ZZ Packer Speaks at the Barker Center

The Harvard Crimson
April 10, 2015
By Amy Cohn

On the evening of March 25, the normally staid Thompson Room of the Barker Center was overfilled with eager spectators who, if they were not lucky enough to get a seat, planted themselves on every available surface, including the floor. ZZ Packer, current Radcliffe Fellow and renowned short fiction writer, inspires that sort of excitement. Known for her critically acclaimed short story collection, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” (2003), Packer is currently at work on a novel titled “The Thousands.” This new book, at some 600 pages, is quite a departure from her previous, more condensed writing. In the Thompson Room, Packer read some excerpts from her work, old and new, and answered audience questions.

Packer is known for the compelling voices that she gives to her characters, a skill that was confirmed by her performance. During the talk, she read an excerpt from a previously published short story followed by three excerpts from “The Thousands.” Packer elicited a very positive audience response: People cheered and laughed as she impersonated characters’ voices during the reading. Her powerful reading voice added a depth and intensity to these excerpts.

In the final portion of the event, Packer answered questions about her work as a writer. Many audience members asked about the difference between her short and long fiction. She responded by describing short stories as droplets of water held together by surface tension. “A short story to me seems a lot like a drop of water, just after rain, you see a drop of water clinging onto a branch... It’s about to fall, but it still doesn’t, there’s still a lot of that surface tension, and stories rely on that great degree of surface tension,” she said. “And yet a novel to me is more like a rich piece of cake or something like a roller coaster ride.” She also said that short fiction is more driven by experience, while longer fiction is more event-driven; therefore, in moving from short to long fiction, she had to do more than just scale up. “It wasn’t just a rule of pages, it was still trying to find enough of a form within a novel, which could easily be so layered, and so messy, and such a sort of aggregated amalgam that you could lose yourself,” she said. Packer didn’t let herself be intimidated by this expansiveness. “I began to try to chisel out a form of my own.”

Later, Packer discussed more specifically her choice to use short chapters and changing perspectives in her upcoming novel. In writing chapters, Packer felt that she had to focus on the discrete chunks, which she defined as single important experiences within each broader event. She also spoke about her decision to use multiple perspectives in the novel. “A roving point of view came the closest to omniscience that still allowed me to have a saturation within the character,” she said.

Additionally, Packer spoke about the challenges of constructing these multiple perspectives and character voices while writing in the third-person. “Even a third-person character, mediated by a narrator—that narrator has a voice and that character also has a way of looking at things that yields a particular voice, even if the narrator is speaking for them,” she said. “Voice isn’t just the kind of thing we think of as like pizazz or the personality of the author, narrator, or character. Voice is this really sort of tightly-bound dynamic between the story that is being told, the world that is being portrayed, and then also the kinds of details that characters are permitted to see and to interact with.”

According to Packer, her work finds its fundamental importance in exploring the moral depth and complexity of her characters. “You have to delve in on all levels of human psychology,” she said. “That, to me, is one of the reasons why writing is hard. It’s not just coming up with great words.” This is an ethos she hopes to impart to others. “I try to remind students that every word you are using is already in the dictionary. So you’re not coming up with new words, per se. What you are coming up with is ways to render a particular experience in words.”

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