ROBIN McLEAN met JIM SHEPARD in a fiction workshop in Italy in 2013, two years after she’d finished her MFA in fiction, two years after she’d sworn off all workshops forever. But she’d read a few of Jim’s stories by then and was hooked. She’s worked with Jim on many stories since, has followed him and Karen Shepard around. Many do. Robin generally shows up with a pile of questions, often about agency or “rate of revelation” or “subliminal coordinates.” If you don’t know what those are, sign up for a workshop with Jim Shepard.
Here are some inquiries asked and answered on a spring pilgrimage to Western Mass in 2022, a sunny morning on a snowy hilltop, an icon of an old tape deck set on RECORD between cups of coffee, three dogs hunting crumbs around the table, then basking in the sun as the ideas flowed.
Robin McLean: What’s the best writing advice you always give?
Jim Shepard: The best writing advice I always give, I think, is not to lose touch with the concept of play: that ability to say to yourself, especially in the early going, “I’m just messing around here. Relax.” Because we’re working our way into authority. We have no idea what we’re doing in the early stages, so it’s very easy to say, “If this isn’t perfect, I’m going to stop.” And it isn’t perfect.
You’ve heard me use that analogy of the sandbox, right? I’ll tell students that if you come across a little girl in the sandbox, and you’re like, “What are you doing?” and she goes, “I don’t know,” you don’t respond, “Well, then get out of the sandbox! You don’t know what you’re doing!” If she adds, “I’m building a castle,” you don’t go, “Oh, that’s original. Nobody’s ever built a castle before. You think you’re going to build a castle so good it’ll be better than any castle ever?” Because she has every right to say, “Relax. When I finish it, then you can tell me whether you think it’s a good castle. Then I’ll tell myself whether it’s good or not. But right now I’m just in a sandbox. That’s what I’m doing.”
RM: What is the best writing advice that you rarely give?
JS: I don’t tell people often enough, although I do tell them sometimes, that they need to be looking for the weirdness. Because although people will say about themselves, “I’m so weird,” secretly they believe, “Well, I’m normal. Everybody else is weird.” And so you tend to forget that in your chronicle of the quotidian, in your psyche or in your day, you’re mentioning a few things to make people go, “Wait, what did you… what?”
An example I often think about is Ron Hansen, a writer friend, who was trying to tell me about something disturbing in a dream he once had. And he said, “I had the weirdest thing happen in a dream,” and I was like, “What was it?” He said, “So, all right, so I’m murdering this woman, right?”
And I was like, “You were murdering a woman?” And he said, “Well, that’s not the weird part. A lot of people dream about murdering people.” I said, “No! A lot of people don’t dream about that.” So that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
A lot of that happens in a workshop. For example, I had one student who wrote a story about a relationship between two sisters. The very beginning started with, “That was the year that my dad went to work and didn’t come back for eight months, but my sister and I…” It turned out it was autobiographical, so in a tutorial with her, I asked, “Wait, your dad went to work and didn’t come back for eight months? What did the family make of that?” And she said they didn’t talk about it, ever. So I said, “You’re writing a story about two sisters, and they never whisper to each other, ‘What do you think happened to dad?’” And she said, “No.” And I said, “See, now that’s interesting.” A lot of times it’s a forest-for-the-trees thing. You think you want to talk about one thing, and the reader’s focused on something totally different, because it’s so weird in a way you didn’t credit.
RM: Do you think that a workshop opens the author’s eyes?
JS: I think that’s part of what a good workshop does. Part of what you’re doing is chronicling for the writer how well their design is working out. If you say, “I want this to suggest X, Y, and Z. Is that happening?” the workshop can say, “Yes, X and Y are happening pretty much the way you hope. Z’s kind of a mess. What’s going on with W?” And you say, “W?” Or sometimes you say, “Oh yeah, W! I kinda sorta knew W was there.”
That’s how criticism works. And part of what we’re also talking about in the workshop all the time is the way your intuition is a greater genius than you are. You get credit for that. Because whether or not you sat there and calculated, it’s clearly there. All sorts of cool stuff is happening that you’re only semi-aware of.
That’s also what revision is all about. In some ways it’s not just, “Did I do the four things I planned?” But, “Can I also maximize the effectiveness of the eight things I didn’t plan that are very cool?” And for somebody like you, who’s such an intuitive writer, part of what’s great about your work is that you just let shit happen. And that means that part of what you’re doing when you’re revising is A) recognizing the thing you’ve done, and B) integrating it into your original plan. I think our original plans, even though they seem very ingenious and intricate at first, are, in retrospect, pretty skeletal and kind of clumsy. And if I have a plan for a story or a novel, and I’m not varying it within a very short amount of time, if I’m not starting to change things, that’s a really bad sign. If I’m still doing the same shit I started with, then that means it’s not coming alive, I think.
RM: I remember asking you one time, “How long do you allow the intuitive thing to go on before you start editorial burnishing?” And you said, “Quite far.”
JS: Quite far.
And you know, part of what complicates that process is that I’m always editorially burnishing, to use your word, but I’m burnishing in very small ways that don’t completely take into account what I’m doing. So I’m fixing language. And I’m pretending, as we all do, that I have a more comprehensive, conscious understanding of what’s going on than I fully do at any given moment. And some of that might be because, again, I think I know what’s going on and I have all this research. But I’m also teaching myself as I go all the time, which means the whole project has to be reconceived at some point, because you didn’t know something on Thursday that you thought you knew on Wednesday.
RM: Lightning strike.
JS: There you go.
RM: I remember emailing with you when you were finishing The Book of Aron and you were expressing that it was really, really hard and that you almost didn’t know whether you could do it. And I was very fascinated by that, because you’re so accomplished. You’ve written so many books. You’ve written so many stories. But to feel how difficult it was, even at that point in your career—could you talk about that experience? Or is that how it is every time?
JS: Nobody, none of the writers I know, really fully escapes that. You forget how agonizing it was to do it that first time. But in my case, also because I’m very good at perversely choosing projects that the previous project isn’t going to help me with at all, I’m often feeling, “Well, I’ve never done anything like this exactly before. So can I do this, really?” And in the case of The Book of Aron, there were a lot of those components built into it. Are you really gonna write about the Holocaust? Are you really going to write about the Warsaw ghetto? And I was feeling my way along and figuring exactly what the limits to my imagination were going to be in this case, even with research.
You know, there’s a lot of people who respond to The Book of Aron with, “You don’t get to do this.” There are some people who say you shouldn’t write about war unless you’ve been at war. Those people are now in the great minority, I think. But there’s still a larger group that will say that you shouldn’t write about the Holocaust unless you’ve actually been a part of the Holocaust, or unless you’re a Jew. And I think I’m in the group that thinks you can write about the Holocaust, as long as you recognize the awesome size of the responsibility you’re taking on, and that there are limits: I’m not sure, for example, that anyone who hasn’t been there should write about what the inside of a gas chamber looks like when people are being exterminated.
We’re all drawing that line somewhere. I knew I was writing about an adult and children who were going to go to the death camp at Treblinka. And the more I immersed myself in this world, the more I found myself thinking—because we’re all trying to figure out how much hubris we have, and we don’t have limitless amounts, though some of us have a lot more than others—I found myself thinking, I think you are willing to try to imagine the Warsaw ghetto. I think you are willing to imagine what it’s like to be told you’re going to Treblinka, but not what it’s like to actually go. And that was an understanding I had to come to somewhere over the course of that project. You’re not going to take these kids all the way to Treblinka. You’re going to end this with them on the way to Treblinka, essentially, and that you might be able to do. And so, when I was emailing with you, I was asking myself, “Can you even do that? What do you think you’re doing here?”
Probably the most extreme project of empathetic imagination I’ve ever attempted was a story called “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” about the serial killer Gilles de Rais, a nobleman in France who butchered children in the 15th century. And I realized as I was doing all this research that I couldn’t write from inside his sensibility, because it turned out that he clearly felt some kind of sexual release from murdering children. And that was a bridge too far for my own empathetic imagination, as it turned out. I wasn’t able to wrap my mind around that. I can’t inhabit that from the inside.
And I was about to abandon the whole project after months and months of research, when I came across something that mentioned offhandedly that he had been executed with his servants. The servants who helped him do all those murders. He had been hung and then burned at the stake, and they had been burned at the stake then hung. And I was like, that seems a little fucked up. Right? That order makes a big difference. And it suddenly occurred to me: that’s who I’m interested in. The poor son of a bitch who has sort of a choice. He’s Gilles de Rais’s servant. So he could theoretically, like, run away. But really, in terms of class, a nobleman is telling you that this is what you have to do, so suddenly you find yourself recruiting children and immobilizing them while he murders them. The sensibility is very different. And that’s also much more in my wheelhouse because I tend to do the worm’s eye view. I write about the people who feel like they don’t have responsibility, while the reader says, “Yeah, you actually have more than you think you have.”
I just wrote a story that was in Zoetrope, narrated by Adolf Eichmann. And Eichmann is also somebody who continually tells himself, “Hey, I’m following orders.” That’s the kind of sensibility that I’m really interested in. Because that’s most of us. We think, “Well, we’re living in Trump’s America. Trump’s the guy calling the shots.” I’m not that interested in writing about Trump. I’m interested in writing about the people who are like, “Hey, Trump said we had to do this. So I guess we have to do it.”
RM: It was generous of you to share that struggle, when we were emailing. It helped me a lot. When I’ve been struggling, I can say, “Well, Jim Shepard struggles too.”
JS: Ha! Everybody struggles. I remember what a revelation it was for me, realizing that. I was at Breadloaf the year The Things They Carried came out, and Tim O’Brien was there. And this book was huge, you know. It was about as celebrated a book as you could imagine. And in the midst of all of these ecstatic reviews, and people saying his book was going to transform the way we think about war stories, I was standing on the porch with him before someone else’s reading, and he was just stricken. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “I just don’t think I’m ever gonna write something that good again.” And he was absolutely sincere.
I was just a kid then, and it really hit me that there’s never a point when the writers I admire say, “I’m golden. I’ve done it all. I don’t have any more insecurities. I don’t worry about the next project because I’m such a master.” Of course the writers that I admire have a lot of confidence, but they also have enormous anxieties and endless doubts about what they’re doing.
RM: And you always talk about writing being exploration. And if that’s what it is, for you or for any of us, there’s always something else to explore.
JS: Of course. And there are also no guarantees with exploration, right? I’m going to investigate these particular underground caves. Turns out they weren’t very interesting. Turns out I hit a dead end. Turns out I got to a hole that was so small, I couldn’t squeeze through it. So if it is genuine—I think that’s a really key point—if it is genuinely exploration, you can’t guarantee that something wonderful is going to be on the other end. You just can’t.
RM: What’s the most important book or article or film, or most important idea, that you’ve encountered lately?
JS: I think that the revolution in the media lately, which has moved from the movie model and the series model to the limited series, has been really useful as a way of reminding ourselves that there are other ways of shaping these narratives. If you think either we have to do it all in two hours, or over 9 seasons, , like The Sopranos, those are two different extreme poles. The limited series has been a really useful reminder that there’s a middle ground. That we may be a little too binary when it comes to form and length.
RM: I wasn’t expecting you to say that.
JS: Yeah, well, neither was I. Shit happens.
RM: If you had to pick one book of fiction that all college students should read, what would it be?
JS: Oh boy, what a good question. I’m not sure there’s any one book that would solve that problem. You know, there’s a great essay by Katha Pollitt in Harper’s that appeared during one of the canon debates, when people were saying, “We need to drop F. Scott Fitzgerald and add Toni Morrison,” and things like that. Pollitt said that if you’ve only read ten books, it doesn’t matter what ten books they are, since you’re essentially a functional illiterate. So a lot of times when people say, “What’s the one book?” I don’t have much patience for that idea—though I do value the University of Chicago notion that there are some things that we should all know as a part of our shared culture. I also think that roaming around in that culture is really, really crucial. Reading as widely and voraciously as possible is really crucial.
So I would rather hear that one of my students read ten books that I think are okay, instead of one book that I think is amazing, in some ways, because it’s important that they expose themselves to a huge number of ways of doing things and seeing the world. That having been said, there are some books that I think are amazingly important and useful. If it’s about craft, the question is, what do you want to do? So if somebody says, “I’m interested in how to embody ideas in events in short stories,” I might say, “You should look at Flannery O’Connor’s collection.” Or if somebody says, “I’m interested in a mobile point of view,” then I might recommend The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Or if someone says they’re interested in historical fiction,” I’ll say, “Well, you need to read Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.”
But I’m also aware, especially if it’s for students who are just starting out, that there are some works that are really hard to completely break down, in terms of their intricacy, and might feel disempowering rather than empowering. I read “The Dead” [by James Joyce] as a junior in college. And I tell my students that it was really fortunate that I didn’t read it as a freshman, because I would’ve felt like, “Well, I can’t do that. I’ll never do that.” That’s so intimidating. So it helped that when I was first engaging with literature seriously, with the kinds of stories I engaged with, the superstructure was pretty quickly visible. They were very impressive machines, but even so they didn’t feel beyond any human being’s capacity. I could say, “Oh, yeah, that’s cool. I kind of see how that works.” So it also depends on where you are on your journey, as they say.
RM: The adventure of it.
RM: So this is my final question. If you had a genie, and the genie came out of the bottle and gave you three wishes for the world right now…
JS: Oh my god, three wishes for the world right now…
Well, certainly the first wish would be to take care of climate change, because that is the most pressing problem. And so we would start there for the genie. And if the genie said, “What are your other two wishes?” I would say, “Well, work on that one and get back to me,” because essentially, everything follows from that.
Whether the genie went about it by fixing humanity—so that we actually, politically, became capable of putting real priorities first—or the genie said, “You know what? Fuck humanity. I’m just fixing the climate,” I wouldn’t much care. But I would start there. And then I would say, “Once we get that dealt with, we’ll move on to wishes two and three.”
Robin McLean worked as a lawyer and then a potter in the woods of Alaska before turning to writing. Her first story collection Reptile House won the BOA Fiction Prize and was twice a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Prize. Her debut novel Pity the Beast was noted as a best book of fiction in 2021 in The Guardian and Wall Street Journal. Her second story collection, Get’em Young, Treat’em Tough, Tell’em Nothing was published in October 2022, was an Editors’ Choice in the NYTimes, and is currently longlisted for the 2022 Republic of Consciousness Prize for the US and Canada. She lives in the high desert west.
Jim Shepard has written eight novels, including Project Six, forthcoming in May, and The Book of Aron, which won the Sophie Brody Medal for Excellence in Jewish Literature, the Harold Ribalow Award for Jewish Literature, the PEN/New England Award for Fiction, and the Clark Fiction Prize, as well as five story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a finalist for the National Book Award and Story Prize winner, and most recently The World to Come. He’s also won the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Library of Congress/ Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, the ALEX Award from the American Library Association, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He’s written a book on movies and politics, The Tunnel at the End of the Light, and edited another, Writers at the Movies. He lives in Williamstown with his wife and three beagles, and teaches at Williams College.