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ZZ Packer was born in Chicago in 1973. Her first name is Zuwena, which is a Swahili word meaning “good.” But she has been known by the nickname ZZ for as long as she can remember, she told Richard Dorment in a March 2003 interview for Interview magazine. When she was five, she and her family moved to Atlanta, where she remained until she was eleven. Then her parents got divorced, and ZZ went to live in Louisville, Kentucky, with her mother. During her early schooling, Packer was interested in math and science, but in high school a teacher had the class write short stories, and that planted a seed in Packer’s mind that she might one day become a writer.

After graduating from high school, Packer attended Yale University. For a while she was unsure of whether to focus on the humanities or the sciences, but she then decided she would become an engineer. At the time she did not think writing was an activity that people could actually do in order to make a living. But after graduating from Yale, she attended the Writing Seminar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. At Johns Hopkins, one of her tutors was Francine Prose, whose perspective on writing encouraged Packer to look at her own work in a new way.

After Johns Hopkins, Packer taught in a public high school for two years, determined to write during her spare time. But she found that teaching was a demanding profession, and it was difficult to find the time to write as well as teach. She took many odd jobs during the summers and then decided to apply to the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. She was admitted to the program and graduated in 1997.

It was not long before she began to have success. Her story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” was included in the Debut Fiction issue of the New Yorker in 2000, and her work also appeared in Seventeen, Harper’s, The Best American Short Stories (2000), and Ploughshares. Eight of Packer’s stories, including “Brownies,” were collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, which was published by Riverhead Books in 2003 to universal praise from reviewers. John Updike chose the book as the June 2003, Today Book Club selection on the NBC network’s Today Show, and the book was also nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2004.

Among the writers Packer most admires are Toni Morrison, especially Morrison’s novel, Beloved. She has also been influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.

As of 2006, Packer lived in San Francisco, California, and taught at Stanford University. She was working on a novel about the Buffalo Soldiers, African Americans who served in the U.S. Army following the Civil War.

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