In lovingly researched stories and novels, Jim Shepard traverses the globe and glides through history in such a way that reading through his collected output, you’re as likely to encounter ancient Greeks or discontented American teens as you are...
As you will see discussed in the interview that you might be skipping this introduction to read right now, Jim Shepard is known for setting his works of fiction in places and times that are often radically different from his own. In lovingly researched stories and novels, he traverses the globe and glides through history in such a way that reading through his collected output, you’re as likely to encounter ancient Greeks or discontented American teens as you are WWII bomber pilots or Chernobyl technicians. Heck, his story in the Vice Fiction Issue a couple of years back was set in the Cretaceous ocean.
But what’s always truly surprising about Shepard’s work is the amount of emotional commitment he gives to each story, wherever and whenever it’s set. Shepard’s works are not just feats of narrative pyrotechnics from a guy with a big nonfiction library. What they are really about is, and please pay attention to capitalization here, People and Life. And yes, in his stories Shepard can and does convincingly inhabit characters as different from each other as the Creature from the Black Lagoon and John Ashcroft. But he does these things, or at least we believe he does these things, really, to ask questions and put forward theories about just why all sorts of people behave in the ways they behave. It’s basically a big, heaping smorgasbord of insight and examination when you read Jim Shepard, and that—plus, sure, his unexpected settings—makes for some damn good stories.
We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Shepard over the phone from his home in Massachusetts. We talked about his work, both as a writer and as a dedicated teacher of writing to college undergrads. We also hit on what he likes to read and got into a wee smidge of planning, which we may as well divulge here and now. Jim Shepard will be guest- editing an issue of Vice that will come out this spring or maybe this summer, depending on how soon we get started. So there you go.
Vice: Do you generally have a number of possible story ideas floating around in your head? I’m thinking of things that you haven’t begun yet, things that you’re considering writing next.
Jim Shepard: It’s not so much story ideas in the sense of little thematic sentences that are sort of like a “man meets midget, reconsiders whole idea of size of a human being as a measure of worth” kind of a thing. It’s much more stuff that I will have glancingly encountered—something that usually has to do with the outside world—that will get something going in me that feels slightly emotional. It doesn’t feel only intellectual.
Can you give me an example?
Recently I came across a piece about a 19th-century belief in the personalities of insects. I read a little bit about a natural historian from back then who was saying, “Each insect has its own personality and its own ethical position in the hierarchy.” That got something going in me so that I ended up thinking, “You know, I should read more about that.”
Do you know why certain things hit you in this way?
I think that it happens because I’m interested in the idea, the subject, just in terms of being a nerdy nonfiction reader, but also because I feel something, a little stir in me that maybe this could lead to something if I immerse myself in it. For years now, for example, I’ve been collecting stuff on the golem.
But without knowing what, if anything, I will do with it. It doesn’t always pan out. I did the same thing with stuff on the Spirit of St. Louis and Lindbergh and then I finally thought, “OK, now is the time to immerse yourself in that material,” and I did so. I spent about six months doing nothing but essentially researching Lindbergh and that flight and I came out of it thinking, “Yeah, that’ll be a good story for someone to write, but I’m not going to write it.”
But again, it’s not a matter of thinking, “Did this turn out to be a plausible story?” All of these things are, in narrative terms, more than good enough to make into a novel, never mind a story. But it’s, “Did I find the unexpected and complicated emotional resonance that I think would keep me engaged with this?”
And I guess that as the research goes on it’s a matter of whether the resonance stays strong or not.
Yeah. Part of what I think causes anxiety—especially if you have a full-time teaching job like I do, and you also are trying to parent three children—is the idea that maybe the stuff that you might have been ready to write in April, by the time you get a chance to get to it in December you’re not that person anymore. It’s an ongoing source of anxiety with me and most of the writers I know.
It’s a little bit like how in the middle of the night you’ll get this amazing idea and you jot it down on a piece of paper, and the next morning you’re like, “‘Green frogs dancing’? What the hell does that mean?”
Yeah, that’s kind of a classic thing.
So then you’re thinking, “Maybe I was always full of shit,” but you’re also thinking, “Well, maybe if I actually started writing it, then…”
Like maybe that half-dream state is actually the brilliant one and we just don’t know how to interpret it when we’re awake.
Yeah, exactly. So anyway, I have a big pile of stuff and some of it I just get to way too late.
Since your reputation for a lot of critics and readers is that you’re somebody who does a lot of reading and research and takes a lot of inspiration from nonfiction and history, does reading ever become sort of a self-conscious act for you? Do you feel like you’re waiting for something to come across?
No, I don’t think so. I still have that teenager or little-boy feeling of glee that I’m getting away with something.
Like the world is leaving me alone to read weird shit.
It’s like, pick a subject that you’ve always wanted to read about, and then read about it for however long you’d like, and nobody comes up to you and goes, “Well, what was the point of that?” Since I’m supposed to be researching as opposed to reading for pleasure, it’s sort of like, “Oh, leave him alone. He’s trying to figure out if he can get a story out of that,” and the fact of the matter is I’m just going, “This is weird shit.”
But I think that if I went for a year and a half of reading and nothing came to me that I felt like I could write about, I would start to panic. Luckily, when I’ve had the time to write it hasn’t taken that long for me to get interested in something.
And we shouldn’t encourage the misconception that your stories always have their start in some sort of esoteric reading.
Right. This stuff isn’t only generated by poring over ancient volumes. I’m also engaged by stuff that’s happening to loved ones. Stories generate that way as well, and sometimes they’ll become stories that don’t make use of any kind of outside learning. And then also, sometimes they’ll become stories where I’m immediately engaged by some kind of family trauma or a friend’s trauma or remembered trauma or whatever, and then I’ll go, “That’s why I was always interested in that other weird shit in the first place,” and I’ll marry the stuff that way.
Real-life things can mesh with researched things. Do you ever proceed directly from a philosophical standpoint?
I never have, although I’m sure I have a group of brutish philosophical notions that I keep coming back to over and over again. I may be proceeding from themes without even realizing I’m doing it. But usually, I mean, I’m enough of a child of cinema—because I grew up watching movies as a way of being babysat—that I approach things in such a visual way that a lot of what’s very powerful for me initiates in some kind of image. It could be an image of somebody’s face or an image of something bizarre happening. Then I start to interrogate why that image has such emotional power to me. Very rarely is it an abstract idea. It’s much more often something I can actually see in my mind’s eye.
Do you ever feel resentful of your reputation for being somebody who researches so heavily? I feel like people kind of pigeonhole you as this research-based fiction writer as an easy way to classify your work.
I think that they kind of do, but I also think that in the case of somebody like me, I have more to fear from people not thinking about me at all than I do from people pigeonholing me. There are people out there who are famous enough that they should resent the way everybody thinks about them, but in my case it’s a little bit like in Casablanca when Peter Lorre says to Humphrey Bogart, “You despise me, don’t you?” and Bogart says, “Well, if I gave you any thought I probably would.”
I think there are people out there who go, “Oh, Jim Shepard, isn’t he the guy who just goes and gets a book and finds some sort of research-based thing to write about?” But I think that the vast majority of people out there are going, “Who’s Jim Shepard?” And that’s probably more problematic for me than people misunderstanding my work.
That’s a good way to look at it. Do you work on more than one piece of fiction at a time, or do you kind of pick something and hammer at it till it’s done?
I will sometimes do more than one piece at a time, but it’s usually a sign that one of the pieces is in trouble, at least temporarily. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on two pieces at once that were both going beautifully where I’m like, “OK, it’s Tuesday. It’s Roman-soldier day,” whereas Wednesday is angry-Italian-relatives day.
What’s happened in the past is that I’ve gotten far enough along on a piece that I thought, well, this is probably not going to completely disintegrate or be abandoned, but I’ve also gotten stuck and enraged at my impotence in the face of the aesthetic problem I’m facing. So there have been times when I’ve thought, “If you are in fact too inept to fix this, why don’t you do something else?” as a way of both punishing myself and secretly letting myself out of jail. When I’ve done that, usually the second thing I’ve worked on has proceeded very, very quickly because there’s a quality of “Oh, good, I’m not doing that other thing anymore.”
And it’s a good sign that you haven’t lost “it.”
You know, Amy Hempel and I often joke that when we get into trouble we’ll just bring a dog onstage.
Preferably one that can dance.
Yeah, something that was sort of a fallback thing, “OK, dogs—now I know what to do with this!”
Can you give me an example of a piece that started when another piece was stuck?
A vivid case of that was when I was trying to work on a fiction about Aeschylus and getting nowhere. It had been years of trying to do it. Finally I just got so fed up that I said, “Well, do something you can do.” Immediately it seemed to me, well, the opposite of overreaching would be doing an enraged adolescent boy, which I am. So having stopped working on the Aeschylus project I wrote Project X, and Project X went very fast.
I was thinking that you were going say that you went from Aeschylus to your short story about a high school football team, “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak.”
I could have done something like that as well, but in this case it was Project X because, in fact, that’s even closer to the kind of stuff that I could write with my eyes closed.
For the readers who don’t know, we should say that Project X is your 2004 novel that was inspired by the Columbine massacre.
But even with Project X, I did a lot of research, because I didn’t want to make it a historical novel. I wanted it to be read in terms of what it’s like to be an alienated teenager in an absolutely crappy school.
Does your research ever involve interviewing people who are like your characters?
Oh yeah, very much. In fact that’s sort of where I began. My first novel was very autobiographical, and I guess the closest thing I did to researching it was to go back and hang out with some of the Italian relatives who were generating the stories in the first place. But that was more like a soaking-up-milieu kind of thing.
My second novel, Paper Doll, though, was about the 8th Air Force. My father had been in the 10th Air Force, and because he was in the defense industry, he knew a lot of old 8th Air Forcers. He put me in touch with any number of guys, and these were men who had never been asked about this stuff before. I had a startlingly specific set of questions for them. I wasn’t saying things like, “What was your experience in the war?” I was saying things like, “How competently did you feel like you could track incoming fighters in your dorsal turret?” They were hugely helpful. I also got very good at figuring out how to get around the sort of standard version that they were ready to give out to people.
That’s a big thing, because often you’ll interview somebody and then find that they’ve been giving the same answer, said the same way, to everyone else.
What I figured out, sort of on the sly, was a version of that same thing that psychological tests do, where they set up contradictory questions so that they can start to interrogate. So I would say things like, “So was there a lot of incompetence in your unit?” and their knee-jerk reaction would always be, “No, no, no. All the guys were great.” I would get very good at sort of saying things like “Well, but did any funny things happen in your unit?” and they’d be like, “Oh my God, there was one time we flew over a guy and cut him in half.”
So I could actually sort of cross-reference their answers and get at stuff that way. Then as long as you didn’t challenge them—and there was no point in challenging them—they would just keep going.
It’s about finding a different way to ask the same question, like a back door.
Yeah, it was really just finding a different way at it, because they had a certain self-presentation that they needed to stick to. You know, “I’m not gonna sell my buddies down the river and call them incompetent,” but also, it wasn’t like they were trying to hide these stories either.
This is a really basic one, but I’m sometimes surprised by the answers that different writers have for it. What’s your daily practice like?
I think that most of the writers I know are attracted to writing because they’re such geniuses at procrastination, and not working, and what that means is that most of the time, as a general group, we’re hugely undisciplined. That means that we have to figure out ways of coming up with these intense bursts of focused time. People work out different routines, but it’s all essentially about announcing to themselves, “Now it’s time to get serious.”
I tend to work in different places, but always in the morning. I have to get three kids out the door to school, so the workday really doesn’t start until 8:00 anyway, but then what I’ll do is sort of say, “OK, you have from 8:00 to 8:30 or 8:45 to peek at your email and see if there’s anything that’s either very cool or that needs to be immediately addressed, and then you can’t go back to that until you’re finished writing.” And writing might be, I don’t know, three hours on a good day, three or four hours. I rarely go past 12:00 or 1:00.
Three or four hours of concentrated writing a day sounds like a good amount.
But if you were watching me during that time, you’d see me wander around the house and bother the dog, make some more coffee…
What I can’t do and what I won’t let myself do is this sort of multitasking, where you write a little bit and then check e-mail. I try to stay in it as much as I can. When I get deep into a project I might work longer than three or four hours. I might come back to it for an afternoon session, or I might come back to it in the evening and just look at it and get it going in my mind again.
Is part of your daily thing to look at what you wrote the day before?
Yeah. Like, for example, I’m working on a new story and today I never did get to the new stuff. I looked over the three pages that I’d written the previous couple of days and just reworked those. Now, if I did that for like six weeks in a row I might get despairing, but I don’t get too down on myself if that’s what happens on a given day because I usually end up feeling like, “Well, at least you improved what you had anyway.”
Yeah, it’s progress. Do you have any superstitions or rituals around writing?
I’m sure I do. I have weird superstitions about other things, so I must have them about writing as well. Like a lot of writers I know, I’m very squirrely about talking in very much detail about what I’m working on. I don’t know if that’s a superstition as much as probably a wise understanding on my part that if I were to try to articulate it prematurely, I would illuminate for myself a little too clearly just how fraudulent the whole enterprise is.
Is that because you don’t really know exactly what a story is about until it’s closer to finished?
Yeah, and I do believe that I’m teaching myself as I go along, and I believe that I’m not an expert at the end of the story. So I’m really not an expert at the beginning of the story. It’s not so much that I don’t want to sound like an idiot in front of whomever I’m talking to, it’s like I don’t want to finish having said whatever I might say about a story that’s in progress and then go to myself, “What do you think you’re doing?”
So there’s some self-consciousness involved in it, too, I guess.
Is there a special kind of pen or paper that you need to use?
No. Well, I do hate to write in pen, actually. I write in pencil or on the keyboard, and I edit with pencil as well. The only thing I ever do with pen is grade my students’ papers.
So generally it’s longhand in pencil and then the keyboard?
I’ll compose at the keyboard as well. I’ll do both. I don’t think there’s any pattern to why I’m doing one or the other. Sometimes I’ll sit there with a pad and write on the pad and other times I’ll work at the keyboard. I suppose because of my facility with typing I’m more often at the keyboard. My handwriting sort of blows.
Right, but you’re a good typist.
Yes. A lot of times if I print out a copy of something I might make lots and lots and lots of revisions on it in pencil so that it’s almost impossible to read anymore, and I have to go decode it.
Who’s your first reader? Is it your wife?
Yeah. Karen, my wife, reads stuff fairly early in the process. Like I might get six or seven pages into a story and think, “OK, I’m starting to understand what the main conflicts and emotions of the story are,” just starting to get a sense of the shape of it, and I’ll run it by her and see what she thinks is emerging. She shows me her stuff very early as well.
Then when I get a completed something and I understand that there’s still work to do on it, I’ll send that to a writer friend, Ron Hansen. We do that with each other. Actually, Ron sends me stuff earlier in the process than I’ll send my stuff to him. He’ll send me parts of things and I almost never send him parts.
Then I might show it to somebody like Amy Hempel as well, right around the time an editor might see it, or a magazine.
Do you have an editor that you’ve worked with repeatedly?
I’ve worked with Gary Fisketjon a lot. I started at Knopf with Robert Gottlieb and then I came back to Knopf with Gary about four books ago, and all the editors I’ve had at Knopf have had this “I’m going to be a huge help to you, but only when you think it’s totally finished” kind of attitude.
What do you think about that?
It suits me. I don’t really want somebody who is going be stepping in early anyway. I think of that as the Gordon Lish model where it’s like, “Show me your first sentence and I can tell you where you’re going wrong.”
And then let me change it radically.
Yeah, but also the notion that “I already know where you’re going wrong with this” is sort of startling to me because I’m sort of like, “Well, I don’t know where I’m going with it.” The Gottlieb and Fisketjon model is pretty close to the opposite. I remember I used to tell Bob Gottlieb, “I think I might have a novel for you in a couple weeks or something,” and he would say, “Well, is it finished? Is it ready to go?” And I would say, “No, I don’t know if it’s finished,” and he would go, “Well, then don’t show it to me.”
I’d be like, “OK. I’ll work on it some more then.” Both of them were and are excellent editors, but they’re the kind who come in at the very, very end and they have smart and strong opinions and they expect you to accept the advice you think is useful and reject the advice you think is not.
Were you a kid who wrote or were you one of those people who was working as a lumberjack or something and went, “Wait, I’m a writer”?
I was a kid who wrote, but who didn’t think he was going to be a writer. I was the first one in my family to go to college. We weren’t really an army of readers. I had a couple of aunts who read, but they were too busy to read very much. I mean, the idea that anyone was even consuming literature was a weird idea, never mind producing it.
So I loved writing for myself, really, and thought it sounded interesting that this was kind of a weird thing that I would do as a way of pleasuring myself.
When I got to high school and college, the teachers were saying, “You’re dreadful at math, but at least you’re very good at the verbal side of things.” That made me think that whatever I was going to do, it would involve some kind of verbal stuff. But that still didn’t translate as writing fiction for a living. Then I sold a few stories as an undergraduate, but I figured out quickly that the economic side of storytelling wasn’t enough to live on.
An inevitable realization.
But then a kind of a serendipitous thing happened. I was leaving graduate school and the University of Michigan asked my school, which was Brown, if they had a couple of candidates that they would recommend for a teaching job. They recommended me. I went to the interviews because it was a lark. I thought, “Well, I get a free trip to New York.” Then when they said they would hire me I thought, “I don’t have any other job options,” so I said yes. It was only at the very last minute that it occurred to me that I had agreed to teach at the college level.
And that sort of floored me. I had like a four-hour panic attack in the car outside of the Michigan exit on the highway.
Teaching sounds terrifying to me.
Suddenly I was spending 18 hours a day just trying to get ready for the next class, because at Michigan I was teaching film and literature as well as writing workshops, and those were just brutal. I’d go, “OK, I’m lecturing on Nabokov on Tuesday, and well, gee, it turns out there’s a lot written on Nabokov.”
When you hear writers talk about writing a lot of them say that what they’re looking for is to express something that’s true as opposed to something that’s a lie. I mean it’s almost a cliché about writers. You know what I mean?
But I never really got what that meant. So… what does that mean?
I think that part of the reason you’re drawn to the arts in the first place is that they’re going to educate you about your emotions. They’re going to help you figure yourself out in ways that logic alone doesn’t entirely do.
What that means is that I think we spend a lot of time trying to get past both self-delusion and the more pernicious kinds of horseshit that are handed to us by the culture or whatever. And I think those two categories might be the categories that people are setting truth against: “This is the way I usually bullshit myself.”
And: “This is the way my culture usually bullshits me. But I don’t think either one of those is right. I think I came up with something else here.”
See, I always thought of it just in terms of truth in relation to yourself—being honest with yourself in terms of what you’re writing. Writing without being self-conscious.
It is that in some ways, because you’re talking about self-delusion in the first category, and you’re talking about ways in which your culture encourages all sorts of unhappy things.
Has a book ever made you cry?
Yes, books have made me cry. I think that when books make you cry it’s a little bit like when movies make you cry in that some percentage of it is the visceral power of the aesthetic object and some percentage of it is where you are in your life at that point.
There are all sorts of quite sophisticated human beings who might have an incredibly difficult six months and then go off and see Finding Nemo and burst into tears.
Or Titanic or something. Not like I’d know…
Right. There’s also the idiosyncratic button that can be pushed, where in the middle of a total cheeseball scene, Leonardo DiCaprio does something that your dead dad used to do and you’re just like completely hit by it.
But setting all of that kind of idiosyncrasy aside as a kind of given, there have been times where I felt like it was just the sheer power of the story.
What’s an example?
There’s the cumulative sadness that sort of comes over you at the end of di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I found that pretty overwhelming, and I remember crying the first time I read it. And what’s weird about that is it’s a historical omniscient voice that sounds as though it has plenty of distance on everything, and these are all just characters.
You know from the start how it’s going to be, but it still hits you when it comes?
Right. “It’s going to be a sweeping tapestry, and I’m going to introduce you to 350 characters, and I’m going tell you in advance: He dies 40 years from now, he dies ten years from now, he dies 30 years from now. And then also, this whole larger world is going to be passing from the stage. I just want you to know this analogy.” And then despite all that you feel this enormous sadness when it all comes to an end. An achievement like that is pretty impressive.
What about that feeling of awe that you can get from prose that’s just sort of transcendent?
Yeah. I don’t think there’s any writer that I know and admire who doesn’t feel that and who hasn’t felt that multiple, multiple times.
There’s Nabokov or Henry James, writers where you go, “How do you make a sentence like that? Oh my God,” but then there are people whom you don’t normally associate with awe, like Flannery O’Connor. When I go back to her sentences or to her paragraphs, I’m often in sort of a state of awe about how she managed to get from A to B to C to D with such alacrity or such economy.
Or there’s someone like Marguerite Yourcenar, with the Memoirs of Hadrian, where I find myself going, “How do you inhabit a sensibility that’s that alien with that much intricacy?”
Who are some contemporaries of yours that can take your breath away?
People take my breath away in all sorts of different ways, whether it’s Robert Stone’s ability to offhandedly render an entire sort of socioeconomic paradigm in a sentence or two, or somebody like Miranda July’s or Amy Hempel’s ability to ask you to imagine all sorts of obsessed trauma being boiled down into these two little sentences.
Yeah, that’s incredible. I guess a recent time I can remember feeling that kind of awe and weightlessness was during parts of Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson.
Yeah. Denis has an astonishing ability to make you feel that you’ve gotten access to inarticulate states of being. It’s a real magic trick, because he’s super-articulate about what it’s like to be inarticulate. And I think almost everybody I know agrees that the pinnacle of his achievement is Jesus’ Son. Those stories are just masterpieces.
When you read any one of Denis’s fictions you think, well, his mind is working pretty intuitively here. But that famous ending of his story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is a leap, intuitively, that very few writers are capable of making. And according to the legend it was a leap that was dramatic enough that the New Yorker wanted to publish the story, but only if Denis cut the ending off.
Because they were like, “Well, what does this have to do with the first part?” I think I’ve heard that story from three different sources, including Denis. That doesn’t mean it’s true, of course. But it’s become one of those stories. Either way, that kind of ability to trust your instincts when it comes to a lateral association or a lateral move is just dazzling.
I know that you are very into Nabokov. How would you recommend that somebody who is coming to him totally fresh should begin?
I would recommend they start with Nabokov’s Dozen, which is a small collection of short stories, and then move out from that to some of the more accessible novels. The obvious one is Lolita, but there are others as well, whether it’s Bend Sinister or Pnin or Invitation to a Beheading.
What do you love about Nabokov?
I think that what Nabokov is amazing for is what Updike was considered amazing for as well, but the reason I don’t cite Updike as often as I cite Nabokov is that I think, as Updike himself would say, that Nabokov is sort of doing a better version of it. And what I’m talking about is just an astonishing, astonishing attention—sort of a lover’s attention—to the world. It’s observational precision, but it’s a combination of that and tenderness, which means not only are you describing the shade of a tree in a certain kind of light better than anybody else could describe it, but you’re describing it with a certain affect attached to it that allows you to do all sorts of complicating things when you then put that into juxtaposition with something that’s going on with human beings in the foreground.
And that’s a wonderful instrument to have as part of your toolbox, to be able to say, “Jim and Biff were having an argument, but meanwhile, behind Jim and Biff’s argument here’s what was happening in the shade of the oak tree.”
What do you think about his more complicated or experimental works like Pale Fire?
There are no Nabokov works that I don’t like. I just have some that I don’t respond to as much as others. Ada and Pale Fire seemed to me to tilt more toward the game playing and away from the heartbreak, and I like to try and keep it as balanced as I can. But then, others have found Pale Fire the most heartbreaking of the books. For me, the two books that most perfectly balance his game-playing and his ability to render suffering are Pnin and Lolita. Those are the books that I keep coming back to. There are other books, like Bend Sinister, that are quite good on the suffering and actually not as intricate or dazzling as games, and as such they are wonderful novels, but you don’t go, “Oh my God, what a performance.”
Some people wouldn’t want to go to a place like this in an interview, which is a public forum, but I’m curious to hear about writers that you think are overrated and why.
[laughs] It’s not very hard to figure out why people don’t want to go there with living writers.
Right. Let’s go with the canon then—the 20th-century canon.
The 20th-century canon… When I was starting out there was this whole range of writers that you could not avoid. If you were a serious writer you simply had to have read them. I’m thinking of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner, and then the later kind of self-consciously philosophical guys like Bellow and Mailer.
I always felt that the difference between those writers’ best books and worst books was staggeringly big. I thought Norman Mailer’s best book was amazing and his worst book was embarrassing. And I thought that Ernest Hemingway’s best book was amazing and his worst book was embarrassing. So depending on which book I was being presented with, I would either say, “Oh my God. I know. He’s underrated,” or I would say, “Oh my God. If I have to read that one more time I’m gonna throw up.”
One of the things that I find peculiar about the canon is the way it seems to want to enshrine people for everything or blame people for everything. I mean, there are writers from whom I have fewer books that I’m crazy about, and I suppose in some ways they would go into that category of overrated—in my head.
Some writers have been built up so much as figures that all of their books are considered classic.
I can certainly get behind In Our Time and I can certainly get behind The Collected Stories of Ernest Hemingway, but I can’t get behind Across the River and Into the Trees or something like that. It’s like, let’s take people out of the canon and put books back in.
Have you ever been approached about your work being adapted into film?
I have, usually by young guys who don’t have much money and are very excited about one or another of my stories and who say things like, “Can I get an option for $17, and if more money comes in, then…”
Oh my god.
And usually they don’t have much competition, so I often agree to options for very little money because I don’t have much to lose. Then people go off and struggle and because they only have $17, of course, the movie doesn’t get made anyway. So I guess the answer would be that I’m very rarely approached by the Steven Spielbergs of the world.
My greatest surreal moment in this regard was when my second novel came out and I got a phone call, when I was walking my dog, that a friend of mine who was visiting took. When I came back, the friend said, “A guy named Robert Altman called,” and I was like, “Fuck you.” He was like, “No, really, a guy named Robert Altman called.” And I said, “Come on,” and he was like, “Here’s his number,” and there it was. It said Lionsgate Films and it was a New York phone number. So I thought, “Can this really be?” I called the number back, and it turned out that it was in fact Robert Altman and he was calling me to rave about how much he loved my second novel, the one about the 8th Air Force.
It turned out that he’d been a navigator in a B-24. So not only did I have Robert Altman raving about it, but I had somebody who’d flown in a heavy bomber raving about it and saying, “I don’t know how you did it.” Of course then he said, “I would love to make this movie, but, I mean, I can barely even make Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, never mind a movie with a 1,000-plane raid in it.” That’s as close as I’ve come to having a major film made from my work.
You’ve been a teacher of writing for a long time now. Can you tell me about that? Do you give them certain exercises?
When you’re working with undergraduates, which I do, you’re first of all trying to get them over their fear of generating material. Exercises will help them do that, because instead of saying, “What do I have to write about?” or “Is my idea totally lame?” they’ll say to themselves in justification, “Well, he said I had to do this so I’ll do it.”
Right. Can you give me an example of an exercise?
I would make a distinction between the kinds of things I do in class and the things I ask them to go home and do. One of the things we would do in class would be to write down seven things that their parents did for them in one column and seven things that their parents didn’t do for them in the other, and then have them continue those columns by alternating so that it goes, “They did this. They didn’t do that. They did this. They didn’t do that. They did this. They didn’t do that.”
And if you accelerate that process, you discover that they start out very much with their official version of themselves, and they’re very careful about what they say their parents did and didn’t do. They might be critical of their parents, but they’re very careful to keep that criticism within very, very decorous bounds. But then as you get them alternating and going back and forth they start to free-associate more, and they start to lead themselves to flashpoints, the kinds of things that they normally wouldn’t get at.
It’s very fun to have the group hear each writer read their list out loud because things will just leap out at you. It’ll be like, “They did do x. They didn’t do y. They did do z. And they didn’t ever show me any love at all,” and ha!
Like, “Hold on. Stop there for a second.”
“What just jumped out of that list?”
It sounds kind of like a form of psychoanalysis.
The tutorials are often compared to psychoanalysis. But what I like about them as opposed to what I’ve come to understand about psychoanalysis is that we’re dealing very concretely with what’s on the page. You’re not only talking about breaking down emotions with the kind of care that psychoanalysis is supposed to do, but you’re also talking about language and what language is capable of. So it’s not just an emotional exploration. It’s also an aesthetic problem.
Which might make the emotional exploration feel maybe a little bit safer, because it can go hand in hand with questions of form.
Yeah, and it allows the writer to understand that simultaneously you can be exposing yourself, and you probably should be exposing yourself along the lines of the model of a psychoanalytic session, but also it’s a performance and you can actually calibrate and control the rate of revelation in terms of that exposure. We can all think of writers who seem just staggeringly confessional, and these things that seem staggeringly confessional are just expert manipulations.
That makes me think of Richard Yates, who I love.
Yates is a really good example, or Malcolm Lowry. I think the extreme version is Denis Johnson, where some people are like, “Oh, poor Denis just spewed all this stuff out on paper. Thank God he’s a genius.” As though there’s not intent on the part of the writer to manipulate or shape. I think that with writers who are very good at persuading you that they’re just confessing, where you feel intimidated enough by the understanding that you’re both taking in more than you should be, you don’t give them the credit they deserve for having manipulated you.
Oh, I get what you’re saying.
I know when I teach Denis Johnson to undergraduates they tend to mostly give Denis a kind of odd credit for having survived all the drugs.
Right, but at the same time, he’s writing this stuff. It’s a work of art, which involves thought and artifice. Artifice in a good way.
Yeah. I’m like, “Actually, he wrote a story, with the intent of affecting you.”
What are some things that you think it’s important for undergraduate writing students to read?
Everybody that I’ve just mentioned, I assign them. It’s a difficult balance because with workshops, of course, the great majority of time is spent on reading student work, as it should be. But I have a number of days scattered throughout the semester—they’re concentrated toward the beginning, but it goes throughout—where we do published work instead of student work. I’ll assign individual stories by multiple writers that they’re supposed to read and reread and mark up and break down, but I won’t tell them which ones we’re going to discuss in class. We usually only have time in an hour-and-15-minute class to talk about one story, but on one of those days I might assign four stories. So that’s my way of getting them Nabokov and Denis Johnson and Chekhov and Robert Stone, and they don’t know which one of those we’re going to end up talking about—sometimes I don’t. I might get there and think, “You know, given the way the conversation went last time, we probably should talk about the Stone thing.”
How often do you come across a young writer who’s really got it?
If you mean somebody who is likely to publish a book that we will all think is an excellent book, we probably get one of those every two years. If you mean that this person might well be one of the titans of our time, well, that, of course, is pretty rare.
Do you believe that there’s such a thing as a natural writer?
I think that there’s such a thing as somebody who has enormous facility at writing, the same way I’m firmly convinced that there is some 12-year-old in this town that I live in who would be much easier to teach to play the violin than it would be to teach me. And that doesn’t mean that that person is going to be the greatest violinist of all time if they just get a violin in their hands, but it does mean, especially in the early stages, that a lot of things are going to come much more easily to them.
Right. Maybe to close you can tell me a little bit about what you’ve got in progress yourself right now. Are you working on a novel? Are you working on stories?
Right now I feel impatient with what I call the “furniture moving” of novel writing. I’m much more interested in the kind of guerrilla action of getting in and getting out more quickly, even though writers like Ron Hansen will remind me that I’m getting very little bang for my buck in terms of the amount of money I’m getting back for the time I’m putting in. But I just point out to them that I am seeking to put less food on my children’s table. [laughs]
Anyway, right now I’m working on a story about a young British woman who is exploring Iraq and Persia all by herself at the beginning of the 20th century. I don’t yet know what, if anything, is going to come of that, except for me reading a lot about British explorers and travelers and Persia and Iraq at the beginning of the 20th century.
Thanks to Tim Small.