George Packer’s “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” captured the 2013 National Book Award for nonfiction. Known best for his long-time contributions to The New Yorker, Packer was the featured speaker on March 22, 2014 at “Writing Toward a Sustainable Community,” an event sponsored by the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.
A native Northern Californian, Packer is the son of two Stanford professors and the brother of Ann Packer, the successful novelist and short story writer.
After Yale University and the Peace Corps, his career has focused principally on nonfiction, most notably as a staff writer for The New Yorker for the past decade. He has also waded into the world of fiction with two novels and a play.“The Unwinding” is a sweeping and often disturbing portrait of American life over the last three decades. While Packer pulls no punches about the unraveling of the societal threads that had previously preserved the American Dream for many in the middle class and those aspiring to it, his book is balanced with individual stories of hope and resilience and service.
“I didn’t at the outset think that I was going to write a long narrative history of the last generation of America through the stories of a half a dozen non-famous people and 10 famous people,” Packer said. “That took a long time to figure out. There were many versions of it in my head, and even in my research, and I wasn’t satisfied with them. They seemed too predictable, they seemed too laborious as writing, as conventional history or policy or argument.
“I would say that my essential realization was that I would rather spend time finding out about people like Dean Price or Tammy Thomas, two of the non-famous main characters in the book, than reading about the history of the ’80’s and ’90’s and the decline of the steel industry in Youngstown, for example, through a traditional research project. I wanted to get close to these people and to tell the story of America through their stories.
“This kind of non-fiction requires scrupulous research and reporting, which in many cases are very difficult,” he said. “Not just difficult in terms of labor and legwork, but difficult in terms of learning how to talk to people and learning how to get them to talk to you. To write “The Unwinding,” I spent months with the main characters, and that meant finding a way to make what really was a prolonged interview into a much deeper relationship. Otherwise they would never have allowed me to hang out with them.”
Although still making occasional appearances talking about his award-winning book, Packer is working on his next project. “At the moment I’m writing an essay for The New Yorker about literature by Iraq veterans — poems, fiction, memoirs,” he said. “A lot has come out recently and it’s really interesting. Some of it is quite good. I’m steeped in their writing and the writing of earlier veterans like Tim O’Brien from the Vietnam War and some of the World War One poets, to put the Iraq writing in that context.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever write another novel,” he added. “I did write a play that ran in New York in 2008 called “Betrayed,” which was about Iraq, and I loved doing that. I’ve always loved theater and getting to write a play and have it produced and see it through from start to finish was just an electrifying experience. So who knows, maybe I’ll write another play. Maybe I’ll even write a movie.”