“Q & A with Jim Shepard” by Malcolm Gregory Love

A few days ago Paul introduced us to a new website, “The Current Reader” by Malcolm Gregory Love who provides book reviews, recommendations and author interviews. Malcolm allowed us to cross-post his recent interview with author Jim Shepard.

Jim Shepard is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including most recently the forthcoming You Think That’s Bad. (Knopf, March 22, 2011.) His third collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. Project X won the 2005 Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, as well as the ALEX Award from the American Library Association.

Equally important as his critical recognition is the praise he receives from fellow writers for his imaginative and challenging prose. I spoke with Jim this week at length about his latest novella, Master of Miniatures and his art. Here are some of the questions that we discussed.

tCR: Your latest book, a novella entitled, Master of Miniatures is about post-war Japan, its motion picture industry and the affects of natural and man-made disasters that ravaged Japan, among other things. What was the impetus to write about such diverse subjects?

JS: I’m always looking to enlarge that tiny arena of my own autobiographical concerns and obsessions, or at least to get at them from a different angle or through a different lens. And I’m also always looking to stretch the possibilities, when it comes to the exercise of empathetic imagination. Since that’s what I think literature is all about.

tCR: In Master of Miniatures, you write about an actual person, Eiji Tsuburaya, the innovative special effects director of Japanese film. Are there any rules that you abide by when writing about actual people? Do you tend to treat those characters differently than those that are purely imagined?

JS: There are many rules I abide by when writing about actual people. I try to stay within the bounds of actual events, for example: I don’t have anyone go anywhere significant or do anything significant that he or she didn’t really do, if I can help it. (Sometimes I might conflate trips, or events.) Where I do give myself latitude is with such a character’s inner life. But even there, I try to stay true to what I’ve learned. What provides me with enough room to maneuver as a fiction writer in such cases is the amount of mystery that always remains, even after someone’s seemingly been chronicled in biography or autobiography.

tCR: You have written about a wide range of topics in the past: the Who, Krakatau, the Hindenburg, school shootings to name just a few. What do you look for in a topic to write about?

JS: It has to stay with me, after I think I’ve finished engaging it, and even after I’ve moved on to other subjects. That allows me to interrogate why it has stayed with me. And those questions start to generate the story.

tCR: What is your relationship with the reader?

JS: Cordial, I hope. A little challenging and aggressive, too. See the titles of my last two collections.

tCR: What is the most enjoyable part of the writing process for you?

JS: Oh, God. Who knows? Maybe that fatuous moment early on when I feel like I’ve finally done one small thing right.

tCR: If you had to choose, which is more important to you: artistic vision or readers’ entertainment?

JS: I don’t have to choose.

tCR: What is your definition of literary fiction? Is it a separate genre?

JS: Literary fiction is that fiction that helps us dismantle and reassemble our sense of ourselves and our societies. As opposed to that kind of fiction that seems designed to encourage us not to think, and seeks to ratify those fatuities we already have in place.

tCR: What do you think about the current censorship issue regarding Huckleberry Finn?

JS: I’m almost never in favor of censorship. And censoring Huckleberry Finn — Huckleberry Finn! — seems laughable, and pathetic. I don’t think we’re headed towards greater openness, or tolerance, as a society, though. To put it mildly.

tCR: Do you think that regional writers actually exist in the United States currently? Has that form of literature died out?

JS: I think there are plenty of regional writers, if we’re defining them the same way: writers whose primary preoccupations have to do with issues particular to a particular place.

tCR: Are there any current trends in literature that you find exciting?

JS: That people are still reading, and reading with intelligence and care. I’m always grateful for that.