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2007 National Book Award Fiction Finalist Interview With Jim Shepard
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Photo © Jerry Bauer
Jim Shepard
Like You’d Understand, Anyway: Stories
Alfred A. Knopf

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

BAJ: First and foremost, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! One of the staples of the finalist-interview genre seems to be the question of where you were when you found out. How did you find out about being a finalist? Has it sunk in yet?

JS: Thank you. I checked my phone messages late Monday night to discover that the National Book Foundation had called. My wife Karen and I made some jokes about them wanting to get someone else's phone number from me, but the next morning when I called, Harold Augenbraum gave me the good news. It has and it hasn't sunk in. I'm still a little stunned from the sheer good fortune of the thing. It feels, logically enough, like having won the lottery, and I have a keen sense of how much probably had to go right for something like this to have happened.

BAJ: In a country such as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis, what is the role of the fiction writer? Does being a finalist for such a prestigious award affect how you view yourself in that role?

JS: The role of the fiction writer is I suppose to tell as compelling and important stories as he or she can. And those stories should help us dismantle and reassemble our sense of ourselves. What's nice about the National Book Award is the valiant work it does trying to remind a culture at large that seems less and less interested in reading fiction and poetry that educating us about our emotions is something that's more, and not less, important given the state of our national discourse right now.

BAJ: How long did you work on Like You’d Understand, Anyway?

JS: About four years. But I have a full-time teaching job, so that's a lot of time in there in which I wasn't able to work, as well.

BAJ: What drew you to the stories?

JS: Each story drew me to it in its own way, but in each case something about our world -- something I remembered from my own experience, or came across in my reading, or heard about -- gave me a little jolt and got me going, and then it was a matter of finding that resonance -- that sliver of overlap between the subject matter and my own inner life, mostly an overlap of crucial emotional agendas and conflicts -- that created the connection that allowed me to try to access everything else, in terms of empathetic imagination.

BAJ: How does the book compare to other prose you’ve written?

JS: It's as good as anything else I've written. Which is a relief.

BAJ: Were there moments in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t work? If so, how did you press on?

JS: Well, with a story collection, it's really more a matter of whether or not a story seems to have worked out, and can be added to the pile. And of course, as Karen would point out, there were any number of miserable sleepless nights when I was blackly certain that this or that story was headed for the toilet, and that I should give up writing and take up mah-jongg.

BAJ: If there is a common thread among this year’s fiction finalists, it might be that all of the books employ interesting narrative structures and scopes. The stories in your collection are so varied—so beautifully and vividly individualized in voice, theme, and vision—and yet the cumulative effect of the book is harmonic. Did you always conceive of such scope for the book, or did the symbiotic relationship between the subjects and structures emerge more intuitively? Did you discover anything new about the stories after they were collected in Like You’d Understand, Anyway?

JS: Oh, boy: intuitively. Though as I was assembling the stories and choosing their order, what you're calling their harmonic effect was evident to me. That seems logical, actually, since the subjects might be bizarrely varied, but the emotional center from which they've all been generated is the same. In other words, while lots of people have talked about how different my narratives and/or my narrative voices might be, the emotional preoccupations tend to be very similar. I probably obsess about the same five things, over and over.

BAJ: Finally, when you were writing Like You’d Understand, Anyway, did you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If so, who?

JS: S.J. Perelman, I think. No, I'm teasing. What was that Gertrude Stein line? "I write for myself, and strangers"?


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5 Under 35” fiction honor from the National Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. For more information, please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.

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