Interview with George Packer, 2013 National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction

George Packer

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by George Packer
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Photo credit: Guillermo Riveros

Interview by Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale: You are also a playwright. Do you see connections between this character-driven style of reporting, the collage of events, and theatre?

George Packer: Fiction and plays were the mainstays of my reading appetite while I was growing up. For a while I wanted to be a stage actor. (After I sent him a fan letter, Laurence Olivier replied, politely but discouragingly.) I didn't really know what non-fiction was—I mean as a positive literary form rather than as the absence of fiction, which is what the name implies—until I read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia at age twenty-three. I published two—what's a nice way to say this?—under-read novels. It took me a long time to find my strengths.

So by the time I came to The New Yorker in my early forties and became a full-time journalist, the prose models I carried around in my head weren't journalistic. It seemed natural to write narrative, which meant to center my reporting around individuals, their talk, their actions, their inner lives. I also loved to read and write essays. With The Unwinding I decided to squeeze the essayistic impulse out of the book. There's no guidance from a first-person singular. This privileges the voices of the characters and allows for a certain amount of experimentation with structure. In a way, it pushed the book in the direction of drama. It probably wasn't a coincidence that my play ‘Betrayed’ was staged the year I began to think about The Unwinding, in 2008.

ST: You make no secret of your opinions about certain famous characters and the events you describe. How do you define your work? Nonfiction is always in the process of being divided, categorized and defined. What is your name for what you do?

GP: Yes, the portraits of well-known people like Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, and Robert Rubin come with a point of view, though I think it's mainly conveyed indirectly, through their own words and self-images. The book's sympathies are with the ordinary people on the receiving end of decisions and attitudes that flow from the power centers like Washington, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. But my main goal in The Unwinding isn't polemical. I wanted to connect the reader to the American nervous system, to the history of the past generation as it's felt by individuals. Since there are elements of reportage, political writing, and narrative, I don't know what name to give my work other than the negative catch-all ‘nonfiction.’ But I'm always trying for social criticism and craftsmanship, without sacrificing either for the sake of the other.

ST: How did you find your subjects? How did you convince ordinary people to reveal themselves to you so completely?

GP: Partly by chance, partly by looking. I met Dean Price, the truck-stop entrepreneur in North Carolina, while working on a New Yorker piece about Obama's first year. At that point—early 2010—I didn't even know what or who I was looking for to write The Unwinding. Dean's voice and circumstances were so compelling that, while he played a minor role in the magazine piece, I began to think of him as a central person for the book. I went back down later that year and asked if he'd be willing to go along. Over the next two years I must have paid him six or seven visits, stayed at his house, spent weeks with him, drove all over the state, watched him in action, got to know his family, friends, and business partners, asked him everything I could think of. The revelations came slowly over this long period, and they came with the building of trust. He probably didn't know he was signing up for all that at the start, but our time together was interesting and exciting for both of us, I think. We became close. I listened and listened, and you can't fake that level of interest for two years. At one point Dean even turned the tables and came up to stay with me, to learn about my life in Brooklyn.

In other cases—for example, Tammy Thomas, the ex-factory worker and community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio—I went looking for someone whose story could dramatize a larger theme: deindustrialization in the Rust Belt, the housing bust in the Sun Belt, the tech boom in Silicon Valley, the rise of organized money in Washington. But the process of making a connection and gaining trust is basically the same. It takes someone extraordinary on the other end.

ST: You mention the repeated nature of ‘unwinding’ social structures and creating new ones. We've just seen a government shutdown and near default. You end with several of your characters in the middle of their stories –how much further do you think this unwinding can go?

GP: Nothing that's happened since the publication of the book makes me think I overdid it. Our institutions keep deteriorating; inequality keeps soaring; the sense of elemental unfairness and things fundamentally not working grows deeper. On the other hand, people go on living their lives and trying to find answers where they live. Those are the sparks of hope in the book, and they're still out there, still breathing.

Sallie Tisdale is the author of seven books, including The Best Thing I Ever Tasted (Riverhead, 2000), a finalist for the James Beard Award for Writing, and Talk Dirty to Me (Doubleday, 1994), which will be reissued later this fall. She was a National Book Awards nonfiction judge in 2010.