Literary Story: Structure, Imagination, Enjoyment, Meaning
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Interview – Jim Shepard


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Jim Shepard Interview 7/16, 18/2009

William H. Coles

Jim ShepardJim Shepard is the J. Leland Miller Professor of English at Williams College, in Williamstown, MA. He previously taught at the University of Michigan. He is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Award, 2004. He attended Trinty College and did postgraduate at Brown University. He is the author of six novels, the most recent, Project X. He has published three collections of short stories, including Love and Hydrogen, and young-adult novels, including Flights and Lights Out in the Reptile House. He teaches creative writing at many workshops each year.

Jim Shepard book signing

Reed College

I’m at Reed College in Portland, Oregon where Jim Shepard is teaching a workshop on creative writing.  Jim is Professor of English at Williams College.  He has published six novels, the most recent is Project X.  He has also three collections of short stories.  He received his undergraduate degree from Trinity College, and his MFA from Brown University.

WHC

I would like to thank you for speaking with www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

JS

My pleasure.

WHC

You obviously love stories expressed in prose.  What is it about fiction that allows it to survive in a world where stories are increasingly delivered thorough TV, DVD, and film?

JS

Well, if you mean, what are the uses of literature as opposed to those other genres that can [provide narrative, like film or TV], it seems to me to encounter the story on the page, and build the story from that, is quite different from having it barraged at you in visual terms.

There is something very important to be said for encountering language on the page, negotiating language, and constructing for yourself in your imagination the narrative that in film is largely provided for you.  You’re much more of a passive receptor in film, although, God knows, you’re also proposing and adjusting expectations as you go.  And though you have to do a lot of interpretive work in movies, you don’t need to do nearly as much interpretive work in the movies as you need to do when encountering information on the page.  So, while I teach movies and think movies are hugely important, especially to try and understand late twentieth century culture, I do think there is something about stories in prose that is irreplaceable.

WHC

Does the ability to enter with ease into a character's consciousness in prose contribute to the difference in film?

JS

That’s a huge part of it.  David Shields today was talking about how impatient he is with plot and overwhelmingly narrative-driven [prose] and how much he loves fiction when it’s much more discursive and ruminative.  And certainly that is an aspect of fiction that film has the most trouble with.  It’s exactly those novels and short stories that are most interior that film is helpless in the face of.  So that voice over is a very poor substitute for a long interior monologue.  Part of the reason for that is–and an obvious one–that film is inherently [dependent] on anything you can visualize.  But part of it too is that when you’re dealing with intricate ruminative material, it’s a huge help to be able to go at your own pace . . . to be able to stop, to reconsider, to be able to think about a sentence for a minute, to [go] back and say, “I’m not sure I follow that.”  Of course none of that’s possible in film.  Even given our penchant for DVDs to sort of play things ourselves, we don’t stop movies—almost never—to consider a little more fully what we just saw.  We might watch it again, we might talk to our friends afterward, we might say, “What did you make of that scene?”   But it’s very rare that we stop the film and go, “Geeze, what did I just see?”  It’s absolutely commonplace in reading.  It’s very rare I’ll read something all the way through and never stop and go back and linger over a phrase or something like that, which means that the process of engaging this information is quite a different process.

WHC

Does that mean the development of ironies and similar rhetorical devices are easier in fiction (compared to film)?

JS

Possibly.  Certainly the idea of complicated conceptual notions.  Not all teachers say you should watch movies but all teachers say you should read books because that process of working things through intricately happens with words on a page and it doesn’t necessarily happen with movies.  In fact, even the most powerful, intricate, and complicated movies can be experienced, again, as a series of sensations.  I mean you can just decide you’re not going to pay attention to the complexities of the movie.

WHC

You’re an excellent teacher.  What about teaching creative writing gives you pleasure?

JS

I love having to work out for myself ways of articulating what is going on.  One of the things I stress in my teaching is how much in writing fiction you’re surprising yourself in some ways.  Related to that is the way in which a lot of fiction, for me, is stuff that I understand intuitively, but that I haven’t really worked out for myself.  And teaching is a way of forcing myself to do that because I can’t come in and say to people, “Well, you know what I’m talking about.”  I mean, they say, “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ll have to help me with that.”  And of course that kind of disciplined thinking is useful.

WHC

As you teach beginning writers, have you discovered what qualities great writers of fiction have that cannot be taught?

JS

Of course there are, especially if you say great writers of fiction.  I think it was Flannery O’Connor, or someone like Flannery O’Connor, who said creative writing can’t be taught . . . but it can be learned.  Then the idea, also from Flannery O’Connor, that fiction writing is a gift: I can’t give you that gift but if you do have that gift I can help you develop it.

I’m probably a good enough teacher that I could take someone who has good, basic literary skills and help them, with enough work, create a publishable novel, a good publishable novel.  But that’s a long way from a great writer.  And a great writer, it seems to me, has inherent ways of thinking, and ways of engaging the world, that you would say: “Oh, my God.  You may have all sorts of other problems; you may not know how to shape a novel; you may not know how to make certain mechanical decisions, but clearly you are someone with enormous talent, and that you came into the room with, obviously.”

WHC

When you analyze stories, or suggest how we as students analyze stories, you have a four-step process.  You say you should [1] read through the manuscript uninterrupted.  Then [2] read through and make notations.  The third step [3] is to start a few pages from the end, go to the beginning, and read through again—so you can see if there is story continuity, particularly with emotions.  And in the fourth read [4] a careful evaluation is recommended where the emotions of the characters are traced.  I assume you’re looking for those emotions to be logical and within the story framework.

JS

Certainly logical in the story.

WHC

In class you rarely discuss the episodic [scene] progression of a story, or back story, or plot tension, or even dramatic elements as they fit in that front story.  My question is: is it useful, when you’re looking at ways to write stories, to think in terms of theme and meaning, scene structure that progresses the story, and then (and you teach this very well) working toward an understanding of the human condition that the reader [and character, and sometimes author] didn’t recognize before?

JS

A lot of stuff that might feel neglected, like dramatic elements, actually are dealt with all the time under the heading of the empirical elements that support the emotional and thematic claim that we claim to be making.  In other words, when we’re tracking something like this series of emotional stakes for a character or this series of thematic ideas that the story seems to want to develop—we’re noticing a pattern of dramatic elements that lead us to those ideas.  In other words, in today’s case, we were talking about a series of relationships to altruism that the narrator, the protagonist to the story, had.   The way we go about that is that we say, “Here are the events of the story that made us think about that in the first place.”

WHC

Ah, yes.  I see.

JS

So those elements that seem like more traditional subjects of a workshop are always being uncovered and deployed, but they’re being uncovered and deployed to another purpose and that is: what is the story’s overall agenda?  What is the story’s even covert agenda?  And those agendas are almost never—if it’s literary fiction, I would argue—they’re almost never purely narrative, or never purely structural because that would suggest that we’re all hunting for the perfect new mouse trap . . . sort of the new narrative design that no one has ever come up with, or [new] dramatic design that nobody has ever come up with.  When in fact, as David Shields said today and Aimee Bender echoed, what really what we’re doing is we’re trying to find the most useful form—if you’re thinking about dramatic and narrative elements—trying to find the most useful form for the story we’ve got.  And the story we’ve got is, at its core, emotional and thematic.  Really, what I want to write about are these issues [emotional and thematic] embodied in this world.

WHC

Can’t you develop emotional and thematic themes through dramatic structure?

JS

Yes.  I’m not suggesting those are antithetical, by any means.  And even the writer who would seem, at the very least, to be as uninterested in emotions and thematic as Ernest Hemingway is in a superb story like “Big Two-Hearted River."  You know, Nick goes to the river; he doesn’t have a lot of emotions . . . there aren’t a lot of issues that keep coming up; in fact, you’re confronted with a series of narrative events.  And seemingly a series of nothing but narrative events.  Nick hikes to down to the river; he makes a campfire, he heats some beans, he burns the top of his mouth, he decides he’s not going to fish one side of the river versus another part of the river, and even though we’re in Nick’s point of view, we seem to learn nothing about him emotionally.  We know things like: we’ll, he likes fishing, he likes camping.  But given that all literature operates by having us assume that what ever it is we’re learning about it is in some ways another human agenda.  In other words, all literary fiction seeks to answer that question: why am I reading this?  And that answer to that is only tangentially [presented] in the case of “Big Two-Hearted River”: what it’s like to fish on the side of a river and camp out.  Yeah.  Hemingway actually has an interest in that.  He thinks we should know about the world and he’s very good at showing us about the world.  But he would be quiet dismayed if you said, “Well, that’s really what this is all about.”  And that means that every one of these narrative events, in fact, we’re supposed to use, in some ways, to postulate about Nick’s interior life.  And that also becomes part of the story’s subject–that when Nick gets into a rough place, being a guy, he goes down and camps and washes his mind free of things.

WHC

Right.

JS

I guess we think we’ll never know what’s bothering Nick, and what prevents that from being entirely unsuccessful is that Hemingway tries to select exactly the right details so that the careful reader can say, “You know, I think this is about something he is trying to get away from.”  And notice that is not a symbolic Easter-egg hunt where you sort of go, this stands for that.  [Instead], you go, these are very quiet preoccupations that keep coming up . . . these are the sorts of things that make him uncomfortable.  What do they have in common?  Right?

That’s also something I do in teaching fiction, something you can train yourself [as a writer] to do with your own work.  You can sort of go, “I thought I was writing a story about fishing, and I just thought to myself . . . you know . . . I’m sorry, that’s not enough, but I also went back and thought: what else is here?”  God knows you’ve known friends and loved ones who have gone off on little rants, or little tears, about subjects [where] they thought they were safely on one subject, and you’ve thought, “You’re telling me a lot more than you thought you were.”

WHC

There’s sort of thread in this weave that comes to me from a lecture that was given during the week on obsession in fiction.  The idea basically was that the author can serve the story better if there is some obsession within the author that carries over as an energy force into the fiction.  That makes sense.  However, it does rely on voice almost entirely, and it does seem to rely on the author becoming the voice of the story, becoming the narrator of the story.  I wondered if that’s erroneous thinking because I’ve come to believe that in some stories the writer needs to create an objective as a narrator and step back far enough to develop that story well?

JS

I think that’s true and I think a lot depends on how narrowly you read the nature of the obsession and where the obsession is located, I suppose.  Obviously, one kind of energy is the narrator who says “I’m going to kill this guy and I’m not thinking about anything else,” and your thinking, “Well, this guy’s certainly obsessive.”  You can also imagine a narrator who sounded as if he had a enormous British stiff-upper-lip detachment about the whole world and who is just going to describe to us what Westhampton looks like on a sunny day.  And as he does this in what seems to be detached, omniscient and careful prose, we begin to register that this person is a lot more interested in Westhampton than we would have thought we would be . . . given the details were getting–and that obsessiveness . . . there’s a quality . . . there’s a focus here that is a little more intense than we’re expecting.   That is a version of the obsession that I assume Steve Almond was talking about where you decide on a certain intensity of connection and an intensity of interest, then the form that that takes can be.  The obvious first impression would be to make this guy a raving wild-eyed nut waving his arms because that’s an easy way of getting attention.  And I’ve done that a lot.  But another way of doing it is to start [with people]. . . you’ve known people like this who seem utterly rational, utterly reasonable . . .  and they just keep coming back to the same subject.  That’s the kind of obsessiveness that’s fascinating.  Right?  What you don’t want, I think, is genuine diffidence.

If you image the opposite of obsession to be I can sort of take this or leave it, certainly it’s interesting.  I mean, if that’s really the fiction’s stance towards its work, a kind of intensity does start to drain out of the work and we do find ourselves saying, “Why are you telling me this again?  You just think you’re describing the city well?”  We’re very wary because so many fictions don’t succeed to getting to the very heart of the matter.  We’re very wary of those fictions that don’t seem to be exercising their writerly muscles.

It’s like I was joking about in class.  You can describe a cloud very beautifully for however long, and we think . . .

WHC

It’s a cloud.

JS

“What’s a cloud,” finally.  The Chekhov line about that is: “A bear in the woods is a bear; a bear in contact with a human being is a story.”  The idea is: I don’t care how well you can describe a bear unless that person describing it is my subject.

WHC

Related to this is the whole idea of voice and intensity, is there any advantage in thinking in a story of character voice, narrator voice, and authorial voice as separate?  So when your writing on the page, anything that is coming through any one of these three portals holds true to what the character, or the narrator, or author can reasonable know about the story and the world given the different times they may be speaking from the story time, and the different times they have lived in reality and story time? I ask this because you often see in stories where there seems to be different sources for information from different times and different backgrounds, and eventually this is confusing and the reader loses interest and intensity for the story.

JS

Well, some people have more of a capacity for fluidity in that kind of point of view and distance between what seems to be the novel’s and the fiction’s agenda and the speaker’s agenda.  I’m enough wary of ever knowing an author that I resist narrator as author and more narrator fiction because even the authorial voice will change dramatically from work to work.  So I tend to make the distinction that way.

But having said that, a lot of us like fictions that are very clearly demarcated: this is clearly a narrator who is not speaking for the fiction, maybe he’s slightly unreliable, maybe he’s more limited, whatever, or this is clearly omniscient.

Really though, starting halfway through the twentieth century, those categories began to get pretty fluid, and there started to be all sorts of narration.  The operative analogy would be that you sort of liftoff; you would be in a third person narration, a close third person . . . say, it would be like: Bill looked over at Jim.  “What the hell is he on about right now,” Bill thought.  “And my underwear is riding up in the back and I’m uncomfortable.”  And you think, “Wow, we’re really right with Bill.”  And the next paragraph is something like: he’d been like this ever since he’d been in seventh grade and that kid had dumped the ice cream on his head.  And you’re thinking, “That’s not exactly Bill anymore.”  But we don’t have that much trouble with a voice that lifts off like that depending on how dramatically the liftoffs work, what they are doing . . . stuff like that.

WHC

And how related they are?

JS

And how related they are.  And what that means is that that’s become a pretty fluid set of categories.  We don’t often think of them as portals anymore.  We imagine them as something sliding along a scale.  But, having said that, there are number of readers out there who say,  “No!  Once I get a voice, I want that voice to stay in that register.”  And there are lots of books that accommodate them.  My most recent novel, Project X is very much close third person, a teenaged boy, and there is nothing in the voice or anywhere near it that is not something he could have generated.  You have all these options.

WHC

As we’re speaking about that, I’d like to ask about the unreliable narrator.  What are the mechanisms in using the unreliable narrator to develop significant ironies, and other rhetorical-based resources, that contribute to the meaning of the fiction?

JS

Well, we’re so often with the advent of postmodernism and the advent of the overthrow of some of the verities . . . I mean really with the advent of modernism before that . . . there’s been such a sense that . . . all sorts of people who are absolutely certain about stuff.  They may not be absolutely totally objective.  It’s their certainty and nobody else’s certainty.  And with that the usage of unreliable narrator has grown, I think.

I propose that has everything to do with allowing these obsessive and passionate figures their point of view, and remembering that all sorts of fiction has all sorts of tools in the toolbox to allow us to step back slightly and go, “Well, he’s clearly not telling the truth.”  And what’s fascinating about that is that continuum that we were just talking about.  Do we need to get out of point of view?  How far do we get out of point of view?  Something like that is utterly unaffected by the issue of unreliability.  In other words, you would think, “If I’m going to do an unreliable narrator there’s going to have to be moments when I lift and I go—although Bill said this, he’s full of maroon sod, he had no idea what he’s talking about.”

WHC

So the reader has to know what’s reliable and what’s not reliable.

JS

Right.  And you think that would be the only way you can do it, but as we were talking about, it turns out you can stay very, very tightly into that sensibility and still expose it all the time.  As I was saying, one of the easiest ways of conceiving of that is remembering that when people make assertions to you all the time, they often follow them up with their evidence, their empirical evidence, and you can think of any number of times when people have said something to you, told you why they think it, and you think, “That doesn’t make any sense at all.”  Suddenly you think, “You’re not very reliable.”  Someone says, “Hey, I met that friend of yours [who] you said was such a nice guy–he wasn’t a nice guy at all.  I told him to pick up the check for thirteen people and he said, why should I do that?”  And you're like, why should he do that?  And suddenly you realize this guy is not so reliable, right?  But because everything we’re getting is through these voices, we will always assume reliability until proven otherwise.  You don’t open a fiction that says, “My name is Bill, I was born in Arizona.” and have the reader go. “I bet that’s not true.”

WHC

He was born in New Mexico.

JS

Yeah.  I think Bill’s lying to me.  We think Bill’s telling the truth until we have incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

WHC

That holds true for the narrator more than the character.

JS

Yes.  Even more so.  Because that’s very strange when the narrator. . . and there are fictions that do that, there are fictions that say, “Oh, reader, did I say this, maybe I’m not telling the truth.” and notice that’s very tricky, because a lot of readers, not just traditional readers, will go, “well, now wait a minute.”

WHC

. . . if that’s not the case.

JS

I’m not going to play anymore.  Because you then suddenly realize just how dangerous that is for [the] illusions.

WHC

Right . . .

JS

The writers are usually working very, very hard to prevent you from dwelling on that [the truth or lack of it] for very long.

WHC

And breaking the fictional dream, that sort of thing.

JS

Right.  And as soon as the writer goes, “You thought she’s a woman but she’s really a man.” the reader goes, “Why did I think that?  He didn’t do a very good woman in the first place.”  Then the whole thing starts to fall apart.

WHC

I’d like to side slip into second person.  It’s a form that you’ve used at times.  And I just quote Rob Spillman who in a recent interview said that he didn’t like second person because as soon as the narrator says, “You’re walking down the street.” Rob says he thinks, “I’m not walking down the street!”  He calls it that confrontational character point of view.  How is second person useful, since you do use it?  Why do you use it?

JS

I haven’t used it very much for some of the same reasons.  It is by far the most aggressive person [i.e. point of view].  There is a way in which it so foregrounds the gesture that first and third person do so easily, which is to get you [as reader] to identify.  It’s so insistent on that in an aggressive way that you immediately resist.

If I say, “I was walking down the street” you immediately think, “I can imagine that.”  If I say, he was walking down the street.  You say, “Okay, I’m picturing that.”  But if I say, “You are walking down the street.”   You say, “No, I wasn’t.”  So you immediately start resisting.

It got popular for a little while.  Jay McInerney, in his book, Bright Lights, Big City, created a kind of a fad with it because he did a version of it where that imperative aggressiveness—you are sitting down, you are having dinner, you are thinking you’ll never be happy again–created a kind of you-are-in-the-moment, but you’re also feeling like a kind of zombie, as if you’ve had agency taken away from you.  You get up, you’re going out side.  You go, “I guess I’m going outside.”  The quality was useful for McInerney to render what it was like to be trapped inside the drug scene, the party scene, in New York.  The conceit of that book–God knows the character was having the time of his life–the conceit of that book was he was kind of trapped, he only wished he could get out and do x, y, and z.  So the second person was very useful for him for that.  I think it’s an extremely limited form otherwise.  I’m trying to remember when I’ve used it, but I haven’t used it very often.

WHC

It’s very rarely used in a whole novel.

JS

It’s very hard to pull off in a whole novel.

WHC

You speak of an interesting concept.  You call it the r of r–the rate of revelation.  This seems related to pacing . . .

JS

It’s what constitutes pacing.

WHC

. . . pacing about information.  But it must also relate to point of view delivery—for example, in multiple points of view the author has to consider frequency and time of revelation thorough a specific point of view and the pacing as well.

JS

I suppose, but the reason I wanted to make clear that it was informational—or interior—that people tend to think when the think of pace: Am I having enough things happen?  Am I having them happen fast enough?  That’s how you increase pace.

But the thing to remember is it’s information, not event.  Obviously, events can be information, and you can accelerate the pace [if those are the circumstances].  [Example.]  The building has collapsed and Bill is trapped and Jim saves him and they both run out before the fire begins . . . and all those events.  But really what we’re looking for is information.  So you also imagine a situation without anything happening.  The pace picks up dramatically just because the information dump picks up dramatically.  For example, Bill and Jim were sitting at the table, they were chatting; Bill was wearing white, Jim was wearing light green, the computer whirred, Bill was thinking, I’m an idiot, I’m a horrible person, I’m a pederast, I’m a this, I’m a that . . .

WHC

I think of that all the time.

JS

As that list gets out, notice the pace is picking up.  We’re sitting at a table still.  In fact, time has stopped, but the pace is accelerating because the reader thinks, “Holy God, he thinks he’s this, he thinks he’s that.” . . . and there’s this list that has nothing to do with event, but has everything to do with what we’re learning.  And we would never say, what a drag, he was just complaining.  We would go [instead], “Whoa, I really felt I was learning something there."  So it has to do very much at the rate at which complicated information is being downloaded.

WHC

And the credibility and value of that information as it’s being delivered.

JS

Yeah.  Because the credibility is itself information.  Unreliability is new information.  I didn’t know I couldn’t trust Bill.

WHC

Got it.

I’ve noticed in classes there are story categories you seem to place stories in.  In terms of our discussions, you may see a story as a romance, or a Gothic detective story.  Then you explore those categories.  Could you summarize those categories so that as students revise, they might look to identify the type of story they’re writing and look to examples for what to do and not to do?

JS

Oh.  I would hate to think my first priority is to figure out what kind of box these things go in.  You’ll notice, however, these categories are useful only if you imagine a near infinitude of categories.  If you’re thinking of Gothic detective, you’re thinking of a massive number of categories.  And what that means is that I’m not trying to so much say that, “Oh this is a Gothic detective story, and what are the rules of that?”  Because a student has to follow those rules . . . as much as to say, the strategies being deployed here are strategies, in fact, that you should recognize from other forms you’ve seen.

WHC

That’s the point.  Can a student recognize a category to look to other examples.

JS

I think so.  What we’re doing in culture is we’re continually hybridizing stuff that’s come before.  So that if I say: if you have a character who’s, say a priest, sort of go, “I was saying mass the other day and this beautiful slinky blond came up to me and I knew what she wanted–I knew she was trouble, but I couldn’t resist taking her into the back and having her confess to me.”  And I say to you, “What does that sound like?”  You go, “Well that sounds like hard-boiled detective fiction.”  That’s a category.  And what you need to know is that there are elements to that category that have associations that you’re actually exploiting.  But that doesn’t mean you’re writing hard-boiled detective fiction.  What that means is that you are taking all these cultural strains within yourself and you’re using [those strains] when you need to use [them].  I would fully expect, and I teach a lot of workshops, and I might fully expect to teach for years and never have Gothic detective come up again.  It’s a particular singular thing.

WHC

You have mentioned romance.

JS

And romance.

WHC

This seems to revolve around withholding information.  In genre fiction, you manipulate information to build tension.

JS

Right.

WHC

Yet in the broad category of literary fiction, you give all the information [that is necessary for story progression] up front and discover why it happened and what will occur.

JS

There is some of that.  Genre fiction is really not that interested in the complexities of the human being at the heart of the matter.  (I mean it certainly wants to have persuasive characters that will populate these stories, [however].  If you’re writing standard science fiction it is about this one human being going, “Here’s an amazing premise—imagine if all vegetables were robots in some way, how would that affect human.”  But really, that’s not what you’re [the reader] essentially interested in and the human beings are going to help you understand that as opposed to using that to help you understand the human beings.

WHC

Would you speak on conflict that seems so essential to fiction?  Especially the internal emotional conflict as well as conflict on the dramatic plot level, and conflict on the prose itself?

JS

Okay.  It seems pretty clear that conflict is what drives fiction and the way it works is there is an emotional conflict, i.e. some kind of conflict where characters have an emotional stake and that conflict is comprised of at least nearly equal forces in battle.  Those are forces that need to be close to intractable.

WHC

For each character?

JS

Yes.  Usually it’s not the case where one character embodies one side of it [and another the opposite].  It’s a little bit like the conflict I discuss: I love my father and I hate my father.  And that gets embodied in a relationship between a conflict between me and my father, but notice the conflict is not breaking down to one side is taking, I love father, and the other, I hate father.  The conflict is embodied by putting the two people into motion.

What I mean by the intractability of it, I mean, we think in a situation like that, “Boy, how are you going to deal with that?  I love my father and I hate my father.  And I don’t see one of those sides winning out at anytime soon.”  As opposed to a conflict like: Billie was a thoughtful liberal boy who was wondering if he should join the Nazi party or not.  And you’re like, “That’s an easy conflict to resolve.”

And there are a number of conflicts in unsuccessful stories where the story pretends it’s a very difficult conflict to negotiate and the reader doesn’t find it very difficult at all.  Once there was a really sensitive boy who had a really neglectful mother and what do you think about that, reader?  And the reader thinks the mother’s in the wrong and the boy’s in the right.

WHC

It comes down to the credibility of that conflict for that moment?

JS

Well, you don’t want to say credibility because the writer of that story would go, “What? You don’t believe that that sensitive little boy would have that mean mother?”  You say, “It’s not an issue of credibility.  I certainly believe it.  It’s an issue you’re trying to present the reader with something that is intractably difficult to negotiate.  Something that is worthy of our going, 'Ah, what would I do about that?'”

WHC

In the story setting?

JS

In the story setting.  Right.  And what you mean by embodying the conflict in drama is that we’re expecting this not to be solely a meditation, but in fact these ideas to be pressured and set forward into motion in the world.  I love my father or I hate my father is a conflict that could go on inside my head.  Or you could say something like, “I love my father and I hate my father and we’re going to put into dramatic form because my dad and I are going top take a trip across the country in a Volkswagen bug.”  Now you have a dramatic form for the conflict.  And that will actually help you find more dramatic forms.  What happens when they hit the first rest stop and Dad says, “I think we should go another hundred miles.”  And the son says,"Let’s stop here.”  Now you’ve already got . . . whatever it is that they fight about, they’re going to start fighting about.  And now you have a way of embodying it [the conflict].

WHC

And as you go though revision, those are opportunities?

JS

Those are opportunities.  And sometimes you’ll not make the most of those opportunities; sometime you’ll not notice you had an opportunity; and sometimes you try to protect the characters form this conflict because “I like my characters and I don’t want any unpleasantness.”

WHC

You frequently speak of agency, which I perceive as the nonfatalistic possibilities that a character has . . .

JS

To act.

WHC

. . . to change.

JS

To change and act.

WHC

And you’ve indicated that intense rage tends to suppress agency of a character.

JS

Hmmm.  I’m not sure that happens.  There are a number of things that will suppress agency in a story.  Rage—I can certainly imagine how rage can do that, but I wouldn’t make that link inevitable, necessarily.  I would say that a lot of stories suffer from the story’s lack of understanding just how much agency these characters have.  That often takes the form of characters that seem to be set on by the world.  The world does all sorts of things to them and they just deal with it.  That is often the way, actually, that life works.  Life does things to you and you deal with it.  But the deal with it part is where your agency comes in.  And that’s where the story resides.  Right?  So Bill gets the same hand dealt to him that Fred got.  And Bill handles it very differently.  And that’s the story, the basis for the story, the excuse for the story . . . what the world handed Bill.  Bill got shingles and Fred got shingles—both on their wedding day.  The way Bill dealt with it was very different.  And if Bill dealt with it smoothly, and without any trouble, it’s an anecdote.

WHC

Right.

JS

I got shingles on my wedding day.  No problem.

WHC

No story.

JS

I got shingles on my wedding day and I left my bride at the alter without a note.  Now you’ve got a problem.  And notice the story is not about shingles.  The story is about an inadequate response to shingles.

WHC

Does erotic intensity decrease agency?

JS

Well, it certainly has the effect of making you believe that agency has been decreased.  When someone is in the throws off erotic intensity says, “I just couldn’t control myself. Therefore, I’m not responsible.”  But all you need to know about the disingenuousness of that is to image your wife or your lover saying, “What are you getting at me for?  I slept with your best friend.  But I couldn’t control myself.”  And your like, “Why don’t you give it a shot?”  And there is also something about erotic intensity that is deeply pleasurable, so we tend to suspect that giving yourself over to that irrationality is not entirely irrational.  This is not irrational; I’m going to go with this.

WHC

What are the consequences of in the moment narration on emotional complexities?

JS

Well, you need to be highly self-aware if you’re in the moment because you don‘t have any retrospective distance.  The story needs to be expert enough in employing its other cues to complicate the limitations of the speaker in the moment.  Somebody might expose his own limitations as a thinker by saying—“You know, my dad came in.  He seemed perfectly fine with it.  He was white knuckled the whole time.”  [With] in the moment narration, you might say,  “I’m, going to be super intricate with my breakdown of something.”  And they’re writers who can do that–Nicholson Baker, Henry James, Virginia Wolff.  Or you might say, “I’m going to [do it] in the moment the way Ernest Hemingway is in the moment, and [I’m] going to narrate what’s going on.”  But there are going to be other clues telling us.  Again the example being . . . Dad was fine, his knuckles were a little white and he was gritting his teeth, but he was fine.  You go—“I don’t think he was fine.  I think there is something else going on.”

WHC

Are there gender specific differences the way writers structure stories and render stories?

KS

There are probably gender specific tendencies.  The same way you would be surprised to get hard-boiled detective fiction from a woman.  But those are tendencies.  You'd expect 60%.  And that’s not very significant.

WHC

The reason I ask is because  more than a significant majority of all books are bought by women, and the percentage is much higher, I understand, for literary fiction.  And the majority of agents and editors are women.

What’s your feeling about electronic publishing?

JS

I think it’s becoming a much bigger thing.  I just sold a story to a purely electronic magazine called Electric Literature.  You can find it on the web. That means it will never be in hard-copy form.  I’ve done that with one other story that is in the new collection.  I did that back then because I couldn’t get anyone else to take it.  Now it’s becoming a more viable option.  I think it is in some ways, for better and for worse, the future.  But I also don’t think it’s going to replace my typewriter and hard copy.

WHC

Do you get the same enjoyment reading a novel, say, on Kindle?

JS

I won’t read it.  If that’s what it turns into, I’ll probably stop [reading].  My sense is that Electronic Literature offers you the option of hard copy if you want it.  You can down load it and print it out.  I’m sure, if I’m reading other people’s work, that’s what I’ll be doing.  I need hard copies.  That’s not going anywhere for me.  It is, on the other hand, such an obvious way of streamlining costs and delivering content that I can’t imaging it’s not going to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

WHC

And with shorter time from submission to publication.

JS

Yes.

WHC

With your interest in films.  What are key films for writers to study to improve fiction?

JS

Geeze.  That’s an interesting idea.  I’m not sure I ever thought about movies that can help you write fiction.

WHC

In the structure of fiction?  And the point of view?

JS

Yes.

WHC

You use movies examples often in your classes.

JS

Yes, I do.  Although very specific examples.  There is greater currency.

I think everybody has seen Chinatown [compared] to those who have read The Road [Cormac McCarthy].  Also seeing it is a way of making the example a little more vivid.  That’s why I use so many examples in class.  It puts people into the scenario.  At least it allows you to visualize on the page a little bit easier.    Interpreting and decoding is so difficult sometimes.  It’s very easy to think you’re only dealing with marks on the page.  With traditional fiction, you’re supposed to be imagining a sort of reality, a dream.

WHC

You’re creating an illusion.

JS

Yes.  And that illusion . . . you’re supposed to be thinking, “Wait.” Like in your story.  So she stood there a minute, all by herself.  If I’d been showing a movie of that, nobody in the room [would] have had any trouble reading [the meaning of] that.  A minute is a long time.  But the readers flew right over it as if it said she stood there for a second, and left.  She didn’t stand there for a second!  That’s why you need to be a close reader.  But that’s also why you need to understand why, when you’re reading this stuff, you’re making an image in your mind.  If you make an image, it changes things.

WHC

And that’s the advantage of prose.

JS

And that’s the advantage of prose.

WHC

What are you working on now?  What can we expect in the future?

JS

I’m working on a story about a man who was a combination Walt Disney and George Lucas, a man named Eiji Tsuburaya, a man who essentially invented Godzilla . . . and invented the horror film where you make a gigantic miniature city, put a guy in a [latex] suit, and have him stomp all over it [the city].  It turned out that this guy was deeply implicated in the Japanese war machine, and he also suffered through the great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and the bombings of Tokyo in the late forties.  I thought that juxtaposition of somebody who went through all that and then what he ended up doing is making another little Tokyo and stamping it out–that seems like a very cool thing to me.

WHC

If someone wanted to study with you, what are the teaching opportunities?

JS

All of the summer conferences that I do in New York State or Tin House, and I’ll be doing Bread Loaf next year probably.  People do sometimes come to Williamstown–I teach at Williams College–just to sit in on the courses.

WHC

You can audit?

JS

As a full member.  You’re not just auditing.

WHC

And that’s for a full semester?

JS

Yes.  You come and compete with the students.  Everybody has to turn in a sample to get in.

WHC

Thanks a lot.  Enjoyed it.

JS

Thank you.


You can read “Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway:  Part 1, Part 2.


You might also enjoy these essays and interviews:

Lee Martin
Narration


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5 Responses to “Interview – Jim Shepard”

  1. admin Says:

    Thanks for your comment. Pleased the interview was useful. WHC

  2. Carole Cohen Says:

    Excellent interview. One of the best I've ever read.

  3. admin Says:

    Thank you, Kathryn. You are absolutely right and thanks for pointing it out. As a weak excuse, somehow this didn't make it to the editor who monitors the site. My fault and not hers. I'll run it by her and be sure to raise the reliability. WHC

  4. Kathryn Says:

    I found this interesting interview while surfing the web and enjoyed it. It's the typos that did me in.

    One of the most basic rules of journalism and/or any kind of writing is: no typographical errors. As a writer and a student of words, the typos in this interview detracted from the reliability of the interviewer.

    As JS said in the interview, "Suddenly you think, 'You're not very reliable.'"

  5. Great Literary Fiction is not Memoir or Creative Non-fiction | Literary Story Fiction Writer's Blog.com Says:

    [...] may find these interviews with Butler, Shepard, Carlson, Spillman and others interesting. They provide insight into the differences in the ways [...]

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