Friday, November 14, 2014

My hero / Jim Shepard by Joshua Ferris

Jim Shepard
Photo by Barry Goldstein
Poster by T.A.

My hero: Jim Shepard by Joshua Ferris

The American short-story writer and novelist is the finest living teacher of fiction. His insight is humbling, outrageously perceptive and full of humour

Joshua Ferris
Friday 14 November 2014

n life a few fine souls come along to make a strenuous case for how a person should be. They aren’t Figures, Philosophers, Immortals. (Not yet, anyway.) They’re subject to the same sad laws of doom as the rest of us, the same misfortunes, the same fate. But they carry themselves with grace, stand for something noble, serve as ambassadors to a better way.

The American short-story writer and novelist Jim Shepard is such a man. I met him when he served as a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine, in the winter of 2002. A lot of critics dislike the professionalisation of creative writing. They have never had Shepard in a workshop.
Jim begins each class by reading a poem. He wants his students to listen, for a brief time, to someone else’s work. He reminds you that to be a writer is to be an admirer of other writers. He reads his students’ stories – apprentice stories – more times than sanity would recommend, so that when the class starts, he knows them better than those who have authored them. He guides the class to his reading of the story, which seems inevitable and correct. His insight is humbling, deeply grained, outrageously perceptive and full of a signature humour. (I once saw him tell of an encounter between a beagle and a squirrel, doing impressions of both. His emotional wisdom extends to animals and plants and inanimate objects. He’s the best standup comedian you’ve never seen perform.)

I’m not alone in thinking that Jim is the finest living teacher of fiction. His perception is unique; his passion rare. He’s devoted to his students. We had a class together 12 years ago, but in the years since he’s read my novels and improved each one. I wouldn’t let a novel go to print if it didn’t have his eyes on it.
If you haven’t read Shepard, you should, because he’s also one of the US’s finest writers, full of wit, humanity and fearless curiosity. These are the same qualities that mark his teaching and define his character. It’s a hell of a thing to walk the earth with Jim Shepard.
 Joshua Ferris is the winner of the 2014 International Dylan Thomas prize for his novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

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