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Birnbaum V.

Jim Shepard

Our man in Boston and Jim Shepard, the author most recently of You Think That’s Bad, discuss whacko projects, researching short stories by jet, and how much gold it takes for a writer to dump Knopf’s Gary Fisketjon.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

If you are coming to this, my fourth chat with Jim Shepard, with no or scant knowledge of his work, then I recommend a quick scan of my introduction to one of our previous conversations.

Shepard is regular contributor to a long list of wonderful literary magazines, and has, by now, published nine books of short and long fiction, the latest being a story collection, You Think That’s Bad.

In what follows, Jim and I roam a wide terrain, which includes how he wrote a story about Rotterdam and the Dutch struggle to avoid a coming debacle; his career as a writer’s writer; what he reads and how that connects to his writing; and what his fears are.

Robert Birnbaum: We talked for your novel Nosferatu—

Jim Shepard: That might have been the first time.

RB: Then we talked at a Starbucks but I don’t remember the book—

JS: Project X.

RB: There has been this long gap in our conversation—why was I thinking about that?

JS: The years are going by—

RB: Am I supposed to know what the title, You Think That’s Bad, means?

JS: (laughs) No, but you should have a tonal sense of the title.

RB: I think I do, but what are your expectations of the reader?

JS: There is a line in one of the stories where a guy notices that his ex-wife and mother get on the phone and talk about him, and one of the things he overhears is his mother saying, “You think that’s bad.” As if they can top each other with bad stories about him. My wife Karen noticed it actually as a possible title. I haven’t titled a collection after a story since I did that with Batting Against Castro, and that was a big mistake because I had so many—that was the only sports story in that collection. People come up to me and say, “I read all your books except the sports one.”

RB: (laughs)

JS: So the whole title-from-one-story thing—

RB: You must have a pocketful of stories about disappointments in readers. You once told me you had a student who said he started to read a story of yours in Esquire— 

JS: Yeah.

RB: But he didn’t finish it—it was three pages.

JS: I have a number of those. Part of what it means to be between obscure and semi-obscure is to have to sort of daily instructions in humility.

RB: Well, yeah. You have been writing a while. Have you learned anything?

JS: Ha.

RB: About writing?

JS: I think—when people say to me, “Do you have a favorite book?” or “Which book should I start with?” I don’t do that disingenuous thing of saying, “They are all my children, I can’t choose.” I do think that my last two or three books are quite a bit stronger than the ones that came before.

RB: I wondered if I hadn’t been paying close enough attention or what—

JS: (laughs)

RB: Because I found this—this will allow me to say dumb things with impunity—to be a riveting group of stories and it made me wonder if it was a departure from previous work.

JS: It’s not a departure from the previous collection—really, the previous two collections—but it is from the seven books before that.

That’s really where my writing began—the what-the-hell gesture... I stopped doing what I imagined my teachers wanted and just thought, “If I am going to go down in flames then I am going to do what I want to do.”

RB: What’s different? 

JS: I got more chutzpah. In terms of—

RB: (laughs) You said, “What the hell.”

JS: That’s really where my writing began—the what-the-hell gesture as an undergraduate. I stopped doing what I imagined my undergraduate teachers wanted and just thought, “If I am going to go down in flames then I am going to do what I want to do.” Having done that for a little while I still felt hemmed in by a certain series of subjects or ways of approaching stuff. And more recently I have been thinking, “You know what, just try anything.”

RB: You mentioned that you went to Holland to research something—was it the story “Netherlands Lives With Water”

JS: Yeah.

RB: You went to the Netherlands to do research for a short story?

JS: Partially because it was on somebody else’s dime. What happened was McSweeney’s emailed and said, “We have a special issue on cities 25 years in the future; do you want to be a part of that?” And I said, “Why would I want to do that?” They said, “Because we will send you to whatever city you pick.” And I said, “I’m in.” I didn’t even know what city. I just thought, “I’m in.” And then I tried to research Tahiti and didn’t come up with anything there.

RB: (laughs) Is there a city in Tahiti?

JS: Exactly. So I ended up with Rotterdam because I knew I was interested in water dynamics and climate change. Also, I was very moved by what I had already read about the Dutch and their attempts to be proactive. The idea that they’re doing every possible thing they can and yet because other countries are not pitching in, they’re going to go down the tubes. That seemed to me to be very moving. I was also attracted to the way in which, to do all of this, they have to have a real can-do optimism. That can-do optimism—they’re smart people, and they’re running head-on into their own expectations—it’s an irresolvable paradox: “We can do this. Nobody can do this.” That interests me. I found myself over there on McSweeney’s’ dime and normally what I thought was going to happen was, “I’ll just wander around Rotterdam and soak up some atmosphere—what do I know about Rotterdam?” But a friend of mine who happened to know a couple people at Dutch IBM—and IBM is quite intimately involved in the water-defense system—said, “I’ll send an email and just say you’re coming over, maybe someone will contact you.” And because it’s the Dutch, everybody contacted me.

RB: (both laugh) They are very friendly.

JS: They all took me very, very seriously. Like assistant water ministers were calling me up and saying, “I’m in The Hague, where are you?” 

RB: Whom would they normally talk to?

JS: The idea that they would be talking to someone from the New York Times, that makes perfect sense to me.

RB: Would the Times pursue this as a story?

JS: Yeah, every so often. And the Dutch are always hoping, because they’re trying to export this technology to the world, and they have this proactive nature, they’re quite happy that Americans want to hear about this: “Good, maybe we can get the Americans moving on this.” The hilarious and poignant thing was, these guys would meet with me, we’d have long talks. One guy showed me all around the Maeslant Barrier. They would ask every so often, “What magazine is this again?” You could see them not really being able to wrap their minds around what I was doing. I didn’t pretend—this was a short story I am working on, but I think that that distinction never really got very clear. I think they thought, “Who on earth would come over here to research a short story?”

RB: Right. I thought that.

JS: They would say things like, “You can’t quote me on this.” And I was like, “I’m not going to quote you on anything.” (laughs)

RB: What wasn’t quotable?

JS: They’re paid to think in terms of what could go wrong. They don’t want to present that to the world. And it took them a while to get them going on what could go wrong—they really had to relax a little bit.

RB: Did you go to Central Asia to research the assassin story (“The Track of the Assassins”)? Or Davos?

Whether I’m writing about a real place or real person, it’s still kind of a hybridized version of the real thing and my version of the real thing.

JS: (laughs) It is really not my mode to go to places like that.

RB: I was particularly struck by the plausibility and verisimilitude of these stories while at the same recognizing they were fictional constructs—this doesn’t really come from research.

JS: Whether I’m writing about a real place or real person, it’s still kind of a hybridized version of the real thing and my version of the real thing. And that latter is what kind of gives it aesthetic unity and moves it out of the realm of reality. It’s not exactly Holland. It’s not exactly Freya Stark. It’s close enough that a biographer of Freya Stark should be able to go through and go, “I don’t see many significant changes at all.” Normally the way a biographer would relate to a story like that is to say that an aspect of her inner life was being exaggerated, which is of course what I think the fiction writer is all about. 

RB: And your knowledge of New Guinea in WWII—from watching war movies?

JS: No. It’s from a lot of first-person narratives. There is a lot of stuff written by the guys that were there.

RB: You read them for personal enjoyment.

JS: None of these things start with my decision to write about them. I don’t go, “It’s time somebody did a story about New Guinea.” What’ll happen is I will read weird stuff like that out of my own personal nerdiness, and will then start to be intrigued by something I read or snagged by something I read. Then I’ll know something is happening, because I’ll keep coming back to the subject and I’ll try to nose around it.

RB: Have you ever gone on Jeopardy?

JS: (laughs)

RB: You seem to have a significant body of general knowledge.

JS: One of the things my kids like to do is bring me into the room when they are watching Jeopardy and see how long it takes me to miss a question. A lot depends on the categories—if we move into Canadian economics, I’m out immediately. It’s very particularized—it’s about what I’m interested in reading about.

RB: By the way, Arthur Phillips says he’s a five-time Jeopardy champion.

JS: That would be easy to check.

RB: I am not that interested—besides, it’s fine even it’s not true.

JS: If it’s not true it’s still interesting that he said it.

RB: Right. He’s a fiction writer. Speaking of which. Are you teaching—literature, fiction-writing, film?

JS: All of those things. 

RB: Can’t Williams afford more teaching staff?

JS: They like to mix it up. I teach mostly fiction workshops. If I teach four courses a year, one might be a film course, one a literature course.

RB: Which came first, writing or teaching?

JS: I didn’t really have a career plan.

RB: No?

JS: My plan was I would write and people would feed me out of pity. But what happened was I started publishing right at the start of my undergraduate days, went to Brown [for] graduate school and published a few more stories, and then still thought, “I can’t make a living like this,” and was prepared to move back to my parents’ house and write in the library and get a job when the University of Michigan contacted Brown and asked for the names of best students to be interviewed for a creative writing job. There were no writers there—maybe Gayl Jones. It was back in the dawn of time. They contacted me and said, “The interview is in New York—we’ll put you up.” I thought, “Free trip to New York.”

Nobody [was] going to hire me to teach at the college level. So I’m sure I gave the most relaxed interview anyone has ever given. The same way you would respond if some one wanted to interview for the Soviet attaché to the South Pacific: “What would you do about Guam?”

RB: You’re well traveled on other people’s dimes.

JS: Yeah. Of course I thought it was a lark—nobody is going to hire me to teach at the college level. So I’m sure I gave the most relaxed interview anyone has ever given. The same way you would respond if some one wanted to interview for the Soviet attaché to the South Pacific: “What would you do about Guam?” So they hired me and I thought, “Well, I don’t have any other options,” so I took that job and went out to Michigan.

RB: As what?

JS: Lecturer in English, which means I was doing workshops and film courses and the occasional literature course, but mostly film. Film could get huge at Michigan—I had a 450-person film course. So that gobbled up a lot of students. They liked anybody who could do that. Having done that, I was at work on a novel and quickly realized teaching at the university level meant that from September to May I was frantically trying to be one step ahead of my students. So the only writing I could do was in the summer. But I finished the first novel in those summers and then left Michigan a few years later—east to Massachusetts.

RB: To Williams, where you have been ever since.

JS: Where I have been ever since.

RB: Do you have an endowed chair?

JS: (laughs) We have what we call in academia a “named” chair. After you get tenure they have precious few carrots they can throw you, so they do things like that.

RB: Who is your professorship named after?

JS: “Named” means whomever the benefactor, whomever is paying—

RB: That’s an endowed chair.

JS: We call it a named chair.

RB: What’s yours?

JS: The J. Leland Miller Professor of English. It’s actually more embarrassing than that, the J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature, and Eloquence.

RB: Are there T-shirts? 

JS: Just hats.

RB: (Laughs) Do you have a softball team?

JS: Yeah.

RB: It must be a sweet sinecure—it’s a lovely area [Williamstown, Mass.].

JS: A lovely campus. If I didn’t like it I would have left a long time ago. If somebody had asked, “Do you think you’ll be here 27 years?” I would have said no. But that’s because I can’t imagine myself anywhere for 27 years.

RB: Do you ever think about what would have happened if—there are a few ways of saying this—

JS: (laughs) Hadn’t gotten so lucky?

RB: Had the luck of having a congenial academic sinecure?

JS: Oh yeah. There’s any number of ways the spheres [could have] aligned at just the right moment for me to end up in a place that I would want to end up. It might well have been that if I had to leave Michigan the year before—and they had renewed me twice after saying that it was probably just a one-year thing—they liked me enough, they would say, “You know what, we’ll give you one more year.” But had I been cut loose the year before I might have ended up at Alabama or Texas A&M and then thought, “I don’t want to stay here,” and then begun some kind of—

RB: University of Alabama at Mobile, on the coast, might not have been bad. I cut you off when I asked you if you had learned something.

JS: No, you just lost interest. (laughs)

RB: I am puzzled about the way the book business looks at short-fiction collections. Do publishers still claim they don’t sell?

JS: When they talk about them at all they probably say something like, “Well, we don’t have the same expectations.” I’m sure as the business becomes even more of an open mystery to those people who are in it, they still feel that at the very least at the marketing meetings when they’re putting forward their tremulous lists, they can hold out a model for why the novel they’ve chosen could be gigantic. They can all say, “This could be the next The Lovely Bones,” and everybody will understand that nobody thought anything would happen with The Lovely Bones either. But they don’t have a model like that for short stories.

RB: Jhumpa Lahiri has a successful collection.

JS: Successful. Everybody has had successes. Lorrie Moore has had success. It’s a little bit like saying to a producer, “I think this movie could make money, or it could be Titanic.” The producer will roll the dice for that. With something like Winter’s Bone you really need someone to love it because you’re saying, “Look, there is a ceiling here. If this gets big it’s still not going to be that big.”

RB: The costs involved are significantly less for Winter’s Bone than Titanic or Avatar at $300 million. You could feed Central America for a few years on that.

I certainly have regrets about things I could have done and didn’t do. One of the nice things about the sort of obscurity I have operated in is that I have been pretty much under the radar in doing what I wanted to do.

JS: Yes, exactly. The business model holds for publishing in that there are novels given 80 zillion that then don’t do much. Nobody thought Jim’s fourth collection of stories would amount to anything. Nobody thought The Lovely Bones would amount to anything. Neither got a whole lot of money from the publisher. But at least with the latter there is that immense upside potential. And there are just all those people that say “I read novels, not stories.” I know a lot of people like that. 

RB: I know a lot of writers so I know a lot of people who read stories.

JS: That’s the demographic.

RB: Is it also the case that they really don’t print that many copies of a story collection? 

JS: I am sure that’s the case. There is some kind of living-up-to-expectations thing—they don’t put story collections up for prizes with the same alacrity, they don’t expect the sales to be as great, and the print runs are smaller. They often see stories as a prestige bone for the editor’s arm of the business.

RB: I though that was poetry.

JS: That’s where short fiction is headed as well.

RB: In a way, it may be the case for literary fiction in general. There is always a chorus of gloom and doom. Actually, that should take away the anxiety.

JS: It does. It really does—unless you have been taken over by a foreign multinational that has a bottom line. You can relax all you want but at the end of the year you are called in and somebody says to you, “These are awful numbers.” In the old days, part of what my publisher Knopf was selling was, “We are going to do right by you in terms of producing an object, we’re not going to pay you a whole lot of money, and if we think you’re an important writer we’re not going to penalize you for not making a whole lot of money.” It was a kind of a little vicious circle because they didn’t demand or expect you to make a lot of money and because of that they didn’t put much money into promoting you. But the idea was, We are here to produce literature; literature isn’t here to make money. And they had that luxury because they were the prestige house of Random House. Even Random House wasn’t all about making money, but it was much more of a commercial enterprise. Now all the publishers have to do that. Knopf has its Anne Rices and big bestsellers as well.

RB: Have you always been at Knopf?

JS: I started at Knopf when Robert Gottlieb was the editor in chief. He left to take over the New Yorker after my first two books there, and I was binked across the table to somebody who clearly wasn’t excited about me. So I left and went to Norton, to a guy named Gerry Howard who is a great editor. 

RB: For what book?

JS: Lights out in the Reptile House. Then he left and I went to Harcourt Brace and had another wonderful editor, Pat Strachan. And she got sick and so she had to stop editing. Then I went to Gary Fisketjon at Knopf, where I have been ever since.

RB: Richard Ford, at least twice in conversations I had with him over the years, said that he would stop writing if Fisketjon was no longer his editor. Recently, he left Knopf for Simon & Schuster.

JS: And way more money. 

RB: I guess that would do it.

JS: I absolutely need to be with Gary unless you give me a lot more money. Then I don’t need to be with Gary. 

RB: So does Fisketjon understand that?

JS: Sure. I think Gary had the same attitude toward that juxtaposition that you did. I don’t think he would say, “I simply don’t understand how he made that decision.” He understands that.

RB: What are the chances of someone offering you a lot of money to leave Gary? (laughs)

JS: Not really good. (laughs)

RB: Are you in mid-career?

JS: That would be flattering.

RB: Any regrets about your writing life?

JS: That’s a good question (yawns). I certainly have regrets about things I could have done and didn’t do. One of the nice things about the sort of obscurity I have operated in is that I have been pretty much under the radar in doing what I wanted to do.

RB: When you say obscurity, don’t your books get reviewed?

JS: They get reviewed.

RB: Do they have reasonable sales?

JS: That depends on what you call reasonable.

RB: OK, by what you call reasonable—

JS: Probably the last three, by that measure. Maybe I’m in semi- obscurity now. Or maybe not semi-obscurity, well known to the 300—or 3,000?—people who know about these things.

RB: There is that notion, depending on who you talk to, that there are x number of serious readers in the world.

JS: (laughs) Exactly, exactly. The term that I would be whacked over the head with over and over again is “writer’s writer.”

RB: I don’t hear that much; maybe it’s time to bring it back. Maybe writers are reading less. Do you read a lot?

JS: Yeah. It’s hard to read as much new fiction—that isn’t either sent to me to blurb or by old students—as I would like. I read a lot of non-fiction in order to do whacko stuff like this. I read a lot of poetry.

RB: Do you write poetry?

JS: Not anymore. And I read a lot of fiction that I have to read, i.e., friends and colleagues and students. And then there are people I just want to read no matter what. And that means that the sure-I’d-like-to-read-that pile of fiction, that’s the fifth pile. Most of us don’t get too far into our fifth pile.

RB: I no longer feel compelled or obliged to finish books.

JS: Yeah, that’s really characteristic of a life spent reading. I’m struck, when I talk to students or younger writers how much—I guess I remember that feeling too—how much they feel like, “No. If I got this far in I want to say I finished it.”

RB: There is always the occasional book that it takes longer to figure out.

JS: That’s the danger if you bail too soon. I try to give books every possible reason to keep reading. But I don’t any longer feel bad about bailing. It’s not anger or contempt—it’s, “I think I get the idea here.”

RB: These I don’t understand—the vicious, over-the-top degradation of a book. I saw a review, which condemned the Orange Prize jury for awarding Tea Obrecht this year’s prize, and included was an aside that Zadie Smith was boring. And then a Booker Prize jurist resigned because Philip Roth won—she complained he was not a writer. Every time I see these slash jobs I wonder why. Why bother? 

JS: There is this sense of outrage that accompanies some kind of major acknowledgment or achievement. Was it a woman who trashed Obrecht? If that woman had read the book and it just had been well received she wouldn’t have bothered. But people work themselves into a snit: “This won the Pulitzer? It’s time for me to take it down a bit”—that kind of stuff. There are some people who feel they need to be gatekeepers. My guess is that group is much larger when you achieve a certain notoriety. And if you don’t achieve that notoriety, what’s the point? I’m fortunate because I almost always get good reviews. There is so little review space that if the people don’t love it they go, “Why bother?” They don’t need to review me. They need to review Richard Ford. They need to review Alice Munro.

RB: You seem to have an innocent view of the book-review enterprise. I see book review editors looking for the slice-and-dice critique.

JS: Well, they are looking for something that will get people talking about the book review. But even slice and dice doesn’t do that anymore. Think about the notorious things, 20 years ago, 15 years ago—like the Dale Peck/ Rick Moody thing [Peck calling Moody “the worst writer of his generation”—ed.]. It’s hard to reenact that now. Book culture is so much less central to the culture than it was even then.

I try to give books every possible reason to keep reading. But I don’t any longer feel bad about bailing. It’s not anger or contempt—it’s, “I think I get the idea here.”

RB: I still fault editors for publishing fiercely overwrought attacks, which invariably profess to know the motives and feelings of the author-victim. 

JS: Oh, yeah, most of those thrashings are wildly unfair. One of the things that stopped me from reviewing books was finally this annoyed sense that I would have that I would labor over these things, I’d be as fair-minded as possible, and then I would be next to some yahoo—and I’d want to ask, “Did anybody look at this claim? She says the ending is ridiculous because the dog speaks—that’s the mother talking.” That kind of thing.

RB: When I review I try to assert, subtly or not, that there is no reason why readers should value my opinion.

JS: (laughs)

RB: I think more along the lines of a book notice than a review. What have you read lately?

JS: In terms of fiction, a couple things I really liked—a novel by Clancy Martin.

RB: He’s an old-timer.

JS: He’s a professor at the University of Missouri now. He has a novel called How to Sell about the Dallas jewelry business. It’s a nice dissection of the scummy underside of capitalism. And there’s a story collection I liked very much also by a woman named Bonnie Jo Campbell called American Salvage. It’s about the underclass in Michigan.

RB: She has new novel, Once Upon a River.

JS: The stories are really good.

RB: Wasn’t she up for an award?

JS: Oh yeah, she was a National Book Award finalist. It was a very small press—Dalkey or something like that [Wayne State University Press—ed.].

RB: A recurring phenomenon—Paul Harding with Tinkers and Jaimy Gordon with Lord of Misrule also were small-press books.

JS: Part of it is the judges saying, “One of the things we can do is help books that would otherwise disappear off the face of the earth.”

RB: The Giller Prize (Canada) winner—you’ve heard of Canada?

JS: Yes. (laughs)

RB: You are ahead of a lot of people, Anyway, Johanna Skibsrud [The Sentimentalists—ed.] was also from a small press. I think they printed 800 copies of the first printing. But there are more of those houses now. 

JS: That’s part of it. Bellevue, that was wonderful. It has people going, “Wait, there’s a mental hospital with a literary press?” I have to urinate; can I get you something?

RB: (laughs) What could you get me?

JS: I was wondering.

RB: How about a towel? (laughs)

[Pause for 10 minutes]

RB: Here’s the final question—please take it seriously. Are you afraid of anything? What frightens you and keeps you up at night?

JS: That whole book is about fear, are you kidding? You Think That’s Bad, it’s called.

RB: Those are fictional fears.

JS: Yeah, but they are based on real life.

RB: Are you afraid of freezing to death? Or being flooded or eaten by crocodiles?

JS: No. I’m afraid of those emotional situations. Part of what I’m doing in those collections is taking issues that are important to me and imagining them in much more extreme terms and imagining alternative gestures that would have sent me down a much more catastrophic road. Imagining myself and versions of myself in situations that are way more fraught: “OK, if you couldn’t say no to Billy in the schoolyard, could you say no to x in fascist Italy?” or whatever. So a lot of times I’m extrapolating myself into bizarre situations, hybridized versions of myself. But that means I’m rehearsing all sorts of fears while I’m doing it.

RB: Are you afraid of economic collapse? Climate change? Food-supply poisoning?

JS: I’m afraid of all those things but I have prioritized them. I have a good friend who is a political scientist who keeps sending me all this stuff about the way the financial community is taking us down the toilet. I keep sending him stuff, saying “There’s other stuff that will take us down the toilet sooner. Pick your poison.” One of the things we do agree on is that we are heading into a situation where all of these problems are becoming way more exacerbated because they’re dovetailing with a really toxic political situation where we don’t have the will to even recognize the problems. A good example is Obama after what happened in Japan saying, “We really need to look into the possibilities of nuclear energy.” And you want to say to him, “How’s empiricism working for you?”

RB: And we’ll continue offshore drilling—

A lot of times I’m extrapolating myself into bizarre situations, hybridized versions of myself. But that means I’m rehearsing all sorts of fears while I’m doing it.

JS: We have already reopened that. There’s that great line from Citizen Kane where the guy Kane is trying to put away says, “You’re going to need more than one lesson, and you’re going to get more than one lesson, Mr. Kane.” We look at the Japanese reactor—we have the same technology in the United States, sitting on faults. We have the same stuff—

RB: Oh, that was about a tsunami. It wasn’t an earthquake; the U.S. doesn’t do tsunamis.

JS: There you go. There’s any number of ways of sticking your head in the sand. And we’re going to get better and better at sticking our heads in the sand. I haven’t seen anyone in the media connecting the dots in terms of the extreme weather. You are getting a little bit of climate change stuff.

RB: I talked to Gretel Erlich who has spent years up in the polar ice cap and she points out the severe degradation of the ice shelf—a reduction from a thickness of 14 feet to seven inches. That should tell us something.

JS: Elizabeth Kolbert is a friend and a writer for the New Yorker and just did a long piece on Greenland, and everybody in Greenland is just petrified. They’ve never seen anything like it. And all these things are related, and all that methane that’s trapped in the Siberian tundra is about to be released once that warms up to a certain point. But anyway— 

RB: So writing fiction is a way of—

JS: It’s very relaxing (laughs). 

RB: Thanks.


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum