Staff Chat: Jim Shepard's THE BOOK OF ARON

Article by ben

The Chatters: Guest star Mark Dostert (author of UP IN HERE) and Benjamin Rybeck (Marketing Director)
The Book: Jim Shepard’s THE BOOK OF ARON
The Context: Everyone ever calls Shepard a “writer’s writer,” a term with some built-in obscurity; will THE BOOK OF ARON finally be his breakthrough?
The Plot: A crafty young boy uses his wits to survive the Holocaust

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Ben: I guess the cliché is, he was a writer’s writer for years—that’s the term that gets thrown around all the time: “writer’s writer.” Is that true of him? What does that even mean?

Mark: I guess it’s a writer who may not have huge sales but who other writers really appreciate. Their work is used in classes and MFA programs, reviews are positive, they’ve won awards, but for whatever reason, there hasn’t been that big breakout book that everyone has heard of.

Ben: What do you think has prevented Shepard from having that breakout? It seemed like it could’ve been PROJECT X or LIKE YOU’D UNDERSTAND, ANYWAY…

Mark: A National Book Award finalist…

Ben: Right. And so was Joshua Ferris that year, and he was vocal in his love for Jim Shepard, I remember.

Mark: I first heard Shepard read and speak in July of 2006 at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop in Portland, and I was spellbound listening to him, both in his reading and his craft talk. Like he writes in his essay “Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact,” his method is to let the world teach him. He follows his own obsessions, and those may not be the larger world’s obsessions for whatever reason.

Ben: His obsessions aren’t always popular ones, no. And there’s also increasingly—in the world of literature, and of literary novels especially—there’s an emphasis on autobiography and the way that plays into the work. Writers who work with autobiography seem to break out more easily—maybe because there’s more to talk about in reviews and articles. People know Michael Chabon’s history and his heritage, and so him writing KAVALIER AND CLAY seems like him writing about himself in a way. Jim Shepard doesn’t have that, does he? He’s mild-mannered…

Mark: A guy from Connecticut…

Ben: Yup. Who doesn’t seem to be working through his life in his fiction. So I think, for a lot of people—and I’m talking media people, the people who boost these things, not other writers—it’s not as sexy to talk about. He’s in a funny position where he seems always on the cusp of breakthrough because writers love him, but then what do you talk about when you talk about Jim Shepard?

Mark: He has a negative ego. He’s writing about everyone other than himself. He’s not after working out his own history, working out his own demons, his own therapy. I think our culture today is so obsessed with the real and the confessional. As I heard someone at Tin House say, you write a memoir and people say, “You made it all up,” but you write a novel and people say, “It’s all true. It’s all about you.” Shepard seems to be the opposite of that because he takes the facts of history and pursues his own interests and finds something there for all of us.

Ben: Yes. We want fiction to become more like “real life” these days—David Shields, REALITY HUNGER, that whole thing—but it’s funny, because Shepard’s fiction is arguably “realer” than anyone else’s. But his is closer to History with a capital H, whereas people want their fiction to be closer to memoir. Do you see the connective tissue in his work, though? Are there stylistic similarities? Things that mark all these stories as coming from the same voice? Or is he really just a shape-shifter?

Mark: I think he is a shape-shifter. What he’s writing determines the form. He doesn’t seem to be obsessed with having his own brand. Each of his stories is so distinct, and I just stand in awe of what he does and the way he does it. I remember in summer of 2006, hearing him read, in manuscript form, “Sans Farine,” about one of the people in charge of the guillotine in France, and I was hypnotized by how compassionately he inhabited the point of view of this executioner, yet in such a fascinating way that it made you interested in a very harsh period of history

Ben: And also in an esoteric way, right? Because who would think to write a story from the point of view of the executioner? That’s an odd way into somewhat familiar history, which seems to me what’s going on in THE BOOK OF ARON too.

Mark: We all know how the Holocaust ends, yet he’s flipping everything on its head and using all these distinct, subtle details that Aron sees and experiences to pull the reader in and to create this world. The words that came to me as I began to read were “slow burn.” Shepard has the patience of a historian, yet the empathy and sensitivities of a great writer, to show us exactly what we need to see and keep the pages turning.

Ben: It’s a slow burn for the characters too, because this book seems completely blind to history, and that’s because of the narrow first person point of view. THE BOOK OF ARON starts out just seeming like a series of shitty days the narrator and his family are having. You see the way that the family processes everything is, at first, so micro. They get in fights…

Mark: There’s a shortage of this or that…

Ben: And of course, we the readers fill in the history, but as we experience the book, we experience what it must’ve been like to be there in the moment.

Mark: To me, that shows he’s writing for Aron. He’s not writing for people in 2015 interested in World War II. And that claustrophobic, blind-to-what’s-going-on, slow erosion of innocence that happens: he’s wanting to put people like Aron and his family at center stage. They’re the real story.

Ben: I had a creative writing student once who turned in a story set during World War I, with a first person narrator that kept referring to it as “World War I.”

Mark: Yes, that’s definitely the ultimate example of writing for the reader…

Ben: So what drew you into the world of Aron as a narrator?

Mark: For me, in the beginning, it’s his innocence, his curiosity, and just the fact that…well, it seems very subversive. He’s not perfect. Shepard isn’t saying, “Here’s a child who’s Jewish in Warsaw in 1944. You should automatically have tons and tons of sympathy.” He’s just laying it out, not trying to manipulate it. On the very opening page, Aron is letting the neighbors’ animals lose from their pens.

Ben: Yeah, he’s just kind of a shitty kid, right? It the way that all kids can be kind of shitty kids. You don’t see him carrying the weight of all children on his back, like he has to represent tragedy. He’s just a kid.

Mark: And that’s what makes it feel so real. And that’s a real strength of this work. There are all these real people, people who you imagine really existed. That realness gives you the compassion and interest and sympathy to keep reading.

Ben: He creates Aron’s voice in a really interesting way, too. It always seems to be moving along to the next thing. There’s not a ton of time for rumination. It’s a tiny book, really. It always seems to be spring-boarding to the next thing, propelled forward in this way. It’s written in past tense, so you feel like it’s a retrospective narrator, looking back on his life. But then, for example, on page fifteen, Shepard writes, “The show was called The Old Doctor and I liked it because even though he complained about how alone he was, he always wanted to know more about other people, especially kids. I also liked that I never knew what to expect.” That’s a kid telling you something, right? So the voice seems balanced in a really interesting way: it’s half retrospective, but then sometimes the kid just wants to tell you about the show he likes.

Mark: To me, the slow burn comes to a head here: “Lutek said to them, ‘Are you really going to kill me over some turnips?’ and the German who’d pushed him shot him. His head hit the wall so hard that his rabbit-skin cap landed on the dirt in front of him. Because of his wooden shoes each food skidded out from under him in a different direction.” It’s matter of fact. There’s no melodrama—just, here’s what happens, that’s what it was.

Ben: Yeah, and he focuses on the cap and the shoes, not on the gunshot.

Mark: Everything around the event…

Ben: Yeah, and then the next sentence reads, “The other German was so upset by the noise I made that he knocked me to the ground.” Shepard doesn’t describe the noise. The language keeps dragging you along. You learn about the noise after the thing that happens after the noise has already happened. This book has such restraint. And in imbedding you in the point of view so wholly, THE BOOK OF ARON is an act empathy.

Mark: And that’s exactly what Shepard writes in “Generating Fiction…”: “The whole project of literature is about the exercise of the empathetic imagination.” To me, that so encapsulates his enterprise. Book after book, that’s what he’s after.

The Book of Aron Cover Image
$23.95
ISBN: 9781101874318
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - May 12th, 2015

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