George Packer Explains How to Win a National Book Award: Bourbon, Cigars, and a Helluva Lot of Hard Work
National Book Award winner George Packer
George Packer knows how to write. He's won accolades for his powerful pieces in The New Yorker, inked several novels, and penned a prize-winning analysis of America's invasion of Iraq.
If anyone needed more proof of his talents it came on Wednesday, when Packer was awarded a National Book Award for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.
Packer's new book is a non-fiction masterpiece. In an interview with New Times, he reveals the secret: a bottomless supply of Bourbon and stogies.
Cultist: Congratulations on winning the National Book Award. It's got to feel like a vindication of the type of longform work you do.
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Packer: It's an incredible honor. First of all, the other nominees produced great work. I got to hear them read the night before the awards ceremony. It was all incredibly high caliber. It was stiff competition and I felt very luck to win. I would add that last year's winner was also a New Yorker staff writer, Katherine Boo, who wrote the Behind the Beautiful Forevers about a slum in India. She, too, is a practicioner of a kind of innovative brand of non-fiction narrative and so I felt that the National Book Foundation seemed to be encouraging new kinds of work in that genre, in longform or narrative non-fiction
Cultist: Would you consider your book as a domestic version of Boo's?
Packer: Hers is concentrated in time and space and mine is sort of sprawling. She got unbelievably close to the characters, and in a foreign language, which is an incredible achievement. My canvas is too big for the level of constant intimacy that she had. And my structure is more kaleidoscopic and more of a mosaic, whereas hers is more linear.
But in the sense that we both submerged ourselves in other peoples' worlds, kept ourselves out of it -- there is no first person in her book or mine -- our sort of siding with people on the receiving end of economic upheavals and dislocations and injustices. In that sense I think our project is very much the same from different parts of the world
Cultist: Was it strange to remove yourself completely from the story?
Packer: I've always relied on the first person in all my non-fiction and so it was a real break for me to do without it. It was the biggest decision in writing this book: to have no essayistic guiding presence speaking directly to the reader and thinking it through and commenting and explaining and arguing.
If you look back at my Iraq book or my book about my family and liberalism, those were books that required a character to guide you through them, and that was me. Getting rid of myself [in this book] proved very liberating. I got to take on new voices. I don't know if I got closer to the characters but I allowed their speech, the rhythms, the diction, the idioms, the jokes, to carry it - and not just in the case of the ordinary people but also in the case of New Gingrich, Jay-Z, Sam Walton, Robert Rubin.
Cultist: As someone who struggles to write longform nonfiction, what I found most remarkable about your book was the intimate details you gathered on people. In one part of the book you write about the pills that Dean Price's dad hides in his pocket. Was it just a question on spending tons of time with people to gather those details?
Packer: Yeah, that's not the first thing that Dean told me about his life and it didn't come up in a direct Q&A fashion. I think it came up in a long, hours-long conversation we had on his front porch one night as it got colder and colder and we were drinking Bourbon and smoking cigars and getting very, very deep into the subject, which was his life.
It takes a lot of diving before you reach those lower depths. And then when I sat down to write I found that I had masses of material but it was all spread out and scattered and there was no system or linearity to it. So had to index my transcripts in order to find: childhood, father, school, that kind of thing, in order to find what I needed as I wrote their biographies.
It was a really hard job imposing some order on transcripts that just reflected months of meandering conversations, some of them on front porches, some of them in cars, some of them while walking through little towns. Some of them in notebooks. So yes, you're onto the task here. I had a mass of material that had to be organized, sort of catalogued and then turned into a linear biography, for all of them, not just for Dean Price. As I think back, no wonder I've been tired all year. (Laughs)
Cultist: Most of the people you write about struggle with changing landscapes: factories shutting, schools closing, markets crashing. It seems like there is a constant tension in the book as to who is at fault: technological advancement or human error/greed.
Packer: Technology is central in the Silicon Valley parts of the book. I guess I've gotten more interested in technology since I wrote the book. I wrote a piece on Silicon Valley for the New Yorker a few months ago. Technology is important. So are modes of production and industry, so is sort of pop philosophy like positive thinking from deep American wellsprings but in its latest forms you can find in Oprah Winfrey and various self-help books.
Fundamentally the book is about americans relations with one another and how unfair they have become over this generation. My editor once used the phrase: "an almost elemental unfairness" to describe the picture in the book, and I thought that that phrase captured what is basically a moral criticism, a moral view. All these themes are woven into it but at the bottom of it is a basic objection to how life has evolved here in the past few decades.
Cultist: You cycle between characters in The Unwinding, some of them famous, others just regular people like Dean Price. Did the format or structure of the book change as you were working on it?
Packer: Yeah, it shifted a lot. I can hardly even recall all the forms it took. And there was a long period when it had no form at all. I was doing a lot of reporting - the reporting that is in the book - and didn't know what it was going to add up to. I had no idea and it was sort of frightening because that is lot of commitment of time and money without a plan.
There were times when I thought I would include more background history. Other times, when I thought the book would be more polemic, more of an explicit argument.
Then, after lots of conversations with my wife, I began to think that I wanted to do write something that looked more like a literary work, that looked more like a novel except based completely in these facts. And suddenly it occurred to me that I could tell this history without reminding the reader of what he or she already knows about the Iran Contra affair, or the Clinton impeachment, or the housing bubble. I could do it entirely through the characters and let the history kind of seep in from the margins, in the peripheral vision. once I figured that out I wrote it very fast, in less than a year, while doing the last bit of reporting, so last year was a really intense period.
For a structure, I began to look at one of my favorite works of American literature, the
USA trilogy by Jon Dos Pasos, just to gain the confidence that I could break back and forth and range widely and go from places to people and from the famous to the ordinary and still keep a tight enough focus and a linear enough narrative that the reader wouldn't get lost.
There is an art to the arrangement of it, and arrangement creates its own version of an editorial, it's just that it's implied and its indirect. If I ever found myself speaking to the reader without the mediation of one of these storeis, it seemed wrong like I was the guy talking in the middle of a movie about the movie. So there is plenty of my point of view in here but it is below the surface.
Cultist: In an interview on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart likened The Unwinding to a documentary.
Packer: I think what Stewart was getting at was you just get a lot of life in here, you get a lot of accumulated detail of peoples' lives, which I was just going on faith would add up to a picture and not to a thousand random details. And it was a frightening thing to do because I didn't know whether it added up to a picture or just a lot of details until people began to read it, because I didn't trust my own judgement of it. I didn't feel like I had perspective on it. So I was vastly relieved when people started reading it and said it added up.
Cultist: The book essentially tries to capture the ups and downs of your own generation.
Packer: Very much. The book begins the year I graduated from high school, which was the year that California passed Proposition 13, the anti-tax initiative, which began the process of unwinding the CA public school system. So I got out just in time.
It's also right around the time that the personal computer became a major consumer item. Deindustrialization took off around that time; lobbying took off around that time. A lot of things happened in the late 70s. And by coincidence, from the late 70s to the present is the period of my own adult life.
The main characters were born in the late 50 and 60s and have had many twists and turns, ups and downs, setbacks, advances. They have all reinvented themselves in one way or another. They've all had time to reinvent themselves, which is facscinating human event and also adds a lot of narrative momentum. You want to know what's going to happen to them next. A lot of things happen to these people, things that are part of the history of the time.
Cultist: Now that you've written about your own generation, are you tempted to write about younger Americans whose lives haven't so much unwound but have been unfastened from the very beginning?
Packer: Young people come into it in Occupy Wall Street, which is one of the last chapters... But that might be a book for someone of your generation to write, a generational portrait. It's not quite the depression generation but it's something close. People who left school or graduated around the time of the recession -- which is really a depression for many people -- are marked. They are marked for life by that experience.
There is more cynicism about institutions, there is more skepticism about capitalism, there is a deep sense that the game is rigged and that the opportunities that your parents had are no longer available.
I think that is an incredible generational story that someone your age is going to write.
George Packer will be speaking on the panel discussion Different Perspectives on Now with authors Jeremy Scahill and Dan Balz on Sunday Nov. 24, at 11:30 a.m. in Miami Dade College's Chapman Conference Center (Building 3, 2nd Floor, Room 3210)
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