Novelist Jim Shepard imagines a boy’s perspective of the Holocaust

Literary Sojourn 2015 program

Jim Shepard’s latest novel, The Book of Aron, is about the The Holocaust told from a child’s point of view. “It’s a Christmas book,” he said with a straight face to an audience of 300 people.

They laughed.

Shepard served as master of ceremonies Oct. 10 at Literary Sojourn in Steamboat Springs, Colo., showcasing a bold sense of humor in discussing his work as well as in introducing four other authors. 

The Book of Aron, according to the author’s website, is about a peculiar and unhappy boy whose family is driven by the Germans from the Polish countryside into Warsaw and slowly battered by deprivation, disease, and persecution. When his family is stripped away, Aron is rescued by Janusz Korczak,* a doctor and advocate of children’s rights who is in charge of the Warsaw orphanage. Treblinka extermination camp awaits them all, but does Aron manage to escape—as his mentor suspected he could—to spread word about the atrocities?

Shepard tackles serious topics in his books but uses a sure-fire method to keep a story from becoming dreary.

If you don’t find humor in your subjects, they will quickly find you hanging from a shower head,” Shepard said, then outlined the options: give up, turn into a sociopath, or keep your sense of humor.

Humor almost always shows up alongside human suffering,” he said. In The Book of Aron, readers see a child aligning himself with power. “I’m more interested in writing about our complicity with power than power itself.”

Inherent in this kind of story is Janusz Korczak’s idea that children’s feelings and experiences are more complex than they have the language to describe. Shepard’s challenge was describing what Aron sees and feels from the point of view of a still-developing human being.

Questions from the audience turned to the writing process. How does one become an accomplished writer? “You really need to give yourself permission to play,” Shepard said. “You need to be bad before you can be good…. If this isn’t wonderful by 3 o’clock, I quit. Leave yourself alone for a little while.”

Sometimes it’s OK to ignore your work-in-progress for a short time. “Writers are geniuses at procrastination,” he said. “Let’s do Literary Sojourn. That will piss away three days.”

Shepard aspires to write every day from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. “That’s as much as I can concentrate because I teach full-time and have children.”

If his writing doesn’t flow, he focuses on a different activity, such as “torment my beagles. Oh, shit, here he comes,” Shepard said, imagining what his dogs think. “The scene is not going well.

Other times, inspiration comes quickly in the form of real-life conversations. He and author Amy Hempel once listened to a woman describe the breakup of her marriage.

Amy turns to me and says, I have dibs on that.

Katherine Valdez was first in line at Literary Sojourn to get the novel Euphoria signed by author Lily King who is a really nice person as well as a brilliant writer. (And she’s not just saying that because Ms. King was polite enough to ask, with genuine interest, “What do you write?” when she mentioned being a writer and aspiring novelist.)
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* Pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, 1879 – 1942 (Wikipedia)

4 comments

  1. “Humor almost always shows up alongside human suffering” this is so true. Humor is universal also, something that we all can share…..

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