Her characters are strong — maybe even tough, assertive, not always likeable, yet somehow vaguely familiar.
Nancy Huddleston Packer, in her latest collection of short stories, "Old Ladies," offers 11 gems about women of a certain age: some widowed, some divorced, all confronting issues such as loneliness and insecurity, or contemplating death.
Packer, a retired Stanford University English professor who headed up the creative-writing program for four years, starts with the germ of an idea, then creates characters that are far more than a conglomeration of people she knows.
"They're mostly me — not me in my experience, but I think writers have a kind of empathy for different characters because they see themselves in them," she said in her sunny Palo Alto condo.
At 87, she has a lot of "me" to plumb. Packer grew up dividing her time between Birmingham, Ala., and Washington, D.C., where her father, George Huddleston, served as a Congressman. She was the youngest of five, who hit her nadir in college; she credits a religion professor for saving her from "a very disheveled year in college," when she was drinking too much and studying too little.
She went on to earn a master's degree in theology at the University of Chicago, although she doesn't describe herself as religious — either now or then. She returned to Birmingham and began writing in her 20s, with short stories published in Harper's and in Dude, a "girlie" magazine.
"I wasn't very good," she said, despite getting published; "then, I went into writer's block and stayed in for years."
At 32 she married Herb Packer and came to California where he became a law professor at Stanford. Once here she got into Wallace Stegner's writing class, and the following year won a fellowship to the creative-writing program. The next year, when Philip Roth backed out at the last minute, she was asked to fill in teaching. She stayed on as a lecturer for five years. Ultimately, she moved up from assistant professor to become the Melvin and Bill Lane Professor in the Humanities.
While dismissing her impact on the creative-writing program, Packer takes pride in shaping how freshman English was taught. Although she agreed with Wallace Stegner's comment that "you can't teach writing," she says, "You can save a talented person five years or so of trial and error by showing them how to think critically about their own work."
When her children were young (Ann Packer is a novelist who lives in San Carlos with her two teenage children; George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker on leave to finish a book, is the father of two young children), she says her life was "trifurcated," divided into three: teaching and running programs at Stanford, writing and family. Her husband died in 1972.
"Once I came home from teaching and my 2-year-old daughter was in my study, pulling the ribbon out of my typewriter, and I thought, 'There's a lesson in there somewhere.' After that I never closed the door. She could come in and sit on my lap; even the dog came in ... when I was trying to write," she said.
Today her writing schedule isn't so different from when she was teaching. Her mornings are spent in her study, writing mainly short stories. It can take her anywhere from two months to many years to complete a story.
"I mull over them for a long time. I'm an inveterate rewriter: I rewrite and rewrite. I change 'a' to 'the' and then to 'an' then back to 'the' again — just constant tinkering," she said. Occasionally, she'd like to return to an earlier version, but once she switched to using a computer she lost the ability to retrieve the wadded-up ball from the trash.
Sometimes the structure of the story just happens, she said. In "Her Men," the main character goes back in time, recalling various incidents that made an impression in her life, finally returning to the present and a decision she needs to make.
"It was quite by accident. ... I wasn't trying to be cute. In fact the story wasn't cute," but rather sad, she said.
At a recent book reading at Books Inc. in Town & Country Village in Palo Alto, she chose to read from "Untangled," about an encounter between two former lovers who haven't seen each other in 50 years. "She pretended to be indifferent, but somehow he hit a button and she got so angry," Packer said, pausing. "It may have been on the abortion, where he took her to Mexico."
While the specifics of the stories are drawn strictly from her imagination — although she claims not to have much of one — the characters are drawn from deep within herself.
"I don't go to bars or restaurants or bridge parties in order to find characters. It's the situation that brings out me.
"I hope you don't see me in those stories. I think writers go in to understand, rather than out. ... You find the place where your being intersects with the character's being, so you can somehow understand the character," she said.
"I don't go inside and find weak people," she added.
Looking more closely at "Her Men," Packer said she had very little in common with a woman at a lake, living it up. "She was an only child; I come from a family of five. I found in her something not unlike things in me. I think I was able to write from her point of view, I hope, persuasively, so you believe you're there with her, that the reader is experiencing what the character is experiencing.
"That's what makes for good fiction, in my opinion," she said.
Not surprisingly, Packer's favorite writers also produced short stories. She's very fond of William Trevor, as well as Anton Chekhov, noting that "neither reaches for elegance; they reach for clarity and communication."
She began writing in the era of Ernest Hemingway.
"It took me five years to be able to use an adjective. It had to be absolutely bare. I'm still not very good with adjectives and adverbs, but I know that it's OK to use one when you need it," she said, adding that over time her writing has become richer while retaining a relatively bare style, what she calls "no fancy dancing."
Three of the stories in "Old Ladies" take place in a retirement community, Triple R (Ridgeside Retirement Residence), a thinly veiled reference to Vi at Palo Alto, a community formerly known as Classic Residence by Hyatt. "I wanted to write a whole book, but I'm getting too old. I couldn't wait to write more about the Hyatt," she said, noting that all three of those stories are different from her usual style because there's no specific point of view. In one, it's told by a "we"; one is back and forth between a man and a woman; the third is from a man's point of view.
Asking Packer to name her favorites is like asking a parent to say which child she loves more. But she did acknowledge that one that affected her the most is "Dust Catchers," an odd story about an alcoholic who's being taken advantage of by a con woman who's stealing her dead husband's Russian artifacts — items she's abhorred for years but could never get rid of. She had originally wanted to end her collection with this story, but her editor "didn't think it should end with such a downer," she said.
So the book ends with "Regulars," a story about a man and a woman who meet in a hospital waiting room, each dealing with a dying spouse, finally finding comfort with each other. Rather than contemplating death, these characters embrace life — and each other.