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ZZ Packer

:: spotlight on the craft - Part Two of a Four Part Series
:: WordSmitten's exclusive interview::

:: We asked author ZZ Packer what gives her joy. Her 7,000-word response, which appeared in Volume 1:4 of WordSmitten Quarterly Journal (our print edition), gave us joy. We are including that feature article in a digital series throughout the year. Here is the second of four excerpts.

For more than four years, ZZ Packer continues to work on her novel, Buffalo Soldiers. She has written a spectacular work (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere/Riverhead 2003) of urban tales. This short story collection is a must-have addition to every writer's bookshelf. You'll read more about her writing, her approach to teaching creative writing students, her trip to Ghana and Australia, and her objectives for her new novel in this four-part series.

The buzz on ZZ:
"The book form of this debut short story collection is getting the highest
of accolades from the New York Times, Harper's, the New Yorker and most every other branch of the literary criticism tree. Likewise, the praise for the audio version of the book should be as lofty." -
Publishers Weekly

"Highly personal yet socio-politically acute: a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop." -Kirkus Reviews

Part Two

WORDSMITTEN: A few years ago you had spent time in Australia. Of all the places you've been, which country most appealed to you? Which place gave you great resources for your writing?

ZZ PACKER: I loved Australia; it is a paradise for readers and writers. I was surprised that so many people had already read my book there, but a large part of that was that my publishers at Text, who own the Australian/New Zealand rights to DCE, were absolutely great. In addition, Australia has one of the highest readership rates per capita of any country, so it’s just a really wonderful place for any writer to visit, in addition to the obvious beauty of the country.

What I was disappointed in, in regard to Australia, was the sort of exoticization of the aborigines. Now that many of them have been exterminated or pushed onto homeland-like territories, the bigotry against them is much softer, if you can call the absence of killing “soft.”

Though I was treated well, I fully understood that my treatment was fully reliant upon the fact that I was an outsider, which, in my opinion, is a kind of false “good treatment,” more like hospitality as opposed to kindness. I believe the true test of any nation is how it treats its own citizens, especially those who aren’t considered to be in the ethnic “mainstream” or the majority.

So I’ll have to say that the place that appealed the most to me, in my recent travels, would have to be Ghana. I went there with my mother and sister last summer, and it was just fantastic. It reminded of a Richard Pryor routine, in which, having recently returned from Africa, he says, “there were tons of black people, but no niggers.”

By that, of course, he means that whites have long used that term as a shorthand for all negative stereotypes about black people, but the saddest thing is that many of my fellow African-Americans now have co-opted that label for themselves. They’ll say that the term is one of endearment, but really, when you visit Africa, you do find it hard to point out anyone who, by many rappers’ definition, would be considered a “nigger” or, I guess, more affectionately, “nigga.” If “nigger” is a term of affection—reverence, even—why don’t I hear other blacks folks calling MLK or Malcolm X a “nigger?”

Anyway. I digress. Ghana was not fantastic because it was idyllic—no country is without its share of problems--but because it seemed to acknowledge a fair number of its problems and was working hard to eradicate them. Whereas most third-world countries tend to confuse modernization with Westernization,

Ghanaians tend to believe you can modernize without necessarily Westernizing; they can blend the traditional beliefs in which they take pride with some modern ways that make sense, and which will, ultimately, prepare it for a competitive global world economy. You have tons of impoverished and illiterate Ghanaians, but one of the finest legacies of (Kwame) Nkrumah has been a kind of collective progressive mindset; the very opposite of the legacy of someone like Moi (in Kenya) or, dare I say, our own current president, George W. Bush.

WSM: What made you decide to tackle the topic of the 9th cavalry and the Buffalo Soldiers of 1866?

ZZ: I’ll try to keep my answer to this to a minimum, because I’ve discovered that you can talk too much about what you’re currently writing, and kind of take the mystique and discovery out of it.

I’d been doing some thinking about my grandmother’s life as the daughter of a sharecropper, and her eventual migration to the North (in this case, Kentucky, which is not the “North,” but it was north of Mississippi, and that was all that mattered). Anyway, as is the case with a lot of things I get interested in, I began to do research. And my research about sharecropping and the black Southern migration to the North led me to ask what happened to blacks who didn’t move North, but some place else—like the West.

Research on blacks and the West kept leading me, time and time again, to the Buffalo Soldiers, and since I didn’t know much about them, I kept reading more about them, then found myself taking notes, imagining characters, etc. I held a kind of audition for all the characters, but I knew, as I was doing this, that that was simply the wrong way to go about it. I had to let the characters present themselves to me, and in this way, I think writing (not the act of writing, but all the processes surrounding the act) is very Zen-like.

I write to discover, sometimes about myself, but oftentimes about some aspect of the human condition that I find enigmatic or unexplored. Since the story of the Buffalo Soldiers is, in précis- version, about a group of black post-Civil War soldiers who found themselves battling Native Americans, I wanted to come to understand how this happened.

The incongruity is obvious; we have newly emancipated blacks fighting Indians on behalf of the U.S. army to put these Indians on reservations. That all goes
against our sense of how the world should work—victims shouldn’t become victimizers: and yet human history tells us that they frequently do; now, why that is is not so obvious; on a primal level, perhaps, but in any civilized way its not.

We can come up with theories for why that happens. Those who’ve been wounded operate out of a primal state of pain, a primal state which inculcates a
readiness to inflict pain, or the vicious cycle theory, noted with abused children, many of whom grow up to abuse their own children. Revenge theories—which
dictate that vengeful parties oftentimes will act on an avenging impulse even when the parties attacked aren’t those who’ve inflicted the damage (case in point: 9/11, Bush, Iraq? Hello?) There are all sorts of theories, but if we never understand the particulars of why this happens, it’s almost impossible for us to understand the general phenomenon.

Since fiction, for me, is about the particulars of universal truths (whereas non-fiction generally elucidates universal conditions by exploring facts), I thought I could come to understand, somewhat, the victim-victimizer theory by writing about characters in the throes of what, for them, is not theory, but reality.

I’m kind of complicating the issue, because, on the one hand, there is an easy answer for why the soldiers put Indians on reservations: they could earn more money doing this than other job black men had access to at the time. They liked the sense of adventure, the (relative, with respect to slavery and the South during Reconstruction) freedom of the army, the ability to own and use firearms, etc. etc. All of that is true, but behind every simple choice there are a myriad of unforeseen corollary choices, and sometimes lack of choices, and those, I suppose are what I think fiction is best at exploring.

I guess I didn’t keep the answer short, but there it is!

WSM: What kind of research have you been doing during the last four years in preparation for writing this novel.

ZZ: I first read everything I could about the Buffalo Soldiers. Then I started reading other things that were related. I read about Reconstruction—specifically in Louisiana and Texas—military documents and books, flora and fauna of the areas, diaries of those who went West during that period, court martials. (A lot of the Buffalo soldiers only learned how to read after they were mustered into the army, and even so, they often didn’t have time to write of their experiences, so, sadly a lot of what is extant from them is in the form of court-martial material). I’m still reading, because new stuff is always coming out.

I read as much as I thought would be applicable about the period before the era, i.e., the Civil War. I rented videos about the period. Read books on the fashion of the day, cavalry books, military training manuals, books on slang and vocabulary of the era, etc.

After I’d done all that, I interviewed Buffalo Soldier re-enactors, Buffalo soldier museum curators. I took numerous trips out to the areas that I knew would be featured in the book, interviewed Mescalero Apaches—including a descendant of Victorio—one of the feared Apache leaders whom the U.S. 9th cavalry went after.

I made several trips to the National Archives and the Library of Congress, talked with a librarian whose library science project was tracking information on a single soldier.

Really, I did a lot of research, and yet, it’s never enough. You can drown in research. Since there’s always more to find out, you can use it as a crutch when you don’t want to write, and that, obviously, is dangerous. I’ve done that several times.

One of the non-writing things I’ve completed is an interview with Edward P. Jones for The Believer, and he hardly did any research for The Known World. I’ve known this about the book for quite some time, and I have to remind myself of it, because as much fun as it is unearthing all these fabulous details and minutiae, that’s all they are. Details.

Remember in “The War Room” where James Carville is reminding Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Well I have to tell myself—“It’s the characters, stupid!”

I sometimes fault myself for not doing enough research, but, now that I’m thinking about it, I did a lot, and I’ve written a lot, but I don’t have high expectations for the book (I hope my editor doesn’t read this!). Let me re-phrase. I know that when I’m finished I’ll have done all I can do, but that’s so different from it being a critical or commercial success. I did all this work because I really felt I had to do it, I wanted to do it, yet I have to be prepared for people thinking its awful, or worse, not caring. But I think I’m up for that. Because…well, because I have to be.

WSM: The protagonists in "Buffalo Soldiers" are two men and one woman. How did you make the transition of narrative voice back-and-forth between genders?

ZZ: The gender transformation isn’t that hard for me. Once you have your characters, they exist, so the best you can do is follow them and do little “fact-checks” everyone once in a while. Going back and forth isn’t that hard. What’s hard, for me, is letting the characters speak and act the way they want to. Actually, of the three viewpoint characters—one a black soldier, one a white officer, and the other a black woman, the hardest is the black woman. She whups my ass. She’s a real tough character. And by that, I don’t mean that she is tough (though she is), what I mean is that she’s complex.

And though I like to think all the characters are nuanced, she is the most nuanced, the hardest to pin down, the hardest one to follow, because she’s been through so much, and sometimes (I know this is going to sound kooky) she doesn’t want to own up to everything. She’s always hiding her feelings, but she’s so smart that people (I mean the other characters in the book) believe her façade. But I’m the writer. I have to know what she’s going through. I can’t accept the simple answers that she gives.

Actually, I don’t identify with her as openly as I do with the black male in the story, though I find her so interesting that I want to identify with her more. But she’s always shaking her head at me—“No, no. You can’t do it.”

She’s really very lovely. I’ve known women like her. They’re so much better than I am.




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At WordSmitten, we are dedicated to bringing you great information that you'll be able to use to enhance your writing career.

You'll read about authors Frank McCourt, Alice McDermott, Connie May Fowler, ZZ Packer, and Jeff Pearlman. You'll discover great literary agents like Gail Hochman, Eric Simonoff, Jeff Kleinman and editors that include Nan Talese, Marcela Landres, Stephen Power and more.

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