Jim Shepard is the author of six novels, including Project X and Nosferatu, and four books of short stories. His 2007 short-story collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Story Prize. His most recent collection, You Think That's Bad, was published this spring. "Historical fiction is typically so ample and epilogic that the 'historical short story' may seem a contradiction in terms," the New York Times wrote in a review, "but Shepard has made himself, in particular, a master of this small, tricky subgenre." Mr. Shepard is a professor at Williams College where he teaches courses in creative writing and film. He was kind enough to answer some of our questions by email.
An Interview with Jim Shepard
Meeting House: You’ve spoken in previous interviews about how your stories grow out of your reading. Are there subjects that have interested you deeply but failed to move you creatively? Or are the two processes—reading and writing—too interconnected to separate?
Jim Shepard: There are a number of political issues that have moved me enormously but have yet to have inspired anything creative in me. I’d love to write about the current dismal state of our safety standards at our nuclear plants, for example, but haven’t figured out how to write something sufficiently different from my story about the Chernobyl disaster. And no, it’s hardly guaranteed that once I become engaged with a subject I’ll write about it. I get fully engaged with all sorts of subjects and nothing comes of it in terms of my writing. At least directly.
MH: Your novel Nosferatu grew out of a story you wrote when you realized you weren’t finished with the character yet. Are there other characters you still think about or consider revisiting?
JS: It’s pretty rare. It probably helps that in the case of Nosferatu the original story was about such a narrow slice of its protagonist’s life.
MH: I recently read your novel Flights. When I read “Low-Hanging Fruit” in You Think That’s Bad, the image of a boy sailing alone in a small boat during a thunderstorm was very familiar. Are there images or motifs that you find yourself returning to regularly?
JS: There are images and motifs I return to, though I’m always worried about repeating myself, as you might guess. But certainly that small boat scene is right out of Flights, in some way. Minus the hugely precocious scientific sensibility.
MH: Your stories frequently feature characters with familiar problems in extraordinary settings and situations. Have you always constructed your stories this way, or did you go through a period of trying to write stories about people in minivans who shop at the mall?
JS: I’ve tried to write all sorts of different kinds of stories. I suppose my current mode is a way I’ve found of fooling myself into confronting those familiar problems, or a method of coming at them in a new way.
MH: You teach courses on film in addition to courses on creative writing, and films frequently work their way into your writing. What do you think an appreciation of another artistic form brings to your writing?
JS: I think it provides another way of seeing, and of conceptualizing, mostly. (As well as, of course, a store of popular culture associations and information.) Film is much more visceral and exterior, so it also pushes my fiction more towards the active, and maybe towards a notion of people as essentially mysterious: figures who have to be decoded based on their behavior, rather than through direct access to their inner thoughts.
MH: You have a hell of a way with endings; sometimes I flip through your stories and just read the final paragraphs. Do you write your stories start to end or do you play with structure once you have a complete draft? What does a good ending accomplish?
JS: Thank you; that’s nice to hear. I play with structure once I have a draft finished, but the endings are always written very late in the process, if not last. I think a good ending enlarges our understanding of the central emotional conflicts that have been developing throughout.
MH: Are there any aspects of writing that you routinely find difficult, or does each piece present its own unique challenges? Are there certain books or writers you turn to when you’re stuck in your own work?
JS: I find most things difficult, and as you’d guess, each piece presents its own unique problems, particularly when they’re as wildly different as my pieces tend to be. When I’m stuck I usually turn back obsessively to some of the non-fiction that helped spawn the story in the first place (if there is some non-fiction that did so) rather than to another fiction writer.
MH: What’s the last thing you read that really knocked your socks off?