A Worm's Eye View: 9 Questions With Author Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard

By Dave Pezza

Author Jim Shepard’s latest novel The Book of Aron (you can read my review in March’s “5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar”) is available for sale starting today, and the author was kind enough to talk to me about his early influences, his research process, and how he got in the mindset to write about World War II from a young boy’s point-of-view.

Dave Pezza: When did you decide to be a writer?

Jim Shepard: I never really did decide to be a writer; I always knew I wanted to write, but that was a different thing. I was the first one in my family to go to college, so the idea that someone like me could become a writer was not a notion I entertained. What I did know was that I would write, for others or just for myself, however I made my living. I think my secret plan was that I would write, and others would give me food. I wasn’t sure why the latter would occur.

DP: Who were some of your early influences?

JS: When I first started to read I read cartoons like Schultz’s Peanuts, and then soon after that I read Stoker’s Dracula, and Edward Gorey, and Salinger, and a huge amount of nonfiction for kids: history and science. Stuff like the history of the Civil War, or All About Volcanoes. My father was determined that I would go to college and he figured the best way to get me there, besides staying after me about my grades, was to fill the house with books. But since he hadn’t gone to college himself, he figured I should only have books that would teach me something useful, and in his mind that mostly left literature out. Literature was certainly better than nothing, but real information was even more useful than literature. 

DP: World War II has peaked the creative interests of many fiction writers, what about this particular story of Dr. Janusz Korczak and his orphanage brought you write The Book of Aron?

JS: Because I write about so many diverse and off-the-wall subjects, old friends and students are often sending me links with subject lines like, Why don’t you write about this? One sent me that question about Korczak, and I told him it was because I’ve always been wary about writing centrally about Great Men and Women, especially figures who might be considered saintly, like Gandhi or Dorothy Day, since first of all I usually prefer the worm’s-eye view of history, and second, what conflict is supposed to measure up to their saintliness? In this case, though, I did go back to Korczak’s Ghetto Diary, just to check it out again, and while rereading it was struck by the reminder that of course no one in his orphanage wanted to be there. I thought, those poor kids: they must have been terribly conflicted about hating to be somewhere that had saved them. Imagine being the boy who for whatever reason made a saint’s life harder? That sense of feeling that you haven’t adequately appreciated what good fortune you have been given: that I felt like I could relate to. Suddenly it seemed like I had a new and unexpected way into the subject. 

DP: Was this book as hard to write as it was to read? I really enjoyed reading it, but every page brought me closer to what I knew must be coming. It made the ending so hard to read!

JS: Ha! I’d like to hope it was a lot harder to write than it was to read. And I do think that when you’re dealing with a subject like this, dread seems like an appropriate response to try to conjure. 

DP: At the end of your novel you have quite an extensive reference list, can you tell us a little bit about your research processes and how important it is to creating your work?

JS: My research for a project begins before I know I’m doing the project, since I’m always just reading around in weird areas that interest me just because they interest me, and not because I’m intending to write about them. At some point in my reading, though, something snags my interest in emotional terms—nearly always it’s a human dilemma that seems evocative or haunting to me—and at that point I begin wondering if I could write about this. Part of the way I then answer that question is by doing more reading, which either makes writing about the subject seem even more excitingly possible or it has the opposite effect. 

DP: Was it difficult writing from the first person perspective of a young boy, especially in the terrifying and inhuman world of the Warsaw Ghetto? How did you manage to get into such a mindset?

JS: I find it difficult writing from every perspective, but I’m drawn to the limitations a young person’s single first person sensibility, since from within it I can try to evoke the way in which the anxiety of what’s coming is always there in the reader’s mind but is opaque to those in the historical moment. It seems a useful way of addressing the ahistorical revisionist impulse that usually finds voice in the question, How could these people not have seen this coming? I also like the limitations, in terms of articulation, within which you have to work with a young person’s vocabulary: it feels to me like the restrictions poets describe when they talk about the sonnet or another form.  

DP: Do you have any other work in the pipe? Or will you be promoting The Book of Aron for some time?

JS: I have other subjects that I’d like to get to, when I get the time. Now you’ve made me depressed.  

DP: Do you have any advice to up and coming writers, particularly those interested in historical fiction?

JS: Go for it. Learning about the world is a great way of both making yourself a more interesting human being and expanding the arena of your autobiographical obsessions.  

DP: What is one random fact about yourself?

JS: How about the fact that I saw Murnau’s “Nosferatu” when I was 6 years old, and I haven’t been the same since? 

To learn more about Jim Shepard, check out his official website.