‘The Book of Aron’ author Jim Shepard on writing and ’roos
I first see Jim Shepard ambling along North Terrace in Adelaide. He is wearing a pale-blue short-sleeved shirt with intricate sewn patterns over each breast pocket. Upon closer inspection, they prove to be cats with laser beams shooting from their eyes. He breaks his stride when I introduce myself and a smile emerges from under his silver moustache. He suggests we find a cafe for a chinwag.
Flutteringly nervous at meeting one of my idols, I take a chance when he offers to order for both of us at the counter. I am curious to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
“I’ll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.”
He shoots me a stern look before homing in on the reference. “L. A. Story. An underrated Steve Martin classic. I love the part where the ATM has two queues – one for people taking money out, one for people waiting to rob them.”
I change my order to a flat white.
Although he has published seven novels, Shepard is best known for his four short fiction collections, mainly because each is packed with 10 or 11 stories that have been more heavily researched than most theses.
Shepard is an omnivore when it comes to nonfiction, and as a result his stories focus on history’s minor players – the largely forgotten ordinary men and women bearing witness to extraordinary events. He has written stories from the perspective of a Roman centurion standing guard on a freezing Hadrian’s Wall, the guillotine operator hired by French revolutionaries to cut off the heads of his former employers, deep-sea divers, avalanche survivors and Victorian explorers in the Australian desert. Each one is akin to a fully realised novel, condensed into 20 pages.
In person he is affable, charming and extremely funny. When, a day later, an audience member at the Adelaide Writers’ Week asks if he has ever considered a career in stand-up comedy, he quips, “People often suggest I should try my hand at something else. ‘I know you’re a writer, but have you considered getting a real job?’ ” Later, I dig myself into a hole by asking if his latest, The Book of Aron, a short novel about a doomed orphanage run by Dr Janusz Korczak in the Warsaw ghetto, is getting more attention than his usual fare.
He glares at me from under his Goorin Bros – a seminal 19th-century San Francisco hatmaker – trucker’s cap that bears the logo of a black sheep. “Are you suggesting that my work is usually ignored?”
Despite the 35-degree heat, a cool flush dances across my neck. I somehow extricate myself from the faux pas by expressing my frustration that his work does not receive the plaudits I believe it deserves, and adding that he must be a shoo-in for a Pulitzer or National Book Award nomination this year. He reluctantly lets me off the hook. It helps that I point out a woman in the front row, who is holding an injured joey in a baby sling.
“Is your thing activated?” he hisses, pointing towards my iPad. “Take a photo. My daughter is not going to believe this.”
The audience member kindly approaches us afterwards, so Shepard may obtain further photographic proof for his family back home in America. I reassure him that despite the tales he may have heard about Australians riding kangaroos to school, marsupials do not normally attend literary festivals.
Shepard has been so warm and humorous in talking about his Holocaust novel that the signing queue is one of the longest I have seen. He introduces himself to each person – “Hi, I’m Jim” – and later reflects how different the experience was to the previous event in which he participated, when he shared a stage with Stephen King.
“His signing queue was the length of a city block. Mine had four people. King was antsy because he was on deadline. His publisher needed his next book by a certain date, or there’d be trouble. ‘You know what it’s like,’ he said to me. ‘No, Stephen, I don’t,’ I told him. ‘Nobody’s waiting for the next book from me.’ ”
Shepard’s maiden visit to Australia is four days long, and takes in only one city. He didn’t even have time to see the beach. Massachusetts is calling him home, and as the last vestiges of his new-found readers wander away from the signing table, he stretches, rubs his eyes, and offers me his hand.
“Looks like we’re done here. Don’t forget to email me that kangaroo.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 9, 2016 as "Brief histories". Subscribe here.