Jim Shepard’s was the first story I ever read in a literary magazine; it was “Climb Aboard the Mighty Flea,” in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review. I found it in college while wandering around in the library between classes. The story is about a group of lunatic German Messerschmitt 163 test pilots during WWII. It begins:
I am Oberleutnant Heini Opitz of Test-Commando 16 and this is not a war story. It’s the story of a lunatic revolution—the inmates with Bedlam’s keys—and all the boys call me Pitz. We fly (fly? ride!) the Messerschmitt 163, he first manned rocket-powered aircraft, the first aircraft in the world to exceed a thousand kilometers an hour in level flight, and in statistical terms the most dangerous aircraft ever built in a series. We sit in these squat fireworks with wings and are skyrocketed upwards eight thousand meters in under a minute to bring down the Allied bombers. Mostly we bring down ourselves.
What was my gut reaction at age 22? I had no idea literature could be so goddamn interesting.
I got the chance to interview Jim in October 2010 at his home in Williams, Massachusetts, a house in the woods just a few miles from Williams College where he teaches. After pulling up to the house and stepping out of my car, I was immediately greeted by his dog, a basset hound who scampered about our mini-van. Jim met me at the door, introducing me to his young daughter, who was immediately told to punch me. She didn’t, instead hopping up on the kitchen countertop once we were all inside. Karen Shepard—Jim’s wife—was talking with another woman in the kitchen. The house was modest, everything seeming to have been chosen for a reason, nothing wasted or frivolous. I interviewed Jim in his office using a digital recorder.
STORY: You once wrote, “When the writing’s going well, it’s hard. Most of us, most of the time, it’s not going all that well.” What is a typical workday for you?
SHEPARD: These are writing days we’re talking about, not teaching days, right? A typical workday for me would be to get up and get the kids off to school with Karen, which would mean I wouldn’t get back to my desk probably until 8:00 or so. But I’m up at 6:00 because we have a kid who’s in high school, has to be on the bus by 7:00. So I’m up for two hours before I’m even thinking about work. Then I usually allow myself about a half hour to 45 minutes to sort of go through email just to see if there’s anything startling or that needs—so any good news—anything that needs any attention. And then I tell myself I have to stop email no matter how much I’d like to stay on it. Then I’ll work from say 8:30 or quarter of nine to about noon and that’s about as much as I can concentrate worth anything—unless I’m at the very, very last stages of a project, at which point I might have more stamina, more excitement, more of a sense of things coming to a culmination, and so wanting to stay with it. In that case I might work well into the mid-afternoon, and I might come back to it as well. But that’s very rare, and it’s only at the very last stages of something, a novel or a short story or something like that.
Normally by noon or so I’ve stopped and I’ve moved on to the busy work, the email or the recommendations or the blurbs or preparing for teaching or whatever. The rest of my day. And then the kids start coming back around 3:00, so there’s not all that much time. I mean one of the balances you try to strike as a parent is that the screens are happy to suck the kids away for the next six hours. I mean, if we leave our children unattended they’re fine because they’ll watch something horrible like the Disney Channel for five straight hours or something.
STORY: I read somewhere you separated busy semesters, not busy semesters, and summers. So if you have writing days throughout the year you just—
SHEPARD: No, during the busy semesters I don’t have any. This is a busy semester, for example, and there was a story that I started work on in the late spring, early summer. It involved a lot of research, so I was doing a lot of research and piling up stuff. And I did writing conferences this summer—I did Skidmore Writing Conference, New York State Writer’s Conference, and Bread Loaf, and those involved preparation before you go there. You get, you know, your writers’ manuscripts. And in the case of a place like Bread Loaf, you have to give a lecture and stuff like that. So although you sign up for something way in advance, and you go, well, it’s only a week or two weeks, you always forget that that’s also a week in preparation or whatever. So between those two things and having to prepare for two new courses at Williams, that meant that the story that I’d started in the spring and summer had sort of been halted. And coming back has been busy enough that I haven’t been able to get back to it, and I probably won’t get back to it until December or so. Of course then the fear is that it will seem utterly evanescent, you’ll look at it and sort of say, “What on earth was I thinking about?” I find in my case the longer I wait, the more it’s like those notes you write to yourself on your bedside after a dream in the middle of the night. You think: this is so arresting. And then the next morning it’s like, I don’t even know what this means.
STORY: You’ve also talked about working on short stories during semesters and not on novels because of this—because, for novels, by the time you get back to the characters of the story, you don’t know them anymore. Does that have anything to do with why, when I look back at all your work, it seems that around 2004—
SHEPARD: There’s a real shift.
STORY: Do you think that has to do with teaching, and maybe parenting, too?
SHEPARD: I think it does. I also think, I mean, it may not be bad news for me. When I was in graduate school, it was long enough ago that novels had way more cache than short stories, and not just commercial cache but literary cache. When I was starting out people would say, “God, that was a really good story—so when are you going to do a novel?” Because that would be the way you would prove that you were a major figure.
Like Flannery O’Connor: I would have teachers in graduate school who would say she’s brilliant, but she’s not a major figure. She didn’t have major novels. So I thought, oh, I have to write a novel. I started writing a novel very early and my mentor at Brown, John Hawkes, would say to me periodically, “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” I took it as an insult.
He would read a chunk of my novel and he would go, you know, you really should be writing stories. I’d say thanks a lot and he’d be like, well, I’m just telling you, you know. But I had enough success with novels that I thought, I guess he’s wrong. I’m going to keep doing this.
But it began to shift right around when I was writing a novel called Kiss of the Wolf and I began to get impatient with what I felt like was the furniture moving of novels, all of the stuff you have to do in order to get this big narrative up and running. And I began to become more and more attracted to short stories, especially because of the alacrity that you can get in and out of narrative situations. And as I began writing about darker stuff, too, it began to be a relief to know that I wasn’t trapped with these figures for two or three years.
There’s a story in the new collection [You Think That’s Bad] that took a huge amount of research. It’s quite a long story that is narrated by Gilles de Rais’s servant. It’s a very unpleasant world to be inhabiting. He’s listed in the murder of 200 children or 150 children or whatever, and it’s stretching the limits of my empathetic imagination, but it’s also something that I could do for four or five or six months. But I didn’t really want to do it for two and a half years. To work on a story like that was exhilarating, but to think I was going to do it for the next three years was disheartening.
My novelist friends like Ron Hansen, people who are primarily novelists, will say this is really inefficient. I mean, you do six months worth of research and you get a short story out of it, maybe you get a couple thousand dollars at the most. And I register that in commercial terms it’s pretty stupid. But you know, as I say to my kids, “I’m doing this so I can put less food on your table, that’s really why I’m doing this. And if you complain, I’ll just do haiku instead of short stories and then you won’t have anything essentially.”
STORY: Is that really true? If you look at Love and Hydrogen versus, say, Project X—or Like You’d Understand, Anyway compared to most of your earlier novels—do you think one side has been more commercially respected, more available?
SHEPARD: It’s hard to know. None of my things have done particularly well. Some have disappeared without a trace, and certainly the most financially catastrophic things I’ve done have been novels. I mean Lights Out in the Reptile House, my third novel—you know, I think a few friends read it pretty much. I think the difference though with novels is publishers can at least talk themselves into the illusion that this could be a big thing, so there’s a little bit more of a sense of an upside. Even in the case of the new collection, after the old collection was nominated for a National Book Award, there’s still a sense of Gary Fisketjon having to explain to Knopf why this is good news.
STORY: You seem to have had a privileged publishing relationship as a writer. You’ve been with Knopf your entire career, right?
SHEPARD: No. I started with Knopf with my first novel, which was very fortunate, and I ended up with Robert Gottlieb, who was the editor-in-chief there, and that was kind of wonderful because he’s a great editor. But Knopf was also back then—to some extent still now, but back then especially—because they were sort of the most prestigious literary house, they didn’t really work very hard to sell their books. What they would do is sort of say to booksellers, well, this is our catalog; I assume you want it. And some of their books sold a lot better than others. Knopf wasn’t doing anything in particular to say, you really should read this guy. So on the one hand I had this wonderful good fortune that I was with the best house and with the most powerful editor at the best house, but on the other hand nobody was out there trying to push me on people. What did I care? I was happy just to be published and to be published at a nice place.
My second book was also with Knopf and Robert Gottlieb, but Gottlieb then left to go to The New Yorker to take over. So I was then sort of binked across the table to a young editor at Knopf—who of course they told me, oh, he’s real excited to be working with you. And I thought good, wonderful. I went to New York to meet with him and told him about my third book and it was very clear that he wasn’t thrilled to be working with me. What had happened was somebody said, all right, who’s going to take Jim Shepard?
STORY: This was your novel Lights Out in the Reptile House?
SHEPARD: Yes. I told him about my book and he didn’t seem too thrilled when I had arrived, but he seemed less and less excited as we went along, and it was really discouraging. So I said to my agent, I don’t think he really wants to be working with me, and she was like, oh, I’m sure he does. I said, I don’t think so. I don’t remember if we even bothered to send it to him. We must’ve. I think we must’ve sent it when I finished The Reptile House, we must have sent it to him and gotten a really tepid or negative response, and then I was out on the market. It was a book about an invented totalitarian regime, so people were like, no, I don’t want this.
It ended up going to another really good editor, Jerry Howard at Norton, but Norton then did very, very little fiction and they had very little idea about how to promote fiction. They were known as a sort of a classroom textbook kind of house. So that book disappeared entirely, partially because it got a negative review in the Times, and back then a lot of newspapers would just pick up whatever the Times review was, which meant Norton didn’t want anything more to do with me on my next book. I ended up with another house after that. Then my editor there, Pat Strong, who is a very good editor, got sick, and she had to drop out of editing for awhile. So I ended up back at Knopf finally. I’ve never really sold very well. I’ve sold well enough that somebody at some point would go, I like your stuff, let’s try and do something with this. But it’s always been a matter of—the phone call I usually get from my agent is, well, the good news is I talked to X at Y and he really likes the book. He wants to do it. I go, great, what’s the bad news? He goes, well, he’s really not offering very much money. Because what they can do is say we like it enough that we want to do it, but they’ll almost always say we couldn’t talk the money people out of very much money at all. You haven’t made much money. You’re not likely to make much money.
Now I have another income teaching. The bad news then is that households tend to push the book in proportion to how much they spent on it. So if they only pay you $30,000 or $40,000 for the book, in their mind that’s a $30,000 book. So what they’re doing is sort of going, well, if something goes crazy and suddenly people want to buy this thing, we’ll certainly be ready to promote it. But until then what they’re doing is a very minimal kind of promoting—and nobody really knows how to promote books, but they do know that they’re going to put most of their energy behind the books that they’ve paid a huge amount of money. It just makes sense, right? So the rest of the books sort of fend for themselves, and that means that you do meetings, you do interviews, you do what you can. But there’s a limit to the number of those you can do because bookstores can’t really—like I’ll get a note from a Seattle bookstore saying we’d love to have you come up, but we can’t pay for that. So what they’re saying is if somehow you can get out to Seattle we’d love to have you.
Now if it’s somebody like myself going to a place like that, that means that 15-20 people are going to show up to that bookstore. Ten of them or fifteen of them are going to be fans of mine and they’re going to have all my books already. So I’m going out there to connect with fans and to meet five new people or sell five copies. And so what writers like myself end up doing is trying to get things piggybacked together that makes it worth it, but even that’s kind of meager. So I’ll find myself going, why? There’s a bookstore in Seattle and a bookstore in Portland and there’s a reading in San Francisco and I can put those in sort of a 3-day thing—well that makes sense, right? Well, wait a minute: you’re flying from here to Seattle, Seattle to Portland, Portland to San Francisco and coming back just to meet with five different, five new people in each place?
Now, if you don’t do that you think, well I didn’t do anything to promote my book. What am I nuts? If you do do that you’re on a six-hour flight going, am I out of my mind? What am I doing? It still makes sense, and writers are peripatetic, so they like to go places. So most writers do it. But it’s not exactly inevitable or obvious that you should be doing this.
Now there’s some writers that get real book tours together and that has its own kind of problem. I’ve never had that problem where it’s like nine weeks of five days a week kind of thing. That’s a really different experience. That’s the Tim O’Brien experience or the Denis Johnson experience or something like that, but that’s not my experience.
STORY: You’ve often been referred to as one of the best story writers in America.
SHEPARD: I think the code that I often get is “writer’s writer,” which means a small group of people. I feel like my visibility is way higher now than it was 10 or 15 years ago, but we’re still talking about a pretty small audience. And there are places I can go in America where if everything breaks right I would get a crowd, what looked like an adoring crowd—you know, Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan, or maybe the Bay Area, or a few areas where if I went I would get sixty or seventy or eighty or a hundred people all excited to be there. That’s about it though. And even in those places, things would have to break right. But if I go to Kansas City, if I go to even Chicago, if I go to Dallas or someplace like that, I’m going to get 15 people, 10 people. What makes sense for me and what I do is I go to MFA programs and things like that because there’s usually a small group of people that somebody’s assigned the stories. They know who I am. I have a residency at Arizona State coming up, I have a residency at UVA coming up, and if I go there, I know it’s not going to be five people.
STORY: The Paris Review question: Pen or pencil? The laptop or digital recorder? What’s your writing process like?
SHEPARD: I do almost everything I do in pencil and on keyboard. I used to compose in both mediums; now I almost entirely compose on the keyboard. But each day at the end of the day, I print it out and go over it in pencil. And then the next morning the writing will start the same way. I’ll go over it on the keyboard, get it as good as I can get it. Sometimes I won’t get into any new stuff, because I’ll spend so much time trying to fix the old stuff. Part of the morning involves loading in the pencil changes and then making more changes on the keyboard, and then moving forward.
[Commotion.] My beagles seem to want to go out. Hey, Deana, you want to go out? Let’s go out. Go.
I saw at Bread Loaf this year a woman who had a shirt that I should get. The shirt said, “What’s my day like? I let the dogs in. I let the dogs out. I let the dogs in. I let the dogs out.” And it’s like this list, this column of sentences.
[Motions around.] The study has windows all around, and because the dogs want to be near us, they love it. They just sit here in a sphinx-like pose and wait for animal movement outside. But of course, we’re in a forest, so there are lots of animal movements outside, so they want to go out every 30 seconds and then they run around. They’re no electric collars, so they can run around free. And then they come back, and they run around. They come back. They run around. They’re emotionally needy enough that they don’t want to stay out 24 hours a day, so when they’re finished chasing animals around they come back here and scratch to get in. But writers, I think, love that. You’re always looking for a reason to get up from your desk.
STORY: Do you think that’s the affinity with writers and dogs?
SHEPARD: I’m sure it is, because the dogs are just there for you. And they reward procrastination. Writers love that.
STORY: You’ve taught at Williams College for about 25 years. You teach at Sirenland, Bread Loaf as you mentioned. You teach at conferences in New York every once in awhile. You taught at the Tin House summer workshop. Am I missing some?
SHEPARD: That’s about it.
STORY: If you had the option not to teach, would you still teach?
SHEPARD: Yeah. It isn’t just a desire to want to hear myself talk. You don’t really make very much money at these places at all for the amount of time you’re putting in. They don’t have that kind of money. The way they attract writers, and keep attracting writers, is they sort of rope you in as a way of both meeting new writers but also seeing your old friends. I have friends like Margo Livesey or Amy Hempel or Aimee Bender or Ron Hansen that, if I don’t go to writers conferences, it’s not likely I’m going to see them, because we don’t live anywhere near each other. We can bring each other for readings every so often, but you can’t bring your friend for readings even once every two or three years. So what happens, in the case of Bread Loaf, Michael Collier, the guy who runs it, would say, do you want to come to Bread Loaf? And I’ll say, well, who’s coming? And he’ll read me a list. What Michael does is quite savvy. He knows who knows who, and so he’ll just gather them together.
Everybody wants to be asked to these things but nobody really wants to do them. I compare it to a bad junior high party. You don’t really want to be there, but you’re mortified if you don’t get asked.
STORY: It seems that you have a body of writers you associate with a lot, a sort of community of writers.
SHEPARD: I don’t know if it’s a community in the sense of, you know, all of us linking arms and singing Kumbaya—
KAREN SHEPARD: [From the other room] Oh, please. You do that all the time.
SHEPARD: I do sing Kumbaya, that’s right. It is a community. You’re checking in with other writers you admire and sort of going, you know, your new thing is kind of wonderful. You have a circle of people for whom talking about their work is not just an obligation but a pleasure, and you sort of say, “I can’t wait for Travis’s new book to come out so he’ll send it to me and I’ll get to read it and I get to tell him what I think of it and all that.” It’s not a very big group. Amy Hempel, Ron Hansen, Charles Baxter. It doesn’t go much beyond that group. There’s a sort of outlier group of people that might send you a book, and you might think, I should respond to this book. But you wouldn’t feel like, if I wait four months to respond this person’s going to say, what happened, did he die? That group is way bigger.
STORY: You’re known as a writer who does a lot of research. When does that happen? You’ve talked often about being a constant reader of strange non-fiction—you’re the person that brings a history of the guillotine to the beach. Is this all structured research somehow, or does it kind of just happen?
SHEPARD: It’s both. In the early going it’s much more me being me and just being weird and sort of going, oh, history of the guillotine? I’ve always wanted to read that. And saying to myself, you get to do this because of the life you have. You have to go read this book. At some point it starts to become, I think I might write about this, and once that happens the reading becomes quite different, because then I have to say, okay, now you begin to list the kinds of things you need to know.
For example, there’s a story about Chernobyl. I had discovered that there was an oral history of the survivors that’s pretty well known in Russia, but it had finally been translated into English. So I thought, I want to read this, so I read it. Of course the survivor stories were just wonderful, and I was like, I want to write about this somehow. But as soon as you start to do that, that, okay I’m going to write about a senior turbine engineer, as soon as you say that you go, well, what does it mean to be a senior turbine engineer? What is your education like? Where do you come from? And that involves a whole lot of research that I would never sort of just pull off of the shelf. From there I’m doing a very specific kind of directed research, looking through books that I don’t even find that interesting and going, I need a specific kind of information and I need it to be plausible, and I need it to be evocative and I need it to be x, y and z. That’s a very different kind of thing.
STORY: Do you think your job teaching at Williams College affects the content of your stories?
SHEPARD: One of the reasons I was always attracted to the notion of being in academia was it’s a good way of disciplining your thinking about other people’s work, which is always a good way to train yourself. What is it I like about Nabokov, how do I articulate that? I have to be better at it if I’m teaching it than I do if I’m standing at a cocktail party. Just being able to work through with greater vigor how somebody else’s work is operating is a useful way of teaching yourself.
There’s also the advantage of just being around a lot of other different disciplines. In my acknowledgments, there’s class assistants and political scientists and physicists. At a liberal arts college that’s an easier transition to make than it is at a major university, because at a major university I’ve got to get on a bus and go to the science quad and say to somebody, hey, you don’t know me at all, but I was hoping I could work on X. Here I could say to somebody I’m on a committee with, how excited are people about the large Hadron Collider? And what’s going on with that? They’re happy to talk to somebody out of their discipline. That kind of access to other disciplines is part and parcel with being at a liberal arts college.
STORY: I assumed that you’d stumbled into graduate school and into teaching.
SHEPARD: I stumble into everything. I think in a lot of ways my life has been a combination of poor planning and no planning at all, and it’s just worked out in various ways. I didn’t really know I was going to Brown unti almost the very last moment. I didn’t really know I was going to be teaching after Brown until almost the very last moment. Both of those worked out better than I might have hoped.
I certainly hadn’t done what my students do nowadays, which is consider a huge variety of options and try to figure out which the best one was. I mean Brown was the only graduate program that I applied to because I got started so late. And Michigan was the only job offer I had because they were the only one who contacted Brown. And actually as I was leaving Brown I hadn’t said, well, the thing to do here is get a teaching job, so what jobs are open? You know, the sort of logical thing a person would do.
Like a lot of writers I know, I have an extraordinary low horizon. I mean, I’m worried about Thursday, you know? I’m worried about the next paragraph I’m writing. I’m pretty obsessively worried about that. So if you said to me, where do you think you’d like to be in five years, I go, what are you talking about?
STORY: If you compare what you’re writing now to what you were reading or doing as a kid, do you see parallels?
SHEPARD: Walter Murch has a great line about this, the film editor who worked with Coppola for many years, he said the older he’s gotten the more he’s realized that the people who are doing something closer to what they wanted to be doing when they were 13 years old are the happiest people he knows. And I think one of the nice things about the way things have worked out is I think if I’d given a list of my titles to me at 13 and said, here’s what you’re going to be writing, I would have been thrilled. I’d be like, I get to write about the Creature from the Black Lagoon? How cool is that, right?
One of the things I’ve both tried to do and not had to work very hard at doing is stay in touch with that version of myself. And what I’ve tried to do to make it in any ways interesting to somebody who’s not a ten-year-old boy is to say, now why would a sophisticated 35-year-old woman be interested in this? And that conversion I’ve worked very hard at. So I’m going, okay you enjoy this, you enjoy thinking about it—but what about it is fraught? What about it is complicated? What about it is of any interest to anybody other than somebody like yourself? And that’s a transition that every writer has to make between a kind of personal obsession and universal connection. It’s sometimes involved letting go of things. I would write about tidal waves every day of the week if I were allowed to.
I do have to say to myself periodically, is this too close to something I’ve done before? Both in emotional terms and narrative terms. And sometimes I have different opinions than my editors, sometimes not. When we were putting together Like You’d Understand Anyway, Gary Fisketjon said to me, you know the “Hadrian’s Wall” a story of an auxiliary Roman legionnaire. And the story about Aeschylus and Marathon? Those might be too close to include in the same volume. And I said, what are we thinking? That the Greeks are the same as Romans? And he said, well, you know, for a modern reader they’re both—it’s Greeks, it’s Romans. I go, yeah, but culturally there’s such a gigantic difference that I can live with it. On the other hand, there’ve been times when he said to me, you have a brother story that uses volcanoes, you have another brother story that uses something else—do you really want them both in the same volume? And I go, yeah, maybe you’re right; we’ll take one of them out. So, you know, you are registering that you’re in the same ballpark in terms of obsessions, but you’re also trying to register that there’s enough variation there that you’re not going to bore even a reader who’s read your old stuff before.
STORY: Were you reading a lot as a boy?
SHEPARD: I was reading a lot; I certainly wasn’t traveling anywhere. I didn’t go anywhere besides Montreal, Canada until I was out of college. But I was reading a lot, and I was really steeped in movies. I spent a lot of time in front of the TV when I was a kid, but we weren’t watching for the most part variety shows or series. We were watching movies—or I was watching movies. I’d seen a huge number of movies by the time I got to college, because I was in the New York area, and all over New York there are a lot of syndicated channels, like WPIX, or PBS or whatever, that ran movies pretty much 10 or 15 hours a day. I’d watch anything really.
I think it probably did more in terms of affecting my writing, not so much expanding my sense of the world, because I don’t think I was so taken in that I thought, wow, you know, the France that Warner Brothers created is really France. I think what I was more likely to have been affected by is the way cinematic language works as opposed to prose, and when I think about my work, I think about how rarely I get to be ruminative, how rarely I sound anything like Henry James, how rarely I have long intricate interior monologues. Normally even my voice-driven stuff is pretty visceral, and I’m drawn very much to action. The character either can’t break down psychologically or is unwilling to break down psychologically to exist. In other words, rather than a long stretch about one character imagining what’s going on in another’s head, what I’ll do is: here’s what that character did—he did X, he did Y, he did Z. Which I think is much more cinematic and much less literary in some ways.
STORY: But some of your stories still end up as inner monologues.
SHEPARD: Absolutely. I mean, literature doesn’t work without that, so it’s not as though that’s been purged from my work. It’s just that, when you compare it to works that are more ruminative, then you immediately see the difference. James is an obvious example. The character comes in and starts thinking a series of really intricate, emotional transformations.
STORY: So how did you end up a film professor then?
SHEPARD: I ran the Film Society as a way of sort of being both social and connecting to film when I was an undergraduate. And then it was an easy transition to do that at graduate school as well. Then, when you’re getting hired out of graduate school, the optimists who are interviewing you say, so, what can you teach?What can you imagine teaching? And because I ran the film societies at Trinity and Brown—or helped run them—I could operate as a TA in some of those courses, which might involve just creating papers. But in the case of Trinity College, the guy said, do you want to give a lecture? I was like, sure, it would be fun to give a lecture. So I could say, with only minimal fraudulence, I think I could teach movies. They’re always looking to figure out something you can do as a writer, because there isn’t much. Can you teach phys-ed? Can you do archery? And when Michigan hired me, they were more than happy to get somebody who could do big film courses. So I not only was plugged into writing workshops, but gigantic lecture courses. I did a course on Kubrick and Hitchcock. I think it was like 400 people or something like that.
STORY: I was reading a Paris Review interview on the way over with Norman Rush and his wife Elsa, and read about how they do a lot of exchanging of manuscripts. Do you and Karen do that a lot? I see your desks here are actually in the same room. They’re a mirror image of each other.
SHEPARD: People actually freak out when they see our study.
STORY: How does this relationship work for your writing?
SHEPARD: We’re both really excited at the idea that the other person is cranking out pages. And so what we’ll do is when the other person is writing fiction—which doesn’t always happen by any means—we’ll be like, so did you write new pages today? And the other person will say, yep. And we’ll say, can I see it? And in almost all cases the answer’s yes. It’s really rarely it’s, no, it’s such a mess right now, let me work on it, let me fix it up one more day or something and then you can see it. Normally, really, really early in this process Karen and I are exchanging pages. And that means that if I write two or three more new pages, that night she will read it. Or vice versa.
And we have a different editorial relationship with each other in the early stages, in that what we’re doing is not sort of going, I’m going to fix this or this. What we’re doing is sort of more going, you know, I really like what you’re doing with this person. Or, this seems you’re interested in X more than Y. And that helps stimulate us. And we think, oh yeah, I am more interested in the mother, aren’t I? And we keep going in that direction.
When we finally have a draft of something—or when we get to a point where we have a big block of something and we’re kind of stuck—then we might operate more as regular editors and sort of go, I don’t know if this direction is helping all that much, or something like that. It’s a hugely gratifying and helpful relationship in that regard, because it’s somebody who not only who knows how important this is to you, but also somebody who is really looking forward to what you’re doing.
When we talk to people, I mean non-writers, about what it’s like to be married to a writer, the immediate assumption is that it’s something horribly competitive. And I have to say that really isn’t our experience. We’re not going, I can’t believe you wrote so well! Because it is truly apples and oranges. If we were writing the same sorts of things, that might weird us out a little bit. If there was a gigantic disparity in the way the world valued us. Sort of like, wow, you can’t get a single thing published and I keep winning the Nobel Prize.
STORY: What about fatherhood? Does it change what your work is, what it ends up becoming?
SHEPARD: I can’t imagine it didn’t. Project X, for example, was hugely impacted not only by having an adolescent who was engaging in not a very great school, but also being a father of an adolescent who is engaging in not a very great school. One of the things that being a father hugely helped with was my determination in Project X to make clear that this was not one of those situations where, “If only the parents would try to get through to the kid.” That sense of people just missing each other’s opportunities was much more vivid to me not only because I had parents who weren’t uninterested in me entirely, but also because I was a parent when I was writing Project X, so I was able to remember how many times I would say to my son, so what happened today? And he’d say, nothing. And I would go, so am I going to badger him or not? That kind of thing.
SHEPARD: Because of being a father? That’s a good question. Maybe in that sometimes I get a little flash of, oh, this will be fun to show Emit, or to tell Emit to tell Aiden that I’m writing. But I think primarily no. Primarily I’m just a child myself really. And I think everybody’s really writing for themselves on some level.
KAREN SHEPARD: I think that [fatherhood] tends to make you feel things stronger, especially in terms of things that anger you when you think about being a father. I mean, the state of the world angers you anyway, but when you think of leaving this world to three children, then he’s in, you know, a whole new level of rage.
SHEPARD: I think that’s right. Allan Gurganus has a great line where he says you should take your world personally. And political engagement is much easier when you’re a parent, I think, because you can’t do it kind of halfway. You can’t sort of go, well shit, how much longer am I going to be alive anyway? Because you just think, if this world’s going down the toilet, Lucy and Emit and Aiden are going to inherit it, and that’s unacceptable.
STORY: I was reading your introduction to the issue of VICE you guest-edited a while back, in which you comment on the Deepwater Horizon spill, toxic food, Monsanto, and so on. Could you talk specifically about how all that—that ecological disaster—has affected you as a writer, or as a human?
SHEPARD: It’s beyond possible to imagine that literature in general or short stories in particular and that sort of thing are going to make a difference. But it feels as though—and I think part of it is selfish and part of it is idealistic—but it feels as though that’s what I have to work with, you know. I mean, I’m perfectly willing to believe that writing op-eds for the Times would affect more people, or becoming a commentator on a morning news show would affect more people. I think—selfishly, I think—I want to do short stories, first of all. But also, pragmatically, “Well, you wouldn’t be a particularly notable op-ed writer for the Times, or a particularly notable talking head on TV. So you’re stuck with this if you want to try and change the world. This is what you do.” And having said that, I also do believe, though that because art has affected me so powerfully, that it can affect other people as well.
There’s a story in the new collection [You Think That’s Bad] called “Netherlands Lives with Water”—it was in McSweeney’s—which is directly political, but it’s supposed to be working aesthetically as well. Obviously with the arts you’re very, very often preaching to the converted. But just as obviously with the arts we all can think of staggeringly important works that changed the political landscape, whether it’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or whatever. But it’s hard to separate out what you’re doing because you want to do it and what you should be doing because this is what you can do. I mean, if someone said to me, archery would be much more likely to change the world than what you’re doing, I’d say, yeah, but I’m not a good archer. I can’t do that. Or, I would be a mediocre archer, so who’s that going to help?
STORY: What about film?
SHEPARD: I just finished a screenplay with a collaborator, a young director on Project X, but the problem with film is somebody has to give you millions and millions of dollars to make it, and that means that you either have to get lucky or you have to be a fundraiser, and I’m certainly not the latter. And when it’s come to film, I haven’t been much the former either. So what I decided a long time ago was, well, I’m going to write fiction, and if the film world wants to come to me and say, either your fiction has made me want to hire you as a screenwriter or we want to adopt your fiction, then I would be receptive. It doesn’t amount to much, the sort of interest that’s like, boy, we really love the story, we want to option it. When we get everything together we’re going to write a screenplay—and that never happens. Or, would you be willing to write a screenplay for nothing right now, but vast riches down the road? And that sort of seems like a great way of stopping writing fiction forever, so I don’t do that either.
In the case of the Project X thing, I knew it wasn’t going to involve a lot of time. And I also knew that it would be fun to work with this guy, and that he was going to do a lot of the basic laying out of the design thing, then I would work on it from there. So it was more attractive than it usually is. Film allows you to reach way, way, way more people, obviously, but it also inevitably and instantly involves all sorts of compromises, depending on the size of the project, that are anywhere from fatiguing to soul destroying, depending on what sort of comprises are demanded and what you’re willing.
And I also register that once you say you do really weird things—I mean, there’s a down side to doing really weird things. You’re out of the mainstream in a lot of ways. There aren’t a lot of people who want to make a movie about the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and there’s a reason for that. It would be a very strange movie.
STORY: Would you be able to describe why you’re attracted to the types of things you write about?
SHEPARD: I’m interested in various ways of getting at a fairly coherent and probably fairly stable set of emotional concerns, and because it’s a fairly stable set of concerns there is the issue of how you reanimate them each time. Not only reanimate them so that the reader sort of goes, oh, this isn’t the same story, but reanimate them so that you say, okay, I want to reengage this subject. Because you are theoretically teaching yourself each time, and so coming at them from a different angle is a way of saying to yourself you’re not just rehashing what you already believe about this stuff. I’ve been alert to the ways in which, by re-engaging Chernobyl, by re-engaging the Dutch Water Defense, by re-engaging whatever, I can be coming at roughly the same subject—ethical passivity, for example—in a very different way.
STORY: I’ve recently been looking back over the last 26 years of your writing, and I’ve been trying to get some sort of cohesion, some sort of larger understanding of it. Flaubert once said something like, “Everyone’s writing just one big novel.” Do you think you’re just writing one big novel?
SHEPARD: I have four collections of stories. When I go back to stories in Project X, or stories in Batting Against Castro, some of the ideas and some of the emotional situations that are surfacing are not very different from the most recent stories. I mean, I’m certainly getting better at teaching myself about them, and they’re multiplying because I’m not, thank God, a monolithic human being in psychological terms.
STORY: In the collection Like You’d Understand Anyway, your brother—or brothers in general—seems to be the main concern of about 60 to 70 percent of the stories. What other concerns are out there fueling your writing, concerns that perhaps you keep to yourself?
SHEPARD: One of the things that I try to make clear to my students is really important when they’re generating fiction is a sense that the emotional stakes of what’s going on are really crucial, and you need to feel I think in the fiction that something really, really urgent and really, really important is at stake. One of the advantages of mobilizing something like a brother, or mobilizing something like a love relationship or whatever, is that a huge amount depends on these problems getting worked through or getting confronted. And that is a really nice way, I think, of preventing the kind of fiction that often happens in a workshop, where somebody goes, well, this might be a good idea for a story, but doesn’t feel particularly passionate about the subject really. It is a kind of off-handed laissez-faire relationship to the material. You sort of feel like this is a talented person who’s thinking an interesting problem. I try to avoid that whenever I can. One of the ways of avoiding it is to continually bring situations back to situations that seem usually charged for me. So when I was dealing with Chernobyl, for example, I was coming across nepotism as a clear cause of part of the Soviet irresponsibility when it came to both the run up to Chernobyl and the reaction to it afterwards. I began to realize what nepotism means is that your loved ones are plugged into the chain all the way up and down the responsibility. So what is it like to be able to say to a loved one, oh, you’re doing the wrong thing, but, you know what? Stay at it.
STORY: You have become something like the go-to person for writers looking for advice about fiction based on historical research. This is a subject you have addressed in a few places recently, such as in pieces for Ascent and Electric Literature, where you write about the idea of empathetic imagination as being at the heart of a writer’s job. Could you talk more about this idea of empathetic imagination? What it means to you?
SHEPARD: I said somewhere else—and I don’t know if it is anything you’ve got access to—but I said it once in a lecture at Tin House, and I think I said it before that I imagine it as sort of an Venn figure diagram. And it was something I figured out for myself when I working on the novel about F. W. Murnau, because he was so different than I was in so many different ways and so mysterious in many ways. But what I had figured out was that what’s heartening about the Venn Diagram is that the areas of non-overlap are—in no bad way—bigger than the areas of overlap. That was encouraging to me because I suddenly had the idea that that area which is not very large is very important. And it helps me to understand all sorts of things that are quite different so that I might say to myself, well, I didn’t live in Germany in the ‘20s, and I’m not there, and I wasn’t raised by Prussian parents—but that sense of being startled all the time of having somebody say, “You know, it’s really hard to get to know you,” exactly it overlaps with Murnau. Or any other areas of what I call emotional resonance. And you find that emotional resonance by continually coming across intimate information about them that rings a bell in your ear. There’s so many ways in which that man who is a real guy is not anything like me, but there are any number of ways that he is very much like me And I know how he would feel in that moment and I feel I know how that works. The kind of stuff that would bother him would bother me. And in that area of emotional overlap is powering all of that stuff, giving me the chutzpah to say, oh, I can write about this. The outside stuff anyone can learn, like: how does the Hindenburg work? That’s not a very hard thing to figure out.
That’s certainly the way the Lindberg thing broke down. I was reading lots of stuff about Lindberg, some of which sounds like somebody you can relate to and I would learn more and more and more. That often involves getting more and more intimate with this person, because you are getting primary documents instead of secondary sources. So you are reading letters and you are reading interviews and you are reading stuff that is actually that person’s life. At that moment you begin to go, oh, there certainly does sound like there is an overlap here in terms of what I most fret about and what he most frets about and that kind of stuff—or you begin to go, yeah, I understand this person, but not in a very overlapping emotional way. With Lindberg that’s really what happened. You begin to think you understand them pretty well, but not really from the inside; more from the outside. And at that point for me the process shuts down. I’m not bitter and I’m not upset, because I wanted to learn about Lindberg anyway. It’s not lost time by any means. I think if it happened twelve times in a row I would think, oh my God, are you ever going to write anything again? Spending six months studying and learning about Lindberg and not having it not turn into anything. It’s another reason why writers want another job, because I didn’t have to say at that moment, how are my children going to eat? I could say, okay well, you will write something else at some other point. That’s a luxury, and that’s not a luxury I would diminish or minimize by any means.
STORY: I had a fascinating time of going back through all your work—going back to Flights and reading forward—and there was something that happened when I hit Nosferatu, another shift in your work, a different direction, something that seemed new and invigorating. You talked about Nosferatu being the place where you started to think about the Venn Diagram idea of relating to characters. Do you see a similar shift, perhaps like the one you talked about earlier, regarding the short story “Krakatoa”?
SHEPARD: I think Nosferatu and “Krakatoa” are probably the two major shifts. Krakatoa because I figured out that there was a way—and it’s baldly sort of spelled out in the story—there is a way that you can sort of appropriate all aspects of the world as constantly complicating metaphors rather than reductive metaphors. And that’s an invigorating way of getting at more emotional information rather than simply categorizing and shutting down emotional information. And that was a realization to me, realizing that I could do that. You can come at an emotional subject that you would prefer not to come at—that you certainly wouldn’t sit down at your desk and say, today I am going to write about this emotional subject—by fooling yourself and by telling yourself you are writing about something else entirely, you are writing about something very cool that has nothing to do with you, that you are just out there reading about guillotines, and how cool is that? And then it turns out you are back to some of the central things that you want to wrestle with anyway. That was revelatory for me and had a huge effect on making me more productive. That was a much greater emphatic reach for me, and I don’t think I could have tried it had I not been so affected at such an early age by that movie. So even though it’s hard to imagine a world or a movie that’s so different—a Catholic kid from Bridgeport and an oppression from the ‘20s—but Nosferatu the movie felt so personal to me and so much a part of my life that I wasn’t going to let that go. So I said, okay, I’m going to go out and I’m going to research. I had talked to them, but I didn’t know at all what a director’s working journal in the silent years would look like. And I knew that that’s the way that I wanted to apprehend the story. And I knew that there wasn’t going to be anything written about those, about the making of it, because I knew that much about Murnau. So I thought: I have to find accounts by directors who are roughly contemporaneous of Murnau on what it’s like to make movies, and I have to immerse myself in those. Of course, then you just learn a lot of cool shit.
But really what I was doing was sort of saying, okay, this stuff that you feel very powerfully is personal about this movie, it is going to allow you to connect to a very salient sensibility because somebody else made this movie. You didn’t make it, so you’re responding in a very powerful way that allows you to make this jump. But if it hadn’t been Nosferatu, I probably couldn’t have done it. I probably would have thought, where do you get off writing about this guy? You simply don’t know or don’t care enough to do it. Having done that though then, I was able to train myself to do other things that didn’t mean as much to me as Nosferatu did. I could have, in a different life, been a volcanologist, really cared about Krakatoa and volcanoes. But I wasn’t.
So that was a step that in some ways had to follow my earlier process for Nosferatu. So even though Nosferatu as a novel came out later than “Krakatoa” did as a story, “Nosferatu” the story proceeded it; I think the Triquarterly story [“Nosferatu”] came out before “Krakatoa.” And I think it had to have proceeded it for it to work.
STORY: As a writer known for researching, what are your thoughts on when to stop researching? When is enough? Similarly, is it okay to fudge things, to lie about historical events? Such as, I was reading your new story “Gojira” about the special effects man on the Godzilla films, Eiji Tsuburaya, and I got to the end and the man has the book open—
SHEPARD:—to Oscar Wilde.
STORY: Yeah, to Oscar Wilde, and I thought: that’s gorgeous. That’s so resonant regarding what’s going on in this animator’s life and everything else in the story. But then I was like, wait: was that section really underlined in the book? Did he really have that book open?
SHEPARD: That’s a good example. In terms of the first question, one of the most common and pragmatic of the questions I get from people—usually in writer’s conferences and MFA programs—is when do I stop. It is really important to note, and I do point out to them, that it isn’t a matter of, “I need to be a total expert in this before I can move forward.” In fact you’re not going to be a total expert in it. If fiction in general and short fiction in particular involves the selection of very few details that are supposed to stand in for this much greater illusion—the iceberg metaphor that many, including Hemingway say—then really what you’re doing is looking for a selection of details that create the illusion that you know exactly what you’re talking about.
I vet what I do with experts so I don’t have any terrible mistakes. So a nuclear physicist will look over “Chernobyl” before it goes out. But I’m in no way comprehending everything I’m talking about, if I’m talking about physics, for example, or something like that.
At some point when you’re researching you say to yourself, I think I know enough about one local area of this, I’m sufficiently excited that I want to try and start writing fiction. I think that’s the way that it operates for me, say, writing a story like that about the French Revolution—which I went from knowing almost nothing about to knowing a huge amount about after a huge amount of research. At some point I think, I can write a little bit about what it must have been like to be around the guillotine and see the ground that soaked with blood, and I’ll start to write that. I won’t be able to write about what dinner at this person’s house was like yet, but I’ll be able to stick my toe into that world fictively so that I can start to find out for myself what other sort of stuff I need to educate myself about, also so I can get this whole thing moving, because there is a way in which you can be so intimidated by the process, that “I can’t do this until I know more.” But that’s a great way of just shutting yourself down, because you always need to know more. Really what you’re trying to do is get to the point where you’re sufficiently excited and feeling empowered enough in local areas that you feel like, I think I can do that, let me try that.
It’s terrifying how much there is to know and how much you can’t really know because nobody knows. At one point I thought I was going to write something much longer about Aeschylus, including the birth of drama, and it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to do that. I had researched it for eight years, I think—doing other things at the same time, but researching it. But I was still running up against areas of opacity that I didn’t feel confident to fill, and at some point I said to myself, okay, well you do feel confident about what it would be like to be a hoplite at Marathon and to be fighting alongside your brother as a hoplite at Marathon, so try that, just that one little narrow area. You have all this other stuff that you know about Aeschylus that’s going to need to bear on that, but you’re not going to be writing about the birth of drama.
STORY: What about making stuff up entirely?
SHEPARD: I feel like you have a responsibility to the historical record, but that responsibility is not entirely comprehensive and it doesn’t include non-essentials, is the way I would put it. I find it greatly liberating to remember that history is hardly a noncontroversial subject and that, in fact, any number of historians will disagree about any number of crucial things. In that area is the wiggle room that the fiction writer can move around. But having convinced yourself of the historical accuracy of something, I don’t think you can change it. At least, I don’t feel like I can change it.
So in the case of “Gojira,” for example, everything I know about him that’s accurate has to be reflected in the story that way. In the case of something like the Oscar Wilde letter, that’s made up, and the fact that I made it up doesn’t particularly bother me because it’s not a very central aspect of his historical life. In the same way his exchanges with his children at the dinner table are made up. And I know he had those children, I know he had a relationship that was something like what I’m describing, but I don’t feel that I need to go, now, did he really say this at breakfast? Because if he didn’t I can’t put it in the story. What I do feel is: if this is what his relationship to the Japanese military was, you don’t really have the right to change that.
So when I’m working on those sorts of stories, fact checkers and copy editors and historians with whom I’m working will come and say, I don’t think this is right. If they say that and I’m convinced, then I have to change it. But there’s all sorts of wiggle room involving the interiority of somebody involving small details of their lives, like did he own a copy of Oscar Wilde. I don’t know. I’m not going to bother to find out. My guy did because I wanted him to. If I met a Japanese historian who said, you know as well as I do that Tsuburaya would never in a million years own it, then I would say, why is that? Why would you think he wouldn’t own a copy of Oscar Wilde? And if he convinced me then I would worry about it.
A good example of how I trained myself in that regard is Murnau again. Murnau had such gigantic gaps in his life—because the information was protected by his family and he was hugely secretive—that it gave me enormous room to maneuver. But as I was maneuvering and I was learning more about his life and I began a second stage of research, which was actually in Germany where there’s a lot more information about it, I was actually moving into an area of trepidation, where it’s sort of like, well, I might learn stuff that’s really going to change my whole conception of who this guy was. Not just, oh he didn’t go to Tahiti when you thought he went to Tahiti. But also, this is not the person you thought he was. That was actually frightening.
As it turned out the stuff I was learning didn’t transform my sense of it, so I was like, oh good, this guy that I was imagining sounds very much like the real guy the more I’m learning. I’m sure my empathetic imagination fell short in any number of ways in terms of his German-ness, in terms of who he really was, that if people who knew him intimately read it, or somebody who’s absolutely steeped in the German film industry would go, that moment is not what it would look like. But again, I’m doing the best I can from a great remove.
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and four story collections, most recently You Think That’s Bad (Knopf, 2011). His third collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, the New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and elsewhere. He teaches at Williams College and in the Warren Wilson MFA program, and lives in Williamstown with his wife, the writer Karen Shepard, and three children.
Travis Kurowski is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at York College of Pennsylvania, where he is a founding editor of Story. He is the editor of the 2013 book Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine and the “Literary MagNet” columnist for Poets & Writers.