Kicking it with Jim Shepard

I met Jim Shepard yesterday. My department sponsored a three-part reading series with him over the course of two days. First he gave a craft conversation on teenage narrators. Second, yesterday he read an excerpt from "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay" from Like You'd Understand Anyway before reading a new piece of flash fiction. Third, he lead our workshop last night. Beyond that, before his reading, I spent some time with him in the hallway just cracking jokes + fucking around.

Here are some things I learned about him:

1. No one knows how to make Aimee Bender blush more violently or more quickly than Jim Shepard. It's like a skill he has--making Aimee Bender embarrassed. I've tried it, but it's really hard. But this dude is a natural. He was joking about how he was going to tell us about her dirty sexual past + the next thing I know, her face is the same color as her V-neck (a bright, Hester Prynne burgundy). Later on:

--I've never seen you blush like that before, I said.
--Yeah, it just happens, she said.
--Wow. Crazy.
--This one time, I was being a little aggressive with one of my students + then I started blushing.
--It's like preemptive blushing.

2. Jim Shepard is really fucking funny. After my friend Lisa made a comment in class about how she wished Michael's story about alcoholic, illiterate cartoon characters didn't feel so cartoonish, Jim Shepard countered with:

--That's like having a character made of carrots who says I'm Carrot Man, and then someone says: well, I like this character but I just wish he wasn't made of carrots.

It's a strange thing to say, but in context it kinda makes sense. Only Jim Shepard would make up an example of a vegetable character announcing his name like that. Like You'd Understand Anyway is full of characters that introduce themselves to the readers in the beginning through self-intros: I'm Sparticus Andromicus, or the example I gave Jim in the hallway when I suggested he show up to his readings dressed like a trojan with a shiny sword in his hand: I'm Jimicus Shepardicus. His response: well, anything with a breastplate, really . . .

3. Jim Shepard is better at shutting up the grab-the-mic people in my workshop than Aimee is because he's unattached to his students, probably less sensitive + doesn't have to live with the consequences of his workshop conduct. He also had a strange way of treating the manuscripts in workshop like they were published stories, something they clearly weren't. This was a cool approach insofar as we were forced to find our own entryways into the story + discuss the real issues at stake--something we only tend to do once we're convinced a story is important enough. This was a wack approach insofar as it became way too difficult to actually critique the two stories, something they both needed. I'm not sure if this is because he's used to working with undergrads that are often more polite + happier at getting faint praise than grad students are, or if this is just how he rolls. But it was fascinating seeing his approach to workshop, though too constraining for my tastes

4. What I relate with most in Shepard's characters is the way his stories celebrate the brutal gap between what they want to do + what they end up doing. When I asked in the Q + A if this was a deliberate motif of his stories, he said it was, which relates to my final observation:

5. One of the coolest things JS said all night was this:

It's okay for a character not to know everything. Actually, it's almost important that he not. But a story has to be smarter than the narrator + smarter than its characters. Otherwise, the author doesn't own his defects + we don't connect to the characters because we don't see their flaws. We see the writer's flaws, which is always a problem even if unavoidable