Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jim Shepard's Literary Influences: Dracula Meets Lolita

In the 60th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jim Shepard, author of You Think That's Bad (Alfred A. Knopf), lists some of the books and authors that have fueled his writing.

It's hard to identify which books first made me want to write. (I never imagined I would become a writer, since that was something that seemed available only to people from other, tonier backgrounds.) I know I thrilled at about the age of twelve at the sheer narrative drive and invention of Bram Stoker's Dracula – I’d had been a big monster fan as a small boy, but mostly all I’d seen was movies -- and I remember, too, being stirred by how much viscerally charged and fraught material it seemed to be dredging up. I was hugely compelled a year or two later by Jim Bouton's Ball Four, for its breezy way of introducing the reader to an entire and arcane world, and for being so much fun while still making clear that it took itself, in ethical and political terms, quite seriously. Perhaps the biggest impact early on, though, came from a boxed set of J.D. Salinger that a family friend had given me for Christmas. At first I’d been disappointed by the gift – there weren’t even illustrations on the covers – but one day when I was kicking around my room, bored, I cracked one open, and was immediately submerged in those voices. I’d always imagined that people who wrote literature needed to sound like writers like Henry James, though I had only the dimmest notion of what writers like Henry James sounded like. Here was a voice that was urgently and comically colloquial and yet somehow never seemed trivial. That was almost certainly where I conceived of the radical notion that there might be hope for somebody like me.

Acts of grace?
From there I went on to endless other crucial revelations: in high school, for example, Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. From the former I remember being floored by the extremely cool notion that, as Hemingway himself put it, a hard light thrown on an object softly illuminates the beholder: that you could write about someone that way. From the latter, I remember being dazzled by the dawning understanding that writing could be about an act of grace in the devil’s territory, and about the crucial usefulness of ferocity when it came to comedy, and one’s world view. And from there, in college, to Vladimir Nabokov, and to James Joyce, and Italo Calvino, and on and on and on.