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'You Think That's Bad': Fiction Of The Unfamiliar

Jim Shepard writes what he knows, but he also likes to write what he doesn't know. "I think literature is, in some ways, about the exercise of the empathetic imagination," Shepard says. "I'm always interested in stretching that capacity." You Think That's Bad is his latest collection of short stories.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on June 20, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 20, 2011: Interview with Jim Shepard; Review of Ann Patchett's novel "State of wonder;" Review of two films "The Mikado" and "Topsy-Turvy."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'You Think That's Bad': Fiction Of The Unfamiliar


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Jim Shepard is a writer with a gift for getting into the heads of people
very unlike himself. He wrote a novel, "Project X," about a Columbine-
like school shooting from the perspective of one of the kids involved.
His story "Love and Hydrogen" is about a clandestine gay romance between
two crew members of the Hindenburg.

Shepard has a new collection of short stories called "You Think That's
Bad," and its subjects and characters are typically diverse. There's a
black operations specialist from the military, a British woman who goes
exploring in Iran in the 1930s, a 15th-century French nobleman who
happens to be a serial killer and the Japanese filmmaker who served as
special effects coordinator on the film "Godzilla."

Jim Shepard teaches creative writing and film at Williams College. He's
written six novels. "You Think That's Bad" is his fourth short-story
collection. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

Well, I - we're going to have to wait for that interview momentarily.
We're just having a technical problem. So I'll tell you that tomorrow on
our show, we're going to hear from Jess Goodell, who was in Iraq in
2004, and she served in the Mortuary Affairs Unit. So her job was to
process the remains of the dead and identify bodies. It was a very, very
difficult job, and the after-effects of it stayed with her when she
returned home. So that's what we'll be talking about tomorrow.

So now we'll get into our interview with Dave Davies and fiction writer
Jim Shepard.


Well, Jim Shepard, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, the most common
advice we hear given to aspiring writers is write what you know, draw on
your own experience for detail and insight. This collection of yours has
a huge range.

It's the story about a black ops specialist from the military, a British
woman exploring the Middle East in the 1930s, a Japanese filmmaker in
the '50s, a French nobleman. Why do you embrace such diverse subjects?

Mr. JIM SHEPARD (Author): I think we're not only hoping to write what we
know as literary fiction writers. I think we're also hoping to write
what we can imagine, as well. I think literature is, in some ways, about
the exercise of the empathetic imagination, and I'm always interested in
stretching that capacity.

I'm also always interested in engaging the world and trying to enlarge
my own sense of experience, and so I'm not only looking to reflect my
own inner turmoil, which I'm certainly doing, but I'm also looking to
teach myself about the world and teach the reader as I do it.

DAVIES: So when you're writing in the voice of a British woman in the
1930s or a Japanese filmmaker, how do you know you're getting it right?

Mr. SHEPARD: Boy, that's a good question. A lot of the time, you fret
that you're not. But what'll happen is I will immerse myself in a lot of
primary documents, until I feel as though I'm starting to get the
rhythms and the cadences of that kind of voice down.

Having satisfied myself at some laborious point in the future that I'm
doing as well as I think I can do it, I will then often run it by people
who know the world better than I do and say: Does any of this sound
howlingly(ph) bad or off? Or something like that, as well.

DAVIES: So let's look at an example of what you do here. The story "The
Netherlands Lives with Water" is a sobering vision of climate change,
and it's set in, like, 2030, where water's rising everywhere. And you
look at a family in the Netherlands.

The husband, I guess, is like a civil engineer, right, who manages
sophisticated water containment systems, and then he has a wife and a
son. And why don't you give us a reading here? This is a moment, kind of
a climactic moment, where things are getting bad. Maybe just explain -
set this up, if you will. Explain, you know, who the names are and
what's exactly happening here.

Mr. SHEPARD: Okay. The man is presiding over, late in the story, the
sort of juxtaposition of a massive storm and massive outflows from the
Rhine that are flooding Rotterdam exactly as he feared they would. And
he has discovered that his wife, Cato, has taken their son to Berlin in
order to keep him safe, but also, in a way, to separate from him
emotionally. So he's having a sort of double catastrophe come down on
him at once. And this is, again, fairly late in the story.

(Reading) The window's immense pane shudders and flexes before me from
the force of what's pouring out of the North Sea. Water is beginning to
run its fingers under the seal on the sash. Cato will send me wry and
brisk and newsy text updates whether she receives answers or not, and
Henk will author a few, as well.

Everyone in Berlin will track the developments on the monitors above
them while they shop or travel or work, the teaser heading reading
something like: The Netherlands under siege. Some of the more sober will
think: That could have been us. Some of the more perceptive will
consider that it soon might well be.

My finger's on the Cato icon on the screen without exerting the
additional pressure that would initiate another call. What sort of
person ends up with someone like me? What sort of person finds that
acceptable year to year? We went on vacations and fielded each other's
calls and took turns reading Henk to sleep and let slip away the miracle
that was there before us when we first came together.

We hunkered down before the wind picked up. We modeled risk management
for our son, when instead, we could have embraced the freefall of that
astonishing here, this is yours to hold. We told each other I think I
know, when we should have said lead me farther through your amazing,
astonishing interior.

DAVIES: And that's my guest, Jim Shepard, reading from the story "The
Netherlands Lives with Water." That's from his new collection "You Think
That's Bad."

You know, I love that passage, because it gives us the kind of drama of
these huge, world-changing events, and also the interior lives of the
characters that you're describing. Let's talk about this story. Where
did the idea come from?

Mr. SHEPARD: McSweeney's magazine contacted a number of writers, myself
included, and said we're doing a special issue on cities 25 to 50 years
in the future. Would you be interested in doing that? And I said no. Why
on Earth would I be interested in doing that? And they wrote back and
said because we'll send you to whatever city you choose. And I said I'm

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPARD: And I said - I immediately began researching cities in
Tahiti and discovered that there was nothing I could imagine writing
about Tahiti. I knew that I was interested in the challenges that are
facing the cities from climate change, but I also registered - having
thought about it for more than just a few minutes - that the poor
Tahitians are in an utterly passive position of victimization. They're
just waiting for the water to rise.

A friend of mine, Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes for the New Yorker, had
written some wonderful stuff about the Dutch water defenses, and I was
quite moved as I began the research that that - by how proactive and
energetic they were. They're sort of doing all the right things in order
to prepare for what's coming, as they have throughout their history, and
I was quite moved by the fact - or by the likelihood that all of those
right things are not going to work, anyway.

So that tension between feeling like you're doing everything you can on
the one hand and feeling on the other hand like you're refusing to face
what's coming down the road at you seemed to me quite powerful, and it
also seemed to me the sort of thing that I could embody in the man's
personal life, as well.

DAVIES: Right. When you look at the acknowledgements to this book, you
see a lot of heavy reading, including, like, some Dutch water
containment studies and plans.

Mr. SHEPARD: Right. You have to be, I think, to write this kind of stuff
- and you probably have already noticed that a lot of people are
emotionally healthy enough to not write this kind of stuff. You have to
be the kind of hopeless nerd who, when somebody says to you: Guess what?
We found, you know, the plans for Dutch water management for the next 25
years, your heart leaps up in anticipation rather than sinks.

And my wife has said about me that I'm the sort of - I'm the sort of
person who would take a history of the guillotine to the beach. So I am,
in fact, the kind of person who finds himself reading about this kind of
stuff for pleasure, anyway.

DAVIES: Right. So describe, if you will, some of the new techniques that
the Dutch have developed in your story for managing the rising water.

Mr. SHEPARD: Well, none of the techniques that I write about I've
invented. They do - they've already started any number of sort of
wonderful innovations that they're trying to extend in terms of scope,
things like amphibious neighborhoods composed entirely of houses that
can float free of their foundations up to 30 feet, and all of the
supporting cables and all of the electronics and all of the water will -
are essentially coiled cables that will rise with the house when the
house rises.

DAVIES: There's a theme in this story, and in a number of them in this
book, of sort of impending catastrophe. Are you pessimistic about the
future of human civilization?

Mr. SHEPARD: I think that there's a combination of factors coming down
the pike at us that are very unfortunate, very unhappy. One is the
planetary changes that are occurring, but the other in concert with that
is a decreasing political will on the part of a lot of the Western
powers to face what's coming, to even acknowledge what's coming. And
it's also quite possible we're already past the tipping point, as a lot
of scientists believe.

But it does feel as though - one of the reasons that I'm pessimistic is
it does feel as though, given the political situation, we're not even
going to work very effectively to mitigate the problems that are coming
towards us.

DAVIES: So you've written a book called "You Think That's Bad."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah, that's - I mean, it sounds like a sort of a snotty
title, but it does seem to embody, in some ways, a lot of the
characters' world views, which is, yeah, this is terrible, but wait
until you see what's coming.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Jim Shepard. His new book of short stories
is called "You Think That's Bad."

We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is author Jim Shepard. He
has a new collection of short stories called "You Think That's Bad."

Let's talk about another one of the stories that I really found
fascinating, and this is called "Gojira, King of the Monsters." It's
about the making of the film which we know as "Godzilla."

It's - the central character of this is - I guess he's the art director
for the film, right?

Mr. SHEPARD: Well, kind of the special effects director, as well as the
art director.

DAVIES: Okay. And he's a real person, right? Eiji Tsuburaya. Do I have
that right?

Mr. SHEPARD: Tsuburaya. Yeah.

DAVIES: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Why focus on him?

Mr. SHEPARD: I was really fascinated by the way in which Tsuburaya
created a miniature little re-creation of the city he knew so well,
Tokyo, and then only to destroy it. Those of us who know those rubber-
suited epics like "Gojira" - called "Godzilla" in America - remember
with some pleasure the sort of campy intricacy of, you know, a man in a
rubber suit sort of stomping around on this perfectly recreated little
version of Tokyo.

But what really struck me when I was researching Tsuburaya's life was
discovering that he had lived through the fire raids on Tokyo at the end
of World War II. And so the idea that he would re-create that or re-
create a version of that and also, in some obvious ways, embody Japan's
recent nuclear nightmare in this figure for entertainment was just
fascinating to me about both the ways in which he was accessing his
emotions and refusing to access his emotions.

Mr. SHEPARD: Now, the story takes us - goes back and forth between
Tsuburaya's personal life, his family life - he has a wife and two sons
and a daughter who died earlier - and then filming the movie. And one of
the fascinating little pieces of this is creating the monster itself. He
decides to make a smaller-scale city and then something that a guy can
wear in a suit and knock them down.

And there's just a couple of lovely descriptions here. Maybe read this
passage where they're describing how they make the suit and then maybe
this - a section where they describe the experience of a stunt man
wearing it.

Mr. SHEPARD: Okay.

(Reading) The first version was framed in cloth-covered wire, over which
rubber that had melted in a steel drum was applied in layers. The result
was immobile and weighed 355 pounds.

In a next attempt, the cloth itself was painted with the base coat, so
only two layers of rubber was necessary, but the result was still a
staggeringly heavy 220 pounds. But after a month of further futility,
they had to concede that rubber applied any less thickly would crack at
the joints. So the second version would have to do.

DAVIES: So they ended up deciding they would have a stunt man put on a
220-pound costume.

Mr. SHEPARD: Right.

DAVIES: And then go to this next passage, where we have a couple of the
stunt men knocking down buildings while they're in this thing.

Mr. SHEPARD: All right.

(Reading) It turned out that before they'd even gotten through half a
day, another stunt man, Tezuka, was needed to spell Nakajima, so
exhausting was the part. The suit was stifling in the August heat, even
without the studio lights, but with them, it was a roasting pan.

Added to that were the fumes from the burning kerosene rags intended to
simulate Tokyo's fires. Under the searing lights, Nakajima was barely
able to breathe or see and could only spend a maximum of 15 minutes in
the suit before being too overcome to continue.

Each time he stepped out of it, the supporting technicians drained the
legs, as if pouring water out of a boot. One measured a cup and a half
of sweat from each leg.

DAVIES: Wow, that's hard work, knocking down the city.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPARD: It is, isn't it?

DAVIES: Where did you get these details?

Mr. SHEPARD: There are a number of books about the making of the
Godzilla movies, and some of the details come from various books. I
think they're all listed in that staggering list of sources that you
mentioned in the back of the collection.

DAVIES: Did you talk to anyone from Tsuburaya's family?

Mr. SHEPARD: No, I didn't. The rough outlines of Tsuburaya's family are
all as accurate as I could make them. The interior life, of course, is
largely invented on my part, and, you know, it's a strange thing to do
to write about people who are real people.

My father liked to call the stories of that sort the libel cycle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: But so far, no legal problems?

Mr. SHEPARD: So far no legal problems, partially because I try to be as
true to the subjects as I can possibly be and also probably because
short fiction has so little cultural impact that nobody notices, anyway.

DAVIES: Now, this story is fascinating because it's not just about this
film and it's not just about World War II. In some ways, it's about
20th-century Japan. And there's this other fascinating piece of the
story, which was that Tsuburaya's father was in Tokyo in 1923, when this
earthquake struck, setting off all these horrific fires. It's really a
remarkable story. Do you want to just tell us what happened?

Mr. SHEPARD: It is the greatest firestorm in recorded history, and it's
- you know, I think it was something like 10 times the acreage of the
Great Fire of London, and over 100,000 people had perished, which is
about 100 times the number who died in the San Francisco fire.

And there were just these absolutely staggering phenomena that haven't
been recorded anywhere since, like fire tornados. Apparently, the sheer
size of the fire created a furnace of sort of unprecedented scale, so
that if you have a fire 4,000 acres wide, you have an updraft that's so
massive that it literally generates tornados as it pulls the fire up
into it.

And so, you know, as a fiction writer, you're just - you find - at least
I find irresistible the notion that you can describe something that
literally you've never seen described anywhere else. And so that part of
exercising the imagination is just a blast.

I mean, you know, as - essentially, what I'm trying to do is take
advantage of the fact that I have the inner life of a 10-year-old and to
put that to work on a more serious emotional agenda.

DAVIES: So you had this filmmaker whose father may have been fatally
burned in this fire. He endures the fire bombings in World War II, and
then he makes this film. How does it all - how does it all come together
for him?

Mr. SHEPARD: You know, what I was saying before is part of what I find
so moving about Tsuburaya's position, and that is there's a way in which
you're not facing that kind of trauma at all if you make a movie like
"Gojira." There's a way in which you're facing it head-on.

And the complexity of I'm sublimating all of that trauma into this kind
of very, very absorbed piecework that's going to recreate the
destruction of Tokyo on the one hand, and I'm getting at it in a kind of
horrific way in another just absolutely fascinated me.

I think it's, in some ways, what I do as a fiction writer. You know, I
get at various kinds of traumas by recreating in pretend ways. And the
sheer logistical and technological achievement of a movie like that also
both interested me and moved me, as well.

DAVIES: Now, we think of "Godzilla" as, you know, a campy science
fiction movie. How was the film viewed when it debuted in Japan, which
is in the 1950s, right?

Mr. SHEPARD: Right. We need - you need to remember that no one had ever
seen special effects like that before. Tsuburaya sort of pioneered this
kind of rubber suit thing. So the campy quality of it was quite a bit
diminished by that.

Also, an audience, a Japanese audience, is watching this eight or nine
years after the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fire raids. So
it has quite a different valence.

And finally, the version that was released in America, which added
Raymond Burr so that, memorably, as one of the American producers put
it, that Americans would have somebody to worry about, also spent a lot
of time - the American version excised a lot of scenes that were focused
on traumatized Japanese, you know, civilians being crushed by various
things Gojira was doing.

So the American version that most of us know is, in fact, a little less
terrorizing because, in fact, it sanitized what the monster is up to.
But in the - as I record in the story, in the Japanese version, there
are any number of scenes of women and children being crushed by debris
or burned or whatever. And in between the monsters' depredations,
characters talked openly about the fact that this is very much like the
nuclear attack on Japan.

DAVIES: And so when Japanese citizens, with these memories so fresh, saw
this film, how did they react?

Mr. SHEPARD: "Gojira" was one of the biggest hits of the year. It was as
bit a hit nationally in Japan and internationally as Kurosawa's "Seven
Samurai" was, and I think it was considered both traumatizing for an
older generation and quite exciting and exhilaratingly sort of
adventurous for the younger generation.

So I think it appealed to a wide range of Japanese audiences. But the
appeal that it had for the older ones was certainly a much different
appeal. I mean, I think older audiences, the evidence seems to suggest
that older audiences were quite a bit more sober about the film.

GROSS: Jim Shepard will be back with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies
in the second half of the show. Shepard's book is "You Think That's

I'm Terry Gross. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies
recorded with fiction writer Jim Shepard. His latest book is a
collection of short stories called "You Think That's Bad." Shepard often
draws on real contemporary and historical events, and his fiction often
requires considerable research.

DAVIES: Some years ago, you wrote a novel called "Project X," which is
about a Columbine-type school shooting. And you told it from the
perspective of one of the attackers. Explain what led you to adopt that
perspective and how you found the voice?

Mr. SHEPARD: I had been upset by the media coverage, or a lot of the
media coverage of Columbine in terms of the way it – the great search
seemed to be for what elements in the culture had led these boys to do
what they did. You know, was it they had watched too much Marilyn
Manson, and had they - or listened too much of Marilyn Manson, or had
they watched too many horrible video games or whatever. And I remember
very vividly what it felt like to be that isolated and that filled with
rage as a middle-schooler.

I went to a sort of a dreadful middle school, and remembered, too, a
moment when a boy in our class brought up a problem at lunch to a table
of about eight other boys, and his problem was he was considering
bringing in his father's hunting rifle and shooting an athlete who had
been tormenting him. And we had a serious discussion about whether or
not he should do that. And I'm happy to report that the vote was eight
to nothing against his doing it.

But one of the main arguments that swayed the group was somebody said to
the boy well, you know, you have a hunting rifle. You're only going to
kill that one guy, and then they're all going to wrestle you to the
ground and beat you to death, anyway. So that - it's not worth it.

If the boy had been able to say, actually, you know, I have a submachine
gun, that might have swayed the other people on the jury, because that
spectacle of - or that fantasy of holding the entire world at bay and
being the center of everyone's attention in this kind of apocalyptic
flourish has enormous appeal for a certain kind of miserable adolescent
boy that I remember knowing and I remember being. And it seemed to me
like easy to access - to re-access that kind of misery and to write
about it from the inside.

DAVIES: Do you know whatever became of the kid who considered shooting
his tormentor?

Mr. SHEPARD: I think he came to what my parents would call a bad end.
But he didn't commit murder, but I think they did end up in jail for

DAVIES: Well, you seemed to have worked out all right. You...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You were filled with – you were isolated and filled with rage as
a middle schooler?

Mr. SHEPARD: I was. But I think that may not be that unusual a situation
for adolescent boys in middle school. In fact, one of the real
poignancies that I've encountered over the years is the sense you have
that if you catch an adolescent at the wrong moment, you know, he's
capable of doing a lot of disastrously self-destructive or destructive
things. But if he can get past that, he may be fine, essentially, and
that that sense of the contingency of that age and the sense of the way
in which, at that age, you take everything as, you know, absolutely
apocalyptically. Again, there's this quality of everything is the end of
the world.

And when an adult tries to say something like, you know, on Thursday,
you probably won't feel this way, rather than giving you a sense of
perspective, what I think that does is make clear to you that the adult
has no idea how you're feeling, because you can't imagine feeling better
on Thursday, even though you probably will feel better on Thursday.

DAVIES: What do you think would have helped you or that kid back in
middle school?

Mr. SHEPARD: Well, you know, a lot of people have asked me over the
years or have said to me, well, would you let your own children read
"Project X?" Because, you know, it's about such misery and alienation.
And I, you know, I want to say sort of facetiously, no. I write things
that are bad for people, so I try to keep my children away from it.

But really, I remember at that age how important it was to every so
often come across a voice that seemed equally enraged or alienated,
because there is one of the both tormenting and cherished aspects of
that inner life is the sense you have that you're alone in this, you're
unique and no one's feeling as miserable as you are. And so the news
that somebody else out there is equally miserable is an enormous
relieving of the burden.

I mean, I remember when I first - and one of the reasons "Catcher in the
Rye" is so important to so many young people I think is I remember when
I first came across it and thinking oh, yeah. Here's somebody who's
equally enraged by the pretense that's going on around us, you know.

DAVIES: A number of the men in these stories are involved in this really
high-stakes, intense work that they're really invested in, and then they
have relationships, wives that they then find hard to reconnect with –
maybe because they're so invested in their, you know, in their work.
They kind of, they seem to sort of find it hard to reengage with family
after being so invested in their work. Is this something - I was
wondering if this reflects a tension in your own life, given the
intensity of your own research.

Mr. SHEPARD: I think it reflects a fascination I've always had with the
tension between those people we most admire who are people who are
absolutely, passionately devoted to something amazing, you know, whether
it's saving the Netherlands from inundation or whether it's being the
greatest filmmaker they can be, or whatever. That very passion and
devotion and intensity that makes us fall in love with them and cherish
them is also, of course, something that, in some ways, blocks out the
rest of the world.

And when you're writing, when you're trying to do literature, you're
simultaneously separating yourself from the world and being the sort of
selfish person who says I'm going to relate to the world. I'm going to -
I'll be in my room for six hours. And at the same time, you're trying to
understand people. You're trying to empathize with people and connect
with people.

And so that whipsawing between shutting yourself off and giving yourself
over is happening all the time in terms of what you do. And then of
course it's going to be reflected in terms of your interpersonal
relations, as well. I mean, anybody who's been intimate with an artist
knows that they have - they get to experience the exhilaration of when
things are going well, and they also have to deal with, you know, oh,
look. Daddy's unhappy because he had a bad day writing - you know, that
kind of thing. And you just try to mitigate that as best you can and
bear in mind that you're not only a writer, but you're also a father and
a husband and all of that sort of thing.

DAVIES: Yeah. What's a bad day writing for you? How do you handle it?

Mr. SHEPARD: A bad day writing for me is a day when you think, okay. So
you're not only can't formulate a sentence, but you apparently have no
ability to perceive anything. And what on earth made you think you could
do this in the first place? And so you just try a number of things, none
of which worked out, all of which cause you to reconsider how much
talent you think you have or how much discipline or any number of other
things you think you have.

And then you just go home and try to not so much inflict your glumness
on your loved ones as much as remind yourself that this is another part
of your life for which you're very fortunate. Or - and so then you say
something like oh, well, you know what? Let's wrestle with the two
beagles or let's take a walk, or something like that.

DAVIES: You've written both novels and short stories. What appeals to
you about the short story form?

Mr. SHEPARD: I think I'm attracted in the short story form to the notion
that I will make less money and reach fewer people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPARD: I tell my children that I write short stories so that I
will put less food on their table, essentially.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPARD: But I'm also - I also think that I'm getting more and more
impatient with what I call the furniture-moving involved in novels, you
know, that great, that since you have when you're reading early on that
enormous forces are being deployed and all sorts of stuff is being laid
out so that it'll be developed later, and we're moving at a kind of
stately pace. And, I mean, I recognize that all novels don't do that.
But I'm drawn more to the sort of guerrilla warfare nature of short
stories, where you have a very small force, then you get in quickly and
you do what you need to do and you get out again.

And I'm also attracted to, I suppose, the perversity of doing months and
months and months of research and producing a 25-page story rather than

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPARD: ...300-page novel, you know.

DAVIES: Do you ever take on a subject, I mean, get into one of these
things and to immerse yourself in some far-flung topic, and then decide
it just isn't going to work?

Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. Alas, thanks for bringing that up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPARD: No, that sort of thing happens all the time. There's...

(Soundbite of clearing of throat)

Mr. SHEPARD: ...ostensibly two kinds of failure that I confront in that
regard. One is I do a huge amount of research, and the emotional
resonance that I initially felt with the central subject begins to
dissipate or fade the more I get to know that person.

An example of that is I researched Charles Lindbergh for about five or
six months, thinking that I would center something around his flight and
his subsequent - the traumas in his life. And the more I got into it,
the more I thought I understood him the way a biographer or a historian
would understand him, but the less I began to feel that sort of
emotional overlap that allows me to imaginatively inhabit the rest of
the world to begin with.

I sort of conceive of it as a kind of Venn diagram, where the sliver of
overlap in the two giant spheres between Jim and his subject is much
smaller than the rest of the stuff. But that sliver is what enables me
to imagine the rest of the stuff. In that case, the farther I got into
it, the more I thought, yeah, you understand him, but you're not really
empathizing with him. And so I just set it all aside. And what saves me
from despair in a situation like that is, again, that previously
mentioned nerdiness that I think, well, I got to read about Lindbergh
for four months, and everybody left me alone, you know, or whatever.

DAVIES: Well, Jim Shepard, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SHEPARD: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Jim Shepard spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Shepard's
latest book is a collection of short stories called "You Think That's

You can read an excerpt on our website:

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Ann Patchett's new novel, which
Maureen describes as a knockout.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'State Of Wonder' Deftly Twists, Turns Off The Map


Book critic Maureen Corrigan has just read Ann Patchett's new novel
"State of Wonder," and she says it's a knockout that will leave readers
appreciative of the uncharted, both in terms of geography and

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: It's not often that a novel leaves me temporarily
speechless. But Ann Patchett's new novel isn't called "State of Wonder"
for nothing, because that's exactly the state I've been in ever since I
first opened it. The numbness has worn off a little by now, but for
days, all I could say to friends who asked me about it was the one-word
review: wow.

If you're familiar with Patchett's work - particularly her most famous
novel, "Bel Canto" - you know that her imagination roams far afield
without sacrificing authenticity or lyrical power. The idea of
terrorists invading the South American estate of an opera-loving
Japanese businessman sounds like a premise for a disposable thriller. In
Patchett's hands, of course, it turned out to be a riveting meditation
on how love can reveal itself in unexpected human and artistic forms.

"State of Wonder" revisits the South American locale and even features a
key scene that takes place in the Manaus Opera House deep in the
Amazonian rainforest of Brazil. Otherwise, the basic plot of "State of
Wonder" is more directly indebted to those classic tales where Western
explorers delve deep into the primitive, off-the-map places left on the
planet and in their own psyches.

Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is the main inspiration here, but
old English majors will catch references to other gone-native tales,
like Evelyn Waugh's "A Handful of Dust," where an adventurer marooned in
the Brazilian jungle consoles himself, as Patchett's characters do, by
reading a mildewed collection of the works of Charles Dickens.

The gist of "State of Wonder" is this: Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year-old
research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, is
sent to Brazil to locate the remains of her deceased lab mate, a nice
family guy who died of a fever after he was sent into the rain forest
months earlier to find another employee, the reclusive Dr. Annick
Swenson. Dr. Swenson has been in the wild 10 years, working to unlock
the secret to the prolonged fertility of an isolated Amazonian tribe.

The women of that tribe give birth well into their 70s, and if the
fertility chemical found in a rare tree bark can be distilled and made
available back in the States, it will be, as Marina's deceased co-worker
once said, menstruation everlasting, the equivalent of "Lost Horizon"
for American ovaries. Marina is an ideal candidate for what turns out to
be a female explorer tale because she's so alone. Apart from a secret
tepid affair with her boss, the most profound human connection she's had
for years has been the daily small talk she shared with her dead

Over half of "State of Wonder" is devoted to Marina's struggles in the
rain forest, and one of the miracles of this novel - at least to a non-
nature enthusiast like me - is just how inexhaustibly enthralling
Patchett's descriptions of the flora, fauna, ants and anacondas are.
Here's a snippet of a description about Marina stepping out of the
airport in Manaus and following her guard to his car.

(Reading) The outside air was heavy enough to be bitten and chewed.
Never had Marina's lungs taken in so much oxygen, so much moisture. With
every inhalation she felt she was introducing unseen particles of plant
life into her body, tiny spores that bedded down in between her cilia
and set about taking root. An insect flew against her ear, emitting a
sound so piercing that her head snapped back as if struck. They were not
in the jungle, they were in a parking lot.

Similarly, the characters Marina stumbles upon in the Amazon are
uncharted worlds unto themselves. There's a strange young slacker couple
who act as gatekeepers for Dr. Swenson; a deaf native boy named Easter
whom Marina comes to cherish as a son; and the imperious Dr. Swenson,
the center of the mysteries, who holds herself and her colleagues to
almost suicidally high standards of self-denial.

Even with such a relatively limited cast of characters, Patchett keeps
the plot twisting, turning, like one of those slithery anacondas, until
the very last pages. This is a masterpiece of a novel about the awful
price of love and the terror of its inevitable loss. As much as readers
will surely come to admire Marina for her explorer's bravery, we should
also applaud Patchett for her own fearlessness in expanding the terrain
of the possible in storytelling.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett.

You can read an excerpt on our website,

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews two new DVD releases of films that
will delight fans of Gilbert and Sullivan.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Like Gilbert And Sullivan? You'll Love These DVDs


Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are among the most popular form of
musical theater. But, surprisingly few of them have been filmed.
Criterion has just released two films that classical music critic Lloyd
Schwartz says are indispensable to anyone who already loves Gilbert and
Sullivan and might very well make new fans out of those who don't.

(Soundbite of song, "If You Want To Know Who We Are")

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) If you want to know who we are, we are
gentlemen of Japan, on many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, in case you don't know
them, are not only tuneful and hilarious, they're also very touching and
truly literate. The most popular and surely the funniest is "The Mikado"
- a satire not so much of Japanese customs, but of English customs
filtered through a Japanese lens. Oddly, Hollywood didn't touch it until
half a century after its premiere at London's Savoy Theater in 1939,
when it was also being jazzed up on stage in such pieces as Michael
Todd's "The Hot Mikado," starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

The Hollywood version - directed by Victor Schertzinger, who was also a
songwriter - is a Technicolor extravaganza, maybe a little too pastel
for Gilbert's wicked jokes about greed, self-interest, conformity and
torture. Unfortunately, some of the most delightful and most serious
numbers were left out of the film to make room for a silly and
unnecessary prologue that expands the role of the weakest cast member,
the American tenor Kenny Baker, a pretty-boy with a pretty voice and,
shall we say, limited acting skills.

Still, the film is a wonderful record of such legendary D'Oyly Carte
stars as Martyn Green, who plays Ko-Ko, the cheap tailor who has become
the Lord High Executioner because - in this topsy-turvy world - he was
next in line to be beheaded for flirting. Ko-Ko's most famous patter
song is cut in most versions of the film, probably because the original
lyric included what was in 19th century England a slang theatrical term
but is now a racial slur. But Criterion has preserved it on a bonus
track. This exert comes before the offending passage.

(Soundbite of song, "As Some Day It May Happen")

Mr. MARTYN GREEN (Actor): (as Ko-Ko) (Singing) As some day it may happen
that a victim must be found. I've got a little list, I've got a little
list of society offenders who might well be underground, and who never
would be missed, who never would be missed.

There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs. All people
who have flabby hands and irritating laughs. All children who are up in
dates, and floor you with 'em flat. All people who in shaking hands,
shake hands with you like that. And all third persons who on spoiling
tete-a-tetes insist - they'd none of 'em be missed, they'd none of 'em
be missed.

CHORUS: (Singing) He's got 'em on the list. He's got 'em on the list;
and they'll none of 'em be missed, they'll none of 'em be missed.

SCHWARTZ: The other G&S film that's just been reissued is "Topsy-Turvy"
- not an operetta, but the British director Mike Leigh's 1999
fictionalized account of the creation of "The Mikado" and it may be the
best film ever made about the creative process, and especially the
torments of collaboration. The composer and the librettist have come to
an impasse. Gilbert seems stuck in an old mold, in which a tangled plot
gets resolved only through some sort of magic potion. Sullivan has
higher aspirations, to compose a grand opera, and he won't compromise by
setting to music a trivial comedy he doesn't believe in.

Gilbert's wife tries to shake him out of his lethargy by taking him to
an exhibition of Japanese culture. He brings home a Japanese sword that
he hangs over his study door, and when it crashes to the floor, voila –
"The Mikado."

Mike Leigh's sense of history is totally convincing, except that, as one
of the G&S scholars on the alternate DVD soundtrack indicates, that
famous Japanese exhibition didn't actually come to London until after
"The Mikado" was produced. Still, the story of the sword is legendary,
and Leigh has a breathtaking eye for period detail and customs, the
addictions and affectations of performers, the controlled desperation of
the producers and especially the tensions of the rehearsal process.

(Soundbite of movie, ""Topsy-Turvy")

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) The Mikado has left. Grossmith.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Well, another fine mess you've got
us into.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No, Grossmith. My line is, a nice
mess you've got us into. And I should be much obliged if you would play
it comme ca.

(Soundbite of handclap)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Well, a nice mess you've got us

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Righto, sir.

(Soundbite of handclap)

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Well...

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No. Well...

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Well, a nice mess you've got us
into with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Mr. Grossmith, you are under
sentence of death by something lingering. Either boiling oil or melted
lead. Kindly bear that in mind. Thank you.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Well, a nice mess you've got us
into with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree.
Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to
a bald and unconvincing narrative.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No, Bagton. An otherwise bald and
unconvincing narrative.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) I regret. I do beg your pardon.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No, sir. It has only just occurred
to me. To an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Much better.

SCHWARTZ: Lee gets infinitely nuanced and poignant performances not only
from the two major protagonists, played by Jim Broadbent and Allan
Corduner, but from everyone down to the most fleeting extra.

You don't have to be a Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic to be enthralled by
this complex and gripping depiction of geniuses at work.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor at the Boston Phoenix.
His most recent book is a new edition of Elizabeth Bishop's prose. He
reviewed the 1939 version of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" and
Mike Lee's 1999 film "Topsy-Turvy," both released on Criterion DVDs and

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with "Born to Run," which features a famous saxophone solo
by Clarence Clemmons. We were so sorry to hear about his death Saturday.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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