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,"
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
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
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
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
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?
that invites one to confront the limitations of one's own
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
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,
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
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."
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,
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
RB: You actually did that ["Climb Aboard the Mighty Flea"].
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
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
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
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
JS: Yeah, I got that writer's writer stuff for years and some of
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.
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.
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
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
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
RB: And that it is even possible to maintain this buffer between
the reality and the child's perception of what is happening. This
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
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
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…
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
Cohen, A Chance Meeting.
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
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
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
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
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