Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hey Awesome! An Email Exchange with Author Jim Shepard

I'm betting I've probably said I really enjoy the work of Jim Shepard. Why so much a fan? Let me tell you.

My 1st reason is he's got a better handle on the idea of melding fact with fiction than any contemporary author I've heretofore encountered. That's for true. But whenever you're talking about fiction and history you're entering a potentially scary realm, so says I. Because what's the point of bringing history into a story if you're not going to go to some pains to represent it adequately accurately? Tell it sans history, or go the other way and write alternative history fiction such as Steampunk, or whatever, I don't care. That's beside the point in the case of Jim Shepard because he goes for as much stick-to- the-record as is possible.

He also 2ndly tells wildly imaginative stories, very well evidenced by the collection "Like You'd Understand, Anyway." And the best news of all is he has a new collection being published by Knopf and coming out next January. It's called, "You Think That's Bad" -- which I doubt I will think that's bad.

As someone who writes & someone who likes history in fiction & thus struggles to find the best way to balance the two, I turned to Jim Shepard, who is as I've said kind of THE authority on this subject. I emailed him this specific question, "How do you comfortably blur the line between fact and fiction? That is, when do you give up verisimilitude and go ahead and tell the story, history be damned?" He replied as follows:

I try to stay as close to the historical record as I can. And I also choose situations that usually leave me room to maneuver: what went on inside the superstructure of the Hindenburg right before it blew? Nobody knows. Usually the way I operate, I've noticed, is to stick pretty faithfully to the historical narrative as I come to believe it, after all of my investigations (and it also helps to remember that historians themselves often disagree) but to invent freely when it comes to inner lives. So that, going back to Love and Hydrogen, I want to be absolutely accurate about what my two crew members' responsibilities onboard were, but I'm inventing their love affair.

I like the idea of looking for those pockets of doubt in a historical record, and playing with those to tell the story. I would imagine Shepard's advice above will help anchor anyone who struggles with how to organize these elements when writing. It will help me. I can say that much for certain. Shepard also commented on the notion of chutzpah, as my initial question above sort of illustrates and the rest of my email further emphasized, how does a writer take that next step with something as seemingly massive as a historical event, either as marginal as the coronation of this or that English royal or, as Shepard himself has written of, nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl? Shepard said:

And when it comes to that issue of authority -- that paralyzing "Where do *I* get off writing about such things?" question -- I always think: all creative writing is an act of chutzpah, after all. Where do we get off writing about someone we knew in school? Or our mother? Or even ourselves, from 20 years ago? Literature is an act of empathetic imagination. If we write about the Creature from the Black Lagoon, instead of the guy next door, we're just trying to push the envelope. Why were we given something as amazing as imagination if we're not going to use it?
To which I say, ok, I'll buy it.


  1. Good piece. It's great that Mr. Shepard took the time to write back. I can't wait to read his collection, which is now in my bedside pile.

    Reminds me of my friend's Ken Kesey story. I'll have to tell it to you some time.

  2. I should probably create a whole post dedicated to people's various run-ins etc. with famous authors. I imagine that would be quite fruitful. In fact, if you have one you think is cool or interesting or just worth telling for some reason send it and I'll try to compile a post of the best or all of them or something. Email them to me. Yes.