Living a life in fiction

Author Jim Shepard (photo by Seth Rogovoy)

by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., March 25, 2004) – As early as grade school, Jim Shepard was inventing stories drawn from the characters and plot lines of his beloved comic books and horror stories. But as a child and a teen-ager, Shepard never intended his stories for anyone but himself “and a few strange friends.”

That sense of fiction as something esoteric, as something to be shared by a coterie of intimates and initiates, is a recurring motif running through much of Shepard’s published work of the past 20 years. What has changed over that time, however, is that no longer is his work only intended for or read by just a few strange friends. Rather, Shepard now counts as his readers and fans fellow writers like Robert Stone, Michael Chabon. Dave Eggers and Amy Hempel, and the subscribers to the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, among others.

And with the recent, simultaneous publication of a new novel, “Project X” (Knopf) and story collection, “Love and Hydrogen” (Vintage), Shepard will likely reach ever larger audiences drawn to his uncanny, compassionate portraits of troubled youth, bewildered lovers, distant siblings and ludicrous celebrities.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, reviewer Stephen Metcalf raved about Shepard’s new books, calling him “masterly,” “brilliant,” and “a fiction writer of peculiar but tantalizing gifts.” The novel offers a timely, intimate glimpse into the psyche of a very ordinary but disturbed junior high schooler whose alienation from his friends, his family and the world explodes in a Columbine-style outpouring of violence. The story collection cements Shepard’s reputation as a virtuoso stylist and a virtual ventriloquist of voices.

Relaxing in the living room of the home he shares with his wife, Karen – also a novelist who, like Shepard, teaches English at Williams College – and their three children, Shepard took a breather recently after teaching a three-hour creative-writing workshop, sitting through a departmental meeting, and advising several students during office hours.

In his writing, his teaching, and even in his marriage to a fellow fiction writer, Shepard’s life utterly revolves around the creation and dissection of fictional narratives. But if early on he had taken to heart the discouraging words he received from his college writing coach, he might instead have fulfilled his father’s wishes and become a lawyer instead of a writer and a teacher.

The first in his family to go to college, the Bridgeport, Conn., native read plenty of books as a child, but mostly non-fiction. “I think my parents thought you’re not going to learn anything reading fiction, so I read a lot of military history, occult stuff – like is there really a Loch Ness monster? – and ancient history,” said Shepard.

It was only when a family friend gave Shepard a collection of stories by J.D. Salinger that he thought fiction could have any direct relevance to his own existence.

“It was a revelation to me, because it was clearly considered literature,” said Shepard. “But it was also not like any literature I’d ever seen, in that it was very colloquial and everyday, and seemingly unconcerned with big issues. That at least allowed me to think there was a possibility I could do this.”

From then on, Shepard wrote “furtively” in high school, and when he got to college – Trinity in Hartford, Conn. -- he took a fiction-writing workshop his freshman year.

“I went through that first course writing dreadful, boyish stuff,” remembers Shepard. “The first story I ever wrote was from the point of view of a triceratops. I did all the research about what the Late Cretaceous swamps were like. And of course I was rigorous enough not to anthropomorphize the dinosaur.

“It took a while to realize I needed to write about humans who were emotionally vexed.”

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Shepard’s writing teacher tried to talk him out of continuing on the fiction-writing path. But Shepard stumbled into writing a story in which the narrative was very “voice-driven” and different from anything he’d done before. At first his teacher didn’t believe it possible that it could have been written by the same author as the one who wrote about the triceratops. But Shepard’s writing continued to improve, and by the time graduation rolled around, he was already a published author. He went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing at Brown University, where he studied with the experimental writer John Hawkes.

“He turned out to be a wonderful person to work with, even though his work was so different from mine,” said Shepard. “I thought he was going to hate my stuff, but he didn’t. Whenever I did something slightly weird, he would respond. That turned out to be a very useful thing, because I have a strange streak in my fiction.”

After Brown, Shepard taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for three years before coming to Williams. Having attained the position of J. Leland Miller Professor of English in 1995, Shepard is now completing his 20th year at the elite private college. During that time, he has written seven books. Four novels, including “Nosferatu,” “Kiss of the Wolf,” “Paper Doll,” and “Flights,” and a short-story collection, “Batting Against Castro,” were selected by the New York Times as Notable Books of the Year. Shepard also frequently writes for The New York Times Book Review and contributes film criticism to the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure Section.

Over the part 20 years, Shepard has also garnered a well-deserved reputation as a master teacher. He was awarded the Nelson Bushnell Prize for teaching and scholarship at Williams in 1997. In addition to creative writing at Williams, he teaches literature and film. He also teaches at writer’s conferences such as Bread Loaf in Middlebury, Vt., and has been writer-in-residence at Brown, Vassar, and the University of California at Irvine.

He has also come to appreciate teaching for what it does for the writer. “Teaching disciplines your mind, forces you to think more systematically about the texts you love,” he said. “We have a tendency with texts we love to get into a shpiel about them. If you’re lecturing on them, you have to be more able to go through the whole thing.”

Teaching the craft of fiction-writing also hones his own creative instincts, forcing him “to articulate why this machine is breaking down, and how you can make the machine work better.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, Shepard -- wearing a black wool jacket with a dress shirt and tie over blue jeans -- was steering 15 undergraduates in a seminar room on the third floor of Hopkins Hall through a short story by Tobias Wolff. Shepard alternately questioned and cajoled his charges into seeing beyond the surface of the story, helping them to pinpoint how the writer achieved his desired effects using the various tools of fiction-writing.

By almost magically becoming a character in the story itself, Shepard deftly brought the story to life. At the same time he helped his students shape their thoughts about the story with wit and without any apparent condescension. He naturally quoted W.H. Auden, pointed out an allusion to Shakespeare, and made reference to the obscure cult film “Buffalo 66,” in a display of cross-cultural command recognizable to his readers that while dazzling never draws attention to itself, but rather helps illuminate the writer’s work.

“I never thought I’d be a writer,” Shepard says after class. “My secret plan was I would write in my spare time and people would give me food.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 25, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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