Speaking with Jim Shepard about The Book of Aron

Storytelling that is located deep in the heart of childhood, when it feels perfectly true, is something you can't let go of once you have found it. Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a dispatch from a young boy in a family crisis; in Emma Donoghue's Room the crisis is criminal. The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepard maps out a boyhood against the enormity of the Holocaust and the specific squalour of the doomed Warsaw ghetto. 

Aron is a restless muddle of a boy. "[He] only looks out for himself, my uncle always said, but I never wanted to be like that. I lectured myself on walks. I made lists of ways I could improve. Years went by like one unhappy day... It was terrible to have to be the person I was."

How terrible, he cannot guess. The ghetto is walled in, made smaller, emptied by starvation, disease, brutality and finally transport towards murder on an industrial scale. Aron, becoming an urchin, a smuggler and an orphan, encounters a remarkable, desperate advocate, a figure drawn from history, whose dedication to the ghetto's children was complete. (This is Janusz Korczak, a pioneer of the concept of children's rights, who stayed with his orphan charges until their very end.)

Shepard teaches creative writing at Williams College in Massachusetts. He is self-deprecating and thoughtful. We talked on the phone last week.

"I continually read accounts, diaries, oral histories and stay alert to anything that seems hugely evocative or hugely useful in a compressed or a lyrical way," he said when I asked him about how he imagined Aron into being. "Then I try to start constructing a voice by letting this person speak in my imagination, conditioned as he is by all the research I've been doing."

Did Aron linger after the writing was finished? "He did -- and part of the reason that it's a lean book is that it felt hard to stay in that world for very long.

"A number of my writer friends who also do research will often tease me about the few pages I get out of all the research I do [famously, in the case of one short story, eight months] and one of them said, Geez, I could get a trilogy out of what you use for a short story. I think part of it is that when you are researching you use only a very, very small part of the detail that you learn and the rest is informing the work in an invisible way. Everything is serving the emotional arc of the story.

"[Writing about the Holocaust] you are living in a world of suffering... you don't want to be there for all that long... You think, Get me out of here.

"In some ways the subject has gone from, How can anyone write about this, because of [Theodor] Odorno's famous stricture ['to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric'], to: How do you write about it given that so many people have written about it that it's become a kind of genre. So you have those twin poles to negotiate.

"You also have the issue, when you are dealing with extremities of suffering, that you don't sanitize or sensationalize them. One of the solutions I found was to limit myself to what a small boy would know and I liked the way that mimicked a lot of the aesthetic issues that I was facing, including the way in which we're sort of dumbstruck by the Holocaust.

"The hubris of what you're taking on is diminished a little bit if you say, I'm not doing the experience of the ghetto; what I'm doing is the experience of one small boy in the ghetto. Then the challenge becomes to provide enough of the ghetto history for readers so that they don't feel cheated. That's stuff they have to pick up on the fly...

"[In creating Aron] I thought of Paddy Clark and I thought of a book a lot of people don't know, a novel called Childhood: A Remembrance by a Dutch writer, Jona Oberski. He did something extraordinary: He wrote about a boy in Dachau from the ages of about four to about seven based on his own experience. When he first gets there he doesn't even fully understand what he is looking at. The book has to render that gap between what we understand and even just in literal terms what he understands."

What does he tell students about writing? "They tend to feel paralyzed between, on the one hand they don't have the authority to write about anything but things that have happened to them and on the other hand, they tend to have a great fear that what has happened to them is not very interesting. I am always reminding them that literature is about an exercise in the sympathetic imagination.

"[They must] remind themselves that their job is to make themselves more interesting human beings and that often means going out and encountering the world, and if they don't have the wherewithal to, say, go out and interview the garbage disposal person, then they might at least go to the library and read about the history of garbage.

"Having done that puts them in the position where they are a little more able to try to play, and I think play is really in some ways at the heart of the literary project because what we're doing is in some ways so outrageously hubristic and emotionally difficult that if we don't approach it from the point of view of play, you don't approach it at all.

"I think that with the books you love you have that sense of someone freeing themselves up a little bit and surprising themselves."