TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Jim Shepard is a writer with a gift for getting into the heads of people very unlike himself. He wrote a novel, "Project X," about a Columbine-like school shooting from the perspective of one of the kids involved. His story "Love and Hydrogen" is about a clandestine gay romance between two crew members of the Hindenburg.
Shepard has a new collection of short stories called "You Think That's Bad," and its subjects and characters are typically diverse. There's a black operations specialist from the military, a British woman who goes exploring in Iran in the 1930s, a 15th-century French nobleman who happens to be a serial killer and the Japanese filmmaker who served as special effects coordinator on the film "Godzilla."
Jim Shepard teaches creative writing and film at Williams College. He's written six novels. "You Think That's Bad" is his fourth short-story collection. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
Well, I - we're going to have to wait for that interview momentarily. We're just having a technical problem. So I'll tell you that tomorrow on our show, we're going to hear from Jess Goodell, who was in Iraq in 2004, and she served in the Mortuary Affairs Unit. So her job was to process the remains of the dead and identify bodies. It was a very, very difficult job, and the after-effects of it stayed with her when she returned home. So that's what we'll be talking about tomorrow.
So now we'll get into our interview with Dave Davies and fiction writer Jim Shepard.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Well, Jim Shepard, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, the most common advice we hear given to aspiring writers is write what you know, draw on your own experience for detail and insight. This collection of yours has a huge range.
It's the story about a black ops specialist from the military, a British woman exploring the Middle East in the 1930s, a Japanese filmmaker in the '50s, a French nobleman. Why do you embrace such diverse subjects?
Mr. JIM SHEPARD (Author): I think we're not only hoping to write what we know as literary fiction writers. I think we're also hoping to write what we can imagine, as well. I think literature is, in some ways, about the exercise of the empathetic imagination, and I'm always interested in stretching that capacity.
I'm also always interested in engaging the world and trying to enlarge my own sense of experience, and so I'm not only looking to reflect my own inner turmoil, which I'm certainly doing, but I'm also looking to teach myself about the world and teach the reader as I do it.
DAVIES: So when you're writing in the voice of a British woman in the 1930s or a Japanese filmmaker, how do you know you're getting it right?
Mr. SHEPARD: Boy, that's a good question. A lot of the time, you fret that you're not. But what'll happen is I will immerse myself in a lot of primary documents, until I feel as though I'm starting to get the rhythms and the cadences of that kind of voice down.
Having satisfied myself at some laborious point in the future that I'm doing as well as I think I can do it, I will then often run it by people who know the world better than I do and say: Does any of this sound howlingly(ph) bad or off? Or something like that, as well.
DAVIES: So let's look at an example of what you do here. The story "The Netherlands Lives with Water" is a sobering vision of climate change, and it's set in, like, 2030, where water's rising everywhere. And you look at a family in the Netherlands.
The husband, I guess, is like a civil engineer, right, who manages sophisticated water containment systems, and then he has a wife and a son. And why don't you give us a reading here? This is a moment, kind of a climactic moment, where things are getting bad. Maybe just explain -set this up, if you will. Explain, you know, who the names are and what's exactly happening here.
Mr. SHEPARD: Okay. The man is presiding over, late in the story, the sort of juxtaposition of a massive storm and massive outflows from the Rhine that are flooding Rotterdam exactly as he feared they would. And he has discovered that his wife, Cato, has taken their son to Berlin in order to keep him safe, but also, in a way, to separate from him emotionally. So he's having a sort of double catastrophe come down on him at once. And this is, again, fairly late in the story.
(Reading) The window's immense pane shudders and flexes before me from the force of what's pouring out of the North Sea. Water is beginning to run its fingers under the seal on the sash. Cato will send me wry and brisk and newsy text updates whether she receives answers or not, and Henk will author a few, as well.
Everyone in Berlin will track the developments on the monitors above them while they shop or travel or work, the teaser heading reading something like: The Netherlands under siege. Some of the more sober will think: That could have been us. Some of the more perceptive will consider that it soon might well be.
My finger's on the Cato icon on the screen without exerting the additional pressure that would initiate another call. What sort of person ends up with someone like me? What sort of person finds that acceptable year to year? We went on vacations and fielded each other's calls and took turns reading Henk to sleep and let slip away the miracle that was there before us when we first came together.
We hunkered down before the wind picked up. We modeled risk management for our son, when instead, we could have embraced the freefall of that astonishing here, this is yours to hold. We told each other I think I know, when we should have said lead me farther through your amazing, astonishing interior.
DAVIES: And that's my guest, Jim Shepard, reading from the story "The Netherlands Lives with Water." That's from his new collection "You Think That's Bad."
You know, I love that passage, because it gives us the kind of drama of these huge, world-changing events, and also the interior lives of the characters that you're describing. Let's talk about this story. Where did the idea come from?
Mr. SHEPARD: McSweeney's magazine contacted a number of writers, myself included, and said we're doing a special issue on cities 25 to 50 years in the future. Would you be interested in doing that? And I said no. Why on Earth would I be interested in doing that? And they wrote back and said because we'll send you to whatever city you choose. And I said I'm in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEPARD: And I said - I immediately began researching cities in Tahiti and discovered that there was nothing I could imagine writing about Tahiti. I knew that I was interested in the challenges that are facing the cities from climate change, but I also registered - having thought about it for more than just a few minutes - that the poor Tahitians are in an utterly passive position of victimization. They're just waiting for the water to rise.
A friend of mine, Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes for the New Yorker, had written some wonderful stuff about the Dutch water defenses, and I was quite moved as I began the research that that - by how proactive and energetic they were. They're sort of doing all the right things in order to prepare for what's coming, as they have throughout their history, and I was quite moved by the fact - or by the likelihood that all of those right things are not going to work, anyway.
So that tension between feeling like you're doing everything you can on the one hand and feeling on the other hand like you're refusing to face what's coming down the road at you seemed to me quite powerful, and it also seemed to me the sort of thing that I could embody in the man's personal life, as well.
DAVIES: Right. When you look at the acknowledgements to this book, you see a lot of heavy reading, including, like, some Dutch water containment studies and plans.
Mr. SHEPARD: Right. You have to be, I think, to write this kind of stuff - and you probably have already noticed that a lot of people are emotionally healthy enough to not write this kind of stuff. You have to be the kind of hopeless nerd who, when somebody says to you: Guess what? We found, you know, the plans for Dutch water management for the next 25 years, your heart leaps up in anticipation rather than sinks.
And my wife has said about me that I'm the sort of - I'm the sort of person who would take a history of the guillotine to the beach. So I am, in fact, the kind of person who finds himself reading about this kind of stuff for pleasure, anyway.
DAVIES: Right. So describe, if you will, some of the new techniques that the Dutch have developed in your story for managing the rising water.
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, none of the techniques that I write about I've invented. They do - they've already started any number of sort of wonderful innovations that they're trying to extend in terms of scope, things like amphibious neighborhoods composed entirely of houses that can float free of their foundations up to 30 feet, and all of the supporting cables and all of the electronics and all of the water will -are essentially coiled cables that will rise with the house when the house rises.
DAVIES: There's a theme in this story, and in a number of them in this book, of sort of impending catastrophe. Are you pessimistic about the future of human civilization?
Mr. SHEPARD: I think that there's a combination of factors coming down the pike at us that are very unfortunate, very unhappy. One is the planetary changes that are occurring, but the other in concert with that is a decreasing political will on the part of a lot of the Western powers to face what's coming, to even acknowledge what's coming. And it's also quite possible we're already past the tipping point, as a lot of scientists believe.
But it does feel as though - one of the reasons that I'm pessimistic is it does feel as though, given the political situation, we're not even going to work very effectively to mitigate the problems that are coming towards us.
DAVIES: So you've written a book called "You Think That's Bad."
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah, that's - I mean, it sounds like a sort of a snotty title, but it does seem to embody, in some ways, a lot of the characters' world views, which is, yeah, this is terrible, but wait until you see what's coming.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jim Shepard. His new book of short stories is called "You Think That's Bad."
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is author Jim Shepard. He has a new collection of short stories called "You Think That's Bad."
Let's talk about another one of the stories that I really found fascinating, and this is called "Gojira, King of the Monsters." It's about the making of the film which we know as "Godzilla."
It's - the central character of this is - I guess he's the art director for the film, right?
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, kind of the special effects director, as well as the art director.
DAVIES: Okay. And he's a real person, right? Eiji Tsuburaya. Do I have that right?
Mr. SHEPARD: Tsuburaya. Yeah.
DAVIES: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Why focus on him?
Mr. SHEPARD: I was really fascinated by the way in which Tsuburaya created a miniature little re-creation of the city he knew so well, Tokyo, and then only to destroy it. Those of us who know those rubber-suited epics like "Gojira" - called "Godzilla" in America - remember with some pleasure the sort of campy intricacy of, you know, a man in a rubber suit sort of stomping around on this perfectly recreated little version of Tokyo.
But what really struck me when I was researching Tsuburaya's life was discovering that he had lived through the fire raids on Tokyo at the end of World War II. And so the idea that he would re-create that or re-create a version of that and also, in some obvious ways, embody Japan's recent nuclear nightmare in this figure for entertainment was just fascinating to me about both the ways in which he was accessing his emotions and refusing to access his emotions.
Mr. SHEPARD: Now, the story takes us - goes back and forth between Tsuburaya's personal life, his family life - he has a wife and two sons and a daughter who died earlier - and then filming the movie. And one of the fascinating little pieces of this is creating the monster itself. He decides to make a smaller-scale city and then something that a guy can wear in a suit and knock them down.
And there's just a couple of lovely descriptions here. Maybe read this passage where they're describing how they make the suit and then maybe this - a section where they describe the experience of a stunt man wearing it.
Mr. SHEPARD: Okay.
(Reading) The first version was framed in cloth-covered wire, over which rubber that had melted in a steel drum was applied in layers. The result was immobile and weighed 355 pounds.
In a next attempt, the cloth itself was painted with the base coat, so only two layers of rubber was necessary, but the result was still a staggeringly heavy 220 pounds. But after a month of further futility, they had to concede that rubber applied any less thickly would crack at the joints. So the second version would have to do.
DAVIES: So they ended up deciding they would have a stunt man put on a 220-pound costume.
Mr. SHEPARD: Right.
DAVIES: And then go to this next passage, where we have a couple of the stunt men knocking down buildings while they're in this thing.
Mr. SHEPARD: All right.
(Reading) It turned out that before they'd even gotten through half a day, another stunt man, Tezuka, was needed to spell Nakajima, so exhausting was the part. The suit was stifling in the August heat, even without the studio lights, but with them, it was a roasting pan.
Added to that were the fumes from the burning kerosene rags intended to simulate Tokyo's fires. Under the searing lights, Nakajima was barely able to breathe or see and could only spend a maximum of 15 minutes in the suit before being too overcome to continue.
Each time he stepped out of it, the supporting technicians drained the legs, as if pouring water out of a boot. One measured a cup and a half of sweat from each leg.
DAVIES: Wow, that's hard work, knocking down the city.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEPARD: It is, isn't it?
DAVIES: Where did you get these details?
Mr. SHEPARD: There are a number of books about the making of the Godzilla movies, and some of the details come from various books. I think they're all listed in that staggering list of sources that you mentioned in the back of the collection.
DAVIES: Did you talk to anyone from Tsuburaya's family?
Mr. SHEPARD: No, I didn't. The rough outlines of Tsuburaya's family are all as accurate as I could make them. The interior life, of course, is largely invented on my part, and, you know, it's a strange thing to do to write about people who are real people.
My father liked to call the stories of that sort the libel cycle.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: But so far, no legal problems?
Mr. SHEPARD: So far no legal problems, partially because I try to be as true to the subjects as I can possibly be and also probably because short fiction has so little cultural impact that nobody notices, anyway. So...
DAVIES: Now, this story is fascinating because it's not just about this film and it's not just about World War II. In some ways, it's about 20th-century Japan. And there's this other fascinating piece of the story, which was that Tsuburaya's father was in Tokyo in 1923, when this earthquake struck, setting off all these horrific fires. It's really a remarkable story. Do you want to just tell us what happened?
Mr. SHEPARD: It is the greatest firestorm in recorded history, and it's - you know, I think it was something like 10 times the acreage of the Great Fire of London, and over 100,000 people had perished, which is about 100 times the number who died in the San Francisco fire.
And there were just these absolutely staggering phenomena that haven't been recorded anywhere since, like fire tornados. Apparently, the sheer size of the fire created a furnace of sort of unprecedented scale, so that if you have a fire 4,000 acres wide, you have an updraft that's so massive that it literally generates tornados as it pulls the fire up into it.
And so, you know, as a fiction writer, you're just - you find - at least I find irresistible the notion that you can describe something that literally you've never seen described anywhere else. And so that part of exercising the imagination is just a blast.
I mean, you know, as - essentially, what I'm trying to do is take advantage of the fact that I have the inner life of a 10-year-old and to put that to work on a more serious emotional agenda.
DAVIES: So you had this filmmaker whose father may have been fatally burned in this fire. He endures the fire bombings in World War II, and then he makes this film. How does it all - how does it all come together for him?
Mr. SHEPARD: You know, what I was saying before is part of what I find so moving about Tsuburaya's position, and that is there's a way in which you're not facing that kind of trauma at all if you make a movie like "Gojira." There's a way in which you're facing it head-on.
And the complexity of I'm sublimating all of that trauma into this kind of very, very absorbed piecework that's going to recreate the destruction of Tokyo on the one hand, and I'm getting at it in a kind of horrific way in another just absolutely fascinated me.
I think it's, in some ways, what I do as a fiction writer. You know, I get at various kinds of traumas by recreating in pretend ways. And the sheer logistical and technological achievement of a movie like that also both interested me and moved me, as well.
DAVIES: Now, we think of "Godzilla" as, you know, a campy science fiction movie. How was the film viewed when it debuted in Japan, which is in the 1950s, right?
Mr. SHEPARD: Right. We need - you need to remember that no one had ever seen special effects like that before. Tsuburaya sort of pioneered this kind of rubber suit thing. So the campy quality of it was quite a bit diminished by that.
Also, an audience, a Japanese audience, is watching this eight or nine years after the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fire raids. So it has quite a different valence.
And finally, the version that was released in America, which added Raymond Burr so that, memorably, as one of the American producers put it, that Americans would have somebody to worry about, also spent a lot of time - the American version excised a lot of scenes that were focused on traumatized Japanese, you know, civilians being crushed by various things Gojira was doing.
So the American version that most of us know is, in fact, a little less terrorizing because, in fact, it sanitized what the monster is up to. But in the - as I record in the story, in the Japanese version, there are any number of scenes of women and children being crushed by debris or burned or whatever. And in between the monsters' depredations, characters talked openly about the fact that this is very much like the nuclear attack on Japan.
DAVIES: And so when Japanese citizens, with these memories so fresh, saw this film, how did they react?
Mr. SHEPARD: "Gojira" was one of the biggest hits of the year. It was as bit a hit nationally in Japan and internationally as Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" was, and I think it was considered both traumatizing for an older generation and quite exciting and exhilaratingly sort of adventurous for the younger generation.
So I think it appealed to a wide range of Japanese audiences. But the appeal that it had for the older ones was certainly a much different appeal. I mean, I think older audiences, the evidence seems to suggest that older audiences were quite a bit more sober about the film.
GROSS: Jim Shepard will be back with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Shepard's book is "You Think That's Bad."
I'm Terry Gross. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with fiction writer Jim Shepard. His latest book is a collection of short stories called "You Think That's Bad." Shepard often draws on real contemporary and historical events, and his fiction often requires considerable research.
DAVIES: Some years ago, you wrote a novel called "Project X," which is about a Columbine-type school shooting. And you told it from the perspective of one of the attackers. Explain what led you to adopt that perspective and how you found the voice?
Mr. SHEPARD: I had been upset by the media coverage, or a lot of the media coverage of Columbine in terms of the way it the great search seemed to be for what elements in the culture had led these boys to do what they did. You know, was it they had watched too much Marilyn Manson, and had they - or listened too much of Marilyn Manson, or had they watched too many horrible video games or whatever. And I remember very vividly what it felt like to be that isolated and that filled with rage as a middle-schooler.
I went to a sort of a dreadful middle school, and remembered, too, a moment when a boy in our class brought up a problem at lunch to a table of about eight other boys, and his problem was he was considering bringing in his father's hunting rifle and shooting an athlete who had been tormenting him. And we had a serious discussion about whether or not he should do that. And I'm happy to report that the vote was eight to nothing against his doing it.
But one of the main arguments that swayed the group was somebody said to the boy well, you know, you have a hunting rifle. You're only going to kill that one guy, and then they're all going to wrestle you to the ground and beat you to death, anyway. So that - it's not worth it.
If the boy had been able to say, actually, you know, I have a submachine gun, that might have swayed the other people on the jury, because that spectacle of - or that fantasy of holding the entire world at bay and being the center of everyone's attention in this kind of apocalyptic flourish has enormous appeal for a certain kind of miserable adolescent boy that I remember knowing and I remember being. And it seemed to me like easy to access - to re-access that kind of misery and to write about it from the inside.
DAVIES: Do you know whatever became of the kid who considered shooting his tormentor?
Mr. SHEPARD: I think he came to what my parents would call a bad end. But he didn't commit murder, but I think they did end up in jail for robbery.
DAVIES: Well, you seemed to have worked out all right. You...
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: You were filled with you were isolated and filled with rage as a middle schooler?
Mr. SHEPARD: I was. But I think that may not be that unusual a situation for adolescent boys in middle school. In fact, one of the real poignancies that I've encountered over the years is the sense you have that if you catch an adolescent at the wrong moment, you know, he's capable of doing a lot of disastrously self-destructive or destructive things. But if he can get past that, he may be fine, essentially, and that that sense of the contingency of that age and the sense of the way in which, at that age, you take everything as, you know, absolutely apocalyptically. Again, there's this quality of everything is the end of the world.
And when an adult tries to say something like, you know, on Thursday, you probably won't feel this way, rather than giving you a sense of perspective, what I think that does is make clear to you that the adult has no idea how you're feeling, because you can't imagine feeling better on Thursday, even though you probably will feel better on Thursday.
DAVIES: What do you think would have helped you or that kid back in middle school?
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, you know, a lot of people have asked me over the years or have said to me, well, would you let your own children read "Project X?" Because, you know, it's about such misery and alienation. And I, you know, I want to say sort of facetiously, no. I write things that are bad for people, so I try to keep my children away from it.
But really, I remember at that age how important it was to every so often come across a voice that seemed equally enraged or alienated, because there is one of the both tormenting and cherished aspects of that inner life is the sense you have that you're alone in this, you're unique and no one's feeling as miserable as you are. And so the news that somebody else out there is equally miserable is an enormous relieving of the burden.
I mean, I remember when I first - and one of the reasons "Catcher in the Rye" is so important to so many young people I think is I remember when I first came across it and thinking oh, yeah. Here's somebody who's equally enraged by the pretense that's going on around us, you know.
DAVIES: A number of the men in these stories are involved in this really high-stakes, intense work that they're really invested in, and then they have relationships, wives that they then find hard to reconnect with maybe because they're so invested in their, you know, in their work. They kind of, they seem to sort of find it hard to reengage with family after being so invested in their work. Is this something - I was wondering if this reflects a tension in your own life, given the intensity of your own research.
Mr. SHEPARD: I think it reflects a fascination I've always had with the tension between those people we most admire who are people who are absolutely, passionately devoted to something amazing, you know, whether it's saving the Netherlands from inundation or whether it's being the greatest filmmaker they can be, or whatever. That very passion and devotion and intensity that makes us fall in love with them and cherish them is also, of course, something that, in some ways, blocks out the rest of the world.
And when you're writing, when you're trying to do literature, you're simultaneously separating yourself from the world and being the sort of selfish person who says I'm going to relate to the world. I'm going to -I'll be in my room for six hours. And at the same time, you're trying to understand people. You're trying to empathize with people and connect with people.
And so that whipsawing between shutting yourself off and giving yourself over is happening all the time in terms of what you do. And then of course it's going to be reflected in terms of your interpersonal relations, as well. I mean, anybody who's been intimate with an artist knows that they have - they get to experience the exhilaration of when things are going well, and they also have to deal with, you know, oh, look. Daddy's unhappy because he had a bad day writing - you know, that kind of thing. And you just try to mitigate that as best you can and bear in mind that you're not only a writer, but you're also a father and a husband and all of that sort of thing.
DAVIES: Yeah. What's a bad day writing for you? How do you handle it?
Mr. SHEPARD: A bad day writing for me is a day when you think, okay. So you're not only can't formulate a sentence, but you apparently have no ability to perceive anything. And what on earth made you think you could do this in the first place? And so you just try a number of things, none of which worked out, all of which cause you to reconsider how much talent you think you have or how much discipline or any number of other things you think you have.
And then you just go home and try to not so much inflict your glumness on your loved ones as much as remind yourself that this is another part of your life for which you're very fortunate. Or - and so then you say something like oh, well, you know what? Let's wrestle with the two beagles or let's take a walk, or something like that.
DAVIES: You've written both novels and short stories. What appeals to you about the short story form?
Mr. SHEPARD: I think I'm attracted in the short story form to the notion that I will make less money and reach fewer people.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEPARD: I tell my children that I write short stories so that I will put less food on their table, essentially.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEPARD: But I'm also - I also think that I'm getting more and more impatient with what I call the furniture-moving involved in novels, you know, that great, that since you have when you're reading early on that enormous forces are being deployed and all sorts of stuff is being laid out so that it'll be developed later, and we're moving at a kind of stately pace. And, I mean, I recognize that all novels don't do that. But I'm drawn more to the sort of guerrilla warfare nature of short stories, where you have a very small force, then you get in quickly and you do what you need to do and you get out again.
And I'm also attracted to, I suppose, the perversity of doing months and months and months of research and producing a 25-page story rather than a...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEPARD: ...300-page novel, you know.
DAVIES: Do you ever take on a subject, I mean, get into one of these things and to immerse yourself in some far-flung topic, and then decide it just isn't going to work?
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. Alas, thanks for bringing that up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEPARD: No, that sort of thing happens all the time. There's...
(Soundbite of clearing of throat)
Mr. SHEPARD: ...ostensibly two kinds of failure that I confront in that regard. One is I do a huge amount of research, and the emotional resonance that I initially felt with the central subject begins to dissipate or fade the more I get to know that person.
An example of that is I researched Charles Lindbergh for about five or six months, thinking that I would center something around his flight and his subsequent - the traumas in his life. And the more I got into it, the more I thought I understood him the way a biographer or a historian would understand him, but the less I began to feel that sort of emotional overlap that allows me to imaginatively inhabit the rest of the world to begin with.
I sort of conceive of it as a kind of Venn diagram, where the sliver of overlap in the two giant spheres between Jim and his subject is much smaller than the rest of the stuff. But that sliver is what enables me to imagine the rest of the stuff. In that case, the farther I got into it, the more I thought, yeah, you understand him, but you're not really empathizing with him. And so I just set it all aside. And what saves me from despair in a situation like that is, again, that previously mentioned nerdiness that I think, well, I got to read about Lindbergh for four months, and everybody left me alone, you know, or whatever.
DAVIES: Well, Jim Shepard, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, thank you for having me.
GROSS: Jim Shepard spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Shepard's latest book is a collection of short stories called "You Think That's Bad."
You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Ann Patchett's new novel, which Maureen describes as a knockout.
This is FRESH AIR.