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Being Famous Elsewhere

On the Road With ZZ Packer, Talking About her New Book, her Hopkins Days, Dave Eggers, and the Onslaught of Literary Celebrity

By Lizzie Skurnick | Posted 4/23/2003

Budding writers, take note: Being a literary "it" girl isn't all it's cracked up to be. When I catch up with ZZ (short for Zuwena) Packer, she's speeding down the highway from Atlanta to Memphis, and the center is rapidly ceasing to hold. Packer is on the southern leg of her book tour for the richly--and deservedly--praised debut short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, published in February by Riverhead. And, so far today, she's been up since five, her driver's been pulled over once, and her cell phone has hung up on her approximately 17 times.

"It's interesting," Packer says with a laugh, discussing her sudden ascent to fame, "because there's always this difference between what happens in reality and what things appear to be."

From the outside, Packer's career appears positively charmed. First, "Brownies" appeared in Harper's (then Best American Stories 2000), shortly followed by "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," the title story of her new collection, in The New Yorker's debut fiction issue. By the time "The Ant of Self" appeared later in that same magazine, other stories had run in the illustrious Ploughshares, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Story magazines. There was also the additional matter of the Rona Jaffe Foundation and Whiting Writer's Awards, as well as the Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote fellowships Packer won to attend and then teach at Stanford University.

"Once other people see you, they think you've just suddenly appeared," Packer demurs. "In reality, I've been living off $8,000 a year for I don't know how many years, trying to become a writer while my parents yell at me that I must be insane."

The road that led Packer to authorhood is as winding and pockmarked as those traveled by her book's characters. After a somewhat peripatetic childhood in Chicago, Atlanta, Mississippi, and finally Louisville, Ky., Packer moved to New Haven to attend Yale, where she briefly entertained becoming a robotics engineer. (Packer dropped the major after realizing that she "wouldn't get to do anything fun until the last semester of senior year.") After graduation, Packer moved to Baltimore to attend the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, then spent the next two-and-half years teaching high school at City College as part of the Baltimore Resident Teacher program.

"It's actually nothing like the program in 'Our Lady of Peace,'" Packer emphasizes, referring to a story from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere in which a naive teacher moves from Kentucky to Baltimore to teach in Baltimore's inner city schools, and is slowly undone by her unruly charges. "It was just a really good program designed to draw upon this pool of talent in the Baltimore community."

While living in Baltimore, Packer spent her days teaching and her mornings and nights working on her novel (since abandoned) about sharecroppers, often dragging her laptop to haunts like the Charles Village Pub and Club Charles.

"Even after Hopkins, I just really didn't think that it was realistic for me to be a writer, so I always had other things in the back of my mind," Packer says. "When I was teaching, I was very much dedicated to trying to become a better teacher, which takes years and years to do. Then I realized that I became a different person when I didn't have the chance to write the way I wanted to."

Although her teaching has since been confined to creative-writing classes at Stanford and the University of Iowa, where Packer earned a master of fine arts after Hopkins, Packer still feels strongly about her teaching work from her Baltimore period. "I kept thinking, if you teach high school or even junior high, here's where your actions make a difference--as opposed to this creative writing class that can, yes, make a difference, but it's not as though it can change the course of someone's life."

With her husband, Packer has since settled in Pacifica, a small town near San Francisco that she describes as "kind of the Baltimore of the West Coast."

"I do miss Baltimore, though," Packer says. "The thing I liked about it was that it's not like it's trying to be anything else, like D.C. It does have tons of problems, but that's also part of its charm."

This interest in appearance versus reality also characterizes Packer's work: The idea that appearances can be both negligible and necessary is a theme that runs through almost all of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.

"In a lot of the stories, the characters end up at the point where they've had façades up for so long or they're bringing them down, and it's very painful either way," Packer says. "But I think--well, who knows?--that you can't always be faking all the time."

Her new fame has forced the relatively bookish Packer to confront this question in her own life. "All these people are saying, 'You must not be an outsider now because you have this big book deal.' Yes and no. I'm still the same person. I've just learned different tactics of dealing with the world--and I think that that's what those characters end up having to do, or failing to do in those stories."

The theme of outsiderism has clearly struck a nerve with readers, who are quickly making Packer's book one of the most discussed works--let alone debuts--of the season. "Sometimes people will have me sign published versions of the story so they'll have 'Brownies' in Harper's or 'Doris is Coming' in Zoetrope," Packer says. "When people sometimes have stacks of those things, or even the stories that have been in the anthologies, what can I say? I'm practically going to cry, because they actually care."

Packer will soon be bringing readers additional work in the form of a monthly column for The Believer, the new magazine of book reviews published by Dave Eggers' McSweeney's empire. "I feel really bad because I haven't been able to write anything yet," Packer says. "Eggers is rare. Most writers are like me--we're just fine being alone, and occasionally we'll come up for air and socialize with people, but not necessarily galvanize people to do things. He's one of those people who actually does."

Is Packer worried about being swept up--as was Zadie Smith in a recent review that blamed Eggers for her decline--in the powerful Eggers orbit?

"I don't really think in those terms, but people make me aware that perhaps I should," Packer answers, laughing. "We're such different writers and such different people. I definitely know what you mean by orbit, because it exists. I really admire his work, but he's also doing things with an agenda, and part of what that requires is for him to be constantly spinning around and having this constant gravitational pull--I sort of think of him as this planet or sun or something like that. But that's not my thing, at least for now. I'm just trying to write my own stories."

Part of what that requires, besides reading "tons and tons of books," is listening to the exclusive stories of others, a habit Packer developed while working on "The Ant of Self," a story about the fractious relationship between a father and son that takes place during the Million Man March.

"About half my class was gone, and most of my male friends," Packer says of the day of the march. "I was just fascinated by it, and I started doing these informal interviews with them. I've since done that with other things. To me, it's great to get information firsthand. From reading, you don't always have the person right there, telling you about this whole space in the world you never knew about that."

Packer interrupts the interview briefly for the exchange of one such story: Her driver has just bumped into his cousin at a recent stop, and has brought him over to the car to meet Packer, who chats with him about living in Atlanta and California before they get back on the road.

"This is actually funny," Packer says, returning to the phone. "In the bookstores, half of some of the audiences have just been my relatives, because the Packer family is just hundreds of people. The booksellers see me engulfed by all these people, and they're like, you're supposed to be signing books, yet you're having this family reunion with hundreds of people hugging and talking and having these conversations. So it's been interesting."

Moments like this illustrate why it seems unlikely that fame--and book tours with personal drivers--will turn Packer's head anytime soon.

"I'm not suddenly donning sunglasses and driving down Rodeo Drive or something," Packer says, laughing at the prospect. "It's just humbling, every day, to try to write this novel."

Packer is referring to her new book, which is about the Buffalo Soldiers, the black soliders of the 19th-century American West, and which she is dutifully attending to, even while on tour.

"I still have a lot to learn and I'm still so far from what I want to be doing as a writer," Packer says. "For writers, it's as good as whatever you're working on. So the pressure for me isn't on because of this book and how it's going to do--the pressure for me is this new thing."

Readings, book signings, and interviews aren't all torture, of course, Packer hastens to add. "I mean, I'm happy with what I'm doing now," she says. "But this is not a resting place for me."

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