An Interview with Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and three collections of stories, most recently Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of The Story Prize. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The New Yorker, and Best American Short Stories. He teaches at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I had the pleasure of meeting Jim at the Tin House Writers’ Conference in July 2007. A longtime admirer of his fiction, I was delighted to discover a person of great humility, generosity, and humor. In the evenings, Jim could usually be found holding court on the patio, where he shared a variation on his narrative gift: telling stories—often about literary legends, uproarious, sometimes poignant, and always in good spirit, stories that became gentle assertions of their subjects’ humanness—with a stand-up comedian’s timing and wit. The conversations that became this interview took place over e-mail the following winter.

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What drew you to the first person for the stories in Like You’d Understand, Anyway? What liberties—if any—do you think can be taken in the first person that perhaps can’t be taken in other points of view?

I’m really interested in how complicated our self-presentation can be: the way it can knit together self-indictment and self-exoneration so weirdly and completely. And the way in which that process is simultaneously unconscious and calculated. I’m struck by how most people can move so seamlessly from one to the other. In any first-person voice you’re trying to sort out what the narrator has figured out, what the narrator can’t figure out, and what the narrator won’t try to figure out, and that sort of tension seems to me useful when it comes to questions of individual responsibility. I also like the voice-driven nature of first person stories: the way the narrators’ rants lead me to emotional conflicts, and to events, as well: plot.

The idea of first person narrators combining “self-indictment and self-exoneration so weirdly and completely” calls to my mind so many great first person books—from The Remains of the Day to The Loser—and how compelling it can be to witness a narrator wrestle with a confession, or fail to confess what they most need to. Is the confessional aspect of the first person of particular interest to you?

It is, very much. I’m very interested in how complicated and paradoxical the impulses behind the confession can be. (This is possibly partially because I was raised a Catholic.) John Gardner characterized his suspicion of such confessions in his story “Redemption” as “the manipulation of shame to buy love.” And William Gass, in an essay on the subject, talks about his suspicions of confessional narratives and their agenda to present you with the more acceptable offense in order to distract you from, or avoid facing, the other more serious ones.

What first person narrators stick in your mind as being particularly compelling?

Like you, I loved the narrator in The Remains of the Day. And in Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster. In Charles Portis’s True Grit. In Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. And of course, maybe my favorite narrator of all time—speaking of confessions which we should handle with care—is Humbert Humbert.

I’ve heard people comment that the first person can be limiting and leaves the writer with fewer options than the third person, though as both a writer and a reader, I haven’t always found this to be the case. Do you think you encounter limits or barriers in the first person that you might not in other points of view? If so, how do you circumvent them?

For me, the first person offers different kinds of limits, that’s all. Omniscience, for example, I feel like, at least right now for me, is more difficult, if not impossible. But I’m not a writer who tends toward the omniscient voice, anyway.

The mention of voice reminds me of what a great reader you are—not to mention immensely entertaining on stage. Does that come naturally to you, or a skill you’ve cultivated over time?

Thank you. I’m sure I’ve gotten better over the years. The first time I read aloud someone taped me and when I heard it I was mortified. I sounded like a depressive on quaaludes.

Was there a story in Like You’d Understand, Anyway that you found particularly difficult to write?

They were all hard while they were happening. But two that I remember having given me particular trouble were two of the newest: “Courtesy for Beginners” and “Sans Farine.” The former because it took me a while to see what it was about it that was supposed to transcend that Bad Summer Camp genre. (If there is such a genre.) The latter because there seemed, even more than usual, a novel’s worth of information to marshal and organize. But who knows? It may just seem to me now that those two were the hardest because they were the most recently finished.

One of the many striking elements in Like You’d Understand, Anyway—and in much of your other work—is the amount of research the stories seem to have required. Can you describe the role research plays in your writing process? Do you find that the reading and research gives way to stories or do you usually start with characters and then begin researching?

My reading gives way to stories, in your phrase, in that what happens is that I’m often reading all kinds of strange stuff—the history of guillotines, or the assembled lore about the Yeti—just for my own pleasure, and then some of the details that I come across seem plangent to me. They’re emotionally resonant in ways that seem simultaneously evocative and a little mysterious. The fact that the details remain with me tells me that that they’re touching on something in terms of my own emotional life that I want to further explore. At that point, I begin researching as though I may be writing a story: in other words, to fill in gaps in my knowledge of whatever world and sensibility I’m considering trying to construct.

While we’re on the subject of your research, I wanted to ask about Nosferatu, which is a stunning book. Can you talk a little about what drew you to F. W. Murnau, and how and when you knew you had a novel there?

I’d been left in front of the TV at about the age of six by an insufficiently alert babysitter (I think she was in the middle of a marathon phone call) and watched the film by myself, in the dark. I still haven’t fully recovered. I’d seen a lot of the Universal horror movies by that point, but none of them were particularly adept at tone, and none were even remotely as unsettlingly strange as Nosferatu was. So I was imprinted by it, like a baby duck. Years later I taught it, when I taught film. Then I got the idea of writing a fictional working journal of its making, so I did lots of reading of other directors’ interviews and diaries from around that period. (Murnau himself left very little writing behind to which we can get access.) The story ended up showing up in TriQuarterly, but then—and this is the only time in my writing life this has happened—I felt like I wanted to do more with that protagonist and that world. So I went back to work, in terms of research. Why was I so drawn to him? Partially because of the pathos of his basic emotional situation, or at least the one with which I began: he was relentlessly described as aloof and cold and opaque, and he never saw himself that way. That gap between how you feel and the way you seem to be ubiquitously viewed: I related to that.

I’ve gotten the impression that your research process for your most recent novel, Project X, was a bit different. I read that, in preparation for writing the novel, you visited and observed high school classrooms. Of course, for much of your work, it would be fairly impossible to conduct “live” research. Did the process change for you at all when the research became more interactive?

Not so much. I was much more the observer than the interviewer. I’m one of those who believes that the interviewing is even more intrusive—and so, distorting—than the observing is.

You’ve also written from the perspective of real-life people/public figures (John Ashcroft, for example), who talk about real-life events, quite a lot. Some writers might find working with public figures limiting, whereas you seem to be liberated by it. Do you have a sense of how this approach works for you?

I think because I feel as if I have as much latitude, in terms of what to talk about, as anyone with a full life has. I just make stuff up, following my fictional voice’s emotional impulses (those impulses having been educated, of course, by all of that research) and then worry later about double checking to see if such things were impossible, or could have been possible, given what we know of the character’s life. I don’t mind making up something that might have happened. I don’t want to find myself making up stuff that could never have happened, though. And of course it’s the character’s emotional response to all of those events that make the events interesting—and/or new, and unique—in the first place.

Is there a public figure/real-life person you’d like to write about, but haven’t? Or someone you’ve tried to write about, but haven’t yet been able to successfully?

I researched Charles Lindbergh for six months or so and felt as though I understood him, the way a biographer or historian might, but didn’t empathize with him enough, or in complicated enough ways. And so I abandoned the project of trying to write about him. I researched Aeschylus for nearly nine years in the hopes of writing a novel about him and was defeated by all that I could not finally know and was unwilling to invent. I ended up with a story about one small slice of his life. I’m going to have to be happy with that.

In Like You’d Understand, Anyway, there’s the recurring theme of brotherly relationships. Was this conscious on your part as you were shaping the collection? Or were you surprised when you looked at the manuscript in its entirety and saw this theme?

It was not conscious on my part. But neither was I floored by the news. In each case, as the story developed, my own preoccupations emerged as the inner energy powering the narratives.

Going beyond Like You’d Understand, Anyway, what do you think your most central writerly preoccupations have been?

Complicity with evil. The attractions of passivity. The heartbreak of knowing that we can’t be all we want or need to be for those we love.

That idea of passivity seems to come up frequently with you. You’ve commented that you’re intrigued by characters who are grappling with “ethical passivity,” and quite a bit of your work seems to concern this issue, whether it’s the turbine managers at Chernobyl or executioners or Nazis.

I do, in fact, see that as a major link running through my work. And I think for me the attraction has to do with my sense of the particular cogency, in our world today, of that famous line of I think Edmund Burke’s that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Most Americans think George W. Bush has been a hideously bad President. And yet: is he out of office? I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which we can find ourselves sliding over into complicity with people who have active and terrible agendas.

In an interview, you once said, answering a question about whether you feel a political responsibility with your fiction, that “As for the political responsibility at work in our fiction: should what we write matter? Yes.” What do you think it means for fiction to matter?

I think it means that someone reading it might be affected by it; might be caused to think in new ways, and might act on that new information. I believe that literature shows us how we live. And by extension, then, how to live.

When you were getting your MFA at Brown, you worked with John Hawkes, who you’ve said “helped me understand just how much I was interested in using realism to torque the reader’s ordinary sense of the real.” To me, this seems like such an important part of your aesthetic sense.

Jack really never stopped reminding me that I should be looking for, and interrogating, the weirdness in my work, since that was nearly always where the most intriguing, and intractable, emotional conflicts resided, usually in buried form. Jack was wonderful on the way in which the uncanny always seemed to lurk within and beneath the everyday. And the way that that understanding animates our ongoing negotiation of the world.

What other writers (or artists in other mediums) have been the most instructive for your own work? Perhaps not so much in terms of mentorship or feedback, like Hawkes, but more in respect to aesthetics, are there any books and/or authors you feel your work is seeking to have a kind of conversation with?

An endless number of artists have had a huge effect on me. In fiction, early on, Hemingway and Salinger enabled me to believe that I didn’t have to be Henry James to write literature, and that was hugely empowering, especially in class terms (none of my family members had gone to college); soon after that, Flannery O’Connor was gigantically influential in the way she deployed comedy and violence to get at sadness and an unblinking ethical seriousness; and then after that, writers like Nabokov and Joyce ravished me with what they could do with sentences, and images. More recently I’ve been enormously affected by the mordant comedy and political directness of people like Robert Stone and Denis Johnson. I was influenced by any number of poets, from Simic to Phil Levine to Stephen Dobyns to Louise Glück and Szymborska. And filmmakers from Scorsese to Kubrick to Hitchcock to Herzog. And the visual arts, too: I remember what a revelation seeing Bruegel’s The Fall of Icarus was, or some of Kirchner’s street paintings.

If you’re comfortable discussing, what are you working on these days? Is there anything in particular, in respect to craft or subject matter, that you’d like to tackle down the road?

I have no idea what I’ll work on next. See? Now you’ve made me sad.

How is it having another writer in the house? Do you and Karen share your work, or keep your writing lives more separate? [Jim’s wife, Karen Shepard, is also a successful fiction writer.—Eds.]

It’s wonderful, for the most part, having another writer in the house, because I never, or almost never, have to explain why something—a good day, or a bad day—is so important to me. Karen and I share work very early on, in that first stage just to provide impressions of what we think a work is interested in, and then later as each other’s editors.

When I met you last summer, you told some hilarious, sad, larger-than-life stories about other writers (Stanley Elkin and John Gardner come to mind). Do you have a favorite story about another writer, to conclude the interview?

Writers are very often great storytellers, and they’re also often weird enough that funny things happen to them. So my favorite changes from moment to moment. I’ll have another one for you the next time we’re standing around with drinks in our hands.

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