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Selling Short Story Short: An Interview with ZZ Packer

ZZ Packer is the author of the short-story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, a PEN/Faulkner finalist that was selected for the “Today” show book club by John Updike. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Story, Ploughshares, Zoetrope: All-Story and The Best American Short Stories, and have been read on NPR’s Selected Shorts.

—by Melissa Wuske

Short stories have a reputation for being tough to sell. What advice do you have for writers who want to sell their stories?
Package them as a novel! Just kidding (but only slightly kidding). It’s true: stories face a tougher sell. But I don’t believe that should deter writers who want to write them. There are tons of journals that publish short fiction. Many don’t pay a lot, but you get a ton of experience in editing with an actual editor, the revision process before the work even touches an editor’s desk, having completed a single, distinct piece of writing, and seeing your work in print where it will not only reach readers—but also, if you’re lucky—editors and agents.

In the case of some magazines and journals, perhaps more editors and agents read them than the general population, and this, in a way, is like having submitted a book excerpt without all the angst of an actual submission and cover letter. The journal and your work inside it vouches for you rather than you vouching for yourself; and if they contact you, you know they are interested in the work, rather than you having to scout them out.

On the flip side, it’s this kind of relationship that sometimes gives people the wrong impression that the short story is an apprentice form: that you write a few short stories, try to publish them, and if you’re lucky, a publishing house will publish them as a favor to you, but what they’re really waiting for is the novel. At least in the world that some call literary fiction. The short story for them is sort of an assurance, insurance, that you can actually write, and they’ll take you under their aegis in the hopes that you’ll produce a novel that will either sell or do well critically, or both.

I believe that writing short stories is a bit like writing poetry, in terms of the marketplace. It has to be it’s own reward. You obviously want an audience for the stories—otherwise why write them at all—but you probably have to be satisfied with a small, albeit perspicacious audience. That and very little money.

You’ve written numerous short stories and edited anthologies of stories. For you, what characteristics make the most powerful stories?
Voice and resonance.

Many writers believe that voice, which is character-based, is the same as style, which I believe is more author-based. The writer almost always has her own style, but I believe that in addition to being drawn to a particular author’s style, readers are also drawn to the singularity of the fictive voice, which is somewhat variant from work to work.

Sometimes the piece itself has a certain voice all its own, but more often than not—especially in stories—the voice emanates from a character, usually the protagonist, and it is this strong voice which compels us to hear that character out. Perhaps this amounts to saying that character is what makes for powerful stories, but I believe the two are different; great characterization is essential, but its the voice brings the character to life.

There is a certain inescapability to certain stories in which the author has found the right voice for the story or for the character; they are a bit like car wrecks or ambulance sirens: we have to look at a wreck, we can’t help but hear the sirens. They are warnings that something in our landscape isn’t right, or has changed in some way. Authors who pay attention to “getting the voice” right in a story win over readers because they turn them into addicts. We all love strongly voiced narratives that take over our systems like a drug.

Resonance is also tricky to achieve. I think of it as an echo effect. A writer of short stories does not want the story to be dismissed soon after it’s read, but for the story to have a lasting and potent effect that echoes throughout the reader long after the story is finished. At some point the writer must ask himself in what way the story—as particular and specific as it hopefully is—is also universal, for all good stories are both particular and universal. The problem is that the harder writers try for resonance by injecting it into their stories, the more it escapes them and becomes more like a Hallmark card—too sentimental and melodramatic. It’s far better to try to find the internal resonance in a story and to work with that, massage it until it’s ever-present, omnipresent and yet not obvious.

Both voice and resonance are hard to achieve, but once achieved, they go a long way toward carrying a story, and other story elements such as conflict, character, plot, etc., will be greatly amplified.

Your stories feature potent characters entrenched in deeply felt, often intangible conflicts (with faith, family, friendship, love, and self, etc.). What advice do you have for writers who want to explore deep struggles through authentic characters?

I think many [newer] writers are told to “write what you know” because doing so inherently puts them in touch with the sort of deep struggles they’ve wrestled with—even though the fledging writer might immediately downgrade the importance of those struggles simply because they went through them, and feel such struggles aren’t “poetic” enough to justify being written about. But much good writing is about self-evaluation, self-observation. We simultaneously see ourselves in the world and see ourselves through the world. One must care deeply about what we write or else we won’t see deeply enough to make others care and see.

Still, caring and seeing are not enough. Words and sentences must somehow translate, somehow mediate, our thoughts and feelings into characters and events. Only for the characters to turn around and have to relay themselves to others through words. We writers may see, observe, care and feel, but language is the medium by which that all comes across. Language is the transom of thought and feeling.

Your work and your background are more literary than commercial. What advice do you have more writers with literary aspirations in today’s publishing climate?
I’ve had a lot of debates with people about “commercial fiction vs. literary fiction.” At its crudest it makes so-called literary writers appear to be elitists and so-called commercial writers to be mercenaries, when I don’t think either is true, except maybe at the absolute extremes.

I think the best so-called commercial writers are intent on honing the craft of narrative until they are able to anticipate the reader’s emotional responses to every character shift and turn of events—no small feat. I think the best so-called literary writers try to do the same with the psychological landscape of their characters’ mind, using suggestive and evocative language as a palette to express the seemingly inexpressible. The problem arises when writers do one at the exclusion of the other. In the case of those who deem themselves literary writers, this can mean that anything with the whiff of story, a climactic event, something life-changing, will seem too “big” too “Hollywood” and thus—so the thinking goes—cheap, trite, easy and mass-produced; I disagree with the thinking behind that dichotomy.

I’m one of those people who believe you can portray the mental landscape and the physical one. You can have both. So for those with “literary” aspirations, I would say, “Don’t be a literary snob.” Never be afraid to tell a good story.

Many of your stories deal pointedly with race issues. What benefits and challenges do these issues bring to your work and to you as a writer?
I think a lot of my characters wish race didn’t matter as much as it does, but it does. When you are either in the minority as is that case for blacks in the US, or the oppressed majority as was formerly the case in South Africa, you don’t have the luxury of being able to decide whether or not to pay attention to race, because if you don’t, someone else will, and the surprise repercussions are far worse than preparing for the worst and being pleasantly surprised if the worst never occurs.

Racism, sexism, and all other attempts for one group to dominate another are attempts to dehumanize others, and people throughout time have always resisted being dehumanized. Stories are rife with examples of these instances, because it pushes humans to their limits—not just their physical or emotional limits, but the limits of self-conception, what it means to be, to exist, and so you have, in some ways, James Baldwin and Franz Kafka doing quite the same thing.

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