The Quiet Charge: An Interview with Jim Shepard
by J.C. Sirott
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and three short story collections. Our interview with him in the upcoming dislocate #6 ranges from the books he re-reads every year to how he reached his empathetic limit when he considered writing from the point of view of a historical figure who derived orgasms from swimming in the blood of children.
The September 22, 2009 interview was too long to print in its entirety, so we've split it between the print journal and dislocate.org. In the following excerpt, we asked him about lessons learned from his former teacher, the great John Hawkes, and about Electric Literature and the Kindle.
dislocate: In a recent essay you wrote for the Rumpus, you discuss John Hawkes and the advice he gave you as a young writer. He would say, "You read Lolita--why'd you stop reading Nabokov? You read two Flannery O'Connor stories--well, Flannery O'Connor wrote a whole bunch of stories." Along those lines, are you, in the tradition of John Hawkes, a completist?
Jim Shepard: Oh, no.
dislocate: So that wasn't an important part of Hawkes's advice for you?
JS: Well, I took the advice to the extent that I was shamed into thinking, Why haven't I read more? Now, there are some people like Nabokov where I've read almost everything. But everybody I know has pockets of shame where you're like, "Oh my god, I can't believe I still haven't read that." And in fact, somebody--I forget who--put together a collection of essays where they just asked writers, "What's the most embarrassing gap in your knowledge?" People would say, "I've never read Milton," that kind of thing. But there's so much in the canon. I think what Hawkes is urging us to do is this: if you say you love Nabokov, why don't you read a lot more of him? And I certainly know writers who have taken three or four writers and read everything. It's not so hard to read all of Flannery O'Connor. It's very hard to read all of Dickens; it's very hard to read all of Nabokov, but you can do it. So, I haven't taken Hawkes's advice completely, but I certainly was shamed enough to go back to writers I most admired and re-indulge, essentially--re-submerge myself.
dislocate: Now, sticking with Hawkes, one of the things you write about him is how his work can be "astonishingly idiosyncratic." In your appreciation of Hawkes you write: "The boy's being scolded, and then for no apparent reason he puts his finger in the ashtray and then licks it?" You then write about your own transition from writing suburban domestic stories of your own experience to writing the "astonishingly idiosyncratic." How, in both your teaching and writing life, do you focus on and impart that concept?
JS: One of the things I stress with my students is that they should pay really close attention to the weird. The weird shows up even in the most ordinary stuff. Part of the reason you have a workshop, part of the reason you have readers, is that they can educate you as to how weird you really are. Of course, everybody thinks they're fairly mainstream--even the people who claim, "Oh my god, I'm just so odd." But then they say, "Don't you do this? No? You don't?" Because what that is, I think--and so did Hawkes, I imagine--are those moments where your work gets outside of your conscious control. And that's where you're actually getting into something that's a little more intuitive, something that's a little richer, something that you haven't already laid out in a neatly conceived plan. That unruliness is what's going to give your writing energy, because the stuff you've laid out is pretty reductive, even if you're a master of design.
I don't write outlines for stories, but if I have a lot of material, if it's a story that's using a lot of science or history, I will often try to organize the information I have. And then I'll try to put it together in a rough but likely design. That design is an illusion that I create for myself that allows me to keep going. Without it I'd be too terrified to continue. But I need to understand that the design is an illusion. I need to understand that in some rough way, there is going to be a pattern, but if that pattern remains unchanged, that's evidence that the thing is dead. There has to be a moment where I go, "Oh, no, this is going over here, and that's going out," where I'm starting to teach myself as I go along. If I'm not--if in the writing I haven't learned anything more about the skeletal, oafish thing that I started with--that's a fatal sign.
dislocate: Do you make a distinction between the "astonishingly idiosyncratic" and "quirk"? That is, quirk for the sake of quirkiness can often be very light, very--
JS: Yes, I suppose that can be true. If you imagine "quirky" and its associative meanings--things like whimsy, strangeness for the sake of strangeness--yes, that's quite annoying. For me, a good example of weirdness that immediately takes on weight is Miranda July's best stuff. You read it and you see that this is a narrator who quickly lets you know there are some very strange things about her and that those things cost her. She's not simply saying, "I'm the weirdest girl you've ever met, don't you want to date me?" She's saying, "I am so weird, and let me tell you, it's not that much fun. Because there are problems with being this weird." A lot of July's narrators try to keep a very light tone. They try to make it sound as though they aren't really bothered by things. The extent to which they are is the extent to which the fiction works. I just did a conference with Shantha [Susman], and she's got these short shorts and some of those narrators work exactly like that. They have this element of "I'm just taking stuff as it comes. I know I'm strange and that's not a big issue." In fact, where the weight of the work resides is in the reader's responding, "I think this bothers you more than you think." That's suddenly where the stuff blooms.
dislocate: Miranda July is an interesting example because she can be quirky yet poignant, whereas quirk without poignance--
JS: Exactly. Quirky without pain? Then you're just performing. All of first-person narration, all of literature, really, is a kind of performance. This person is trying to get you to love them. Humbert Humbert is performing for you. But Lolita works because you realize Humbert Humbert is in some serious pain. And that tension--I'm going to deny my pain and charm you, and at the same time, by the way, I am the most miserable fucking person you've ever come across--that's a hugely compelling tension. Now, in the stuff that doesn't work for me of Miranda July's, you never quite see enough of the pain. Or it stays too oblique and you can't figure out what's bothering the character. Whereas, in the stuff that works, you think, "Oh my god, girl, you have got to get some help."
dislocate: Now, you were involved in the very first issue of Electric Literature. They made an animated trailer for your story. How was seeing that?
JS: I think publishers are catching on, or have caught on only very slowly, to how important the object is to the writer. I mean, the writer has a very child-like relationship to his book. You really want this object to be something you would like to have in your hand. It means that a book design or cover art that you really don't like is much more painful than it should be, rationally. Charlie Baxter's first novel, First Light, the one that works backward in time, had a cover that was stupefyingly ugly and hard to read. He was really heartbroken about it. He even offered to pay them to remake the cover and they wouldn't do it. What I think a lot of writers are doing in terms of visual representation and packaging of their work is just trying to dodge a bullet. With the Electric Literature people, they said, "One of the things we'd like to do is a trailer." I thought, "How cool is that? I don't know if anybody's going to see it, but I've never had anything like that before." Then they told me they had a number of animators that they were thinking about. They said, "We'll send you their work and you tell us your response." Now, that was fun. But at some point, even the most powerful writers, except someone like Updike, turn over control. Updike had total control over his covers and I think they looked like it. They were the most bland things. They would say "John Updike" and the title and then have a picture of a coin. And the reader would be like, "Good job, John."
dislocate: Can you, and would you, read a short story on a screen?
JS: Could I? I guess I could. I never have. Electric Literature is a product mostly for iPhones and Kindles. I don't have a Kindle and I don't plan on putting short stories on my iPhone anytime soon. I very much like reading on the page. I understand the logic of the Kindle to the extent that if I were flying to New Zealand, and that's twenty-four hours each way, that's a lot of Russian novels to pack into my suitcase. So the Kindle, at that point, would make a huge amount of sense because I could take an infinite amount of novels and read whatever I wanted. It's very much like an iPod where you have your whole music collection. In the middle of a trip I can say, "Forget Ray Charles, I'm going to listen to Elmore James." I understand the Kindle in that way. I don't understand the Kindle when someone buys a two-hundred-page novel and sits down at their desk at home to read it. I don't get that at all. When Electric Literature first approached me, I wasn't that receptive. Andy Hunter drove up to Williamstown from Brooklyn and talked me into it. It wasn't the fact that I'd finally get to be on a Kindle that convinced me. Instead, I liked the desperation he mentioned of, "We have to figure out a way to get people interested in short fiction. There has to be a way of doing more than putting an ad in the back of Writer's Market."
dislocate: Not surprising that the most ruminative of writers, Nicholson Baker, can't stand the Kindle.
JS: That makes a certain amount of sense, doesn't it? One of those moments writers love in a way that publishers have never wrapped their heads around is when your book actually arrives. You can take it on the bus; it's a thing in your hands.
For the rest of the interview, pick up a copy of dislocate #6, The Contaminated Issue!