Novelist Jim Shepard: The Best Writer You've Never Read

Jim Shepherd
Jim Shepherd
Photo by Barry Goldstein

If you think the Holocaust is a subject better left untouched, then you haven’t read The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard. You should, not just because it’s well crafted, but also because he’s one of our finest (and most overlooked) writers. Currently a professor at Williams College, he’s penned six previous novels and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize.

It takes a lot of talent, and let’s face it, chutzpah, to pull off a historical fiction novel told from the point of view of an eight-year-old Polish boy who, even pre-Holocaust, has a pretty bleak life. He introduces himself in the novel by declaring, “My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.”

Aron’s family occupies one crowded room in Polish village near the Lithuanian border, and when his father is offered employment at a factory in Warsaw, things go from bad to worse. But if you think there is no hope, nothing to assuage the burning narrative, there is, and his name is Janusz Korczak. The real-life head of a Warsaw orphanage takes a special interest in Aron and refuses to abandon the children, even when they are expelled and put in rail cars bound for the extermination camp Treblinka.

Like most of his canon, Shepard puts an enormous amount of research into his seventh novel. The Book of Aron includes six pages of bibliographic sources on which he’s relied, knowledge that both informs and ultimately frees him up to do some remarkable things within a seemingly limited voice. To have a narrator who is both no-nonsense and self-deprecating is refreshing.

Shepard has remained a quiet figure in the literary world—overlooked by the mainstream, yet deeply admired by many unknowns. He has an affinity for catastrophes and has flung readers into a tsunami, the Hindenburg fire, and the Chernobyl meltdown. He’s put us into the mind of an eighth-grader plotting a school massacre, and the imagined life of Nosferatu director F. W. Murnau. Through fiction, Shepard manages to take readers on a paradoxically real journey.

He took the time to speak with New Times, and will be at Books & Books in Coral Gables for a reading from The Book of Aron.

New Times: What is the first book you remember reading?
Jim Shepard: Grimm’s fairy tales. I think I remember being super scared by the drawings of Hansel and Gretel.

Why do you prefer to write, as you have said, from the worm’s-eye view?
When I imagine the way that a lot of the historical subjects I write about could be relevant, it has to do with the way that in modern society we feel helpless and at the mercy of powerful people. Pretty much everyone I know will get upset about something and say, well what are you going to do, or what can you do? And that sense of powerlessness is a version of complicity. When I come across these narratives, I’m often drawn to the character in the situation that would go, well don’t blame me—I was just standing here.

Why did you decide to narrate the novel from the point of view of a child?
I was interested in the way that (having a young narrator) signals to the reader this isn’t a comprehensive history of the ghetto; this is essentially one take on the ghetto. And I also feel as though there’s a really useful way of how we think about the unbelievable stuff that happened in the Holocaust—we’re just all sort of dumbstruck by it, it sort of makes kids of all of us, and I wanted to evoke that quality.

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Did you infuse humor into the story on purpose, or did it just happen?
The good news is that when you immerse yourself in the Holocaust, if you’re not just reading historical texts, it turns out that humor is just about everywhere. First of all because those people who survived had to figure out how to maintain their emotional resilience in the face of all of this horrible loss, and one of the ways they did it was to find solace in comedy, in the absurdity of the situation. You sort of have to laugh to keep from going crazy.

What are you reading now?
Right now because I’m drawn to catastrophes, I’m reading about how disastrous our rail system is. I started reading about it months and months ago and one of the things that comes from being interested in likely disasters is that those disasters happen and then it feels like you’re timely.

Are you planning to release another collection of short stories?
Yes, I have almost a full collection now so I think with one or two more stories I should be able to deliver another collection to Knopf, which is of course is causing my agent to go dancing into the streets. Money hand over fist.

Do you get annoyed when people call you a writer’s writer?
I don’t get annoyed by it but I know what it’s code for. I think it’s a very sweet way for people to say not a lot of people read this guy.

Jim Shepard reads at Books & Books, Wednesday, June 3, from 8 to 9:30 p.m. 


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