September 2007

Weston Cutter

features

An Interview with Jim Shepard

It's just a breath of a line, but in an essay on Richard Powers in Lonesome Rangers, John Leonard begins one of the sections with the line "Boy, is he smart." The line could just as easily apply to Jim Shepard, whose Like You'd Understand, Anyway is not just full of eleven great short stories, but eleven short stories which, among themselves, share almost no traits other than great writing and the obvious work of a generous writer.

Shepard's one of a handful of writers of American fiction who could get away with a book of short stories which feature, in no particular order, Aeschylus at middle age; the brother of one of the turbine managers who worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear plant the night of the meltdown; a pair of Russian cosmonaut lovers. It's not even that Shepard dares write stories featuring what might seem preposterous narrators or characters -- these stories sing, they're absolutely alive and tremulant. Nor does Shepard rely on interesting settings as a means of distraction: the stories in here about summer camp, about football practice, about the unraveling of a tightly wound domestic scene are just as bright and insightful and stuffed with great sentences as are the rest.

Jim Shepard's a professor at Williams College, author of several books -- novels and short stories -- and has either edited or co-edited a number of books ranging from poetry by writers' dogs to writers at the movies. He very graciously answered our questions over e-mail in early August.

In the acknowledgments you list over sixty books or articles that in some way helped the stories in Like You’d Understand, Anyway exist. I was thrilled to see it, not because I’m a huge fan of well-researched, historically grounded fiction, but because of how much it emphasizes the fact that writing demands lots of reading. Do you end up reading a ton for your work (not even necessarily as research, but more as a process to ground yourself in a milieu)? This question sounds moronic, but what’s the relationship between reading and writing for you? Do you end up writing stories because of things you’ve read and taken a shine to? (I ask about reading and writing, too, because I think the first time I ever saw your name on a book was on You’ve Got To Read This, which was a book about writing only inasmuch as it was about writers getting excited about reading).

In a lot of cases my stories wouldn’t have come to be without some of those books and articles. I read a huge amount, initially just because something fascinates me, and as I’m reading, I’m trying to read receptively; that is, I’m trying to be alert to small but significant stirrings of affect, or some kind of quiet charge inside me: whatever it is in the material that might make it more than usually compelling, and affecting, to me. I don’t need, initially, to be able to articulate to myself fully what that is; I just need to have registered it on some level. Once I think I’ve identified something like that (and it hardly happens all the time; often I’ll do a huge amount of reading on one subject, and nothing will come of it, other than my own pleasure) my reading changes, and I start approaching the material as though researching a subject: i.e., with some notion of the sorts of gaps I’d need to fill in if I were going to attempt to recreate the illusion of a world like the one about which I’m reading. I certainly, in other words, end up writing stories because of things I’ve read. But those things are almost always moments in which human beings have found themselves in extraordinarily difficult, and memorable, positions. In other words, zeppelins themselves don’t get me going; it’s the position in which a zeppelin can place somebody that generates the initial impulse for a story.

I’m sort of amazed that you’re not faculty at an MFA program. What do you see as the benefits of working at a place like Williams, where you’re working with undergraduates? Is there even a difference between working with undergraduates and grad students?

There is a difference. I’ve taught as a visiting writer at various MFA programs and teach, every so often, in Warren Wilson’s MFA program, as well. The disadvantage to teaching undergraduates, of course, is that they’re just starting out; one of the advantages is that they’re being turned on to something amazing. And one of the central benefits of teaching, besides the health plan, is being able to discipline myself as a reader of that literature that I admire. And that teaching is the same for me whether I’m teaching undergrads or grad students. And the best writers I come across at a place like Williams are the equal of the best I’ve found in the MFA programs in which I’ve worked. The big benefit of working at a place like Williams is that I teach what I want, I function as a member of my department, and that’s it: I have, mostly, no other obligations. 

Is it the job of writing classes and workshops to allow that scary/weird/dangerous stuff out in a somewhat safe theater? Is there a limit to what a piece of fiction should attempt? Further, do you feel some political responsibility at work in your fiction? (As someone with pretty overtly political stuff (political there meaning both the John Ashcroft story and Project X), I’m curious about your take on all this, especially after last April's Virginia Tech shootings and whatever fallout might come for writing classes.

It is the job of writing classes to get at difficult and/or scary material in a relatively safe theater: i.e., as Frost said, poetry is play for mortal stakes, and a good workshop makes clear that what’s on the page is not identical to the person who generated it. We’re responsible for what we generate, but it’s also a thing apart from us: that allows us both some license, and allows us to understand ourselves more fully when some of our inchoate impulses are mimed back at us by our work. As for the political responsibility at work in our fiction: should what we write matter? Yes.  

In whatever way you’d like to address this, what are some of your influences (music, books, movies, the moon at night in July)? Somewhat connected, what itch does your nonfiction movie writing scratch, and how different is the process between those and, say, short stories? Is movie watching another version of literacy for you? Not that there is or should be some overall goal of your writing, but is it a matter of seeing things more clearly for what they are, what they pack and contain?

I have lots of influences, and they’re the sort of ones you’d expect from reading my work: history, science, movies, the rest of mostly American popular culture. My nonfiction movie writing allows me to both deal with movies more directly (movies are big love of mine) and also allows me to be more overtly political at a time when that seems necessary, to say the least.

Movie watching seems to me another kind of literacy, and one that shouldn’t replace the first kind. Critics have remarked that my work reads like I’ve been raised on movies, and that’s probably right: movies stress the visceral, and the visual, and the implied, in terms of inner states; literature more easily encompasses abstract ideas, ruminations, and the intricacies of thought: the sort of stuff that some of my stories might seem to shy away from. I hope that that those stories are just coming at such things from a different angle, however.

Do you feel there’s a greater sense of community right now, among writers? I’m 28, so I’ve had Dave Eggers and McSweeneys and David Foster Wallace and etc. since I was in college, and it does feel that way to me -- something akin to the brat pack of the '80s. Do you feel this? Is there a group of writers with whom you’re close and feel some affinity with (Ron Hansen, obviously, but also, I read your interview on Identity Theory, and you mentioned Charles Baxter quite a bit, plus there’s your interview with Stephen Millhauser)? Are there younger authors you’re particularly impressed with and enamored of?

Do I feel as though there’s a greater sense of community right now among writers? As opposed to when? I think there is a sense of community among some of the writers you’ve mentioned, as well as others, though I have no idea if there’s more of a sense than there used to be in, say, for example, the early '80s among not only the Brat Pack but also those writers who had gathered themselves around Raymond Carver’s example and aesthetic. Anyone who attends a writer’s conference like the Tin House one, in Portland, for example, is given a vivid sense of how a community of writers works. And is also given a sense of how ephemeral that community feels. Writing is a solitary profession, and it’s nice to know that there are sympathetic and supportive souls out there, whose work you respect and who seem to respect yours. But they’re often scattered across the country. Some of my closest writer friends I see only a few times a year. 

Just to settle a bet between a friend and I (re: “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak”): did you ever play football?

Yes.

How do you feel about this new book? That sounds like a relatively tame question, but I don’t mean it as such. You’re one of a handful of writers (Munro, Aimee Bender, Lorrie Moore, John McPhee in nonfiction) who don’t seem out to Break Down Boundaries or anything with each new work, but who simply show up and do a consistently great job. Do you have a sense of progression with your work? Is Like You’d Understand, Anyway, to you, hugely different from Batting Against Castro (another great, consistent collection, charged and interesting)?

I do have a sense of a progression in my work. I think that Love and Hydrogen is a better book than Batting Against Castro, and probably better than a number of my novels. I don’t know if this one’s better than Love and Hydrogen, but I think it’s at least as good. Mostly, I’m pleased that, so far, at least, I’m not going downhill.