When Are You Gonna Get Over This: An Interview with Jim Shepard
October 16, 2012 | by Tim Small
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and four short-story collections. In a departure from the typical trajectory of the American writer, however, his novels came first: graudally, he has, by his own admission, become more and more drawn to the short-story form. And what short stories! His subject choices are bold, strange, almost stunning in their range: the love story between two gay engineers on the Hindenburg; a Roman scribe sent to man Hadrian's Wall; the inventor of the Godzilla epics. His narrator might be the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Aeschylus at the Battle of Marathon or John Entwistle or perhaps a British explorer searching for a sea in the middle of the Australian desert. A lot of his stories are set in the world of sports—baseball players moving to Cuba during Castro's revolution, football players, mountaineers, a Yugoslav soccer player who moves to Ajax Amsterdam during the sexual revolution. And yet, despite such a range of subjects, each story manages to feel true, the voice credible, the world evoked uncannily, so much so that the reader often feels like he's stumbled upon these character's private diaries.
I recently edited and translated a collection of Jim's stories for an Italian publisher, and I decided to focus on those stories that had, more or less, some sort of connection to sports. The reason for that is simple: I have never read stories set in that world that manage to evoke it as well as Jim's. Also: I like sports. I called Jim up on Skype, from my ex-girlfriend's kitchen in Milan, Italy, and asked him a few questions about short stories and sports.
In translating your stories, I started resenting the way you write, because it forced me to do so, so, so much technical and historical research, decipher so much lingo and jargon. It really was the most laborious translation I’ve everdone, and it really hit me just how much work you put into a single story.
A different writer would take that kind of work and make a novel out of it. He’d make that much groundwork last three or four years.
My friend Ron Hansen, the novelist, always says to me: “You’re crazy! You know, you did eight months of research and all you got out of it is a story. I would get a four-hundred-page novel and make a lot more money.” But part of it is also that, you know, it doesn't feel like drudgery to me. If I’m reading about these subjects, it’s because I’m strange enough to want to be interested in them anyway. So the idea that I have to read yet another book about volcanology doesn't make my heart sink. It makes me think, “Oh, good, I get to do that!” You know?
Right, but then, the question becomes ... I mean, you’re clearly interested enough to read eight months into a subject, but then you’re not maybe interested enough to maintain that world for another year or two of writing it?
Well, it’s interesting. That’s a good question. What’s happened is I have become impatient with what I call the furniture moving involved in writing novels, where you have an enormous tapestry you want to set up, this whole world to set up and start to put it into motion. I’m much more attracted, lately, to getting in fast and doing something economically and then getting out again. And sometimes, too, it occurred to me that, I’m often engaging sensibilities that are strange enough—or unpleasant enough—that I don’t wanna spend two years with them. A few months of writing is more than enough, in some of these cases.
I wanted to talk to you about about the subjects you choose because they're extremely diverse. You clearly have a voracious mind. But then again, there are some things that are common to most of your stories. For instance, the first-person narrator.
The first-person narrator has gotten much more common with me recently. I have four story collections and the last two are overwhelmingly first person. And it occurred to me that I’ve been pushing myself towards it partially because, as my subjects get more and more sort of outrageously far afield, as I find myself working harder and harder to stretch my empathetic imagination, and not just write about somebody who came from another part of America, but, say, write about a servant of a fifteenth-century French nobleman, well, the sheer chutzpah of what I’m trying became so intimidating that I realized that the best way to do it was absolutely head on. So, say, to not have that kind of narrative distance where you say, “Tim had always been a shy child,” and we’re looking down on Tim from above. But in fact you just go “Ok, if you’re just gonna try and do this, what does Tim sound like?” Have Tim directly address you, and it’s this sort of confrontational nature of that I found bracing.
Also, if you’re telling that story from within that world, then you don’t necessarily have to make judgements on it. You write from that world, and you leave those kind of judgements to the reader.
I think that’s another great source of appeal for me. I don’t want to seem like the omniscient wise figure that has a take on the characters. What I want to do is create the illusion that there’s this voice talking to you, and it’s quite persuasive at times and quite limited at other times, and allow you to make your own judgements about the voice.
Now, the collection that we put out in Italy is centered around your sports stories. Do you still consider yourself a fan?
Yes, I am a big sports fan, but I’m quite a bit less un-selfconscious about it than I used to be. I grew up a passionate baseball and football fan and developed into a basketball fan as well, and then as I got older I started following European soccer, and in fact became a fan of Ajax for a while. And I will still follow those teams, but I’m quite a bit more aware of not only the fact that, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, our loyalties are based on something that’s entirely arbitrary. Seinfeld's way of putting it was you know, when these teams start changing cities and trading players at such a high rate of speed, you realize that essentially you’re rooting for laundry. You know, you’re rooting for the team’s shirt, no matter who’s wearing it. But really what fascinates me now about sports is the way it both allows so many people to not engage what’s going on in their lives and in their culture because it is such a powerful form of escapism. And, despite that, the way it actually reflects what’s going on in their lives and their cultures.
To me what’s really fascinating also is that sports is like a system. It’s probably one of the only widespread popular narratives where people actually win. It replaced battles.
You know, the Olympics, every four years, allow us to vent this sort of nationalistic desire to win and that prevents us from getting into more trouble in terms of nationalistic aggression. You know, there are those ridiculous things during the Olympics when, say, the United States is ahead of China in the medal count and Italy is ahead of France. And everybody can wave the flag and feel better. Or you can see it, as some social scientists do, not as a safety valve at all but as a feeding of that kind of aggression, as part of the problem. But, either way, it’s something that is not going anywhere because it’s so important to cultures to be able to focus on, as you say, that kind of finite arena where somebody wins and you can root for these kind of surrogates for yourself, you know? “I have a bad life, but the team in my city is winning and so I feel a little better.”
The problem then becomes, when you have an okay life and your team loses and that makes you upset.
My wife and I often tease each other about that because if, in fact, your team loses, and you go into a funk, your loved ones will say to you, “Well, this is actually very selfish and hurtful to us, because as far as we can tell, you have every reason to be happy and you say you’re unhappy because a bunch of people you don’t know didn’t win a game.” And they would be right.
Thomas Brussig said that, narratively, sports will always be more compelling than sports literature. I kind of agree: if you’re a real sports fan, there is absolutely no comparison between the thrill of watching a live game with reading a story set during a game, even if the narrative is identical.
Everybody who’s been a part of any kind of intense fandom knows how much suffering you start to build up as you’re wondering what’s going to happen in the final minutes of an athletic event. And so the relief of having it all come together the right way is so viscerally powerful, that it’s hard to imagine any kind of literary achievement matching that kind of exhilaration. But the analogy there would be a little bit like saying, “the very very very best description of a sex act still isn't quite as powerful as an actual sex act.” I'm not sure it’s a major indictment of literature, that’s just talking about how visceral the world can actually be.
Of course. But there is a narrative element to following sports. Essentially you’re following a wide cast of characters, heroes and antiheroes, as they win, fail, struggle, overcome adversity, fight, argue, lose, are injured more or less seriously, and the cast evolves over years. It’s much like reading a very long novel in chapters for many years, and every chapter is a game.
I think that’s right. And most of the really passionate fans I know suffer more with losses than they enjoy wins. I mean, clearly, they love wins, but most of the really, really passionate fans I know, they know how much they’re going to hurt when the loss comes and so, really, what they’re hoping is that they won't have to experience that. There's an equal measure that feels both relief and joy when the team wins as opposed to just joy.
And, talking about suffering and hurt, if I’m not wrong, you’re a Vikings fan.
I have an essay that I published on the exquisite masochism of being a Minnesota Vikings fan and the number of ways in which following a team like that teaches you not only about loss but about the infinite number of ways in which one can lose. When you’re very young, the universe introduces you to the notion that as you get older you’re gonna be facing various forms of losing over and over and over again.
It’s like a gym for real life. You learn stuff, you get stronger, you learn how to deal with loss—it’s a vicarious way of feeling these emotions in a safe way. Much like, again, reading.
It’s hard to explain that to your loved ones because they’re watching you mope about something that seems to them very trivial. So you have a wife who says to you, “You can't play with your child because this team lost? But they lost two weeks ago. When are you gonna get over this?” You know, that kind of thing. It seems to them, it seems to people who don’t follow sports, that it’s in fact the opposite. That it’s not educating you in emotional ways at all, but in fact it’s regressive. It’s keeping you from understanding yourself in emotional ways. But I think in those cases, really, the key, as it is in so many other cases, is a certain self-consciousness. I mean, I can get sad or upset about a loss, but I think the saving thing for me, as opposed to the way it used to be when I was fifteen years old, is I recognize “Okay, this is irrational, this is out of perspective,” and you have to honor the feelings you have—there's a reason you feel so intensely about it—but you have to not be so completely taken over by these feelings, as well.
Thinking about some of your fiction set, for example, in the world of football, it seems that sports is one of the few arenas where you can bring together extremely different kinds of people, who have a lot at stake, especially when you’re not talking about professional athletes, but people who are trying to break into that world.
I think there is a way in which it’s both one of the few genuinely democratizing influences left in America—now that the military doesn’t operate that way and most colleges and universities aren’t really operating in that way—and on the other hand, it’s also creating an illusion that that system of “anybody can get ahead” is still operating. But it’s quite misleading. Those people are LeBron James, those people are Lawrence Taylor, those people are athletes at the very, very, very, top of an extraordinarily big pyramid.
And for every thousand people who make it, there are a million who fail.
Absolutely, and those kids have learned the lesson that the only way to make it to the very top of the pyramid is to cut everything else out of their lives and dedicate themselves entirely to this one sport. And then, of course, what that means is they haven’t learned any of the other skills that would allow them to succeed once it becomes clear—as it almost always does—that they’re not gonna make it. And that’s where the exploitation comes in.
When I rationally think about sports, it’s very hard for me to defend it.
I think, on balance, especially as issues in our culture get more and more problematic, sports is turning into the opium of the people. And I think sports does a lot of wonderful things. You know, I’m a sports fan and so I understand its appeal, but I do think that part of the reason that in this country we’re not very politically astute is because we could turn on the TV and get upset about football or hockey or baseball or basketball or golf or soccer or the Olympics instead.
I had a professor of politics in the small, radically left-wing University I attended in the northeast of England, who wouldn’t allow us to reschedule our classes around the World Cup games in 2002, as the other professors were doing. He said that sports was the garden where the flowers of nationalist popularism grow most freely.
Absolutely. That’s the view that says that sports aren’t a safety valve at all, but rather an area where such nationalisms are born. Look: the best evidence that I came across for the pernicious influence of sports is, if you watch the Superbowl, and somebody dares to bring up something like Afghanistan or Iran or something, if a commentator were to say something like, “It would just be great if could get our troops home from Afghanistan,” there would be such an uproar of outrage. A sort of like, “Why would you bring politics into this? This is the one area where we’re able to relax and have fun, and now you’re gonna drag politics into it?” and that person would never be allowed to speak on television again. But then, at the same time, they would do things like say, “And by the way, we’re now doing a tribute to our fighting men in uniform” and a bunch of jets fly over and the anthem plays and a flag is rolled out and everyone refuses to register that that is, in itself, a political gesture.
But, all that being said, if you’re a sports fan, in my opinion, all these rational reasons don’t really count, because loving sports is not a rational decision.
No, it isn’t! I think it's like a form of imprinting, like what happens to a baby duck. You hook on to something for reasons that you haven’t fully worked out for yourself and then you’re just locked in, the way you are to a family member. You don’t even know why you’re so drawn in anymore.