photo © Michael Lionstar
Jim Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The author of six novels and four short story collections, his work has appeared in many publications including McSweeney’s, Granta, Harper’s, The New Yorker and The Paris Review. His novel Project X won the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award. His 2007 collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was awarded the Story Prize in 2008, and was nominated for a National Book Award in 2007. Jim is currently a professor of creative writing and film at Williams College.
Harlequin: “Where do you get your ideas from?” and “How autobiographical are your stories?” are perhaps the two things writers are most often asked. These questions seem to be prescribing clear divisions within the creative consciousness over the way writers make decisions, if indeed “decisions” is the right word. This focus on conception and process seems to have attracted even greater attention in your writing, with readers being fascinated by your immersion in subjects and your industrious research. These days, how do you navigate your way through those familiar questions? It must feel as though you’re becoming the Daniel Day Lewis of writing “method”.
Jim Shepard: Ha! Your analogy is certainly flattering, though I can assure you that there hasn’t been a single day in which I’ve said to myself, “Boy, do I feel like Daniel Day Lewis.” I suppose I navigate those sorts of questions by talking about the ways in which so many writers I know, myself included, do not gravitate towards a fiercely rigorous interrogation of our own inner emotional states, and so therefore spend a lot of our time in our writing lives leading ourselves towards that goal. All of my fiction is autobiographical in that it involves emotional and thematic conflicts that are of urgent importance to me, but I don’t begin a story by deciding it’s high time I engaged one of those conflicts; I begin by finding something that the ten year-old boy in me thinks would be compelling or enjoyable to engage as a subject — tidal waves! Japanese monster movies! etc. — and then discovering that part of why those subjects are compelling to me is because they’re allowing me to access — or even to fool myself into engaging — emotional issues that are hugely important to me. The extra layer of distance in the subject matter probably affords me the opportunity to be a little more emotionally honest, as well. Oscar Wilde’s way of putting that was, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own persona. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” (Oscar Wilde: now there’s an odd poster boy for emotional honesty.)
H: It’s interesting to hear you talk about that distance, especially in relation to that ten-year-old point of view. You’ve written plenty of stories about working class boys in Connecticut. Why do you think that childhood and the adolescent point of view has been able to provide such thrilling stages for your subjects? You’ve kept away from that well-trodden road of writing about a literature professor and his sex life.
JS: The notion of writing about academia has never fascinated me, partially because it seems that so little is normally at stake in the day-to-day negotiation of such lives — besides, perhaps, a scholar’s scholarship — that such a world seems to lend itself mostly to satire (which then means, given how routinely anti-intellectual our culture mostly is, satirizing a subject that seems hardly so sacrosanct that it makes sense to attack it) or to gentle comedy, of the sort Rick Russo pulled off in Straight Man. Childhood and adolescence has always interested me for any number of reasons, but two that continually reoccur to me are: first, the way in which the continuum between being unable to fully articulate and unwilling to fully articulate is so transparently on view at those ages, and second, the way the liminal status of adolescence muddies up in such dramatically useful ways the issues of what’s expected of us and how far our responsibilities to others extend.
H: Do you find the brevity of short stories contributes to that articulateness continuum? Is there something inherent in the short form which constricts the narrative means of comprehension and articulateness?
JS: Absolutely: the extreme economy of the short form both highlights and enacts that pressure we put on our powers of articulation, and really highlights, as well, what’s being elided — the ethical implications in the ways in which narratives are composed, etc.
H: So many of your characters relieve that pressure with grand distractions. They climb mountains or play baseball to a high standard — they have these activities and interests in their lives which act as a safety valve to their troubles. Would you say that a central schism in your stories is that between mediocrity and the pursuit of some elusive passion?
JS: I don’t think I’d characterize that as a central schism, no, though it is of course important. That seems most central, perhaps, in “Batting Against Castro.” I don’t think it’s mediocrity that most of my characters fear as much as being in over their head in a situation in which their inability to measure up to the task before them might well cost others in some very important way. See a story like “Poland Is Watching,” for example. And that operates as a correlative to how they feel in their most crucial emotional relationships.
H: Are you interested in writing stories with a moral message, or is that at odds with your view of fiction?
JS: I don’t really know what I know or feel about a situation until I do the exploratory work of writing about it, and sometimes even after I’ve done that, I’m hardly left in the sort of fixed position that would suggest I was in the process of delivering a moral message. Anything that might be plausibly put under the heading of ‘message’ is something I’m groping my way towards, rather than beginning my project ready to present. That having been said, though, most of the literature about which I care passionately has a distinct ethical dimension; most — given its project of showing us how we live, in emotional and ethical terms — is concerned in some way with the issue of how to live.
H: In exploring those questions, your stories are often pulling a sense of universality out of a niche or exotic interest. Is reconciling the exotic with something universal something which interests you?
JS: Reconciling the exotic with something universal is something that interests me, but only, I suppose, as a byproduct: I’m primarily interested in teaching myself about how the world works, and how I might go about becoming a more informed and politically productive citizen of that world — as opposed to just a consumer of some sort — and everything else follows from that. Including whatever fiction I’m able to generate.
H: On that question of political engagement, it’s almost strange to think that you wrote Project X before the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. Now that gun control is so high on the political agenda, do you recall anything you took from researching that novel which seems even more prevalent now than it was then?
JS: All of the social dysfunctions that were present in American society and that drove my interest in the subject have gotten even more severe, I think I would claim. The good news is that Newtown did cause the mainstream media to register just how large a majority of Americans would favor some kind of controls on the deadliest sort of weapons — weapons that are never used, for example, for hunting — and to reflect a bit on why that majority would be so powerless: in other words, on the ways in which American democracy really no longer works.
H: Is personal disillusion the major dysfunction in America today, would you say? And is it related to the widening gap between mediocrity and celebrity, anonymity and notoriety?
JS: Possibly. I think it might have more to do, though, with the revelation of powerlessness attendant on the growing understanding of the size and the implications of the growing class divide.
H: The author Martin Amis said once that “you write about the things you don’t know you’re worrying about”. He realised his books were about “misattributed children” only after a reviewer pointed it out. Have you ever noticed an underlying preoccupation in your writing, and did it take you by surprise?
JS: I’ve always liked Martin Amis’ quote, as well as John L’Heureux’s related remark that you’re writing about what you don’t know about what you know. I don’t think an underlying preoccupation in one of my works ever entirely took me by surprise, but I think I have often been surprised at the power or the intensity that a preoccupation turned out to have for me. Over the years, my work has had the happy effect of educating me about my emotions, I suppose. My wife Karen would say Thank God for that. She’d also probably suggest that there’s still some educating yet to be done.