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Jim Shephard is often called a writers’ writer. I was never sure what that was supposed to mean, exactly, except that he seemed to be extremely popular in MFA program curriculums, but not an author you would often see someone reading on the subway – kind of like a cool band that you’ve never heard of. Except replace “cool band” with “nerdy writer.”
A year or two ago, Ben and I were lucky enough to drink a few tumblers of whisky with Jim Shepard and talk about writing. His body of short stories has had a huge influence on Ben’s writing and he is, in all respects, an enormously great teacher and contemporary writer. When the students in our MFA program got a chance to pick a visiting writer, Ben jumped on the chance to meet the guy in person – to attend a workshop, to listen to a lecture, to share some whisky.
When we asked him about what being a writers’ writer might mean, he took a nice long sip from his glass and told us he thought it was equally as baffling as we did – and then said that it might just be a polite way of saying he wasn’t all that popular. But here we are, a little over a year later, and Shepard’s newest book of short stories, Like You’d Understand Anyway, has just been short-listed for the National Book Award and gotten glowing reviews from everyone and everywhere you can think of. Finally, he seems to be on the radar. And I couldn’t be happier.
Like You’d Understand Anyway is a collection of all first-person short stories, though the similarities between them end there. The settings and time periods range from the site of Hadrian’s Wall during the late Roman Empire, to present day Alaska, to Chernobyl during the nuclear meltdown, to gothic France, to summer camp in 1960s America.
In these stories, Shepard does something that very, very few contemporary do these days: he uses his imagination and has fun. No, you won’t find stories here about a struggling writer in New York City wrestling with ennui or a writing professor who longs for his younger days in Europe. You’ll find adventure stories of failed expeditions in the Australian outback and totally awesome hunts by lackluster Nazis for evidence of the yeti in Tibet during World War II. Each story is lovingly researched and each narrator has such surprisingly authentic and passionate voices that you’ll often slip into simply believing what you read. The acknowledgements section for the book is a list of about 50 non-fiction books – if anything, Shepard is a readers’ writer.
Throughout the book, Shepard proves so many of his writing peers wrong: contemporary literature doesn’t have to be boring, and writing from experience doesn’t mean that you have to write about yourself. You can write a self-reflective story that has a lot of action. You can take thoughts and feelings that you’ve had and transfer them to different places and times.
And that’s the real beauty of the stories: Shepard has a genuine, almost scary handle on the human condition. Think you won’t relate to a Nazi yeti seeker or the first woman in space or a rage-filled defensive end on a high school football team? You’re wrong. As far as you’re being a hopelessly flawed human, Shepard’s got your number. He has that rare writer’s talent – to find combinations of words for feelings we can’t normally find combinations of words for. He’s simply a great storyteller.
I really don’t know what else to say except that you should read the book. If you still aren’t convinced, I’ll link to the shortest story in the collection, “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian” which originally appeared online at Fail Better. It takes about five minutes to read. Ten if you read it twice.