An Interview with Jim Shepard
Jen Levitt and Adam Dalva, Issue 31
When we first emailed Jim Shepard, we mentioned that he was at the top of our “big-name fiction writers” list. Big-name fiction writers! he wrote back. I think you’ve got the wrong guy. This response is characteristic of Jim’s charms: He’s easy-going, playful, sardonic—adjectives that can also describe his writing. Known for stories that draw on extensive historical research without feeling didactic, as well as narrators whose experiences run the gamut—a recent war veteran living at home with his mother, a 1930s female British explorer—Jim has the ability to create empathy for even the most maligned outcast. In interviews, he displays a signature wit and attention to craft. Here, Jim spoke with us about first-person versus third-person point of view; why cutting the most interesting details can serve a story; and how he’s perfected his reading voice. Enjoy.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve spoken in interviews about being drawn to the first-person voice for its confessional quality. What opportunities does a confessional narrator, or a narrator that seems to speak directly to the reader, offer?
JIM SHEPARD: I’m always interested in ways of getting at the emotional stakes as rapidly as possible, and since first person voices in my experience are inherently likely to be more obsessively preoccupied with what’s bothering them—whether they’re exactly right about it or not, and whether they’re misrepresenting themselves or not—I’ve been more drawn to them in recent years. I’m also drawn to the way such voices confront head-on the hubris of some of the empathetic leaps that the writer might be attempting.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Along the same lines, some of the most lauded fiction of the past year—Zadie Smith’s NW, Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her—seems concerned, among other things, with diction and vernacular, with getting a voice exactly right. Can you speak about your investment in voice? How do you go about establishing the difference in tone between Edwin Hanratty, your eighth grade bottom feeder from Project X and, say, Freya Stark, the 1930s explorer in “The Track of the Assassins” from your most recent collection, You Think That’s Bad?
JIM SHEPARD: A commitment to voice is another way of committing yourself to that project of empathy; to treating that figure you’re starting to imagine with the respect he or she deserves. In the case of an eighth grade bottom feeder, I’m committing myself to my memory, and to what research I’m doing; in the case of Freya Stark, to primary documents that give me access to that voice. I educate myself about how they sound and why they sound that way, and then I try to generate more stuff like that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How do you go about, then, deciding to do a story like “Gojira, King of the Monsters” in the third person?
JIM SHEPARD: I started “Gojira” in the first person, and moved away from it once I realized that part of my protagonist’s problem was the way he essentially thought of himself in the third person: He kept himself at a consistent distance from his own emotions, even as he registered their power over him. He was most comfortable thinking of himself as part of a great machine, and/or as someone whose own agenda was not a priority.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: One of the unique aspects of your writing is the amount of research you put into each story. Do you discover your story in doing your research, or do you go into your research with your characters and plot already mapped out? Were some of the details in your stories, like the broken bodies of avalanche victims in “Your Fate Hurtles Down At You,” or the deleterious effects of the tropical rain in “Happy With Crocodiles,” discoveries that you had to put in?
JIM SHEPARD: Both: I discover a lot of my story in doing the research, and I go into the research with a plan concerning what I’m going to try to do. Normally the way it works is that I just start reading something strange because I’m the kind of nerdy guy who, when given some time to himself, would like to read something strange. Sometimes during that sort of reading something will strike me; one of the human dilemmas I come across will have some extra emotional resonance, and will stick with me. At that point I might start reading more on the subject, and if those sorts of resonances start to accumulate, I’ll start to consider how a story on that subject might work. Then I’ll start doing all sorts of other research. Details like the ways in which bodies break in avalanches, or what tropical rain can do to you: Those are the sorts of things that tend to come up as I’m deeper into the research.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Furthermore, the information in your stories never seems overwhelming or expository, a particular challenge when writing in first person. How do you strike the balance between informing your readers that, for example, this is the Netherlands in the future or a World War II narrative, without overwhelming us with historical detail or back story?
JIM SHEPARD: That’s one of the challenges, of course: not letting all of that cool stuff that you’ve found out, and about which you want to educate the reader, take over the story altogether. Particularly because the cool stuff is much easier to deal with than the emotional material. I’ve cut details that I thought were amazing and wonderful from every story I’ve written. But the way I try to think of it is that everything has to serve the narrative, and by that I mean that everything has to, in one way or another, contribute to our enlarging understanding of the characters’ emotional situations.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve said in interviews that a number of poets, from Charles Simic to Louise Glück, have influenced you. How does reading poetry enhance your fiction? Or, to put it another way, what aspects of poetry are you most drawn to or resonate most with you when writing fiction?
JIM SHEPARD: There’s so much poetry continues to teach—or shame—me about. Compression. The astonishing power of the image. The uses of mystery. Everything I admire about poetry I admire about the prose I most love. And vice versa.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Will you speak a little about your experience teaching undergraduates? How long have you been teaching creative writing, and how has that practice evolved over the years? What writers or approaches have been most successful with college-aged writers?
JIM SHEPARD: How long? Oh, God. Now I’m depressed. I’ve been teaching undergraduates, with the occasional break to teach graduate students, for thirty-two years now. I hope to God my practice has evolved over that span. Some writers’ appeal has stayed pretty constant over the years, though. I almost always teach some Flannery O’Connor; some Ray Carver; some Grace Paley; some Denis Johnson; some Chekhov; some Amy Hempel; some Barthelme; some Junot Díaz. But that’s the kind of list that could go on and on.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: There seems to be much debate as of late about the merits or hazards of pursuing an MFA in creative writing. What was most significant about your own MFA experience? Do you feel that in fact there is a so-called “MFA brand” of fiction that feels too self-conscious or predictable, or do you find the conversation reductive?
JIM SHEPARD: I don’t think there’s an MFA brand of fiction; I think that fear is a little silly. I do recognize the grotesquerie of MFA attendance climbing even as literary readership seems to be declining. The reasons to pursue an MFA seem to me to be simple: if you can’t find otherwise in your life A) the time and discipline to write, and/or B) informed and constructive feedback. If you think of MFA programs as professional schools, then they do start to resemble giant Ponzi schemes. But if you think of them as places where people can learn to become better readers and writers, then they seem a little less like one of society’s most pressing problems.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’re from Connecticut, went to school there and in Rhode Island, and now live in Williamstown, Massachusetts. How, if at all, has living in New England made its way into or shaped your work? Or, unrelated to writing, what draws you to and has kept you in New England?
JIM SHEPARD: That’s a good question. I’ve considered taking jobs elsewhere, so I don’t think I’m dedicated to staying in New England, but it’s just worked out that way. I tend to worry about what I’m writing, and not where I’m writing it. But New England has clearly offered enough to me that I haven’t looked around and said to myself, I have to get out of here. I don’t think of myself as a stereotypical New Englander, but what do I know? Someone not from New England might.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: We know you’re interested in the idea that fiction should have a political element to it, or that it should engage with the greater world. Is there anything about the recent presidential election or campaign season that has stayed with you or might find its way into your work?
JIM SHEPARD: A lot has stayed with me. Here’s hoping it doesn’t find its way into my work.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It was particularly chilling to re-read “The Netherlands Lives With Water” after the recent calamity of Hurricane Sandy. How did your research for that story affect your experience of the storm?
JIM SHEPARD: I had researched, and had tried to imagine, a number of the stories that I then read about again in the accounts of Sandy. It was an unpleasant and saddening feeling of déjà vu. Given that I write a lot about man-made catastrophes, I have the feeling I’m going to be having a lot more experiences like that in the years to come.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How, if at all, is the experience of writing a novel different from working on short stories?
JIM SHEPARD: It’s a much longer commitment to a single imagined world, or set of worlds, and that brings with it all sorts of unique anxieties. Stories in my experience produce one set of worries; novels another.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Lastly, you have a well-deserved reputation as one of the great readers-out-loud in the world of fiction. What do you think the challenges are of reading a prose narrative out loud, and how did you get to be so good at it?
JIM SHEPARD: Ha! Where’d you hear that? I do try to remember how hard it’s getting for people to really listen, and I work to make sure that I’m conveying the emotional sense of what’s going on. And I also try to have fun, and distract people from the way I look.