Jim Shepard: in the Shadows of the Holocaust
On 'The Book of Aron' and History's Dark Details
I met Jim Shepard in the most un-Shepard-like circumstances, at the opening drinks party for the Sirenland Writers Conference, held annually at the five-star Hotel Le Sirenuse in Positano, Italy.
Shepard is part of the core faculty, taking on ten short-story aspirants during the weeklong workshop. Many of his soon-to-be students shied away from chatting with him, a revered “writer’s writer” (“whatever that means,” says Shepard) whose volume of short stories, You Think That’s Bad, had just been released to excellent reviews.
Since I was in a different workshop, and am accustomed to all kinds of authors, I went straight up to Shepard, introduced myself, and had a long, laughter-filled chat over excellent free-running Prosecco. We had more chats and conversation throughout the week, and I enjoyed seeing Shepard interact with his wife, author Karen Shepard, and their three children around the pool and at Chez Black, the restaurant that is the unofficial Sirenland watering hole. It’s cool getting to know the literati, right? So memorable.
When I emailed Shepard to arrange this interview, mentioning that I hoped he’d enjoyed Positano this year, he responded: “Yes, it was lovely. Have you ever been there, Bethanne?”
So much for my being memorable. I’ll settle for his agreeing to talk with me by telephone from his home in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he and Karen famously share an office with a view of the woods; he’s been teaching at Williams College since 1984. (He also teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA program.)
According to Vulture, Shepard is “the best writer you’ve never heard of,” the author of six novels prior to The Book of Aron, as well as four short-story collections. Since I agree with Vulture, I’d rather Jim Shepard make his work memorable than use his brain cells on recalling a workshop participant at a cocktail party.
Many others have already written extensively about Shepard’s previous work, and I direct you here and here, if you’d like more of a recap, or an introduction. Here I’d prefer to focus on The Book of Aron, both because its his new release, and because, like my colleague Ron Charles at The Washington Post, I believe it’s a masterpiece.
The Book of Aron is the story of a nine-year-old Polish Jew whose limited juvenile perspective allows Shepard to focus less on war and politics and more on humanity and compassion.
But that doesn’t mean the trademark Jim Shepard humor, dry and droll and spot-on, doesn’t appear. Aron can tell us on one page, “It was terrible to be the person I was,” and leave us in tears (all right, that was me, and it was only page three), then turn around and say something hilarious, and utterly right for his situation.
As Aron is relocated from countryside to city, from city to ghetto, ghetto to orphanage, and orphanage to concentration camp, his story intersects with the historical journey of a remarkable man, doctor Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Henry Goldzsmit, who truly was a pediatrician). “Pan Doktor” (Mister Doctor), as he was known, opened his first orphanage in Poland in 1912. When the orphanage was moved inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, he moved with it, and refused to leave or abandon the children. All of them were transported to Treblinka on August 5, 1942.
Bethanne Patrick: You said the character of Aron arrived when, “My boy started complaining to me.” What was it about his voice or tone that grabbed you?
Jim Shepard: Most of my narrators—recently, mostly first-person—confront the problem of hubris, and most of them start out in a complaining or angry or obsessive mode. I grew up around a lot of kvetch-y Italian relatives. I’m comfortable with bitchy. My mother was one of the great bitchers of all time and I’d think: Jesus, you’re bitching about that? What about these people who have no legs? That dichotomy, realizing that kids in the orphanage can complain, but then someone might say to them: Hey, this place saved your life, asshole.
There’s a tension inside this child narrator of mine: He may hate whatever place he lands in, but hey, this place saved your life, asshole. That tension immediately swept away one of the worries I had about writing this book, which was “Oh, god, here’s Jim writing about the Holocaust again.” These characters are complaining about life before the Germans even arrive. It’s a nice bracing corrective to how Holocaust stories often operate.
BP: Why a child narrator?
JS: I decided a child would be better suited to enact my limitations, and to impart that sense of fatalism that was quite common to adults Jews of that era, but also part of any crabby child’s vision: No matter what adult is around, I’m probably going to have a shitty day. Aron overhears adults talking about historical matters, like “Berlin was just bombed,” but his juvenile response is always “I guess things are going to be shitty for all of us.”
I always believe in building up micro to macro. Aron starts by complaining about his status within the family. I think that’s common to most children, including my own. They’re always thinking of their place in the family; it’s the world that has the most power over you. Aron is viewed unfairly, for many reasons, and he’s quite isolated, even by alienated little boy standards. We always construct this tension for ourselves about not dramatizing one person’s suffering over another, but of course we do it all the time, and especially in literature! Think of Lear. Holden Caulfield. It’s how narrative works. We single out a figure who represents some kind of suffering. I love the irony that Aron, of all people, would end up somebody important to people’s minds. The idea that I could elevate somebody like that—that’s one of the things that makes writing worth it, to me.
BP: Why another book about the Holocaust? Did you consider the fact that very few survivors are still alive?
JS: I think I felt humility and heavy responsibility because of the subject. I would also feel that way if I were writing about soldiers at Chancellorsville. I think you have a good point about survivors. The window is closing for memoirs and nonfiction from their perspective.
But while their stories need to be told and I hope that as many of them are as can be, I wanted to figure this out for myself, which is of course why I write fiction. And I wanted to bring the reader along while I did it, which is another reason why I write fiction.
BP: You’re known for your sense of humor, and it can be found in this book, despite its heavy subject. How did you incorporate the two?
JS: Part of the way that you decide a subject is suitable for you is to find—discover?—these kinds of harmonies and resonances with your own sensibility. As I was doing my research, I found jokes that the older people tell, like the elderly survivor who visited Auschwitz recently and said to the guard at the ticket booth: “The last time I was in line here it was free.” My humor seemed to fit very well with with that response: As horrible as it all was, it was never not absurd.
BP: How do you tell a story that’s been told before, so often?
JS: That’s a really good question, because although it’s a problem that everyone in literature faces, literature of the Holocaust has become a kind of genre. Part of the way you come to that is to defamiliarize the story in some way. You reassure yourself that it’s possible, you say to yourself that you need to keep in mind the impatience you have while reading through a million documents is the same impatience the reader has. You don’t stop reading, but you start tuning out certain things and becoming alert to others. You reach the point where you find something new and unfamiliar that makes the rest of it fall away, and suddenly you know that you can tell your story, that you can contribute something. And making something new to the reader doesn’t mean you don’t have respect for the suffering. If anything, if you’re doing it right, it means you are able to break through the numbness that surrounds any human who watches the news today.
BP: One of the things you highlight for the reader in The Book of Aron is how much of life in Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto was reduced to the transactional.
JS: It has to come from the research, and it did. If it were “that’s just my view of people,” it would ring false. Everybody chooses which details to include. And, of course, I also found stories of compassion. If I’d chosen to base my book on those, it might have swung over to “what a heartwarming place the ghetto was!” In most situations, there’s a balance of compassion and commerce. But not for Aron.
BP: What is it about Poland, with you?
JS: You know, there’s this wonderful tension inside Polish history, a country that is everybody’s parking lot! Imagine some of these councils: “You take part of Poland…” With Poland being a fiercely Catholic state on top of that, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jews, and that means there was a pretty virulent anti-Semitism in Poland going on even longer than it was in Germany. With Poles as perpetrators and Poles as victims? That’s wonderful for a writer’s purpose. If you go to your neighbors for help, are they going to turn you in—or not? It created interesting tensions and grotesque situations, and it made Jews feel doubly isolated. Here’s the thing: It wasn’t very hard to get out of the Warsaw Ghetto. But why would you? It wasn’t the Germans you had to worry about, it was your former boss, or teacher, or butcher. That makes for a much more interesting and complicated portrait. It’s also why German suggestions about “the Jewish problem” didn’t seem as terrible to the Poles as they might have to a different nationality.
BP: Yet you have a few symbols—I’m thinking of Aron’s mother insisting on her prettiest nightgown when she’s ill, because his father might come home—that suggest an impulse towards hope.
JS: When people say what a horribly bleak story, why would you want to do this, I say: I resist the idea that it’s unbelievably bleak. I find that extreme pressure can result in extreme compassion, and the kind of hope that keeps us alive.
BP: Speaking of keeping us alive: History is a survivor’s tale. Discuss.
JS: To be a survivor you have to have some kind of resourcefulness. Sometimes you have to be in league with perpetrators, depending on what kind of resources you have. Again and again in my reading and research I saw astonishing emotional resourcefulness surface, all sorts, some of which might seem quite startling to those of us who have not experienced that kind of pressure.
Saints and great men: When you’re not just creating hagiography, you try to get at the human side of these figures. One of the aspects of being truly messianic and driven on behalf of someone else is that you get the message over and over again that your desires are unimportant. And the saintly one will say to his deputy, if my desires are unimportant, so are yours.
BP: Your research, as you’ve mentioned, was extensive. Was there something that stunned you?
JS: I came well short of being a Holocaust scholar, and I’m happy that I’m not a Holocaust scholar, I think those are always very unhappy people on two different levels: Both the astonishing amount of horrific detail, and the worry that you’ll sanitize or sensationalize.
An example of the first level is that we tend to forget about the daily torments people endured, like constant fleas and lice. An example of the second is that you’re not sure what you have the right to inflict on anyone else. Can you go all the way to Treblinka? I could not. But I decided I could go, or thought I could go, to the ghetto.
So, the thing that stunned me: When I was in Poland, at Belzec, I saw a memorial to an SS officer who was so revolted and horrified at what he saw that he wrote a letter to a Swedish envoy saying, “Here’s what’s going on, you need to know about this.” His letter was essentially an account of what it was like to look through the window of a gas chamber in the moments when the women and children and babies inside realized they were not going to have showers, that they were going to be gassed to death. I didn’t feel I had the right to inflict that on the reader.
BP: You didn’t “feel” you had the right. Let’s talk about that. Our mutual friend and colleague Dani Shapiro refers to the “shimmer” when you know you’re on the right track. This is something different.
JS: Yes, it’s the “dark shimmer.” You have a contract with the reader, and depending on which book you have in your head, you have to consider at which point you might be tipping over into a kind of pornography. You’re going by feel, there’s no rule about this. At what point might the reader finally feel that this is too much of an assault? For example, The Painted Bird is a close to a kind of casual brutality and a casual aggression as I can think of.
And you know that terrible things happened. But that absolutely awful stuff inside the gas chamber had a level of intimacy inside the anguish that I was not comfortable with claiming would make my book even stronger. It’s the kind of decision that feels really intuitive. That said, if you are going to write about this subject at all, you have to be consistent, and you can’t shy away from things that are crucial to what you want to get across.
BP: Your last line—before the Historical Note—is Korczak telling Aron the final piece of his institution’s philosophy: “And the child has the right to make mistakes.”
JS: Korczak’s whole life is about understanding human weakness and making space for it. That kind of generosity of spirit is what we, or at least I, imagine as a kind of ethical greatness. Everybody has the right to make mistakes, everybody has the right to be forgiven. There’s something hubristic about imagining that you’re so awful that you can’t be forgiven. It’s a way of aggrandizing yourself: “I’ve been so iniquitous that I can’t be redeemed.”
It’s really important that Korczak say that to Aron, right at that moment. They need that strength before they confront what’s ahead.