In the Shadows of the Holocaust: LitHub Interview

Here’s a really interesting interview with Bethanne Patrick of LitHub:

According to Vulture, Shepard is “the best writer you’ve never heard of,” the author of six novels prior to The Book of Aron, as well as four short-story collections. Since I agree with Vulture, I’d rather Jim Shepard make his work memorable than use his brain cells on recalling a workshop participant at a cocktail party.

Many others have already written extensively about Shepard’s previous work, and I direct you here and here, if you’d like more of a recap, or an introduction. Here I’d prefer to focus on The Book of Aron, both because its his new release, and because, like my colleague Ron Charles at The Washington Post, I believe it’s a masterpiece.

The Book of Aron is the story of a nine-year-old Polish Jew whose limited juvenile perspective allows Shepard to focus less on war and politics and more on humanity and compassion.

But that doesn’t mean the trademark Jim Shepard humor, dry and droll and spot-on, doesn’t appear. Aron can tell us on one page, “It was terrible to be the person I was,” and leave us in tears (all right, that was me, and it was only page three), then turn around and say something hilarious, and utterly right for his situation.

As Aron is relocated from countryside to city, from city to ghetto, ghetto to orphanage, and orphanage to concentration camp, his story intersects with the historical journey of a remarkable man, doctor Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Henry Goldzsmit, who truly was a pediatrician). “Pan Doktor” (Mister Doctor), as he was known, opened his first orphanage in Poland in 1912. When the orphanage was moved inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, he moved with it, and refused to leave or abandon the children. All of them were transported to Treblinka on August 5, 1942.

Bethanne Patrick: You said the character of Aron arrived when, “My boy started complaining to me.” What was it about his voice or tone that grabbed you?

Jim Shepard: Most of my narrators—recently, mostly first-person—confront the problem of hubris, and most of them start out in a complaining or angry or obsessive mode. I grew up around a lot of kvetch-y Italian relatives. I’m comfortable with bitchy. My mother was one of the great bitchers of all time and I’d think: Jesus, you’re bitching about that? What about these people who have no legs? That dichotomy, realizing that kids in the orphanage can complain, but then someone might say to them: Hey, this place saved your life, asshole.

There’s a tension inside this child narrator of mine: He may hate whatever place he lands in, but hey, this place saved your life, asshole. That tension immediately swept away one of the worries I had about writing this book, which was “Oh, god, here’s Jim writing about the Holocaust again.” These characters are complaining about life before the Germans even arrive. It’s a nice bracing corrective to how Holocaust stories often operate.

BP: Why a child narrator?

JS: I decided a child would be better suited to enact my limitations, and to impart that sense of fatalism that was quite common to adults Jews of that era, but also part of any crabby child’s vision: No matter what adult is around, I’m probably going to have a shitty day. Aron overhears adults talking about historical matters, like “Berlin was just bombed,” but his juvenile response is always “I guess things are going to be shitty for all of us.”

I always believe in building up micro to macro. Aron starts by complaining about his status within the family. I think that’s common to most children, including my own. They’re always thinking of their place in the family; it’s the world that has the most power over you. Aron is viewed unfairly, for many reasons, and he’s quite isolated, even by alienated little boy standards. We always construct this tension for ourselves about not dramatizing one person’s suffering over another, but of course we do it all the time, and especially in literature! Think of Lear. Holden Caulfield. It’s how narrative works. We single out a figure who represents some kind of suffering. I love the irony that Aron, of all people, would end up somebody important to people’s minds. The idea that I could elevate somebody like that—that’s one of the things that makes writing worth it, to me.

BP: Why another book about the Holocaust? Did you consider the fact that very few survivors are still alive?

JS: I think I felt humility and heavy responsibility because of the subject. I would also feel that way if I were writing about soldiers at Chancellorsville. I think you have a good point about survivors. The window is closing for memoirs and nonfiction from their perspective.

But while their stories need to be told and I hope that as many of them are as can be, I wanted to figure this out for myself, which is of course why I write fiction. And I wanted to bring the reader along while I did it, which is another reason why I write fiction.

BP: You’re known for your sense of humor, and it can be found in this book, despite its heavy subject. How did you incorporate the two?

JS: Part of the way that you decide a subject is suitable for you is to find—discover?—these kinds of harmonies and resonances with your own sensibility. As I was doing my research, I found jokes that the older people tell, like the elderly survivor who visited Auschwitz recently and said to the guard at the ticket booth: “The last time I was in line here it was free.” My humor seemed to fit very well with with that response: As horrible as it all was, it was never not absurd.

BP: How do you tell a story that’s been told before, so often?

JS: That’s a really good question, because although it’s a problem that everyone in literature faces, literature of the Holocaust has become a kind of genre. Part of the way you come to that is to defamiliarize the story in some way. You reassure yourself that it’s possible, you say to yourself that you need to keep in mind the impatience you have while reading through a million documents is the same impatience the reader has. You don’t stop reading, but you start tuning out certain things and becoming alert to others. You reach the point where you find something new and unfamiliar that makes the rest of it fall away, and suddenly you know that you can tell your story, that you can contribute something. And making something new to the reader doesn’t mean you don’t have respect for the suffering. If anything, if you’re doing it right, it means you are able to break through the numbness that surrounds any human who watches the news today.

BP: One of the things you highlight for the reader in The Book of Aron is how much of life in Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto was reduced to the transactional.

JS: It has to come from the research, and it did. If it were “that’s just my view of people,” it would ring false. Everybody chooses which details to include. And, of course, I also found stories of compassion. If I’d chosen to base my book on those, it might have swung over to “what a heartwarming place the ghetto was!” In most situations, there’s a balance of compassion and commerce. But not for Aron.

BP: What is it about Poland, with you?

JS: You know, there’s this wonderful tension inside Polish history, a country that is everybody’s parking lot! Imagine some of these councils: “You take part of Poland…” With Poland being a fiercely Catholic state on top of that, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jews, and that means there was a pretty virulent anti-Semitism in Poland going on even longer than it was in Germany. With Poles as perpetrators and Poles as victims? That’s wonderful for a writer’s purpose. If you go to your neighbors for help, are they going to turn you in—or not? It created interesting tensions and grotesque situations, and it made Jews feel doubly isolated. Here’s the thing: It wasn’t very hard to get out of the Warsaw Ghetto. But why would you? It wasn’t the Germans you had to worry about, it was your former boss, or teacher, or butcher. That makes for a much more interesting and complicated portrait. It’s also why German suggestions about “the Jewish problem” didn’t seem as terrible to the Poles as they might have to a different nationality.

BP: Yet you have a few symbols—I’m thinking of Aron’s mother insisting on her prettiest nightgown when she’s ill, because his father might come home—that suggest an impulse towards hope.

JS: When people say what a horribly bleak story, why would you want to do this, I say: I resist the idea that it’s unbelievably bleak. I find that extreme pressure can result in extreme compassion, and the kind of hope that keeps us alive.

BP: Speaking of keeping us alive: History is a survivor’s tale. Discuss.

JS: To be a survivor you have to have some kind of resourcefulness. Sometimes you have to be in league with perpetrators, depending on what kind of resources you have. Again and again in my reading and research I saw astonishing emotional resourcefulness surface, all sorts, some of which might seem quite startling to those of us who have not experienced that kind of pressure.

Saints and great men: When you’re not just creating hagiography, you try to get at the human side of these figures. One of the aspects of being truly messianic and driven on behalf of someone else is that you get the message over and over again that your desires are unimportant. And the saintly one will say to his deputy, if my desires are unimportant, so are yours.

BP: Your research, as you’ve mentioned, was extensive. Was there something that stunned you?

JS: I came well short of being a Holocaust scholar, and I’m happy that I’m not a Holocaust scholar, I think those are always very unhappy people on two different levels: Both the astonishing amount of horrific detail, and the worry that you’ll sanitize or sensationalize.

An example of the first level is that we tend to forget about the daily torments people endured, like constant fleas and lice. An example of the second is that you’re not sure what you have the right to inflict on anyone else. Can you go all the way to Treblinka? I could not. But I decided I could go, or thought I could go, to the ghetto.

So, the thing that stunned me: When I was in Poland, at Belzec, I saw a memorial to an SS officer who was so revolted and horrified at what he saw that he wrote a letter to a Swedish envoy saying, “Here’s what’s going on, you need to know about this.” His letter was essentially an account of what it was like to look through the window of a gas chamber in the moments when the women and children and babies inside realized they were not going to have showers, that they were going to be gassed to death. I didn’t feel I had the right to inflict that on the reader.

BP: You didn’t “feel” you had the right. Let’s talk about that. Our mutual friend and colleague Dani Shapiro refers to the “shimmer” when you know you’re on the right track. This is something different.

JS: Yes, it’s the “dark shimmer.” You have a contract with the reader, and depending on which book you have in your head, you have to consider at which point you might be tipping over into a kind of pornography. You’re going by feel, there’s no rule about this. At what point might the reader finally feel that this is too much of an assault? For example, The Painted Bird is a close to a kind of casual brutality and a casual aggression as I can think of.

And you know that terrible things happened. But that absolutely awful stuff inside the gas chamber had a level of intimacy inside the anguish that I was not comfortable with claiming would make my book even stronger. It’s the kind of decision that feels really intuitive. That said, if you are going to write about this subject at all, you have to be consistent, and you can’t shy away from things that are crucial to what you want to get across.

BP: Your last line—before the Historical Note—is Korczak telling Aron the final piece of his institution’s philosophy: “And the child has the right to make mistakes.”

JS: Korczak’s whole life is about understanding human weakness and making space for it. That kind of generosity of spirit is what we, or at least I, imagine as a kind of ethical greatness. Everybody has the right to make mistakes, everybody has the right to be forgiven. There’s something hubristic about imagining that you’re so awful that you can’t be forgiven. It’s a way of aggrandizing yourself: “I’ve been so iniquitous that I can’t be redeemed.”

It’s really important that Korczak say that to Aron, right at that moment. They need that strength before they confront what’s ahead.

Jim Shepard Featured on Selected Shorts


Too Late

Guest host Wyatt Cenac presents a program of stories about drastic solutions and last chances. Master fantasist Steven Millhauser imagines the world covered by a gigantic plastic sphere in “The Dome,” read by Alec Baldwin. Jim Shepard takes us to the greatest recorded natural disaster in history in “Cretan Love Song,” read by Joe Morton, and Mr. Potato Head is not your friend in Nicholson Baker’s “Subsoil,” read by Thomas Gibson.

Click here to listen.  Jim’s story can be heard during the first half hour.

“The World to Come” in Best American Short Stories 2013

As you might have read in a previous post, Jim’s story “The World to Come” has been included in the Best American Anthology this year.  The story is a love story between two nineteenth century farm women and originally appeared in One Story.  Here is a mini interview with Jim from the One Story issue:

Q&A by Hannah Tinti (Taken from One Story website which you can find here)


Where did the idea of this story come from?

I’d come across a book chronicling the worst storms in the history of New England. (That’s the kind of book I tend to read.) I was struck, going through it, by just the day-to-day arduousness and loneliness of the farmers’ lives. That led me to other histories and journals and diaries, and I came across a farmer’s one-line notation about how sad his wife was, because her one friend had moved away.

The details of “The World to Come” feel so authentic—from the farming tools to the medicinal herbs. How much research did you do to create this world?

I started researching last June, and, though I was also doing other things in the meantime, didn’t start writing until early December.

Why did you decide to tell this story in the format of journal entries, instead of a straight narrative?


I wanted to catch if I could the moment-to-moment and day-to-day nature of 19th century farming lives, as well as how seasonally based those lives were: the importance of the weather, and their meals, and of course the drudgery. But the journal nature of the story also seemed crucial when it came to capturing all of the little ways in which the narrator has let her Tallie down.


Do you think it was only desperate circumstances that drew these women together, or was it a deeper connection? And did you know from the start this would be a love story?


Unsurprisingly, I think it was both. I do think they would have been powerfully drawn to one another even had they met under less desperate circumstances, but then, they don’t consider the circumstances particularly desperate (until the end). And almost immediately I knew it would be a love story; the question at that point became how repressed a love story it would be.


At one point the narrator, thinking of her pioneer mother (born in 1780), remarks: “I wonder now at the courage and the resourcefulness of those women who fared forth, not knowing where they were being led, to begin to chip into the wilderness the foundations of a civilization.” This story in many ways feels like a tribute to these women—and the losses they were forced to bear. The narrator and Tallie are the next generation, but their lives continue to be severely limited and contained. Is that partly what drew you to write about this time period (1850s)?


That is, yes. Once I decided to write about farm women rather than men, the unsung nature of the burden they bore seemed very clear.


One of the most striking sections is the earthquake that Dyer’s mother goes through. Why did you decide to include this story within a story?


I thought it important to have a figure in the story for another, more terrifying kind of disaster, and for how precarious farmers felt their footholds in their livelihoods (and lives) to be.


Why did you title this story “The World to Come”?


I liked the way in which our narrator early on assures us that she has stopped worrying about that notion, and then finds that Tallie has created for her an entirely new version of a world to come. And then the sadness of imagining what that world to come must look like, for the narrator, once Tallie is dead.


What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?


My thesis advisor at Brown University, John Hawkes, always told me to look for the weirdness in my own work. There was plenty to find.


“We can’t be all we want or need to be for those we love…”

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.

Jim Shepard Interview in the New Yorker

Here’s a brief and lovely interview with Jim Shepard about his new story, Boy’s Town, which appears this week in the New Yorker.  Here’s a sampling:

“Boys Town” is about a man who believes that nothing he’s done in his life has ever been good enough. When did you first start thinking about your protagonist?

I’ve written about those sorts of protagonists all of my life. It seems to me that that kind of radical disenchantment with one’s self—wedded, at the same time, to an enormous capacity for self-deception, as well—has been an ongoing subject of mine. I’ve always been interested, both in other writers’ work and my own, in protagonists who leave the reader to sort through what they’ve figured out, what they’ve been unable to figure out, and what they refuse to try to figure out about themselves.

How often is your fiction inspired by real events? When you come across a news story or an account of a historical incident, do you immediately know that it might form the germ of a story?

Lately, my fiction has often been inspired by real events, either from history or science or the news. Initially I read just to please myself: the happy odd person left alone with his peculiar subjects. But every so often a particular human dilemma within a situation sticks with me, and that emotional resonance that I feel in such cases suggests to me that I might want to try to inhabit the situation a little more fully, in terms of my own empathetic imagination.

Read the rest here.  And be sure to pick up a copy of The New Yorker this week and read Jim’s story.

PR Newswire — Stardate 9/28/07, Williamstown, MA

New Jim Shepard Book: ‘Like You’d Understand Anyway’

    WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Sept. 28 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ --
"'Like You'd Understand, Anyway' serves as testament not only
to Jim Shepard's talents but also to the power of the short
story itself, forged from the world with a sharp eye and
a careful ear, serving no agenda but literature's primary
and oft-forgotten one: the delight of the reader," writes
Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) in the Sunday New York
Times Book Review (Sept. 23).
Shepard's new book skips the reader across time and space.
From 19th- century Australian frontier to Hadrian's Wall
to the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy, each of the 11 first-person
narratives in "Like You'd Understand Anyway" (Knopf, 2007)
"glories in the sheer too-muchness of life -- its superabundance
of emotion, incident, and sensory delight." (Kirkus)
Shepard says he chooses stories that are "usually moments in which
human beings have found themselves in extraordinarily
difficult, and memorable, positions that resonate with me, personally,
in emotional terms. In other words, zeppelins themselves don't get me
going; it's the position in which a zeppelin can place somebody that
generates the initial impulse for a story." (for more, go here)

In which O magazine likens Jim to God

After the Fall
Jim Shepard’s stories are so dangerously brilliant, they’re radioactive.

‘The Zero Meter Diving Team,’ a short story about Chernobyl and its terrible aftermath, — and just one of an astounding set of stories in Jim Shepard’s new collection, Like You’d Understand Anyway (Knopf) — presents itself, in spite of its hideous subject matter, as something of a bitter comedy. Mikhail, a hospitalized engineer left ill and burned mahogany after the accident, receives a visit from his brother, who is a bureaucrat in Moscow’s department of nuclear energy. The visit is official: the brother (and narrator) is conducting an inquiry into the accident. ‘The investigator is weeping,’ Mikhail crows from his hospital bed. The brother explains his tears by pointing out that the accident and its victims constitute a great tragedy — ‘Oh, yes,’ says Mikhail. ‘Tragedy tragedy tragedy.’ That slightly comic, slightly abrasive repetition of the word tragedy forms the perfect caption to Shepard’s fictional worldview, which might be summed up as sadness hardened against sentiment by an unyielding wit. Shepard looks at life as we have insisted on arranging it and sees all the inevitable vivid deformities our blundering has produced — the vividness fascinates him and the inevitability makes him laugh, even though he renders as beautifully as any writer the hard, frightening fact of the deformities themselves. To be able to see people in pain, lost, ruinously mistaken, and to be able even then to love them and find them funny, marks the moment when the artist most closely resembles God — which is always, secretly, the great artist’s ultimate aim.” — Vince Pisarro for O.