Jim Shepard writes deeply affecting historical fiction. He has won the Story Prize and been a finalist for the National Book Award. EARLIER THIS MONTH, he released “The Book of Aron,” his seventh novel, which follows the story of young boy living in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust. Shepard teaches at Williams College and lives in Williamstown with his wife, the novelist Karen Shepard, and their children.
THE COUPLE WHO WRITES TOGETHER: My wife and I share a study in our home that’s essentially three walls of glass looking out on trees. When we imagined what kind of office we wanted, we wanted glass windows and bookshelves. One of the things that freaks people out is that we write in the same room. We don’t write at the same time, so it’s not like we’re in the same room all day asking how each other’s novels are going, but we’re often in the same room. A lot of the time, we’re doing busywork with our backs to one another on opposite sides of the room. It’s a nice way of staying together.
A BOY’S LIFE: There’s a lot of crap all over my desk. Because I write about this weird stuff, old students and friends tend to give me things that evoke the stuff I’ve written about — there’s an 18th century French hot-air balloon, a triceratops, a Greek helmet, a figure of Nosferatu. It’s the kind of place where when 8-year-old boys come in, they think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Walter Murch, the film editor, said that people who are the happiest in life are doing something close to what they wanted to do when they were 10 years old. One of the things I’m doing when I’m writing is going back to the things I loved as a kid to keep myself at my desk.
REASON TO BELIEVE: My fiction is very research-based, but it’s not just because I want to get the facts right. The fiction writers I admire who deal with history believe that it’s their responsibility to try to get the facts right. The good news, for fiction writers, is that once you start reading history, you realize that histories don’t always agree on the facts, so you have a little wiggle room. That wiggle room is where fiction writers operate; nobody knows exactly what Jesus was doing these two years, so that’s what I’m going to make up. I do the same sort of work that a historian would do, but I’m not nearly as comprehensive or exhaustive. I’m trying to do something that persuades me and provides the basis for a persuasive illusion. A historian has to nail it down, to find sufficient proof . . . I’m not providing proof, but evocative detail that makes you believe something.
STANDING IDLY BY: I live the kind of life where the world leaves me alone to read about weird things. A lot of times, nothing comes of it. Sometimes I’ll read about proto-scorpions of the Silurian age and think it was interesting; other times something will snag my interest in emotional terms that has some kind of overlap with some stuff that’s urgent to me, and I’ll start obsessing about it . . . I write about catastrophe, children and adolescents, and ethical passivity. That’s why I’m not interested in writing from the point of view of great men: I’m fascinated by the way people stand by and let things happen. Disaster happens WHEN people who sort of MEAN well don’t do enough to stop something. If you’re looking for catastrophe, children, and passivity, the Holocaust is certainly a potent mix.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson@ gmail.com.