Minotaur author takes the bull out of writing

by Beacon Staff • December 3, 2008

A self-proclaimed nerd, shut-in and forlorn figure who likes to read the books in the library that have never been checked out, Jim Shepard entertained the group packed in snugly at the Emerson College Bookstore during and after his reading of his newest work-in-progress: a short story entitled iMinotaur/i.

It was a packed house on Nov. 19 when Shepard, author of six novels and three story collections and a teacher at Williams College, stepped up to read a selection from iMinotaur/i. Professor Pamela Painter required all of her "Short Short" writing seminar class to attend the reading.

"It's good to hear writers read," said Painter.

The students, professors and faculty present at the reading appeared riveted by Shepard. A dry, sarcastic humor came through in his story, sending ripples of laughter through the large crowd, which was forced to stand back in book aisles. It was a piece about the Black World, a secret military group that, as Shepard read, was a part of "projects so far off the books you aren't allowed to even put 'classified' on your resume." The relatable message of the difficulty to keep secrets in a healthy relationship came through amid Shepard's witty humor and often detailed descriptions of how these secret organizations work.

After the reading, Shepard smiled at the crowd, asking for any questions. A man toward the front of the room asked Shepard about his research on iMinotaur/i.

"I had a friend who knew people who were a part of secret military operations," said Shepard. "The teasing and fucking around I got from these people helped."

Shepard said it was the cryptic phone calls and constant answers of "I can't say anything about that," that helped him create the characters and lives of men working in the Black World.

Emerson Professor Michael Rosovsky asked Shepard what advice he could give Rosovsky's class of undergrad students he had brought to the reading.

"Write badly before you can write well. I am also always amazed at the pristine illiteracy undergrads have," Shepard said.

He explained it is important for all students to read, so that, as they write, they don't spend so much time reinventing the wheel. He didn't believe in a list of writing rights and wrongs. Immersing oneself in literature, in order to come to the realization that every writer goes about things a little differently, was Shepard's advice for new writers.

Kyle Moody, an Emerson MFA student, was inspired by Shepard's references to all of the research he did before actually writing.

"Doing research is not something I ever thought about, so that really opened my mind to researching and how my work would look if I did more research," Moody said.

A few of the students at the reading asked Shepard about his writing process and how quickly he was able to write books and make money.

"If I were driven on the basis of my work I would have eaten my children already," he said. "There's a lot of prostitution, and how much do we charge? I mean look at me."

Shepard went on to explain the hours of research and time that go into his writing before he even begins working on the story. However, the one thing that Shepard said could make or break his story was the point when he realized, while writing the story, what the bigger picture of the subject was.

"A man is in a bar and wants to tell you a story," Shepard said. "You might give him a few minutes of nonsense, but pretty soon you're going to look at him and ask him, 'Why are you telling me this?'"

This "why are you telling me this" moment normally brought about the point of his story, he said. He said if he can't figure out this question, his story normally ends badly.

Shepard also emphasized the importance of finding a network of writers, especially in college. "Find a nice person and beg," was Shepard's advice to new writers looking for help.

After the reading and questions, Shepard took time to sign books and talk to all of the students.

"I think listening to any reading gets you in that writerly mood," Moody said. "I stayed because he was hysterical."