Jim Shepard is the author of ten previous books, including Project X, Love and Hydrogen and Like You'd Understand, Anyway, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Shepard, who lives in Massachusetts, has also published work in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Paris Review and elsewhere. His latest novel, The Book of Aron, a coming-of-age story set in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, was recently hailed as a "masterpiece" by The Washington Post.
Why did you write your new book?
Because I write about such a strange array of subjects, people often send me suggestions. An old student three years ago asked why I'd never written about about Janusz Korczak, the educational reformer and children's advocate in Poland who while running the orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto was advised by the Nazis that his children were going to be deported to Treblinka and that he was to be spared. He chose to accompany the children to the death camp. I'd read about Korczak many times – as someone who's been drawn to catastrophe as a subject, I'd been fascinated with the Holocaust at an early age – but had never considered writing about him, since I've always been wary when it came to writing about Great Men, especially figures who might be considered saintly: Jesus, Gandhi, Korczak. Since: what conflict could measure up to their saintliness? Gandhi has domestic squabbles at home? Jesus is worried that he hasn't done all he could for the poor? This time, though, I reread Korczak's Ghetto Diary and came across an anecdote about a boy whose mother had said that she'd stay alive long enough to get him into Korczak's orphanage. The mother had died as soon as her son had been accepted, and the boy had then blamed himself and the orphanage, and had been inconsolable. And it struck me that though the few orphanage survivors whose testimony I'd come across had all spoken of Korczak reverently, of course no one had wanted to be in the orphanage. And in fact, some of the children had hated being there, even as they recognized that it had saved them. That kind of conflict I recognized as something I could write about.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Look for the weirdness in your own work, which was advice my thesis adviser at Brown University, John Hawkes, was always giving me. At that point, intimidated by nearly everything, I was working hard to write only what I thought I knew, or at least knew more about than most people in the literary community, and so I was cranking out, in accordance with that plan, any number of stories about bookish and sensitive and wry and troubled but covertly adorable young boys saddled with Italian-Catholic backgrounds in Bridgeport, Conn. But the only things that got John excited were those moments of the genuinely strange that surfaced: he taught us to leap at the astonishingly idiosyncratic whenever it appeared in our work; to honour the unruly energy that resulted in our having turned ourselves over to intuition. Since that was where we were likely to discover our most interesting selves.
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?
The Cretaceous. (As long as I was also granted the ability to somehow keep alive.) Because I would love to see what the dinosaurs at their apex were really like. And I'd also get to live for 80 million years.
Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel, and why?
Oh, time-travel, definitely! I've always loved history, so it would be amazing to be able to go back and see how some of the events that have long held my imagination actually occurred: what the agreed-upon narrative got right, and what it got very, very wrong. When I was a kid in the sixties, I couldn't resist the cheesy TV series The Time Tunnel, in which our two heroes every week found themselves teleported always to the very time and place of the most dramatic events in history: They'd land on the Titanic deck a half-hour before the iceberg hit, or into a box in Ford's Theatre just as Booth was about to shoot Lincoln. I remember always thinking: How come they'd never land down the street? Or be eight hours too late?
Which book do you think is underappreciated?
I press Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian on everyone I meet. I think it's the most stunning historical novel I've ever encountered. I find it miraculous, and I have no idea why it isn't more widely read.