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Distinguished Writer ZZ Packer Reads from Collection

Written by Gillian Smith
10/3/2011

ZZ Packer signs one of her best-selling books.

On September 28, the Ithaca College Distinguished Visiting Writers Series hosted a reading by short-story writer ZZ Packer. More than 100 students, faculty, and members of the community gathered in Clarke Lounge to listen to the writer read an excerpt from her novel, The Thousands, and a short story from her collection, entitled Brownies.

Packer, a PEN/Faulkner finalist and New York Times Notable Book winner, spoke to the audience about her experience working through the collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and her progress with her first historical novel, The Thousands.

Packer began her reading with an excerpt from The Thousands, where she explored the aftermath of the Civil War and the Reconstruction. Descriptive and full of contemporary language, the excerpt began: “Early yet, the morning clouds the color of silver fox, and Lazarus was running.”

“What happens when you write a story about one place or you write a story of an era you have time to process this other place and time,” Packer says. “All these weird monuments, events and happenings might then crop up even if you didn’t intend for it.”

After the reading of the excerpt, the audience was actively engaged in her work and asked questions before she started her short story. Some students, like senior Stan Burnside, attended the reading to receive extra credit for a class.

“I didn’t want her to stop reading the novel,” Burnside says. “I got so involved in it after just one page. It’s really good.”

Packer described the process of writing the novel to her audience, remarking that it involved a lot of intense research and travel, almost like doing fieldwork.

“I had to go to the National Archives and the Library of Congress and literally out in the fields to talk to the descendents of the characters upon whom I based my characters,” she says. “It became quite extensive and I had to actually take a break for a while because it was making me a little crazy.”

An audience member asked her what her revision process was like for the novel. Packer explained that revision is often thought of as taking some words out or putting some words in and making a few basic corrections.

“Revision is to re-envision," she says. "To re-see. Sometimes you have to look at a story several times and through several prisms before you can begin to see what a story is about.”

Packer says she had originally written Brownies  in the first person but then changed the story to third person. The third person narrative brought out a lot of new things that the first person hadn’t, and so when she truly revised it and brought it back to first person again, it was an entirely improved and worthy story.

“As a writer you hypnotize yourself to the writing that you do," she says. "If you don’t break out of it and become someone different for a little bit to be able to rewrite it, then you will be under your own spell. "You won’t be able to recognize a lot of stuff that’s in the story that could be there and could be brought out."



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