Vulture: How the Academy Saved Novelist Jim Shepard…

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Wonderful Vulture post on Jim Shepard: 

Jim Shepard is one of the best writers you’ve never heard of. He’s a tenured professor at Williams College, a job he’s held happily for 32 years — raising his family in pastoral Massachusetts, teaching generations of admiring acolytes, writing dozens of short stories and seven lean novels (including the intense character studies Nosferatu and Project X) to his own strange, exacting specifications.

Yet Shepard describes himself as “semi-obscure,” a “writer’s writer,” which he takes as a sort of consolation prize: “It used to mean, ‘writers like him, anyway.’” He is not happy with his place in literary culture; nor should he be, since his commercial timing has always been a little off. When he joined a friend to ghostwrite YA novels, they decided to focus on sports instead of horror stories, that future genre of blockbusters. Project X, about an eighth-grader plotting a school massacre, showcased his talent for penetrating the consciousness of any character in any circumstance (ranging, in his stories, from a mythical swamp creature to gay lovers on the Hindenburg). That novel was frequently called the best fictional treatment of Columbine, but it came out after Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre’s version, which won the Booker Prize. After that, he chose to focus on short stories, just as his fellow writers of genre mash-ups — pop-lit straddlers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem — were being fêted for big, meaty novels. Now, 11 years after Project X, he’s finally back with a novel … about the Holocaust. More specifically, The Book of Aron, out today, is about a preteen troublemaker awaiting deportation to Treblinka.

“I didn’t sit back and say, ‘It’s high time somebody wrote another Holocaust novel,’” Shepard says on the phone from Williamstown. A compulsive reader of history, he says he just found himself returning again and again to those atrocity stories. “If you’re drawn to manmade catastrophes,” says Shepard, who’s built stories around a tsunami, the Hindenburg fire, and the Chernobyl meltdown, “the Holocaust is sitting right there.”

For someone who’s made a vocation of inhabiting the most unusual characters, a first-person victim’s narrative in one of historical fiction’s most well-trod genres might seem disappointingly conventional (and perhaps another misfire of timing). His much-better-known contemporary Martin Amis entered the field last year with The Zone of Interest, but he adopted the point of view of the villains and injected subversive notes of humor. Also, he’s Martin Amis.

It would be a shame if schmaltz-averse readers — those who’d like Shepard most — skipped the novel, which turns out to be a case study in avoiding schmaltz. Owing to his deep research and severely understated style, The Book of Aron is unique and, in the end, shattering. Instead of humanizing evil, as in Project X, Shepard complicates victimhood, making Aron a petty smuggler and sometime-collaborator filled with self-loathing. Aron narrates his horrible story almost without affect, and his suffering increases so gradually that the ghetto’s Nazi-managed slide into disease, starvation, and liquidation feels almost bearable — until it isn’t. By the time the newsreel-ready horrors are unveiled, we are both freshly shocked and sadly inured. The frog in the boiling pot died long before the trains arrived.

Shepard is also unafraid of killing his darlings: His featured player is Janusz Korczak, the real-life head of a Warsaw orphanage who refused to save himself and abandon the children. Fairly or not, Shepard blames Steven Spielberg for our latter-day cult of Holocaust sentimentality. “Schindler can show you an enormous and quite historically accurate cost in terms of Jewish lives as long as those Jewish lives are extras,” says Shepard. “It’ll provide you with the security that everybody you care about is going to be saved. That allows people to come out of the theater saying, ‘That was a really harrowing experience, but I loved it, you have to go see it.’ I think you should come to the end of a Holocaust text shaken on behalf of our species.”

If there seems to be something of Walter Mitty in Shepard — the rooted professor imagining himself into wild historical scenarios — that may be because for him, college was the escape. He was the first member of his working-class Connecticut family to go, and the pressure to succeed drove him, oddly, to impractical pursuits. “I was trying to find something that I just wouldn’t flunk out at,” he says, “and I was drawn to history and English.” The latter felt more exciting and revelatory, but Shepard could never shake the historian’s hunger for primary sources. He got his MFA at Brown, imbibing just enough of its postmodern ethos to take straight realism off its pedestal. Then, after a brief stint at the University of Michigan, he had an important choice to make.

Much has been made in recent years of the two paths available to today’s literary novelist (see, of course, Chad Harbach’s n+1 essay “MFA vs. NYC”). There is the academic MFA system, which favors tenure over sales, and there is the go-for-broke New York writer’s life of book-party logrolling and attention-seeking bravado. That dilemma has been around since at least the early ’80s, when Shepard had to decide whether to take the job at Williams or move to New York. “I had a number of friends who were writers in the city who seemed to have a pretty exciting life,” he says. “So I had that pull: If you’re serious, maybe you should go there and hang. On the other hand, you’re about to get a job that’s going to allow you to write. If you go to New York, you’re going to be scrambling from job to job. I knew that would have a hugely detrimental effect. Some people can write in coffee shops. I can’t.”

Shepard has thrived in academia ever since. He was even a finalist for the job of director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop — effectively the presidency of MFA Land. He believes he lost it partly because he was unenthusiastic about its administrative duties. He just wanted to teach and write.

For a couple of novels, Shepard wrote what he knew, but eventually he gravitated toward his own brand of historical fiction. After his fifth novel, Nosferatu, based on the life of the filmmaker F.W. Murnau, Shepard turned toward short stories based on more or less esoteric scenarios. He once traveled to the rain forest to research “The Creature From the Black Lagoon,” a 12-page story about a B-movie monster. Financially, it was not a wise move, he says: “I have novelist friends who tell me, ‘You’re crazy. You have six months of research here, and you can easily get 350 pages and instead of $1,000 [for a short story], you can get a lot more than that.’ I can register the inefficiency, but I don’t want to do this big, elaborate machinery if I can avoid it. Maybe I also wanted to put less food on my children’s plates.”

In fact, thanks to Williams, his children eat fine, while Shepard spends his days delving into, say, the scholarly dispute over the exact date of the deportation of Warsaw’s orphans. (For Aron, he chose one over another because it was recorded as being sunny and hot; it never occurred to him to change the weather.) MFA programs have long been knocked for sanding off writers’ odd angles and rough edges, but in Shepard’s case, they’ve helped to preserve them.

“You’re trying to communicate, and you want to reach as many people as you can,” he says. “I’m sorry that the short story has so little cultural currency. I’m not going to be able to change that, but I like the focus and the economy and the potential ferocity of the form, and so the fact that I’m able to get away with doing that and have an income elsewhere means that I can indulge that. I don’t need to write a trilogy in order to keep my family afloat.”

Full article can be found here.

“An understated and devastating novel…”

KIRKUS REVIEW

An understated and devastating novel of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation, as seen through the eyes of a street-wise boy.

Shepard has recently earned more renown for his short stories (You Think That’s Bad, 2011, etc.), but here he presents an exhaustively researched, pitch-perfect novel exploring the moral ambiguities of survival through a narrator who’s just 9 years old when the tale begins. He’s a Jewish boy living in the Polish countryside with his family and an odd sense of his place in the world. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” he despairs, matter-of-factly describing himself as basically friendless, a poor student, and an enigma to his loving mother: “She said that too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.” Yet Aron proves to be engaging company as he describes the selfishness that will help him survive as the world becomes increasingly hellish. The horrors are so incremental that Aron—and the reader—might be compared to the lobster dropped into the pot as the temperature keeps rising past the boiling point. Aron’s perspective is necessarily limited, and he often seems to have little understanding of what’s happening around him or why. His family is pushed into the city, and in the ghetto’s chaos, he’s separated from them. Serving as a moral counterweight to the boy’s instinctive pragmatism is Dr. James Korczak, a real-life Polish Jew whose ambition to “become the Karl Marx of children” inspired him to keep a couple hundred alive through his orphanage, which he supports by begging for funds from the better-off ghetto inhabitants. Aron becomes the doctor’s ward and accomplice, though he has also been serving as an occasional informer for the Gestapo through an intermediary in the Jewish police. He tries to use his position to help save the doctor from being sent to a concentration camp, but the doctor is only interested if he can save all the other children as well. “How do we know if we love enough?” asks the doctor. “How do we learn to love more?”

Find the full review here.

The Book of Aron

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Huge news for Jim Shepard fans – his new novel is coming out in May 2015, and it’s going to be incredible.  Here’s the information from Knopf:

The acclaimed National Book Award finalist—“one of the United States’ finest writers,” according to Joshua Ferris, “full of wit, humanity, and fearless curiosity”—now gives us a novel that will join the short list of classics about children caught up in the Holocaust.

Aron, the narrator, is an engaging if peculiar and unhappy young boy whose family is driven by the German onslaught from the Polish countryside into Warsaw and slowly battered by deprivation, disease, and persecution. He and a handful of boys and girls risk their lives by scuttling around the ghetto to smuggle and trade contraband through the quarantine walls in hopes of keeping their fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters alive, hunted all the while by blackmailers and by Jewish, Polish, and German police, not to mention the Gestapo.

When his family is finally stripped away from him, Aron is rescued by Janusz Korczak, a doctor renowned throughout prewar Europe as an advocate of children’s rights who, once the Nazis swept in, was put in charge of the Warsaw orphanage. Treblinka awaits them all, but does Aron manage to escape—as his mentor suspected he could—to spread word about the atrocities?
Jim Shepard has masterfully made this child’s-eye view of the darkest history mesmerizing, sometimes comic despite all odds, truly heartbreaking, and even inspiring. Anyone who hears Aron’s voice will remember it forever.

You can pre-order you copy today, right here, at Amazon or Powell’s Books.

Throwback Thursday: Jim in the New Yorker

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In her article “The World Lives With Water,” Elizabeth Minkel discusses Jim Shepard’s story “The Netherlands Lives with Water.”  Here’s an excerpt: 

Marital problems, and an unwillingness to directly confront them, are an undercurrent through the story, but I was completely wrapped up in Shepard’s imagined future, where the Netherlands calmly tries to control the uncontrollable: rising seas and an explosion of natural disasters. The technical details are remarkably engaging, but it’s the description of the floods—future floods, and the North Sea flood of 1953, the Watersnoodramp—that left me genuinely shaken:

 

Now that our land has subsided as much as it has, when the water does come, it will come like a wall, and each dike that stops it will force it to turn, and in its churning it will begin to spiral and bore into the earth, eroding away the dike walls, until the pressure builds and that dike collapses and it’s on to the next one, with more pressure piling up behind, and so on and so on until every last barrier falls and the water thunders forward like a hand sweeping everything from the table.

 

It’s hard to read, even as the news from upstate and New England has dropped off dramatically in recent days. Nearly a million people up and down the Eastern seaboard are still without power, and the cleanup from the floods has just begun. Updates from my family are heartbreaking—my father works in Schoharie County, one of the worst hit areas in New York State, and even though the several feet of water have subsided, the flood’s detritus remains. And the water levels are as high as they can be; the ground is saturated. If another storm sweeps through, the devastation could be unimaginable.

 

And now, on this mild, cloudless day in New York City, it’s strange to think that a week ago we were laying sandbags at the floodgates along the East River. Last Friday, as a co-worker and I studied the emergency flood map—I live in north Brooklyn, a block from the border of Zone C, and he lives at the southern tip of Manhattan, Zone A, and subsequently left town that night—I couldn’t help but think that what we were really looking at was a map of places that, after a few decades of rising sea levels, may no longer exist. Shepard writes about a quality of Dutchness, pessimism married with practicality, which makes the nation ideally suited for fighting the oncoming seas. I am as un-Dutch as they come, and the idea of the East River spilling up and over the streets of my neighborhood leaves me anxious and incredibly sad. Re-reading “The Netherlands Lives with Water” helped. Shepard’s prose is balanced, steady, and subtly beautiful.

 

Read the full article here.

 

Rob Mclennan Reviews “Master of Miniatures”

 

 

 

 

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“Emotionally complex, haunting and deceptively straightforward….Through Master of Miniatures, Shepard writes out a man who masters both filmmaking and miniatures, as well as a number of personal losses from which he can never recover. Shepard shows just how much the trauma of what Tsuburaya had lived through had permanently changed him, a realization he doesn’t entirely comprehend, and one that he begins to suspect far too late. This is a deeply fulfilling and unsettling novel, one that doesn’t end well or let easily go.”  Read the full review here. 

Poem of the Day: “You Reading This, Be Ready”

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life.

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

– William Stafford

For more information about this poet, visit williamstafford.org