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Jim Shepard on Using History in Fiction


Over at The Outlet, Jim Shepard has a great essay on working with historical events in fiction:

Writers shouldn’t lose sight of the essential chutzpah involved in trying to imagine any other kind of sensibility. And that they should take heart from that chutzpah, as well. The whole project of literature – the entire project of the arts — is about the exercise of the empathetic imagination. Why were we given something as amazing as imagination, if we’re not going to use it?

Shepard is a master at inhabiting and re-imagining historical events in his stories. One of my all-time favorites, “Batting Against Castro,” drops three hapless American baseball players into pre-Revolutionary Cuba, right in the middle of the escalating power struggle between Batista and Castro. For more on this topic, check out this Bookslut interview in which Shepard discusses the relationship between reading, writing, and history:

I certainly, in other words, end up writing stories because of things I’ve read. But those things are almost always moments in which human beings have found themselves in extraordinarily difficult, and memorable, positions. In other words, zeppelins themselves don’t get me going; it’s the position in which a zeppelin can place somebody that generates the initial impulse for a story.

Bonus: See Shepard read from and discuss his most recent collection, Like You’d Understand Anyway) in this hour-long 2007 Authors@Google event:


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