The Rumpus Book Club talks with Jim Shepard about his story collection You Think That’s Bad, alpine life, the empathetic reach, and imperial Rome.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Jill Haberkern.
Stephen Elliott: You write stories about fictional characters that clearly aren’t you, and yet it reads like the protagonist is a stand-in for the author. You’re the only author I’ve seen that can pull that off. How do you do it?
Jim Shepard: I think fiction is all about the exercise of the empathetic imagination. Part of what I do is let the stuff I read about meld with what I have experienced.
Derek: Not to get too personal, but is the family drama or conflict within a family part of that experience?
Jim Shepard: Yes. I’ll find something in what I read that snags my imagination in emotional terms; it resonates with me for reasons more complicated than just that it seems like it would make a good story.
Stephen Elliott: Yeah, but if I read, say, Kavalier and Clay, a book I love, there’s a lot of empathy with the characters, but there’s also a distance that’s not there in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh or Wonder Boys.
Jim Shepard: I think there’s a playfulness and a distance to Kavalier and Clay that I don’t aspire to in my stuff. Maybe I’m more old-fashioned, and less of a fabulist, in that way.
Stephen Elliott: You write historical fiction in first person, or a close third. It’s almost like acting.
Benjamin Birdie: One thing I noticed as a theme throughout the book was the overarching idea of disasters, the things out of our control, war, black ops, etc; encroaching on and drowning out singular human experience. Was this something you had in mind before you started writing the stories and guided them towards that, or did they all come to that organically?
Jim Shepard: Disasters occur organically in my work, in that that’s the way my thinking tends, more than that’s what I start out by planning. I’m sort of a catastrophist.
Stephen Elliott: Ha! Next time I see you I’m going to be like, “How’s my favorite catastrophist?”
Jim Shepard: It’s nice to know I’m your favorite catastrophist, and not just one of a herd.
Stephen Elliott: The others just aren’t on par.
Sean Conner: The “reading about,” the research, is staggering. You give it a lot of space in the acknowledgments. It’s exciting to see the short story form used in such ways; I felt I was learning while still consuming fiction for the reasons I read it.
Mia: What got you interested in Gilles de Rais?
Jim Shepard: I read about Gilles de Rais a long time ago, and then returned to it for some reason or another, and there was this passing mention of one of his servants, who was executed with him. And all sorts of bells went off in my head, in terms of emotional response. Especially in terms of two issues I always get charged up about: passive complicity with evil, and class.
Stephen Elliott: There doesn’t seem to be, to me, that many writers writing effectively about class.
Jim Shepard: Class is the most taboo subject in America. The American media would rather talk about race or perversion or anything else considered taboo before class.
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: I was also struck by the amount of specialized knowledge in the stories—hydrodynamics, snow science/alpine life, the private life of Godzilla’s creator. Could you comment on the role of research in your creative process?
Jim Shepard: The specialized knowledge that Aaron’s talking about is stuff I want to read about anyway. I’m the sort of nerd who just takes books like that out of the library. A lot of the time nothing comes from it, or at least nothing right away. Then, every so often, I want to push farther.
David: Is there an average gestation period for stories after you come across something that interests you?
Jim Shepard: I think it probably varies. And I’m probably gestating without knowing it. But often what happens is I’ll find myself returning to subjects. That’s always a sign that something weird is brewing.
Stephen Elliott: How deep do you need to know about a subject before you’re comfortable writing it?
Jim Shepard: Oh, I usually don’t know a whole lot about a subject when I begin; the process itself teaches me a lot as I go along. Usually I know enough about one narrow area of the subject to start myself going, and then everything—including a lot more research—follows from that.
Lidia: What I love about your characters is that they are beyond weird. Alienated and odd but also invested with their zeitgeists and the anxieties of their times and cultures. I’ve a lot of disdain for my fellow humans these days but you make me feel compassion for characters by rearranging their foibles. Upsetting good/bad dichotomies. Do you like people more than me or what? Do you empathize with your characters’ faults and obsessions and compulsions?
Stephen Elliott: Do you secretly not like people? You seem so nice and understanding.
Jim Shepard: I very much like people. I don’t much like writers who don’t.
Lidia: Well since I’m a writer I guess I’m fucked.
Jim Shepard: I feel like one of the things I’m trying most to do is stretch my empathetic reach, as far as it will go. I got as far as Gilles de Rais’ assistant, for example, and not really as far as de Rais himself.
Cruise: Were there earlier drafts where you tried to be empathetic to de Rais?
Jim Shepard: I tried, at first, to write from de Rais’ point of view. I couldn’t go there, fully.
Ron: The idea of stretching empathy is very interesting. Much the opposite of what’s going on in sensationalist media – finger pointing and blame.
Jim Shepard: I think Ron’s right. The mainstream media right now is instructing the population on the opposite of empathy.
Cruise: Do you ever feel like the research gets in the way of writing the story, or is it all just part of the process?
Jim Shepard: Does research get in the way of the story? It certainly can. Anything can, given that as writers we’re all geniuses at procrastination. But mostly research teaches me about the world. Which often shows me the way, in terms of the story.
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: More than just book-learnin, there’s a real sense of intimacy that comes across. In “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” for example, I had a real sense that the speaker had grown up in this alpine environment. How do you learn about someone else’s lived experience that way? Or Gojira—I really felt like I was a fly on the wall—but these were real, not fictional, people. How much of that was imagined?
Jim Shepard: All of the events in Gojira are as historically accurate as much as I could make them so; his inner life is imagined, though imagined based on my research about him.
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: And the emotional lives of his wife and children? Did she really have slender, tapering fingers?
Jim Shepard: The emotional lives of his wife and children operate the same way his inner life does, I think, in terms of their relationship to the historical reality.
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: Could you amplify that, a little bit? Is the fact that his wife felt his work took him away from his family part of the historical record?
Jim Shepard: Reading between the lines, yes, I think it’s clear that Tsuburaya’s wife resented his relationship to his work. She was probably in reality more silent about it, though.
Cruise: Why did you decide to write these stories about actual historical figures instead of making up new characters based on the historical figures?
Jim Shepard: I love the box that such a decision puts you in, and I love the interest the reader has in seeing how you negotiate that box: that seemingly hugely narrowed set of options. I also like the way in which it reminds us that we connect to the real world. That our relationship to the world matters.
Benjamin Birdie: It’s interesting that you put it that way, since “The World” is so often an antagonist. Floods, Avalanches, whatever’s going on in the Hadron Collider….
Jim Shepard: HA! Loved “..whatever’s going on in the Hadron Collider”—I think it’s right to say that the world is often the antagonist in my stuff. I guess it’s my way of suggesting a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Benjamin Birdie: And yet, remarkably, you are so great at capturing the human aspect of that world. So many stories in the collection were just emotionally explosive in the end in examining that conflict between the inner and outer worlds.
Sean Conner: Your stories hit a range, and we’ve talked about the historical aspects. But your contemporary stories, “Minotaur,” “Boys Town,” “The Netherlands Live with Water,” boy do those feel relevant. Do you find the story at apt form for analyzing the modern world? Is that their aim, and with whom are you empathizing?
Jim Shepard: I do find stories—or literary fiction—an apt form for analyzing the world. And especially for trying to imagine the other. An agenda, again, that seems more important now than ever.
Sean Conner: Is it your obligation because the media doesn’t handle it?
Jim Shepard: It’s everybody’s obligation, however we can imagine fostering it.
Ron: Harry Crews pulled off a neat trick when he made readers understand why the Texas sniper climbed the clock tower. Your stories do much the same, giving a look inside characters who do bad things, have bad things happen to them, or both.
Jim Shepard: Again, I think Ron’s right. I’m interested in getting you to align yourself, even temporarily, with people you wouldn’t expect you’d align yourself with.
Stephen Elliott: When I was trying to get contributors for my Politically Inspired anthology, of which you were one, I was unable to find a conservative voice in literary fiction, though I looked really hard. I eventually decided it was because to be a literary writer you needed empathy, since literary fiction is character driven. At the time, 2003, I don’t think there were many people calling themselves conservatives who were strongly empathetic. Which is different from being sympathetic and having sympathy.
Jim Shepard: I think that’s right, Stephen. And I think we can all think of conservative fiction writers who do sympathy very well, but have no interest in empathy.
Ron: One of the core myths of conservatives is self-reliance, and suspicions that others aren’t pulling their weight. Divisive at the very heart of it.
Jim Shepard: Good point, Ron. John Wayne doesn’t need your help. What’s that great Dylan line? “The police don’t need you, and man, they expect the same.”
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: I’m curious. Which fiction writers would you point to as being kindred spirits, in terms of their empathetic imaginations/their intentions with regards to readers?
Jim Shepard: Kindred spirits, in terms of empathy? Charlie Baxter leaps to mind. Lots of others.
Cruise: So if conservative fiction writers do sympathy and not empathy, are you saying they’re not writing literary fiction?
Stephen Elliott: I would say that’s true. Empathy is required in character driven fiction. Character driven, as far as I understand, being the definition of literary fiction.
Jim Shepard: No, they’re doing literary fiction. It comes in all forms. Some seems more valuable—or more the sort of stuff I respond to—than others.
Matt: Can that really be true, though? Is conservatism really primarily a lack of empathy? I’m a huge liberal, but part of me really wants to believe it’s just an ideological gap. . . saying they don’t have empathy, that sort of implies they’re deficient as humans. . . I wonder if it might be a limitation of our own viewpoints that makes us see them that way. . .
Jim Shepard: Oh, I don’t think conservativism is about a deficiency. I think it’s about a commitment to an ideology that has to in some ways devalue the usefulness of empathy.
Sarah: Do you think a largely non-empathetic person can develop empathy later in life?
Jim Shepard: I do think empathy can be learned. And enhanced.
Matt: I guess I just value empathy so much that I associate it with humanity, which isn’t a universal thing.
Jim Shepard: Empathy is a human trait. But lots of humans exercise some traits more energetically than others. By “the usefulness of empathy” I mean the way in which a progressive might claim that empathy is a crucial aspect of any benign political system, and the way a conservative might argue that not only is it not necessary, but it might not even be all that helpful, in that regard.
Ron: Your characters seem always set in opposition to something in the world, natural or man made. Variety in their ways of dealing with it is used so well in shining a light into some of the shadowy areas of human nature. Given the complexity of the world and how much can go wrong, this really resonates.
Jim Shepard: I’m glad it seems like the stuff about the world illuminates the stuff about the characters’ emotional interiors. That’s certainly the way I intend it to work.
Benjamin Birdie: And framing a lot of stories around experts in a particular field, usually for deeply personal reasons, serves as a great bridge between the two.
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: Could you comment on the role of readers/feedback in your creative process? Your “early readers” for instance, Ron Hansen and Sandra Leong.
Jim Shepard: I run everything by my wife, Karen, first, and then when I have something that seems like a workable first draft, Ron Hansen and Sandra Leong see it. Early on they talk about associations that have been conjured up, and missed opportunities; later, they start to more actively edit.
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: How long have you been working with Ron and Sandra this way?
Jim Shepard: Ron has been reading my work since around 1983 or so; Sandra since about 1990.
Sasha: How important is it for you to find the voice of the character you’re taking on? Do you start with the story and try to figure out the voice? Or do you start with the vulnerabilities and quirks of the voice and build into the story? Or are the two completely independent of each other?
Jim Shepard: I almost always start with the voice, or something like the voice. The story follows from that.
David: I noticed you work in the margins. Like choosing to write from de Rais’ assistant’s POV instead of de Rais’. Any reason why?
Jim Shepard: I’m interested in the worm’s eye view. Working in the margins, as you put it. I think A) that POV is much easier for me to imagine, and B) it’s the POV of many, many more people than the point of view of the nobleman, or the King.
Lidia: I’m curious to know if you think the line between history and fiction is solid or fluid. Because I’ve read most of your work, and I’ve read some interviews where people ask you about historical research, and history, and you come slyly close to saying historians “create” without saying that. It’s a question I’m fascinated by. The world was flat, as you know, at one point. It was a great story.
Jim Shepard: Oh, I think there’s no question that historians create; they would tell you that, I think. If I’m trying to imagine an imperial Roman position, it’s much easier to imagine the poor schlub who’s not even sure why he’s doing what he’s doing than it is to imagine Caesar. At least for me. And I’m intrigued, too, by the position of the poor schlub who *still* finds himself supporting the imperial project.
Cruise: I would think to imagine an imperial Roman position you’d just have to think about current US foreign policy and set it in ancient Rome.
Jim Shepard: Well, Cruise has hit on why I wrote about Roman imperialism in the first place.
Claudine: To tier off of that answer about the Roman schlub…how do find out so much about the schlub?
Jim Shepard: Oh, if I’m writing about a schlub, I don’t have to do any research.
Derek: Read Imperial Purple by Saltus for the view from the top
Jim Shepard: Or Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which is amazing.
Claudine: There are some really detailed parts to your writing and I was wondering about that process. For example, the one about the avalanches. . . also about the Netherlands, the frugality, the way that the people looked at life on a day to day basis…that’s stuff that you have to live—no?
Jim Shepard: I’ll often encounter stuff like that just for my own pleasure, and almost by accident, and then, once interested enough to pursue it in fiction, I start overlaying it over my own life. Of course all of my stories are autobiographical in all sorts of crucial ways.
Ron: How do you know when to throttle the detail, and how to mete it out along with the narrative line?
Jim Shepard: Ron just answered his own question: all of that incredibly cool detail has to be throttled and made completely subservient to the narrative line.
Matt: In other words, you just beat at the details until they fit in there?
Derek: Or do you start with too much detail and peal it away?
Jim Shepard: No, I don’t beat at the details, but I do always keep in mind that anything that isn’t A) moving the story forward or B) enlarging my understanding of the central characters has to be sacrificed. I have huge folders of details—research—with a story like Netherlands. Only a very small part of it gets used. The old iceberg analogy again.
Matt: Are you ever tempted to bend those two rules for a really good-sounding line?
Jim Shepard: Oh, sure. I’m tempted to do everything. And sometimes I think, “Oh, come on. You can stick that detail somewhere.”
Ron: You’ve done very well. The details are woven into the narrative just so. Actually helps the pacing by letting the story take a breath. Much like we delve into a book or other pleasure in life to take a break from the big arc.
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: Jim, I know you’re a big film buff. Do you have any comment on the cultural relevance of movies v. literary fiction? Do you also look for movies that exercise the empathetic imagination? How did you feel about the Oscar results?
Jim Shepard: Movies have way more cultural relevance and way more cultural power. I admired a lot of the nominees this year: Winter’s Bone, for example.
Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs: Have you ever written a screenplay? Wanted to?
Jim Shepard: I have written screenplays. Most recently for Errol Morris, who was thinking about doing his first fiction movie, and with a young director who wanted to adopt Project X. Errol was a hoot. I loved talking with him. We were a good match, too, because we both kept joking that we’d found the only other person on earth more ambivalent than we were about the project.
Cruise: Do spend more time reading literary fiction or histories?
Jim Shepard: I spend most of my time reading non-fiction of all sorts. Then poetry. Then fiction to blurb. Then fiction I want to read.
Stephen Elliott: You must get asked to blurb all the time. Do you read every book you blurb? Wait, of course you do.
Jim Shepard: Oh, yes. I don’t blurb something I didn’t read.
Stephen Elliott: But how many books is that a year?
Jim Shepard: If I add them up, I’ll get depressed.
Claudine: Here’s a question: do you think the blurb is worthwhile?
Jim Shepard: I don’t think the blurb does anything much, really. But publishers are so bereft of ideas, when it comes to marketing books. And it means a lot to the writers, sometimes.
Stephen Elliott: I’ve stopped blurbing because I’m too slow of a reader.
Jim Shepard: The etiquette of blurbs means it’s not hard to not blurb something (if it’s not by a friend, or student): everyone knows how many books you’re deluged with. You can just say you never got to it.
Stephen Elliott: But what about friends and students?
Jim Shepard: Friends I try to blurb no matter what. Students, too, unless I really hate the thing.
Ron: As a reader, I do rely on blurbs somewhat. Less what they say, more the sum of the group that the editor/writer thought to include.
Matt: Blurbs work on me.
Cruise: What’s your favorite book you blurbed?
Jim Shepard: What’s my favorite book I blurbed? Boy, that’s a good one. There are a lot of books I’ve loved that I’ve blurbed. I mean, the system’s not *that* corrupt.
Stephen Elliott: But it’s pretty corrupt. And I’ve blurbed books by friends I haven’t even read, so in my place it was really corrupt.
Jim Shepard: Enough about blurbs. Are we almost out of time?
Sasha: There was one story of yours that set off my believability meter: the one in the older collection, about Chernobyl. I was a kid in Chernobyl, and those people are my people, so I kept thinking “is this who we are?” and “nobody would call a Mikhail by his full name” 🙂 How often do people come back to you and say “well ACTUALLY it was like THIS”?
Jim Shepard: Sasha, sometimes they do, and it’s wonderfully gratifying, as you might think. No one has from Chernobyl, though. So maybe you’re right.
Stephen Elliott: So many people look up to you Jim. Don’t let us down.
Jim Shepard: Oh, boy. Haven’t I already let everybody down?
Stephen Elliott: I mean in terms of being a role model.
Jim Shepard: Role model? I can’t even get my shirt on.
Stephen Elliott: But you’re a great writer! Also, you’re a nice guy.
Jim Shepard: Thank you. And you, Stephen, are the soul of graciousness.
Isaac Fitzgerald: “Stephen, the soul of graciousness.” Now there’s a solid blurb. Should post it on the site.