Writers share insights about their craft, field questions at Three Books forum

Toni Gauthier Three books authors

From left, authors ZZ Packer, Junot Díaz and Lynda Barry discuss their work at the Three Books discussion Sept. 17 in Memorial Auditorium. Andrea Lunsford, a professor of English, moderated the event.

The writers were zesty, accomplished, celebrated, awarded, and, if the term isn't too démodé, hip. So this year's noisy class of incoming freshmen treated them like rock stars, with hoots and howls and deafening applause on the evening of Sept. 17.

On the other hand, raucous receptions are more or less a tradition for the "Three Books" program. Stanford mailed this year's books—Lynda Barry's One! Hundred! Demons!, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere—to members of the Class of 2012 for their summer reading.

The onstage line-up provided an array of contrasts. One author, Barry, said she barely considers herself a writer at all: She told Time she wanted her graphic novel, an "autobifictionalography," to use "every possible square inch. I wanted it to look like a Fruit Loops and sparkle paint." The 52-year-old author lives with her husband on a Wisconsin dairy farm, and wore jeans and a trademark bandana to the event. Dominican-born Junot Díaz sported a shaved head and embroidered shirt; his speech was characteristically peppered with profanity. Packer, a former Stegner Fellow, was snappy in an all-black outfit, a gray trendy jacket and a welter of braids bound with a black bandeau.

Andrea Lunsford, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of English, who moderated the event, said the criterion for selecting the trio of authors was finding writers who "in some way speak to one another so we could speak together in this conversation tonight." And they did—though in one case rather reluctantly. Díaz, arguably the most talkative of the three, dodged a number of questions, and at one point pleaded, "They should be pouring liquor up here!" (His wish was gratified during the second half of the program.) "This is some funny s--t," he said, after the audience exploded into another thunderous round of applause. "What I like about this: We can provoke you into taking half the time."

All three discussed the origins of their writing, their early days as writers and the process of writing. Barry explained that writing and drawing have always been linked for her—that, in fact, most children learn to write by drawing the alphabet.

Hence, Barry's first meaningful encounter was with the letter "O," which she had illustrated in a childhood drawing of an orange grove. Although she grew up in Seattle and had never seen an orange tree, the drawing earned plaudits from her peers, in particular the popular "in-crowd" girls who dominate a young girl's psyche: "That's a good orange tree!" they told her. "Thanks," she replied, thinking, "I must concentrate on this."

"The experience I had with the letter 'O' completely laid out my life for me. I haven't gotten over that," she said.

Díaz tried his hand with injecting comics in the middle of his novel, to spotlight a narrator who is addicted to comics. At the time, he thought, "This is amazing. I'm f--king brilliant." His friends didn't agree. "It just sucked," he finally concluded.

"Most of what you create is straight garbage. My discard pile is like a Matterhorn and what remains is like"—he held his fingers to indicate a minuscule amount—"doot!"

Barry agreed that it was hard to keep much of what she had drawn or written: "If I had a 'delete' button on my life, I'd only have 27 minutes."

Packer admitted that an inspiration and motivation for her writing is l'esprit de l'escalier, literally "stairway wit"—the clever bons mots that come to mind on your way out the door or in the car driving home. L'esprit de l'escalier is almost a way to make the past better—what should have been done or said, rather than what actually happened, she said.

The past is a particular preoccupation for Packer, who has just finished a novel about "buffalo soldiers," those black soldiers who fought the American Indians in the West following the Civil War. Confessing to a "tactile relationship with research," she said that in such research "you intimately connect yourself with this whole other period."

Díaz, whose book loosely incorporates Dominican history, noted that we live in a consumer culture, which by definition has an investment in locking us into the present. "If you remember you already have five pairs of jeans and they didn't make you any cuter, it's hard to get you to spend $1,000 on another pair," he said.

But how to incorporate today's drive for "now" into a novel that deals, wholly or in part, with the past? Díaz's response has been what he termed "the Dr. Manhattan structure—the exploded book," the fiction equivalent of sprung verse, confounding standard chronology and including historical detail in slangy footnotes and asides. "In this case, it worked enough so the editor didn't laugh," though at other times he admitted the reaction to his experiments has been: "This is incoherent. I can't make anything out of this crap."

"There's a lot more add a drop, taste, add a drop, taste, than I would like there to be," he said.

"There's nothing organic about words on a page," he said, adding that writers spend "an inordinate amount of time making it seem organic." He called it the "cathedral problem," in which you carefully dismantle the scaffolding that supported the building under construction. "If people can see you work, you're not working hard enough."

During the question-and-answer period, one student asked about balancing ethnicity with Pulitzer-level success.

The pale-skinned, fair-haired Barry, who is half Filipino and whose book is sprinkled with Tagalog, disqualified herself from the discussion, saying, "I don't know anybody who would look at me and say, 'That is a minority person.'" She noted that she is quarter Norwegian, "and Norwegian blood can suck the color out of anything."

Díaz, whose book won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction, emphasized "not falling into the trap by being a native informant, not falling into the trap of performing my otherness."

"I quickly became aware that isn't a dude I wanted to be," Díaz said. Nor did he wish to neutralize the particularity of his Dominican background: "The more specific you are, the more particular you are, the greater the universality of your work—it's f--king bizarre."

One student, Alexei Koseff, told Packer that he felt her stories didn't have "proper conclusions," and asked if she had more to say about the characters than she put in her short stories. The crowd responded with a low ominous rumble, but Packer responded enthusiastically, saying, "I really felt as though the best stories I had read and admired were stories that let you extrapolate at the end."

Sometimes, she said, a powerful story left you with no more than an image. Such stories may not have resolutions, she said, "but I do feel as though they have endings."

Barry compared the effect to the musical "shave-and-a-haircut" couplet—minus the last resolving two notes. It offers the reader a chance to explore the literary form in a new way.

"That's the exciting part, that's the extra 'wow!'" she said.

"It's a different story on a different day"—she compared it to music you hear when you fall in love and think, "This is the best piece of music I ever heard," and after breaking up, "This is the saddest song!"

Then she congratulated Koseff: "I'm amazed and proud you had the balls to ask."