Here’s an interview between Laura van der Berg and Jim Shepard. The full interview can be found here.
The idea of first person narrators combining “self-indictment and self-exoneration so weirdly and completely” calls to my mind so many great first person books—from The Remains of the Day to The Loser—and how compelling it can be to witness a narrator wrestle with a confession, or fail to confess what they most need to. Is the confessional aspect of the first person of particular interest to you?
It is, very much. I’m very interested in how complicated and paradoxical the impulses behind the confession can be. (This is possibly partially because I was raised a Catholic.) John Gardner characterized his suspicion of such confessions in his story “Redemption” as “the manipulation of shame to buy love.” And William Gass, in an essay on the subject, talks about his suspicions of confessional narratives and their agenda to present you with the more acceptable offense in order to distract you from, or avoid facing, the other more serious ones.
What first person narrators stick in your mind as being particularly compelling?
Like you, I loved the narrator in The Remains of the Day. And in Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster. In Charles Portis’s True Grit. In Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. And of course, maybe my favorite narrator of all time—speaking of confessions which we should handle with care—is Humbert Humbert.
I’ve heard people comment that the first person can be limiting and leaves the writer with fewer options than the third person, though as both a writer and a reader, I haven’t always found this to be the case. Do you think you encounter limits or barriers in the first person that you might not in other points of view? If so, how do you circumvent them?
For me, the first person offers different kinds of limits, that’s all. Omniscience, for example, I feel like, at least right now for me, is more difficult, if not impossible. But I’m not a writer who tends toward the omniscient voice, anyway.
The mention of voice reminds me of what a great reader you are—not to mention immensely entertaining on stage. Does that come naturally to you, or a skill you’ve cultivated over time?
Thank you. I’m sure I’ve gotten better over the years. The first time I read aloud someone taped me and when I heard it I was mortified. I sounded like a depressive on quaaludes.
Was there a story in Like You’d Understand, Anyway that you found particularly difficult to write?
They were all hard while they were happening. But two that I remember having given me particular trouble were two of the newest: “Courtesy for Beginners” and “Sans Farine.” The former because it took me a while to see what it was about it that was supposed to transcend that Bad Summer Camp genre. (If there is such a genre.) The latter because there seemed, even more than usual, a novel’s worth of information to marshal and organize. But who knows? It may just seem to me now that those two were the hardest because they were the most recently finished.
One of the many striking elements in Like You’d Understand, Anyway—and in much of your other work—is the amount of research the stories seem to have required. Can you describe the role research plays in your writing process? Do you find that the reading and research gives way to stories or do you usually start with characters and then begin researching?
My reading gives way to stories, in your phrase, in that what happens is that I’m often reading all kinds of strange stuff—the history of guillotines, or the assembled lore about the Yeti—just for my own pleasure, and then some of the details that I come across seem plangent to me. They’re emotionally resonant in ways that seem simultaneously evocative and a little mysterious. The fact that the details remain with me tells me that that they’re touching on something in terms of my own emotional life that I want to further explore. At that point, I begin researching as though I may be writing a story: in other words, to fill in gaps in my knowledge of whatever world and sensibility I’m considering trying to construct.
While we’re on the subject of your research, I wanted to ask about Nosferatu, which is a stunning book. Can you talk a little about what drew you to F. W. Murnau, and how and when you knew you had a novel there?
I’d been left in front of the TV at about the age of six by an insufficiently alert babysitter (I think she was in the middle of a marathon phone call) and watched the film by myself, in the dark. I still haven’t fully recovered. I’d seen a lot of the Universal horror movies by that point, but none of them were particularly adept at tone, and none were even remotely as unsettlingly strange as Nosferatu was. So I was imprinted by it, like a baby duck. Years later I taught it, when I taught film. Then I got the idea of writing a fictional working journal of its making, so I did lots of reading of other directors’ interviews and diaries from around that period. (Murnau himself left very little writing behind to which we can get access.) The story ended up showing up in TriQuarterly, but then—and this is the only time in my writing life this has happened—I felt like I wanted to do more with that protagonist and that world. So I went back to work, in terms of research. Why was I so drawn to him? Partially because of the pathos of his basic emotional situation, or at least the one with which I began: he was relentlessly described as aloof and cold and opaque, and he never saw himself that way. That gap between how you feel and the way you seem to be ubiquitously viewed: I related to that.
Is there a public figure/real-life person you’d like to write about, but haven’t? Or someone you’ve tried to write about, but haven’t yet been able to successfully?
I researched Charles Lindbergh for six months or so and felt as though I understood him, the way a biographer or historian might, but didn’t empathize with him enough, or in complicated enough ways. And so I abandoned the project of trying to write about him. I researched Aeschylus for nearly nine years in the hopes of writing a novel about him and was defeated by all that I could not finally know and was unwilling to invent. I ended up with a story about one small slice of his life. I’m going to have to be happy with that.
In Like You’d Understand, Anyway, there’s the recurring theme of brotherly relationships. Was this conscious on your part as you were shaping the collection? Or were you surprised when you looked at the manuscript in its entirety and saw this theme?
It was not conscious on my part. But neither was I floored by the news. In each case, as the story developed, my own preoccupations emerged as the inner energy powering the narratives.
Going beyond Like You’d Understand, Anyway, what do you think your most central writerly preoccupations have been?
Complicity with evil. The attractions of passivity. The heartbreak of knowing that we can’t be all we want or need to be for those we love.
That idea of passivity seems to come up frequently with you. You’ve commented that you’re intrigued by characters who are grappling with “ethical passivity,” and quite a bit of your work seems to concern this issue, whether it’s the turbine managers at Chernobyl or executioners or Nazis.
I do, in fact, see that as a major link running through my work. And I think for me the attraction has to do with my sense of the particular cogency, in our world today, of that famous line of I think Edmund Burke’s that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Most Americans think George W. Bush has been a hideously bad President. And yet: is he out of office? I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which we can find ourselves sliding over into complicity with people who have active and terrible agendas.
In an interview, you once said, answering a question about whether you feel a political responsibility with your fiction, that “As for the political responsibility at work in our fiction: should what we write matter? Yes.” What do you think it means for fiction to matter?
I think it means that someone reading it might be affected by it; might be caused to think in new ways, and might act on that new information. I believe that literature shows us how we live. And by extension, then, how to live.