A TRIBUTE TO A FINE WRITER, AND A FINE TEACHER—

—from her proud publisher and grateful student

When I got serious about being a small-press publisher in 1985, establishing a small press eventually called Daniel & Daniel, I had a number of assets going for me: some publishing experience with Stanford University Press and Capra Press; bookselling experience mainly with Kepler’s Books of Menlo Park; and my partner, eventually named Susan Daniel.

Another asset that helped Susan and me get the company off to a good start was that I had friends in the Stanford writing community. During our first few years, under the imprint John Daniel & Company, we published books by a good number of Stanford-related authors, whom I had met during my undergraduate years and later as a fellow in the Stanford Creative Writing Program. These included Janet Lewis, Mary Jane Moffat, Constance Crawford, Charlotte Painter, and eventually Maclin Bocock and Albert Guerard. All of them highly respected writers, all of them good writers, writers to be proud of.

Of all the Stanford authors we’ve published, though, the one I’m proudest of and fondest of has been Nancy Huddleston Packer, who also happened to be my best and my favorite teacher while I was an undergraduate there, fifty years ago. The stories I wrote for her classes were no good whatsoever, but I kept taking the classes anyway, unwittingly getting my worst work out of the way early.

Mrs. Packer didn’t lecture, but the wisdom about writing that she threw out on the table during her read-and-critique sessions was life-changing for me. I can’t say she made me a better writer immediately, but I quickly learned why I liked some writers better than I liked others. So she made me a better reader, anyway. And what I was learning about writing also amounted to lessons about life.

For example, Mrs. Packer let her class know that a story’s plot isn’t just a sequence of events, but is a chain of consequence. A makes B happen, C is caused by B, these together produce D, and so on until the payoff, the climax, which by then seems inevitable and unavoidable. This domino theory of fiction, I realized, was true of life itself. Knowing that didn’t keep me from making a passel of mistakes in life, but it helped me see life as a literary art form.

For another example, Mrs. Packer told us an essential ingredient of any elegant story is irony. I won’t elaborate on that, except to say that I have thought of Mrs. Packer often when life has thrown me an ironic curveball.

Later, when I was a fellow in the Writing Program, by which time I was allowed to call her Nancy, she asked me one day how my writing was coming along. I had been wrestling with the third draft of a story I was writing, and I told her I was finally learning how to rewrite. “Good,” Nancy quipped. “That means you’re finally learning how to write.”

 

 

About Nancy Huddleston Packer

 Nancy Huddleston Packer is a literary figure well known to and much admired by a large and prestigious community of writers. As a director of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program and a close associate of Wallace Stegner, Packer influenced and cheered on some of America’s best emerging writers. She also had a strong influence on her own children, best-selling authors Ann Packer and George Packer. Meanwhile Packer also built a writing career of her own, publishing short fiction in numerous important magazines and literary journals, including Harper’s Magazine, The Reporter, Women’s Studies, Sewanee Review, Epoch, Cold Mountain Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly, North American Review, Kenyon Review, and many others. She is also the author of five published collections of stories: Small Moments; In My Father’s House; The Women Who Walk; Jealous-Hearted-Me; and Old Ladies, published this month by John Daniel & Company.

 

 

About Old Ladies

 The protagonists of the eleven stories in Old Ladies, Nancy Huddleston Packer’s new fiction collection, may be “old ladies,” as the book’s title suggests, but they are by no means stereotypes. They are, in fact, remarkably different from one another.

Although more than half of them are widows, one is a happily married writer of children’s books, another is a happily unmarried academic, and a third is a revenge-seeking divorcee. Some of Packer’s women are weak, but more of them are strong, stronger than their grown children think they are or than their former lovers want them to be.

As the characters in Old Ladies are different, so are the stories. No two have the same subject, theme, or situation. Some of the stories are funny, especially in the way old people cope with aging and come up with inventive solutions. Other stories are filled with loss, loneliness, and the prospect of dying. Many of the stories have that mixture of grief and humor that comes with the accumulation of years.

Whether funny or sad, Packer’s writing is always strong, solid, and entertaining. Her stories hit the ground running, develop in a chain of consequences, and move quickly to their satisfying end. And one thing these “old ladies” have in common is that their creator makes us care about every single one of them.

 

And now a word from our sponsor.

 Old Ladies, by Nancy Huddleston Packer, can be ordered by your local bookstore or directly from the publisher. For more information, see http://www.danielpublishing.com/bro/packer02.html

For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nancy Packer will be interviewed Friday, June 8, on “Forum,” KQED-FM, at 10:00 a.m.

She will also be featured on Left Coast Live, broadcasting from Yoshi’s in Oakland, on Saturday, June 9, at 10:00 a.m. Check with your local public radio station for details.

Nancy will be signing her new book at Books, Inc., Town and Country Village, Tuesday, June 19, at 7:00 p.m.

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4 Responses

  1. A wonderful tribute, John, reminding us all of the great and generous mentors we’ve had. The only way to “repay” is to try to be that for the next generation.

  2. Nancy Packer didn’t seem to be on Forum today, but I only listened briefly. The program tomorrow is West, not Left, Coast Live; on KALW 91.7 from 10 – noon. I think you can listen live or get a podcast.

    • Thanks for the update, Meredith. We learned too late that Nancy’s interview on KQED had to be rescheduled. Thanks for the info on the WEST (oops) Coast Live broadcast.

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