Jim Shepard's novel Project X is laceratingly real in its depiction of Columbine-esque teenage alienation, so vivid and tender and pitch-perfect that one can't help but see the world differently upon its conclusion.
That's a common occurrence when reading Shepard, who's crafted five previous novels and two short story collections. He's taught both film and English at Williams College for more than two decades. He's also written a series of incisive, head-scratchingly imaginative essays for The Believer, many of which meld his interest in film with our current political environment (such as comparing Donald Rumsfeld to a GoodFellas mobster.)
Shepard recently answered some questions for CityBeat.
CityBeat: You often employ young, alienated protagonists. What is it about these types of characters that interests you?
Jim Shepard: I'm interested in that middle ground that adolescents occupy: On the one hand, they're perceptive enough to have figured a lot out; on the other hand, they're emotionally all over the place and still muddled about a lot of things. They occupy that same kind of middle ground, as well, when it comes to their responsibilities to their loved ones and themselves. They're both held accountable — as in, "He's old enough to know better" — and not held accountable — as in, "He's just a kid."
I also think that adolescents feel simultaneously like insiders and outsiders when it comes to the world. Especially the adult world. And most artists do, too. At least I do.
CB: Your characters have a distinctive voice. Is that the result of extensive research or is it more instinctual?
JS: It's not the result of any research, unless research is defined as keeping your ears open. I suppose it could be defined that way. I come from a big Italian family, and one of the ways in which you told stories when everyone was together was to do voices: As in, "So Auntie Ida says..." and then you do Auntie Ida's voice. And your listeners are delighted by how well you can render it, if you're the one telling the story the right way. So you learn to pay attention to what characterizes a voice.
CB: In reading Project X, I was struck by the pervasive disconnection between people — even by those who interact on a regular basis.
JS: Well, disconnection — particularly between family members — has to be a huge part of any story of radically alienated young people. What I find moving and interesting is disconnection between people who genuinely care about one another and who would genuinely like to, every so often, communicate.
CB: You're a uniquely versatile writer, moving from various genres of fiction to non-fiction with equal skill. To what do you attribute this fact? Did you read a lot as a kid? Do you still?
JS: I did read a lot as a kid, and nearly all non-fiction. My parents encouraged reading but hadn't gone to college themselves and associated non-fiction with learning. So that's what they bought me. I still read a huge amount of non-fiction. And poetry. Fiction, too, of course, but less than non-fiction.
CB: What role do novelists play today? Can they still have an impact on the way cultures think about things?
JS: I think they can have a huge impact, and should. They certainly think hard, the best of them, about the most important topics. In most cultures, they do have enormous impact. In America they have, of course, very little.
CB: I just reread your Believer piece linking Nosferatu with the Bush administration. How has your interest in film affected your writing?
JS: It has helped me to think visually, which is a virtue that has informed my fiction at times, I think. Film is kinetic and visceral and makes a lot of use of eloquent action. My fiction does that — or tries to do that — a lot, as well. That has to have come in part from having seen 9 zillion movies while growing up.
CB: Have you ever thought about scripting a movie or becoming a filmmaker yourself?
JS: I have. Are you offering to produce?
JIM SHEPARD appears at UC's Engineer Research Center (Room 427) at 7 p.m. Tuesday. For more information, call 513-556-0924.