Jim Shepard

2016 Rea Award Winner Jim Shepard
Photo: Barry Goldstein

Jim Shepard is the author of five short story collections and seven novels. His story collections include Batting Against Castro (1996); Love and Hydrogen (2004); Like You’d Understand, Anyway (2007), which won the Story Prize, and was a finalist for The National Book Award; You Think That’s Bad (2011); and the recently released The World to Come: Stories (2017). About The World to Come,The Daily Beast wrote “Without a doubt the most ambitious story writer in America, Jim Shepard now delivers a new collection that spans borders and centuries with unrivaled mastery…[his] characters face everything from the emotional pitfalls of everyday life to historic catastrophes on a global scale. Shepard makes…these wildly various worlds his own, and never before has he delineated anything like them so powerfully.”

Shepard’s novels include Flights (1983); Paper Doll (1986); Lights Out in the Reptile House (1990); Kiss of the Wolf (1994); Nosferatu (1998); Project X (2004), which won the Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award, as well as the ALEX award from the American Library Association; and The Book of Aron (2015), which won the Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature from the American Library Association, the PEN/New England Award for Fiction, and the L.D. and Laverne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize. Shepard has edited three anthologies: You’ve Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe (1994) with Ron Hansen; Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs (1995) with Amy Hempel; and Writers at the Movies: Twenty-six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-six Memorable Movies (2000). He’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship; six of his short stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories, two for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and one for a Pushcart Prize. Shepard’s short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, Electric Literature, Ploughshares,Triquarterly, Tin House, and Playboy among numerous other magazines.

Jim Shepard has long been passionate in his determination to put science and history to use in fiction, and to, as he puts it, make himself into a more interesting person. In an interview with the Boston Globe, he notes “My fiction is very research-based, but it’s not just because I want to get the facts right. The good news for fiction writers is that once you start reading history, you teach yourself about all sorts of things you didn’t know you didn’t know. And you realize that histories don’t always agree on the facts, so you have a little wiggle room. That wiggle room is where fiction writers operate…I’m trying to do something that persuades me and provides the basis for a persuasive illusion.” In a recent New York Times review, Craig Taylor writes that “This approach gives the individual stories heft and the collections a dizzying range” and that “Shepard also understands that one of the pleasures in reading a story collection lies in seeing how the stories themselves interact.”

Like You’d Understand, Anyway features stories about Aeschylus at Marathon, senior turbine engineers during the Chernobyl disaster, and pleasure boaters during the 1964 Alaska earthquake, and stories in The World to Come chronicle the 1845 Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage; a British submarine more or less alone in the Indian Ocean at the apogee of Japanese success in the War in the Pacific; and one of the greatest cyclones in Queensland’s recorded history. One of the thematic preoccupations of Shepard’s work has been the amount of trouble we can get into through passivity, and complicity with more aggressive and powerful forces or people. As he’s put it, he’s “always been drawn to catastrophe as a subject, particularly man-made catastrophe.”

Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1956, and received a B.A. from Trinity College in 1978 and his MFA from Brown University in 1980. He’s the J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature and Eloquence at Williams College, and teaches creative writing, contemporary literature, and film. He lives in Williamstown with his wife, writer Karen Shepard, their three children, and three beagles.