“My wife has said about me that I’m the only person she knows who would take a history of the guillotine to the beach.”
American novelist and short story writer Jim Shepard’s choice of beach reading says quite a bit about the kind of author he is. It also testifies to the twin poles that animate his fiction.
Shepard, in town to promote his new novel, The Book of Aron (McClelland & Stewart), is possessed of a voracious, roving imagination that seems equally at home on the killing fields of the French Revolution or the Second World War and onstage with The Who. So capacious is his imaginative empathy that he is capable of projecting himself inside the Hindenburg and offering a cogent explanation for what caused the famous disaster, all while telling a tender love story featuring two homosexual engineers and transforming the whole thing into a metaphor for the twentieth century’s failed aspirations in the areas of national and technological mastery.
But the fact that Shepard would read about the guillotine on the beach is equally significant. He feels comfortable writing about the heaviest of themes – the Holocaust, the Columbine school massacre – one moment, but the next will find him telling a story about the Creature from the Black Lagoon. From the point of view of the creature. Or doing a story about mental illness, filtered through the eyes of a narrator who, as a boy in the 1960s, was obsessed with collecting Topps’ Mars Attacks! trading cards.
“You’ve probably put your finger on how my own personal aesthetic works,” says Shepard about the short story “Mars Attacks.” “I don’t sit down at my desk and say, it’s time to tackle mental illness. What I’m doing is going, you know what would be great? To write about those cards. And that’s my way of talking myself into dealing with difficult emotional issues.”
If there is a unifying theme to Shepard’s diverse output, it can probably be found in the realm of “difficult emotional issues,” particularly those that manifest in extreme situations.