It is tempting to replicate the dust jacket biography on Jim Shepard's sixth and latest novel, Project X, which reads: "The author of five previous novels, Jim Shepard lives with his family in Williamstown, Massachusetts," and leave it at that. But readers of this site and these conversations will understand that we cannot and will not (leave it at that).
Jim Shepard has been teaching at Williams College for a number of years. He was born in Stratford, Connecticut and attended Trinity College and Brown University (where his thesis advisor was John Hawkes). He taught a brief stint at the University of Michigan before settling down to his cushy post at Williams College in 1984. In addition to the above-mentioned Project X, his other novels are Flights, Paper Doll, Lights Out in the Reptile House, Kiss of the Wolf, and Nosferatu. He also has two story collections under his belt: Batting Against Castro and the recent Love and Hydrogen. Shepard has also edited three anthologies: You've Got to Read This (with Ron Hansen); Unleashed: Poems by Writer's Dogs (with Amy Hempel) and Writers at the Movies: 26 Contemporary Writers Celebrate 26 Contemporary Movies. Jim Shepard's short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Tin House, Playboy, McSweeney's, GQ, Doubletake, SEED and The New Yorker. The press release accompanying Project X offers: "Children seem to like him. In person he seems an odd combination of the banal and the oblique." Need we say more?
"Shepard is something of a patron saint of the maladapted," Art Winslow writes, "both in his previous work and in his two new books, the story collection Love and Hydrogen and the novel Project X. His people tend to hail from torqued-up families—a child who has turned violent, a father exuding sarcasm or meanness, or siblings who wouldn't know brotherly love if it bit them, which, of course, it does." Winslow concludes, "Even his characters are amazed to find themselves where they end up, sometimes facing death, sometimes revelation, but always in motion. Stasis is their enemy. William Beebe, inventor of the bathysphere, who appears in the story ‘Descent into Perpetual Night,’ says of a voice, cabled down to him in the deep that ‘its breath and its warmth’ were ‘the most durable of illusions.’ We could say the same of Shepard's, and his stories."
Robert Birnbaum: You are appearing at an event having to do with writing and music. I found myself thinking that music is such a significant thing, and yet I rarely engage writers in discussions about it.
Jim Shepard: Yeah, there is some overlap. It's funny, it's such a different vocabulary that it's not that commonplace for many of the contemporary fiction writers I know to foray out into it. I remember talking to Charlie Baxter about a beautiful story of his called “The Harmony of The World,” in his very first collection, about a composer who was told very early on he wasn't going to amount to much. And Charlie's mastery of the idiom, in that story, was impressive enough that even I, a fiction writer, thought he had musical training. And he said, "No, this is what I learned to write this story, essentially." And I myself love music, but I shied away from it, from writing about in fiction until very, very recently—[in] the Who story ["Won't Get Fooled Again"], the story in Love and Hydrogen. And I don't know if part of it is a sense that it's an entirely new vocabulary that has to be mastered or part of it is a sense of moving into a realm of description that invites one to confront the limitations of one's own vocabulary. It's a little bit like smell. What does that sound like exactly, that kind of thing. One of the guys I am reading with tonight, Steve Almond [one of the organizers] loves music and writing about music. And he has that kind of new journalist/rock/jazzy kind of thing going. If you have that style, you tend to want to do pop music anyway. But most of the fiction writers I know do shy away from it.
RB: Charles Baxter's musical references are all over the map—from [Charles] Mingus to Motown. He seems to like it all.
JS: One of the nice things about Charley—he really has a wonderful sort of high low cultural grip on America. He can do, very smoothly segue from Kierkegaard to the Magnetic Fields and not feel as though he is putting on either, in a way.
RB: He strikes me as being broad and open-minded.
JS: He has some pretty strong biases, especially politically.
RB: We'll let him speak for himself.
JS: If you get him or me started on the current administration you'll find out about our biases. It does seem to me that he is very receptive to whatever is coming his way. His son plays in a punk band, and that's opened him up to much of what we call "young people's music." He is also very well trained—self trained. I am not sure which, in what the previous generation called high culture—philosophy and serious musician stuff like that—he has a very, very good grounding in.
RB: In Saul and Patsy one of the epigrams was from—
JS: Paul Simon.
RB: And an exchange between Brahms and someone else in which Brahms is talking about his use of trombones or French horns.
JS: Right, you need the trombones because they provide the code to sadness.
RB: So you and Charles and couple of other excellent writers—there is a way in which we could talk about you, if you were visual artists as if you were in mid-career. You have a significant body of work and seemingly lots of time to do more. Does it seem like that to you?
JS: I think so, yeah. There used to be that artificial boundary for poets called the Yale Younger Poets Prize where you couldn't win it if you were over forty. So poets knew they were passing a certain Rubicon, essentially. Fiction writers feel as they hit their late forties, early fifties depending on when they got started, feel very much like that. They could have a body of work; maybe they are at some kind of peak in terms of technique. They don't have that much ahead of them, but they might have work they could still be really happy about ahead of them. You don't know.
RB: You didn't know before either.
JS: Right, I could be hit by a bus on the way out of here. Then there are those writers like Harriet Doerr who wrote her first book when she was 73. And you think, "At what point are you mid-career in that case?"
RB: Let's talk about you.
RB: Regarding Project X, which we may talk more or less about—
JS: Depending on how interested we are.
RB: Good, good qualifier. It strikes me that it is a very ambitious novel. Because [pauses] you may remember that period of life that the two main characters represent—around 14—and you may remember your children at that age, but still one of the difficulties of that age is that it is hard to be clear on what it is. So you take it upon yourself to write two characters that are at that mysterious point in life and present them with authenticity. How do you feel about it? Did you hit the marks you wanted to hit?
JS: I hit a lot of the marks. I have been dealing with adolescence in fiction for a long time. I started with adolescence, and I haven't really—it helps actually to have some sort of mineral and unteachable adolescent built in me somewhere.
JS: It also helps to have always been fascinated with the cardinal struggles that all adolescents have. That sense, for example, of not having the words for feelings—that sense of an intensity that is kind of inchoate. That sense of being attracted to and repelled by one's own passivity. Those sorts of things that are very intense in adolescents are cornerstones—things that I have been interested in. So it brings me back to that time of life. As you also said, there is a way in which the older you get, the more ambitious it seems. As a first novel, writing about an adolescent seemed about the easiest and most accessible thing for me to do. Now it felt like, "Can you do it?"
RB: On the other hand, you are expected as part of your job description as a writer of fiction, to be able to write about any kind of character.
JS: Yeah, one of the things I tell my students—they will often say to me, "What made you think you could do a gay German filmmaker [Nosferatu] or something?" I'll tell them, "Any one of these voices you are taking on is an act of hubris. Whether you are doing your sister, your mom, some version of your mom or some versions of yourself. Who are you kidding? You are not channeling a real person. You are essentially inventing. And inventing on some sort of unstable mix of what you remember and what you imagine." Essentially, what you are doing when you are doing an adolescent, when you are 46 years old or you are doing John Ashcroft or John Entwhistle or whatever, you are arming yourself with as much hard information and empathetic imagination as you can and then you are saying that it's essentially an imagined sensibility. You are not really recreating someone else.
RB: Why do we assume that the reader has a grasp of what the truth of the characters is? The onus is placed on the writer—
JS: I suppose. The onus is always placed on the writer. It's very much like place. If you say to someone, "When you described that part of London, I really felt like I had been there," in some ways it's irrelevant whether or not you went there and lived there twelve years. Or whether you got a travel book. What you are doing is creating a plausible if not compelling illusion.
RB: Here's my advertisement for Ed Jones. He and I had talked about his intention to do research for The Known World. In the end he didn't do much—he opted for some principle of plausibility. As long as he did nothing to make the reader wonder about whether something in the story fit in—
JS: When you do something like slavery, you could research until the cows come home. You probably couldn't write a great novel about slavery knowing nothing about the 19th century, so probably what Ed is talking about is he already read two or three books that gave him a grounding—No?
RB: I am not sure he read anything.
JS: I would be very surprised if you could recreate an entire time with no knowledge whatsoever. On the other hand, it's often shocking to readers how little research goes into some of these books. Partially it is, again, what you are looking for if the premise of fiction is when you describe a human being you are choosing three details out of a million. Henry James said, "She had eyes like this and a nose like this." And you go, "I could really see her." You have two details! Theoretically you could do the same thing with the Battle of Antietem, Right? If you get the right details. Part of the point of all that research is not, "Oh, I am going to be able to deploy more details." It's that I am more likely going to come across those two.
RB: What about the notion that the research just provides you, the writer, with confidence?
JS: Yeah, but confidence is such a chemical thing for a writer. Right? I mean John Irving wakes up in the morning with more confidence than you and I will ever have [both laugh]. I can research until the cows come home and never have as much confidence as certain people. Some part of me is always going to be saying, "Where do you get off?" Some part is going to be saying, "Well, why not?"
RB: Did you research Love and Hydrogen?
JS: Oh sure. But there are all sorts of areas where I went: "Shit I'm making this stuff up." And part of what happens is—
RB: Some structural piece of the dirigible broke and created sparks and that created the fire?
JS: Oh no, nobody knows what started the fire. Part of what you do in a situation like that—this is where a lot of beginning writers run into trouble. At some point you have to say to yourself, "It's not about what really happened. It's about what I am about to invent." And for the writer who is lacking confidence and/or is looking for a reason to procrastinate—and all writers are looking for reasons to procrastinate—there is always another book you could check out. There is always something else you could read. And I have known a lot of young writers, working with them at places like Breadloaf, MFA programs, or even undergraduates I work with who have said, "Yeah, I really want to write this thing, but I really need to know more." If you are writing a novel about the Russian Revolution and you are determined to read everything there is to read about it, you are never going write it. You are just never going to write it. And it's just a great way to shut yourself down. It’s also a great way to forget that you are not regurgitating what everyone has said about the Russian Revolution. You are creating a plausible illusion based on—really on your emotions and your particular peculiar obsessions.
RB: There is a lack of clarity or consensus about what a historical novel is.
JS: Part of the reason for that is there is such a gamut with historical novels between those writers who say, "I didn't fictionalize anything I could think of," and then those writers who say, "Suppose Churchill was a Martian?" They just make up whatever they want to make up. I just got a phone call from a very elderly man in Lenox, Massachusetts who turns out to have been one of the Czechoslovakian freedom fighters who went after Reinhard Heydrich.
RB: You read this in New York the other night?
JS: It's in the collection. I didn't read it.
RB: Ron Hogan [at Beatrice.com] mentioned a Nazi story about a trip to Tibet.
JS: Right. I have gone to the Nazis a few times. I have gone to the well a couple of times with the Nazis. They interest me. In this, it was a story from the point of view of two or three Czech freedom fighters that were parachuted back into their homeland to assassinate Heydrich. And it was based on what really happened, but I fictionalized a lot of it. And this guy was one of the guys. Somebody had said to him, "You have to read this story of Jim Shepard's." And he read it and he called me up and said, "At first I was enraged, because I was reading along and I never went there, and I didn't do this, and I didn't do that, and how dare he?" and all of this. And then my wife kept saying, "But look dear, it's fiction. It's short stories." And I kept saying, "But he does not have the right to do this." And at the end of this particular story, at the moment that they are surrounded, the ghost of Churchill shows up and a start speaking to them, and the Czech says, "When I got to that point, I thought he must know this didn't happen." [laughs] So he said, "At that a point, okay, let him do what he wants to do."
RB: Alan Furst, who writes about WW II, feels deeply obliged to present the factual details, because so much blood was shed around them.
JS: He's put his finger on the paradox of the reader's relationship to fiction. On the one hand, you don't come to fiction for the exact same thing you come to history for. You come to fiction for an aesthetic pleasure of this entirely shaped thing, blah blah blah. But on the other hand, writers do tend to forget just how many of fiction's pleasures for the reader do have non-fiction components. Read A Big Two-Hearted River and you think, "Well, I am learning about fly fishing." Or read The Great Gatsby and part of the pleasure is thinking you are learning a little bit about the upper crust in Long Island at a certain point. You feel like you are getting a little bit of history. And that is not a negligible thing for a fiction experience. Part of what historical novelists are doing—they are massaging that middle ground so that whenever you read anything historical, when you do a Q and A, you are always dealing with those questions. It's because you have been teasing that middle ground that people will go, "How much of this is true about the Hindenburg? How much is not? Tell me what is and what's not"—that kind of thing. Which would be an insulting thing to ask an historian.
JS: A good historian would say, "Well, this is my opinion, anyway."
RB: Isn't what makes people uncomfortable with history, that it is seemingly true for this moment—until archives turn up another revelation. Or some countervailing information is presented.
JS: Yeah, this is what we know until more information comes out.
RB: There seem to be a slew of novels that have a factual germ as the starting point and then the writer embellishes or makes up the rest of whole cloth. David Liss in The Coffee Trader places us into the workings of the community of Jews, exiled from Spain to Amsterdam and the beginning of the commodities market in early 17th century.
JS: It's a really wonderful way for a fiction writer to enlarge what you might call the demoralizingly narrow little body of ground that is your autobiographical experience that you write from.
JS: Because you find yourself saying, “Okay I guess I could write about an unhappy marriage, or a happy marriage, or raising a child who seems to be doing very well, or whatever.” And then you think, “Well, my emotional life can't be this desolate.” And then you begin to realize that your emotional life can connect in all sorts of really energized ways to experiences that you haven't had. The great Auden line is, "You are not writing necessarily about your life, but you are all the time writing from your life." And that means that I might look at the experience—I might read a memoir by Charles Lindbergh, thinking, "Wow this guy is right up my alley." And then realize that nothing about Lindbergh is emotionally engaging me. The more I read this guy, the stranger he sounds to me. I don't want to write about him. He's still interesting but he doesn't resonate. Then I can read some lunatic Messerschmitt 163 pilot's memoir and go "God, this guy."
RB: You actually did that ["Climb Aboard the Mighty Flea"].
JS: Yeah, for the Flea thing I read this memoir—that's what got me started. I thought, "These guys were nuts." But they were nuts in a really interesting way. And it was exactly in the things that the guy couldn't explain and wouldn't explain—why are we doing this? That got me going, got me interested. Lindbergh, in some ways, was as inexplicable as this guy was. And yet what was driving Lindbergh didn't end up being as fascinating to me.
RB: He admired the Nazis.
JS: Plus he was a Fascist. But again, I have been attracted to Nazis in fiction.
RB: Why do you think?
JS: [long pause] Uh.
RB: Because they are so aberrational?
JS: Yeah, if in fact I am interested in the issue of ethical passivity the Nazis are the preeminent modern version of putting the maximum pressure on that. So you find yourself saying, "Okay given that you would stand around when civil liberties are abrogated in a such a way with John Ashcroft, would you stand around if they were abrogated in [more radical ways]—it's just an obvious way of pushing the envelope in some ways. This thing I just read in Brooklyn is a story. Again, I came across when I was reading somebody else's diary. One of those nuts, Rudolph Meisener, who are always climbing Mt. Everest without equipment. One of those Germans: "Let's see if we can do it without gloves." And I thought, “This is the kind of guy I am attracted to.” So I read his memoir and found nothing interesting about it at all and was thinking, "Okay, not a complete waste of time." And I was getting towards the end and he mentioned in passing, that Himmler had—that he had run across this anthropologist in Tibet who Himmler had sent to find the origins of the Nordic race, in Tibet. And as a kind of side thing they were looking for the Yeti [the Abominable Snowman] at the same time and I thought, "Did Himmler do this just so I could write about it?" Nazis looking for the Abominable Snowman.
JS: So I did a little bit of research for it, not very much, but just enough to turn my imagination loose. But again, it's that kind of thing where you're, the kind of issues that are being raised in our society today, like at what point does the science establishment sell out for the money to an administration that’s in charge of the purse strings? Here you've got it as exaggerated as it could possibly be. In Germany, in the thirties, the entire discipline of anthropology is selling out to race science and they are all studying eugenics. Why? Because that's where the money is. This guy in particular had written persuasively and kind of contemptuous tones about Himmler's race theories. Exactly the way you would hear people now a days go, "The guy who is running the National Science Foundation is such an idiot." But he's handing out the money.
RB: You have a new novel and a story collection. How does that work? Or more importantly how do you decide what you are going to work on?
JS: One of the things people often say about academia is that it distorts writers—the truism that I have never found to be the case— is that it tames writers, that it makes writers like MFA writers. They want to write Kingsley Amis-type fiction or whatever. I have never found that to be the case, especially given all American poets and a huge number of American fiction writers are associated with academia in some way or another. One of the unspoken things that it does is that it breaks up, in peculiar ways, the time you have to write. So that if you imagine, like my cycle is something like: one semester where I am very, very busy, one semester where I am less busy, and then an entire summer where I am off, and every three years an entire year where I am off. You begin to realize these semesters where the writer is very busy, the only thing he is going to be able to do is short stories because he is only going to get four or five day blocks of time that would allow him to dispel the real sense that is totally illusory and it's a tissue of—it's going to fall apart at any given moment.
RB: What's the 'this'?
JS: The sort of tenuous fictional world that you are starting to create, with the voice or something. And that's fatal for a novelist. What's happened to me a few times is that if I have started thinking about a novel too quickly, too early, the whole thing sort of evaporates while I'm writing in four or five weeks. But what I can do is, either a huge amount of work on the novel, so I feel as though that I am confident enough that I know what world I am dealing with and then have a hiatus, okay, here comes the semester. Or accomplish the entire thing while I am off. Which is what happened with Project X. But what that means is that I am actually driven back to short stories in a kind of cyclical way because when the semester comes around, when it's time to teach again. Unless you are travesty as a teacher, you are not getting very much systematic [work done]. You might get two and half days a week. Which in the early stages of a novel is fatal. Two and half days a week is dilettante time. You have just enough engagement with the book that when you come back you think, "Who the hell are these people?" But you don't have enough that you keep pushing past all those stupid moments when you think, "You don't even know who this woman is." Short stories, on the other hand, can function that way. You can get a block of time and move ahead. I wonder if academia has that effect.
RB: Do the narratives all unfold in the same way? That is, is there a predictable pattern of problems and process?
JS: In the case of all of the novels before this one, Project X, I would say the hump was about the 50% to 60% mark of the first draft, where you think, "Okay, I think now, this world is coming together." One of the reasons for that as opposed to Project X is that one of the things that I have never been very satisfied with in terms of my novels was the sense that in the early going especially, they were quite episodic. They tended to be—until Project X—even Kiss of the Wolf, they tended to be, "Let’s establish what the world is like in little cinematic dribs and drabs." And then about half way through, the narrative would really pick up, and a boy would steal an airplane or the mission would come, or whatever. And everybody experiencing the novel, myself included, would say, "Boy, the second half really kicked ass. The first half was good. I didn't get bored, too much." And so in Kiss of the Wolf I thought, "I have to address this some how." So what I did was, I had the horrible accident that precipitates everything come early. But even then there was this perverse sense of, now we're going to have the family and this scene and that scene. It still feels kind of episodic. With Project X, part of what felt ambitious to me besides going back to adolescence was going, "God damn it, this is going to hit the ground running and not look back." And part of that is also trying to make even more severe the Aristotelian unity, saying one voice, a couple weeks. He's not going to shut up. And they are not going to say—what I might have done if I was the writer, writing Flights or one of my first couple of books, would be to say "Okay, I am going to fool with this kid for a year, and at the end of the year he is going to be so fed up maybe something is going to happen." But that sort of ferocity of attack that these kids have, that impatience is something that I had as a writer. Where I was saying, "No, they are not going to have a year. They are not even going to have a month. They are going to have three weeks or two weeks or something. God damn it, shit or get off the pot." And that made for a book that, even though it is shorter than the other novels, is much more likely to have people say, "I read it in one night," and not say what they said to me about Paper Doll or about Flights, "I got bogged down for a while, but then it picked up." Much more, "Wow, that guy he grabbed me. We kept going."
RB: I would never say that to a writer as a criticism.
JS: Well, people say amazing things.
RB: Of all the things that are variously subjective and individual, I would think the way one enters a story as a reader has as much to do with other things as what is on the page.
JS: Maybe they feel off the hook because they are saying it's not and they finished. I have had students say—a wonderful moment a student said, "Professor Shepard, I saw your story in Esquire, and I started it and I really love it and can't wait to finish it." And I said, "It's a three page story. What, were you falling down the stairs? Why couldn't you finish a three page story?" "I'm really busy."
RB: What can we say about reading habits, other than writers should be happy any one is reading?
JS: Oh God, I am grateful they are reading anything. When you think about the fact that readers in general are shrinking and then even more dramatically, literary readers are shrinking and then I am a very small part of that. So you think, "God, any kind of readership at all…" Then—
RB: From the outside you seem to be in charmed place. You teach at what is considered a good school. You seem to have figured out how to do it, to write. You have been doing it for a while. So what could you complain about?
JS: The charmed position is certainly there in terms of where is my next meal coming from. Do I have a roof over my head? And is the world going to allow me to keep writing? I feel very grateful for that. The complaint, if I have one, is: well, I am doing this to reach people. And so I would like to have a sense that, in fact, this stuff is going out to an audience greater than just the seven people that bought the last book.
RB: You must draw some comfort—I wouldn't think it would escape your notice—that you are well respected among your peers?
JS: Yeah, I got that writer's writer stuff for years and some of that—
JS: Some of that is reviewers trying to figure out, "Well what can we say about his guy?" I am certainly hugely gratified when writers I admire say, "Oh I have loved your work for whatever." One of my life highlights was getting a fan letter from Coetzee. I was thinking, "WelI, I can die happy now," that kind of thing. On the other hand, I am not so much of a writer's writer that I am showered with awards or that people are always—I mean I've won fewer literary awards than Charo, I think.
JS: It's not as though everywhere I go I writers are down on their knees. If you want to be generous you say, "Really discerning people know about him." If you want to be ungenerous you say, "Well who else is reading this guy?" It’s like saying, "Who reads poets? Poets. Who reads fiction writers? Other fiction writers." Some of them.
RB: Is Project X getting attention because no one can figure out anything about high school shootings and tangentially the book has something to do with that?
JS: There are three demographics that I am starting to identify. One is my old demographic which are: "I like Jim Shepard's work." That's a pretty small one. The other is a slightly larger group of people who will do fiction every once in a while, whether it's reviewers or interviewers, NPR if it has a tie in to the real world and those people —like I did BBC America. Those people are like, "Well, let's talk about Columbine. And who can we talk about Columbine with?" There you have a slightly larger group. "Okay, this can tie in to that, that has a kind of usefulness." And finally there has been a kind of young, sort of twenty-something and lower demographic that is just finding the book jazzy and fun.
RB: Somehow I would have thought the short stories would have that kind of appeal.
JS: You would think. Again, even that demographic is more drawn to novels than short stories. What's happening is they are finding the short stories because of the novel, rather than vice versa.
RB: I wouldn't think that you would have had to read much about Columbine or Paducah or any of those places.
JS: Oh God, no. Of all of my novels, only Flights involved less research. No, it involved more research. At least I had to do more research about airport security and what exactly a twelve-year-old can do with a Cessna and stuff like that. In the case of Project X, nearly all of it is unresearched. It’s mostly based on my own experience in junior high. And the research I did do was not so much Columbine as much as sitting in on junior highs in Massachusetts and Los Angeles to make sure that things hadn’t improved dramatically since I had been there. Because I didn’t want to write a historical novel I wanted a contemporary one. Happily or unhappily, depending on your take, things have not improved much.
RB: And I'd venture to guess that you weren't motivated to write Project X because of questions about school shootings.
JS: Oh no. It’s not about that. One of the things that did annoy me was hearing the pundits after Columbine or Paducah, saying, "It’s a question of values. We used to have values and now we don't." We heard a lot of that from conservative pundits, who are, of course, trying to steer attention away from [the legality of] automatic weapons and things like that. One of the things that occurred to me that got me thinking about this whole sort of background that I had, was that I remembered having a discussion with one of the kids in my junior high. He was thinking of bringing his dad's hunting rifle in. And we had a very serious—six or seven of us around a lunch table—a very serious discussion of the pros and cons of that. And all of us voted against it, finally. Mostly, because it was such an unsatisfying way to hold people off—a hunting rifle. But if this kid had had an automatic weapon it would have been a much more difficult call for everybody. The adolescent fantasy of omnipotence, that fantasy of "nobody can get to me but everybody has to look at me" is only really imaginable with automatic weaponry: you can’t really do it with a rifle or pistol. Although I didn't do much, if any, research with Clebold and Harris. I would be stunned if they would have done the same thing with a rifle. I don't think they would have.
RB: Having read two of the three books I know of about such shootings, the story is the aftermath. Lionel Shriver's book evoked that really well, reconstructing the life of the perpetrator's mother.
JS: Yeah, everybody likes that. I haven't read those books or seen the movie [Gus Van Zant's Elephant]. The thing I get asked about is actually Van Zant's movie, because movies reach so many more people. One of the things that happens when you get an idea for a novel is that you are so delighted to have it that you just put your head down and go, and then when people say to you, "Oh guess what Robert, someone is working on the same thing," you're not happy to hear that, but you think that there is nothing I can do about that. Ideas don't come along that often. I have to stay with what I have.
RB: What are the odds that they are doing the same thing?
JS: You would think there is certainly a reason why a trauma, a shock to the system the size of Columbine generates work this quickly. Whereas a shock to the system like 9/11 doesn't.
RB: There was a Showtime movie on 9/11.
JS: This was not documentary footage?
RB: A so-called "docudrama."
JS: Was it good?
RB: Not according to the universally bad notices. It was claimed to be a two-hour campaign spot for George Bush, with allegations that Karl Rove had written it.
JS: Yeah, if only Bush had been in the air, in his jet, he would
have shot the planes down and saved everybody, that kind of thing.
But I think there may be a way in which artists shy away from—and part of it may be the cultural climate—wading into 9/11. It's wading into such a political firestorm. It's almost as if the aesthetics will all go out the window and just become, "Are you for or against the administration's handling of [9/11]?" Or whatever. There has to be reasons why there is this mini-spate of Columbine-type things, but there is no 9/11 stuff at all.
RB: It’s a risky business and artists risk a lot, especially when people are willing to claim exploitation. Janette Turner Hospital’s Due Preparation for the Plague had to do with terrorism and plane hijacking.
JS: Oh, right.
RB: And she was very wary of the climate it would be published in and that it might be connected with 9/11.
JS: One of the things that happens when you do a book like this is that people say to you, "Aren't you worried that someone is going to say, "Where do you get off?" and that's their way of covertly asking the question. Part of what I believe and how I respond is that you better understand when you are writing serious fiction, all of it is in some ways exploitative, by definition. You are hoping that you are going to be working seriously enough to try to give the reader enough understanding of what you helped happen, to figure out. So there is something redemptive about the exploitative impulse, but, of course, it's exploitative. Nobody who has had a loved one read some of their fiction in which they have been in some ways reproduced, has missed there is some exploitation going on there. So the idea is a little like the hubris we were talking of before. Where do you get off writing about FW Murnau? Where do you get off writing about Columbine? Where do you get off writing about human suffering? Well, you've suffered a little bit yourself, and you think that you can empathize, and you think that you can replicate some of this.
RB: I was reading about an episode of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm where the show is built around a dinner party where a former participant in the reality show Survivor is matched up with a concentration camp survivor, and by the end of the show they are yelling at each other.
JS: [laughs] Who had the worst experiences. It’s nervy; you have to give it that.
RB: Yes. The idea that the Holocaust is a sacred cow deserves some attention.
JS: You can see, for example, when I did a novel on the Second World War, people were evenly divided. On the one hand, there were reviewers who said, "Why is he doing this? Yes, he does a good job, but why is he doing this?" On the other hand, there were people who said this was noble, to try this. But you could feel on some kind of spectrum: the Holocaust was farther along. That to do that you had to have more—additional authority. Some of it has to do with what you are trying to do with it. A lot of people have crept up to the edges, "Okay, this is a guy who lives near Dachau." And some fictionalized version, whether it's Sophie's Choice or whatever, seem earnest and well-intentioned and flawed in whatever ways, and others seem misleading in ways that are more disturbing. Like Life is Beautiful, where suddenly the concentration camp guards are like Schultz in Hogan's Heroes.
RB: And that it is even possible to maintain this buffer between the reality and the child's perception of what is happening. This skillful fabrication—
JS: Yeah. In the middle of a camp like that—so then the implications start to become very unpleasant. The people who didn't do this kind of thing weren't very resourceful.
RB: You mentioned earlier that part of what you are about is wanting to be read—would it be an unlikely situation for a book of yours not to be reviewed in the usual places?
JS: I am now at the stage where I can expect those reviews.
RB: Wouldn't that make you blessed in a significant way?
JS: Yes. I am pretty lucky in that regard. I have never felt unlucky. At bottom what I wanted to do when I was young was have the world leave me alone enough to write, and I didn't even want to make a living at it. Maybe I had some sort of sinecure where I was working at Starbucks before Starbucks existed. And I could go home and do it. So in that regard I have never said at any given moment, "What a shit deal I have been handed." I have always felt lucky. The other reason that I have never been a big complainer about how small my audience is—that I have a sense that literary audiences are pretty small. Charlie Baxter, because of The Feast of Love, has a much bigger audience than I have, but those are dwarfed by real audiences.
RB: Like Stephen King?
JS: Yeah, and even John Irving. People like that, the economy of scale is so different that I don't find myself saying, "How come I don't get as much attention as Andrea Barrett?" It’s like I have eight fans and she has sixteen.
RB: [laughs] I am struck that one of the positive developments of the burgeoning of writing programs—maybe there are more—are that they are training your kind of reader.
JS: I guess that's probably true. There is still the complaint that all of the literary magazines make: that they get way more submissions than they get subscriptions. Poetry magazine gets 8 million submissions and 12 subscriptions. There is a discouraging mass out there that is just writing and is saying things like "I don't want to be too influenced by other people's work," by way of justifying either their own narcissism or laziness.
RB: I'm thinking more about after the writing aspirants have spent whatever time they have spent trying to make it and then they accept the reality of their lives and move on.
JS: I think that's true. I think the MFA programs, and in fact a way to justify the MFA program—which I don’t think need a whole lot of justification: as far as social problems go, they are not really high up on the scale (too many MFA programs). The way to justify them is to say they are not churning out hundreds of writers, they are churning out hundreds of readers every year, and at the very least they are making people better readers. And that is very something useful. What's happening is that as that number increases, the overall number of readers and what they are reading is decreasing. Partially because of—I don't know what would you call it, the dumbing down of America? Partially because of what's working hand in hand with the dumbing down of America the increasing power of the visual arts. I think the visual arts are pretty wonderful. I teach film and love film. But I think a greater—if I were to generalize about our culture, I would say—a greater and greater percentage of (even) college educated people's time is going into watching things.
RB: Well sure. I watch some of the stuff my son watches. Shrek, and the kids movies and the Nickelodeon stuff, Sponge Bob…
JS: Sponge Bob is pretty wonderful.
RB: So, I am visiting my son at his mother's house and I see an ad in one of those odious Bonnie Fuller magazines US Weekly or something, for a magazine devoted entirely to Reality TV.
RB: Unbelievable. You can read about Reality TV shows.
JS: There you go.
RB: This is in a magazine that features your latest so-called celebrities—Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, Jessica Simpson and the cast of Friends—ad nauseam. I am concerned that these things occupy so much headroom. That's not the visual arts you are talking about?
JS: I should say media rather than visual arts. If you go to Borders or Barnes and Noble and look at their magazine rack, it's pretty huge. Whenever I am there I always think, "this is great" and then I go over there and two thirds of it is media stuff like Reality TV magazine or self-help stuff—this how you build your muscles. And what would be recognizable to someone from thirty years ago—Harper's, Atlantic, New Yorker—is actually a very small part of that. I was at the NBCC just to schmooze and see some friends get nominated, and the guy who won the reviewing prize told this totally demoralizing story that we all knew but still—Scott McLemee. When he won this award, he thought, "It's a great way to take stock. And I felt honored and blah blah blah." He pulled out a TIME magazine from 1970. And he opened it, and in the book section they were reviewing Octavio Paz, Manuel Puig, Donald Barthelme, and a book on German philosophy. And he thought, TIME magazine. This was considered middlebrow then. And it's inconceivable now, in any mass-market magazine. Of course, everybody in the audience knew that, but you forget how much the bar for culture has dropped, so that, what constitutes being noticeable or reviewed and who is being noticed by who has changed quite a bit. I gave a reading at Notre Dame one year. It used to be called the Sophomore Festival, and that festival began in 1967 or 1968 when Norman Mailer and Baldwin and Vonnegut and all these people happened to be at Notre Dame at the same time because of this lunatic sophomore who had talked them all into coming. And it must have been '68, because they were there the week that Martin Luther King was shot. And the guy who was telling me about it who had been at Notre Dame said, "What was amazing about it was that the entire national press descended on us." And I thought, "That's what it was like, the national press. What does James Baldwin say about this? Let's find out. Somebody find Baldwin." And you think, "That's conceivable now?"
RB: Who would be asked now?
JS: They wouldn't ask anybody.
RB: [laughs] Who cares?
JS: Right. Who cares what they think? In fact, imagine saying to an editor, "How about this, somebody has just been assassinated. Let’s go find out what Jonathan Franzen thinks." And the editor would be like, "The reason for this is what again? We want to know what authors think?"
RB: You feel okay and seem adjusted to your life. It seems like writers say about each other, as an aggregate, that they are a whiny, egotistical bunch. Most are living a hard life. Scrabbling to keep it together. How does one write and create with that view of life?
JS: It's a less extreme version of what actors go through. When you think about it, what actors go through, the successful actors are hearing 'no' ten times for every time they hear 'yes'. And it's a bizarre way to live, [for] a lot of people can't do it. A lot of people being told nine times, "No I don't think so, Robert," and then being told 'yes' once, is not an acceptable ratio. In fact, a lot of my Williams students who are going to places like Williams or Choate so that they will have a good life, they look at those numbers and say, "No that's not acceptable." If I go to a law firm I will hear yes about 90% of the time." "Did I do a good job?" "Yes." “Am I gong to be hired?" "Yes." "Did I do a bad job?" "Actually, this time you didn't. But next time you will." And that is a much more pleasurable way of living your life. It's shocking to discover that Charleze Theron, who is at the top of the pyramid, [would say] "I'm bitter that I didn't get that role. I'm bitter that I didn't get this role. Why did they think I wasn't cerebral enough for that role?" It's shocking to think that a writer you would think was at the top of the contemporary pyramid would say, "Gee, I sent all of my stories in my recent collection to The New Yorker, and they took one of them. So there are 22 stories; I was one for 22."
RB: The case I can't get over is Tibor Fischer receiving 56 rejections before finally one publisher would take him.
JS: That's a lot.
RB: How does one live with that?
JS: At some point, you have to have enough stubborn narcissism to say, "Well, I'm interested. God dammit. I think it's interesting." And sometimes that's totally pathetic—
JS: And some times that is actually quite heroic. One of the movies that I think is really illuminating on that subject is American Movie. It's a documentary about this guy who has been trying to make for eight or nine years, a crappy slasher film. And he has no talent and he has almost no money and he has all those qualities that we lionize artists for. He won't give up. He is indefatigable. He believes in himself. Nobody believes in him. But he believes. Except he has no talent. And so there is this wonderful frisson. You find yourself continually going, I think this is so great—
RB: Sounds like Ed Wood.
JS: It is Ed Wood, a real life Ed Wood. Well, Wood was real, but unlike the Tim Burton movie, it's real. And so you find yourself gaping at this guy who will not give up. He will not quit. He is ruining his life. He is throwing away his loved ones. You find yourself going, "At what point do you have the right to do this before you are totally pathetic?" The world decides on the basis of how much success have you had. So if you stand around at a party and you go, "I want to be a novelist." And you are our age and they go, "Have you published anything?” And if you say, "Yes." you can see their faces change, “Oh, so you are not a lunatic." If you say, "No," then they are going to look at you a certain way, "See that sort of pathetic guy who thinks he going to be writing—"
RB: On the other hand, for so many published writers, such conversations never turn into satisfying ones.
JS: In fact, for the writers, it never does because they never get enough gratification.
JS: You can have six novels [and] be clearly convinced that you are not going to have a seventh. And you are mortified by that and everybody else says, "Oh my God, you have six books, relax." That's in fact a conversation that goes on between writers and their loved ones. Writers will say, "I think I will never write again." And their loved ones will have no patience for that at all, because all of the empirical evidence says they will write again. They have been writing their whole lives.
RB: I am still thinking about the frame of mind that artist/writers must have to proceed on. And I am reading this wonderful book by Rachel Cohen, A Chance Meeting.
JS: Oh yeah, she read with me in NY.
RB: I love this book because it has this resonance of the originality of the lives of artists. And a lot of it is imagined.
JS: She's just making stuff up.
RB: But it's so well made up. Also, what I take away from it is a cast of characters who are trying to live their lives on their own terms. No road maps for their lives, no careers. And that is an obvious thing that people don't keep in mind when they think about the lives of artists. There may be something glorious about not having a 9 to 5 job, but also something perilous.
JS: There is. One of the ways you decide whether this life is right for you—and my students are always trying to figure that out because a lot of them show talent and then they go, "Oh well, should I do this or not?" And it's almost as if, if you are the sort of person who has to ask, then you need the road map. And if you need the road map, then it's very likely that you can't do this, because you are not going to get enough reassurance that if you—essentially what the road-map-type person wants is, "Okay, if I do this and it has certain level of competence, can you guarantee me a pretty good life?" Which is what law school is telling you. You don't have to be at the very top of your class at Harvard. If you are decent, pretty good you are going to get a good job, somewhere. It's going to happen unless you have incredibly bad social skills or something like that. You can't say that to an artist. You can't say to a painter, "You know, if you are pretty good I can pretty much guarantee you a sinecure somewhere." So for those artists and writers who say to themselves, "the lack of a road map is actually kind of exhilarating," and of course writers are people who hate 9 to 5 type stuff, for the most part. And, of course, it has its perilous side. It isn't the best way to bring stability into your life, by any means.
RB: Can we ever resolve whether anything is getting worse or staying the same?
RB: I don't fear that literature is going to disappear.
JS: I don't think so either.
RB: But I think the larger cultural noise level is getting very shrill and can't be doing any good.
JS: I never had a fear even at my most apocalyptic that literature's going to disappear. What I would envision that I don't like is: serious fiction becoming the equivalent of what poetry was 30 or 40 years ago, essentially. That's apocalyptic enough for a fiction writer. Poets would say it serves us right. There will always be an audience for a writer like Louise Glück. If she's coming to Boston she will get 150-200 people. There will always be 30 people for Louise Glück at the beginning of her career. What I am worried about is that that is where fiction is headed. There will always be 150 people for Coetzee after he wins the Nobel Prize and 30 before he wins.
RB: In Boston, almost every night of the week there are readings. Attendance figures aside, that's a good sign. And the blossoming of literary sites on the Internet.
JS: That's been a big help.
RB: And the traditional gatekeepers may not be a sign of healthy literary culture, though I expect everyone in the business lives and breathes for what the NYT is going to do for a book.
JS: One thing nice about the Net is that it is democratizing literature the way that it democratizes everything else. That kid who is completely on his own in Southern Illinois, now he has a much better chance of encountering something that blows his mind. He gets on the Internet and he gets Failbetter.com or something and he comes across Pynchon or something he would have never found in his local library. And now he has a link to the world. Now he be can part of a community that he never would have been a part of unless things really broke his way.
RB: As we are winding up here, any ideas about what you are going to do next?
JS: No, I am working on stories now. I had a novel idea that I was kicking around even back when you interviewed me about Murnau, about Aeschylus, and Aeschylus, is such an intimidating subject it is one of those situations you keep reading and reading and reading. But I think whether or not that becomes my next novel or not depends a lot on all sorts of things that I can't predict.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing