening more and more. I don’t know if it is just purely American culture or writers becoming more and more a part of American culture, but there is a need to think one knows about the other person. Which is why people will ask, "Is this autobiographical? Is this true?" At least those people are actually reading the stories. Even with writers I know, they are not immune to following that part of pop culture morass. I’m going to admit that sometimes I have felt myself falling for that.
RB: Me too.
ZZ: I just think it’s one of those things like the workshops although there are many, many healthy things they do—where you get this critical mass of people who are concerned about one thing there tends to be this tendency pick out and separate and form these hierarchies. So it happens on that level of the writers themselves. And then I think the public also—this has to do with what Jaques Barzun wrote about in Five Hundred Years Of Decadence—he talks about one of the aspects of modernity that sort of came along, art, which used to be always on the fringe at some point became almost, not engulfed but there came a point at which this bourgeoisie who were philistines in regards to art began to appropriate some aspects of art. So that it was like, "You don’t understand this but you can get something out of it." You can see this in Starbucks, where if you look closely in every Starbucks store there is something that looks kind of like abstract art because it’s sort of cool, but yet it’s figurative enough it’s not going to make people go nuts. So that’s a little bit of what has happened to writing. You have the writing world moving closer to the pop world of its own volition and then you have the rest of America trying to appropriate that once-forbidden and seemingly avante-garde writing world, closer to them. I don’t know what is going to be the outcome of it. On one hand there are good things that come about because of it, book clubs and such. It’s really a good thing to have more Americans reading and it can only be good for American culture. But then you have the thinking that I am the consumer and it should be palatable for me. So there is that weird thing happening.
RB: I continue to be puzzled about why seemingly smart people feel obliged to trash Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie.
ZZ: One of the things that is happening—I talked to one woman and was telling her how much I like Toni Morrison’s work. And she said, "I don’t understand her." One of the reasons the general public who tries to read those authors gets so upset is that these writers are billed as "Here’s the talent." And not just billed as, they are incredibly great talented people. So they hear that from all these different sources, so they know that these writers are well thought of and are supposed to be good and they try to read them and then they realize that they really have to be thinking about them. [And] They are not as accessible as they want them to be. Then they get really upset because it means that this thing that was "good" for them, supposed to enrich their lives, hasn’t. They feel as though it hasn’t. So I think that’s where a lot of the anger and rancor come from. It’s sad but it’s inevitable because if everyone were to be able to understand, then there might be something wrong with the writing.
RB: I was struck by your saying you went back and reworked a story. Was that all of them or some?
ZZ: All of them, to varying degrees. The ones that are closer to having been written recently I reworked less. I really wanted to revise the ones I hadn’t read in awhile. I felt I was a different person and a different writer, more importantly. I revised them myself before even turning them into an editor. That shows you how ashamed I was of some of them. I feel like before you show it to someone it should be as complete as possible, not to say as polished but in terms of what the story is trying to do it should be complete so other people can’t misconstrue what you are trying to say or get across. Actually I took a long, long time before I even turned them in. After that it was a matter of going back and forth, back and forth and fine-tuning.
RB: How do you know when you are done with a story? If in the future there is a Collected Stories of ZZ Packer will you go back again?
ZZ: I was expressing this fear to Elizabeth Talent, who is one of the workshop leaders at the Stegner Program, just as I went to this collection again I fear that that what’s going to happen with this novel. If it does get published then I’ll think, "Oh, ten years after I will think I have to do something with it." She said— and it was helpful and I believe because it makes me feel a lot better (laughs), "One of the aspects of being a writer is going through those stages and even if you are at a different stage ten years down the road then that is still a part of who you were as a writer then. One of the joys of going back over writers that one admired is comparing the earlier period to the later periods." And she said, "You’ll have the impulse to revise but you have to think of it as ‘That’s part of the earlier period.’"
RB: In other words, let it go.
ZZ: (laughs) In other words, "Let it go." Thanks for saying it way more succinctly than I would put it.
RB: How long have you been working on this novel?
ZZ: Oh God. I would say about five years. Also, I was doing stories and research and failed, not even drafts, but failed pages.
RB: So you don’t feel inclined to write start to finish?
ZZ: No, I kind of would like to (both laugh) write from start to finish.
RB: It hasn’t worked out that way.
ZZ: Actually in the past year I have been working fairly chronologically as far as the book is concerned. So I think I have what is going to remain the beginning of it. And I am going through and I have about 450 pages (laughs) and it’s really long and I know it’s going to be a lot longer before I gather all the pieces and make sure it’s more compact and revise it and stuff like that. So this year has been good for the novel. Probably because I have been less, since they are literally out of my hands, with the short stories. But previous years I hoped that I could go start to finish and get out a quick draft, but I kept failing and the reason was that I did not know who the characters were. I knew what I wanted to write about, and I had done all this research on the time period, place and flora and fauna and whatever. When I say I didn’t have the characters It wasn’t as if I didn’t think I knew who they were, but when I was writing it became evident that they weren’t clear in my head. And that was really disappointing, to just be working on it for so long —and I am not a patient person. But I have to be patient for it.
RB: It’s a horse of a different color or some such cliche.
ZZ: People say your first novel is autobiographical, in this case the short stories actually have autobiographical elements, details and settings and that sort of thing.
RB: How did you select the stories?
ZZ: For a long time, ten sounded like this nice round number. I wanted to have ten stories in the collection I have on my hard drive, I have fifty stories that I have started and abandoned. Then I decided I want every story to be what I think is going to be good. And not just filler.
RB: How do you know?
ZZ: Yeah, as I am saying this I realize that someone could say, "Well, I thought story number two and story number five of your collection were filler."
RB: These were stories you believed in?
ZZ: Yeah, that was pretty much the selection process for me.
RB: Do you ever throw anything away?
ZZ: Yeah, but I keep them on the hard drive and I keep long hand drafts and file them away. Every once in a while when I am procrastinating while I am supposed to be writing, I will look through this very long list of the abandoned ones. I just keep them there to see.
RB: Because they tell you something about where you were at?
ZZ: Yeah, or what I was thinking about, and another thing is I will sometimes cannibalize an old story, "Nothing in here was good except this one line I could actually use."
RB: So, here’s where we are. You have a recently published collection of short stories. You were highly anticipated and now highly celebrated. You are working on, with greater diligence these days, a novel and you are living in San Francisco. And you are going to teach at Iowa for a semester.
ZZ: Once this tour is over—from the end of April to the middle of August I won’t have anything to do but write. I am scared because it always scary for me not to have some sort of steady income (laughs) you know.
RB: I know story collections are iffy, but do you expect to make any money from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere?
ZZ: I did get a nice advance, but it occurred to me what if…it would be nice if it happens, but I am not really going to count on it.
RB: When you look forward in your life, what do you see?
ZZ: I have been prepared to do it for so long that anything that happens that is good, like an advance, seems like a bonus. For the most part all I have been seeking out is to have a chance to write, to become a better writer, to get —before it wasn’t even about being published, but then you do want someone to read it, so getting published and that’s what it has been for so long that having a job and trying to get money was a necessity only to keep me alive to do those things that I mentioned before. So yeah I do want to just continue to write. It’s scary. The big fear I have is that you can get to a certain point, like yes you have a book and a lot of people wish they could achieve that, but then there is still this (sighs) that you want to be good not just in a publishing a book kind of way, but I’ll never be as good as …
RB: That sounds self-defeating. Look at he impressive group of people that have blurbed your book [George Saunders, John Barth, Stuart Dybek, Stephen Dixon, Margot Livesey]. You are setting up a tough standard.
ZZ: You are right. (laughs) But I do think about it. I think about Jonathan Franzen’s thing about the social novel (I have to stop using the word ‘thing’). You can tell by his inner exchange and by his essays there is this need—I can see that in him, the desire to be a genius. I think that’s what so many writers want to be. Obviously. it’s elusive.
RB: Well, it’s easy for me to say what I said. (both laugh)
ZZ: Yeah, "Don’t think about that…."
RB: Okay, well thank you.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing