An editor friend once told me, in a conspiratorial voice that indicated he was letting me in on a shameful trade secret, that at the end of the day, at those meetings in which he and his colleagues decided which manuscripts to accept and which to decline, it all came down to one question: “Would you pay $23.95 for this?” However crass it might seem, however awkwardly the worlds of art and commerce might be stitched together, the fact remained that a book had to be worth its price. It had to do something for the reader—teach her something she didn’t know, take her somewhere she’d never been. Make her laugh, make her think. And most importantly—and this was where publishing was a business more so than an art—make her want to buy another book. If a manuscript could do that, my friend said, it was a go.
Readers familiar with Jim Shepard already know that his books are well worth their price. For 20 bucks, Shepard will not only take you somewhere you’ve never been, he’ll take you tomultiple places you’ve never even imagined. His new collection, You Think That’s Bad , travels the globe in 11 stories, landing in some of the most remote, mysterious, and hostile environments on the planet. Inhabiting these stories are characters whose occupations and obsessions have driven them to physical and psychological extremes. “The Track of the Assassins” introduces us to Freya Stark, a 20th-century British travel writer whose fascination with an ancient Shia sect impels her to the mountains of Iran, through territory so dangerous it is considered impassable. “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” is the story of a small group of avalanche researchers hoping to survive the winter in a hut on a Swiss mountaintop, a hut which is “naturally refrigerated from the outside and a good starting point for all sorts of adventures, nearly all of them lethal.” “The Netherlands Lives With Water” sets us down in Rotterdam in the mid-21st century, where disaster preparedness is not only a national preoccupation but also a grand-scale existential crisis, and where, despite unprecedented feats of design and civic cooperation, preparedness isn’t enough to stem the tide. In “Poland Is Watching” we ascend to the 8,126-foot high summit of Nanga Parbat, in the Himalayas, with a group of Polish mountaineers whose obsession with climbing in subzero temperatures compels them to part with their families and, in many cases, their lives. To be sure, traveling with Jim Shepard is never a picnic. He isn’t the kind of polite travel guide pointing out what’s world-renowned for its loveliness. We don’t exit through the gift shop. No, a Jim Shepard story takes up where the average travel guide leaves off, and it will carry you all the way to the terrifying edge of an abyss.
All of the characters in You Think That’s Bad are in some way isolated, desperate, suffering in their often self-imposed crises. But they are also compellingly self-aware, and often, despite their circumstances, seriously funny. In the most base but also in the loftiest of terms, these stories will give you extraordinary returns on your investment.
Christie Hodgen You Think That’s Bad is quite a diverse collection, yet, by the end, there’s also a strong sense of unity, in that it’s a very physical collection. In almost every story, characters are dealing with extreme challenges to their bodies—cataclysmic weather, combat, mountain climbing, etc. There’s a sense that these characters are up against the unendurable, if not physically impossible, and that this is only the beginning, the outward manifestation of what’s going on emotionally and culturally. While some of your earlier work explores this territory, the physical extreme seems to be the guiding principle of this collection. What drew you to this subject matter?
Jim Shepard I’m interested in maximizing the pressure that the narratives exert on the emotional situations in which my characters find themselves. I’m also always looking to embody that kind of conflict in concrete terms, which means I’ve been increasingly drawn to those kinds of extreme situations. I’m drawn to those situations for their own sake, of course—they’re just very cool to read and write about—and then I’m forced to interrogate my own interest, in emotional and thematic terms. What I start to figure out about the sources of my own obsessions then becomes shaped into the story. I found myself arrested, for example, when reading about the mind-bending physical miseries that GIs endured in the middle of the rainy season in the New Guinea jungle during the early years of World War II. The more I thought about it, the more the nature of those miseries—so quotidian, so intense, so often humiliating—reminded me of the agonies of certain types of not-fully-reciprocated love relationships.
CH I’d identify that as characteristic of your work. We get the psychic discomfort of these fairly common situations, such as romantic rejection and humiliation—familiar territory for the short story. But laid over that territory is a kind of transparency, a second map, usually charting territory we haven’t seen before. So we get this interesting pairing of the familiar and the strange.
Many of your stories spring from obscure historical sources. At the end of this collection is a long bibliography of sorts, citing references like Avalanches and Snow Safety, The Japanese Earthquake of 1923, Climate Changes and Dutch Water Management, and Satanism and Witchcraft. How do you come upon this material?
JS I’m just the kind of hopeless nerd who loves encountering stuff like that. I read a huge amount of nonfiction, and when I pull books off shelves, I’m not thinking, Ah, what a great idea for a short story. That happens later, when I find that images or dilemmas within what I read continue to stay with me. Then I begin to interrogate why: why does this amazing narrative stick with me while that other one did not? And usually it’s because some dilemma of which I’ve caught a fleeting glimpse, in the middle of all of this information, resonates with my own life.
CH With historical pieces, how do you choose your protagonists? It seems you have a predilection toward the peripheral, the point of view of minor characters witnessing major events.
JS Yes, I do. First, because that worm’s-eye view always helps me with the sheer hubris of what I’m attempting. It’s much easier for me to imagine my way onto Hadrian’s Wall by remembering what it was like to be cold and wet and uniformed than to try to imagine what it would be like to be the governor of a vast Roman administration. And second, because I’m always more interested in those who bear the brunt of history after the Great Men have made their decisions.
CH You’re known for taking on plots and points of view that many other writers would dismiss as exceedingly daunting—how to take on the voice of Freya Stark, for example, or a black-ops specialist, or a particle physicist, an adolescent school shooter, a female cosmonaut? Your range is so broad that one eventually wonders: Is there anything you expressly wouldn’t do? Any types of stories or characters you’re not interested in writing?
JS Oh, there’s lots of stuff I’m not interested in writing, or that I discover I can’t do. I’ve never had an interest in writing about academia, for example, and there are all sorts of cultures and historical periods that seem to me objectively fascinating and yet don’t move me to want to write about them. And I spent years researching what I hoped would be a novel about Aeschylus, only to feel, finally, that there was just too much I didn’t know, in any number of areas, to pull it off. I ended up writing about just his experience as a hoplite at Marathon. Could I begin to imagine what that was like? I thought maybe I could. Could I imagine his relationship to the Eleusinian mysteries? I ended up conceding that I couldn’t.
CH You’ve written about “the tyranny of the epiphany,” referring to the contemporary short story’s tendency to turn away from event-driven plots in favor of subtle, internal crises, and indeed the 20th century does seem to have been a time in which the short story shifted its focus from plot to character. In the epiphany story in particular, the crisis scene often consists strictly of a realization or a subtle emotional shift, a classic example being the ending of Joyce’s “The Dead”—the crisis transpires entirely in Gabriel’s mind as he looks out a hotel window at the falling snow. Your stories are much more active, more scenic. In “Love and Hydrogen,” for instance, you manage to blow up the zeppelin Hindenburg within the confines of a short story, and “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” from the new collection, manages to treat the brutal murder of hundreds of children in under 30 pages. It’s as if in each piece you’re conducting a crash test on the story form, trying to figure out how much action it can withstand. Can you tell us more about how you still manage to create emotionally vibrant characters in the midst of all that velocity?
JS If it’s working right, that sense of velocity is being generated not just (or even primarily) by all of the action, but by the rate of revelation: the sense we have of the pace at which we’re learning crucial emotional information about the stories’ central figures. All of that action is subordinated to that priority, or selected on that basis.
CH Related to epiphanies is the subject of endings in general. In this collection you often choose to set the stage for a massive, inevitable reckoning, but then pull away just as it’s about to unfold. Right before an armed standoff with the police, the protagonist of “Boys Town” says, “I never know what I’m going to do next” and neither do we, exactly, but we can make a fair guess. The narrator of “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” imagines himself buried in an avalanche, and in fact extends his imagination to the months following, in which he’ll be uncovered, “petrified as though lunging forward […] my expression that familiar one of perpetual astonishment.” Your endings leave us with a sense of the inevitable but don’t necessarily take us there. On the whole, they call to mind Chekhov’s assertion that the job of a short story isn’t to solve a problem but to state the problem correctly.
JS I think that’s exactly my intention. Charlie Baxter once teased me for being the king of thein medias res ending. It’s a useful way out of the circumscribing box that some of the narratives I choose would seem to generate. The reader thinks: Crew members on the Hindenburg? How on earth is this going to end in a way that’s at all surprising? That kind of ending also allows the story to shift its emphasis to a character’s inner life at the most unexpected and crucial moments.
CH Would you say then that in terms of contemporary life those endings suggest that we’ve reached a point where we’re poised for disaster—nuclear, viral, environmental, it hardly matters—and that the way we’re living now is untenable, the relative calm before the storm of storms?
JS That’s one of the ways in which my stories are intended to be most fundamentally political. I just guest-edited an issue of Vice magazine almost entirely composed of nonfiction, and, when given my choice of topics, chose catastrophe. I love what we ended up with: for example, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about the end-Permian extinction—the biggest of the Big Five extinctions that have taken place in the last half-billion years, the one that took out 90 percent of the species on earth. We also asked various scientists to list and characterize what they considered to be their most likely doomsday scenarios. In terms of the voting it seemed to come down to either a near-earth object—an asteroid or comet—or an eruption of the Yellowstone caldera.
CH This is a well-traveled collection. We move from Iran to New Guinea to Switzerland to Japan, France, Poland, and the Netherlands. And we’re not simply traveling from the point of view of an American abroad—observing foreign life from an American perspective—but inhabiting characters within those cultures. Yet, in some ways, these foreign perspectives must say something about America, too, the way a photo negative speaks about the developed photograph. For instance, I had the sense that if it were up to Americans to evacuate one of their cities in a calm and orderly fashion, so as not to be overwhelmed by a storm—as it’s up to the Dutch to do in “The Netherlands Lives With Water”—we’d all be dead in 15 minutes.
JS If we lasted that long. Part of what drew me to the Dutch in that story was the sadness I felt at the vastness of the gap I perceived between the compassionate rationality of the Dutch approach to the inevitable hard decisions that are being imposed on everyone by climate change and what we might term the American response, which has become increasingly to announce with great angry fervor that the problem doesn’t exist. I was also hugely moved by the fact that all of the proactive intelligence and ingenuity that the Dutch were able to bring to bear on the problem still might not be enough to prevent disaster.
CH Often your foreign characters will pause to remark on traits characteristic of their countrymen—the Dutch see themselves as a nation of planners, for instance. But your American characters don’t seem to talk of themselves as members of a nation in the same way that your Europeans do—they don’t seem to identify their personal traits as characteristic of their state. And, yet, one still gets a sense in the American stories of what it means to be an American. Are there traits you’ve identified as characteristically American, certain tendencies you’re hoping to address?
JS Yes. Speaking of our increasing problem as a nation with confronting reality: one of our most cherished myths about ourselves is that we’re all about self-reliance, which allows us to justify our seeming disdain for communities (in what other country in the world would a potential leader be mocked for having been a community organizer?) and also allows us to jettison compassion as a national value. I say “seeming disdain” because I think most Americans value the notion of community. Nearly all of us register the essential heartlessness of unregulated capitalism, and yet that’s been enshrined as sacrosanct: a fundamental aspect of our version of self-reliance. That “every man for himself” ethos of which we’re so proud leaves a lot of people behind, and I’m continually interested in the tension involved in the way those people whipsaw between blaming themselves for having been unable to keep up and understanding that they never had a chance in the first place.
CH As you mentioned earlier, your work is quite political. We have a PTSD veteran as the narrator of “Boys Town,” and “The Track of the Assassins,” though set in the ’30s, turns a British travel writer loose in western Iran because of her obsession with an ancient Shia sect. “The Netherlands Lives With Water” speculates on the disastrous results of climate change, and America’s imperial sense that it can do its nuclear testing in the South Pacific is a crucial aspect of “Gojira, King of the Monsters.” Yet reviews of your work tend to focus less on the political and more on the individual. Do you find that Europeans, for instance, read your work, or fiction in general, in the same way?
JS Europeans understand (or accept) the political to be ubiquitous. Another peculiarity about Americans that fascinates and appalls me is the pride we take in telling ourselves that we’re not political. One of the ways we do that, of course, is to absurdly narrow the meaning ofpolitical. If in a Super Bowl telecast you remark that you think it’s a shame that Pat Tillman died in a war overseas, you’ll be excoriated for having dragged politics into an arena where it doesn’t belong. If you announce instead that you want to pay tribute to the sacrifice that Pat Tillman made for freedom, you’ll be celebrated.
CH In addition to teaching writing, you teach film courses at Williams College. Your novelNosferatu and your story “Gojira, King of the Monsters” deal directly with film. Does your interest in cinema influence your work, even those stories not directly related to film? Any chance we’ll see a screenplay from you?
JS I grew up on movies, like many, if not most, of my generation, and so of course they’ve affected the way my imagination works. Various reviewers have noted that my stuff tends toward the visual and the visceral, for example. And though I have a lot of voice-driven stories, I wouldn’t say that my fiction tends toward the ruminative. As for screenplays, in the last few years I’ve written two: one for Errol Morris about Kenneth Donaldson, a 43-year-old who in 1956 was committed by his parents to a mental institution against his will, and who discovered that people pronounced to be mentally ill had no rights of habeas corpus, and an adaption of Project X in collaboration with a young director named Brett Haley. I tend to take on only those projects that seem like they might be fun in and of themselves, since the chances of their getting made are so lousy.
CH However unfairly, it seems to be a commonly held belief that certain writers are identified with certain types of protagonists. There’s the Philip Roth protagonist, for instance, or the Lorrie Moore protagonist, and the sense that no matter how diverse their characters might be, these writers will always be associated with certain personality traits and types. With 10 books, now, have you come to be associated with a Jim Shepard protagonist? Certainly there’s a kind of first-person voice that recurs in many of your pieces—informal, acerbic, defensive, sarcastic, funny as hell, fond of direct address. (The titles of two of your collections,You Think That’s Bad and Like You’d Understand, Anyway, have a way of pulling readers in almost as if by challenge.) Is this voice in some way your standard, from which everything else deviates, the voice that comes most naturally to you?
JS For a long time my protagonists seemed diverse enough—and I was obscure enough—that it made little sense to talk about a Jim Shepard protagonist. Now I think that certain traits, many of which you mentioned, do keep, unsurprisingly, reappearing, and those traits have a lot to do with unifying my fiction. I think I’d add some major thematic preoccupations, as well: the costs of certain kinds of ethical passivity, for example. That’s another reason I’m attracted to the worm’s-eye view, in terms of protagonists: I’m interested in the way we all, claiming powerlessness, can then use that to excuse our complicity.
CH Just about any short-story writer will tell you that we’re living in the age of the novel, and, furthermore, that it shouldn’t be so—that the story’s length is a better match for the pace of our lives, etc. Yet the novel reigns. As a writer of both stories and novels, what are your thoughts about the status of the story? Do stories make the same contribution as novels? Or, to be more precise, is that contribution registered?
JS I’ve been more and more drawn to the guerrilla tactics of the short story, as opposed to what feels like the massed armies deployed by the novel. Move fast, strike quickly, move on. Some of it, I suppose, is a weariness with what I think of as all of the furniture moving involved in setting up the mechanisms of the longer form, and some of it is probably also an unwillingness on my part to spend that much more time with some of the people I write about. Five months is a long time to spend with one of the servants of Gilles de Rais, given that that servant aided and abetted the murder of hundreds of children; I’d hate to imagine what devoting two or three years to a sensibility like that would be like. As for stories’ contributions to our culture, well, they certainly mean a lot to me. Choosing to write stories is, I think, like choosing to write poetry: you have to accept that they’re less appealing not only to the general public but also to some large subset of readers of literary fiction. I wonder if this is partly due to the same reason that people are drawn to big fat novels, rather than slim ones: that sense of wanting to get more bang for your buck once you’ve invested yourself in an imaginative world.
CH Your riflemen—I’m thinking specifically of the narrators of Project X and “Boys Town”—are some of your funniest characters. It’s almost like violence and humor are two sides of the same coin in your work, like a gunshot is just a somewhat elevated form of sarcasm. We get the sense with these characters that things might have gone either way, that with only the slightest adjustment a tragedy might have become a comedy.
JS Ha! I never thought of myself as having a category of character called riflemen. I’d resist your suggestion of the gunshot as a slightly elevated form of sarcasm, though, since the formulation invites us to undermine the lethal seriousness of the violence. You’re right to note that the comedy and the ferocity spring from some of the same sources, one being that rage at a certain ineffectuality, and that determination to lash out and make a mark one way or the other. The pathos involved in some of these shooters is, sometimes startlingly, both funny and horrifying. I don’t know if that combination is peculiarly American, but it certainly seems particularly American. And it seems as though, given where our country is headed (we’re not only casting more and more of our middle class into poverty, but we’re also actively working to demonize the poor) and given that ever-increasing gap between how we really operate as a society, and our official version of ourselves—“this is the country where anyone who works hard can get ahead”—those kinds of eruptions are only going to become more numerous. Someone once asked me if I thought young people should read Project X. I felt like saying, No. I only write stuff that I think is bad for people. But I really did remember, writing that book, how isolated I felt when I was 14 or 15, and how hard it was for me to imagine that others felt the same way. And how much it would have helped to hear that others did. And how much itdid help, when I ran across other disaffected voices that seemed to be pulling back the curtain. I think you’re exactly right that when it comes to my characters, with only the slightest adjustment, things could go either way. I guess I’m hoping that the writing I admire out there in the culture is helping with some of that adjusting. Something better be. Because there sure are a lot of toxic elements gaining authority that need to be counterbalanced.