Jim Shepard’s Version of Stretching Exercises: An Interview

BY CONOR BROUGHAN

jim-shepard-120x150Jim Shepard’s new collection of short stories You Think That’s Bad was recently published and Mr. Shepard was kind of enough to take the time to respond to our questions about his new book over email. Be sure to read the full review of You Think That’s Bad in the Reviews section of the website.

Jim Shepard is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including most recently Like You’d Understand, Anyway, which was nominated for the National Book Award and won the Story Prize, and You Think That’s Bad, due out in March.

Sycamore Review: In your new story “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” the Frozen Idiots—four men that have volunteered to study avalanche defense measures in the Alps—tell each other uncanny and macabre stories about avalanches while in the midst of an avalanche zone. One of the characters believes “there is much to be learned from such narratives, particularly when the phenomena described have been confirmed elsewhere.” This line reads like a possible manifestation of your fictional project where the stories that you tell are often born of rigorous research and ample reading, if the Acknowledgements page at the end of the book is accurate. I don’t often equate research with short stories. Can you speak about your process when writing stories based on actual events and historical figures? How much liberty do you give yourself to fictionalize in stories based on true events?

Jim Shepard: I think that line that you quote does sound like a manifestation of my fictional project, and I hadn’t thought of it as such.   My process when writing about actual events and historical figures is to be A) as faithful to the truth as I can be, and B) to remember that the truth, as historians will remind us, can be a malleable thing.   Occasionally, too, I’ll conflate events.   If I really believe something to have happened a certain way, though, I won’t change it.   Where I find room to maneuver is in that opaque or mysterious area that adheres to most accounts.   Which may be why I wouldn’t write about certain historical figures who have had every waking moment accounted for – or who have themselves chronicled their every waking moment – someone like Winston Churchill, for example.

Sycamore Review: Many of your stories in this collection are written in first-person point of view. Do you think writing in that mode offers more access to the characters—whether fully imagined or based on fact? With all the research involved for some of these stories, do you feel like you need to separate yourself from the objective history of the characters and write in 1st person in order to find deeper emotional truths?

you-think-thats-bad2Jim Shepard: I think the 1st person allows me more comprehensive access to my sense of their voices, which allows me to more fully and rapidly have them cohere in my imagination.   I think, too, that the tightrope-walk challenge of the 1st person allows me in some ways to more fully confront the hubris of what I’m up to:  as in, you’re not only trying to write about Aeschylus; you’re trying to imagine his voice.

Sycamore Review: You once said in an interview (and I will paraphrase as best as I can) that writers can only arm themselves with as much hard information and empathetic imagination as possible when writing about real people and historical moments. Do you feel like fiction, whether re-imagined historical lives or fully imagined ones, is more or a less an act of empathy? How does writing from outside your own experience—and from experiences as far-ranging as 14th century French serial-killers, covert agents in the American desert, alpine research teams, and Japanese special effects gurus—engender that kind of empathy?

Jim Shepard: I do feel that literary fiction at least as I define it is an act of imaginative empathy.  And it’s not so much that writing so far outside my own autobiographical experience – at least in terms of events – engenders that empathy as exercises it.   It’s like I’m trying to do my own version of stretching exercises.

Sycamore Review: I keep coming back to the story “Gojira, King of the Monsters” and reading it with a certain sense of awe. The director of the first Godzilla movie is amazed at the nuance of the monster’s face, created by the protagonist, Eiji Tsuburaya, and says that “The paradox of fearsomeness and longing is what the whole thing is about.” Many of the stories in You Think That’s Bad follow that very logic. Protagonists—often married men from 1st person point of view—long to find better versions of themselves, but what they fear is a little more elusive because of what they already have: a stable family, loving wife, children that need their love. Can you speak about this recurring theme of fear and longing for your protagonists and why you are drawn to characters who over a simple meal of boiled rice with vinegar may end up “weeping for all that he’d been granted, and for everything he’d thrown away.”

like-youd-understand3Jim Shepard: Again, an astute observation: that “paradox of fearsomeness and longing” is what a lot of my stories are interested in interrogating.  And that fearsomeness, in the case of a story like “Gojira,” has everything to do with a glimpse of the size of that gap that may exist between who want to be and the way we sometimes behave.  No one cherishes his family more than my Tsuburaya does; and yet.  And yet.

Sycamore Review: In the introduction to the Ploughshares issue you edited in Fall 2010, you said that your thesis advisor, John Hawkes, reminded you to persistently interrogate the weirdness in your work, and luckily for us you have followed suit. Many Sycamore Review readers are also writers and I hoped that maybe you could let us know a few of the other writers who have influenced your work, particularly your short stories.

Jim Shepard: Oh, I’ve been influenced by huge numbers of writers, the extent of their influence having a lot to do with when I encountered them.  In 7th or 8th grade, Salinger was spectacularly important for demonstrating to me that someone from a background and/or with a sensibility like mine – someone who wasn’t Henry James, in other words – could aspire to creating literature.   Soon after that, Hemingway for what he demonstrated about the unspoken.   Soon after that, Flannery O’Connor for what she demonstrated about the need for a certain ferocity and the linkage between the ferocious and the comic.   In college and afterwards, Joyce and Nabokov, among so many others, for the exquisiteness of their sentences and the otherworldly perceptiveness of their observational abilities.   Etc.

Sycamore Review: Final question: Possibly more for my piece of mind than anything else….Your stories are fearless in both content and style. I always wonder if you have ever come across a person or historical event that fascinated you and occasioned research, but in the end proved to be impossible to write a story about. A part of me—a petty, jealous part of me— hopes that you have, but another part of me is pretty certain that hasn’t happened based on the growing body of your work.

love-and-hydrogen1-150x150Jim Shepard: Good news.   Oh, God, yes: I’ve had lots of attempts not work out.   I spent somewhere around 7 years researching and trying to write a novel about Aeschylus, and finally had to abandon the effort, feeling as though there were just too many gigantic areas of his life which I couldn’t reconstruct.   I ended up focusing all I had learned through the narrow lens of his experience at Marathon, and got a 12 page story out of all of that material.   I also spent about 6 months researching Charles Lindbergh before having to concede that while I felt like I knew him very well, it was the way a historian or biographer would know someone:  all of that stuff I had learned had failed to generate that charged sense of an emotional overlap that would allow me to attempt a fictional rendering.