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'You Think That's Bad': Fiction Of The Unfamiliar

Author Jim Shepard writes what he knows, but he also likes to write what he doesn't know. His novel Project X was about a Columbine-like school shooting from the perspective of one of the kids involved. His story Love and Hydrogen concerns a clandestine gay romance between two crew members of the Hindenburg.

In You Think That's Bad, his newest collection of short stories, Shepard examines an array of typically diverse subjects and characters. There are an African-American operations specialist from the military, a British woman who goes exploring in Iran in the 1930s, a Japanese filmmaker from the 1950s, and a 15th century French nobleman who happens to be a serial killer.

"I think literature is, in some ways, about the exercise of the empathetic imagination," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I'm always interested in stretching that capacity. ... I'm interested in engaging the world and trying to enlarge my own experience. So I'm not only looking to reflect my own inner turmoil — which I'm certainly doing — but I'm also looking to teach myself about the world — and teach the reader as I do it."

To make sure his prose accurately reflects his subject matter, Shepard immerses himself in primary documents and consults with scholars on the campus of Williams College, where he teaches. But sometimes — as in the story "The Netherlands Lives With Water," which is set in 2030 — he simply uses background research to help further his imagination. In that particular story, Shepard writes about a civil engineer who is dealing with two major disasters: a massive flood threatening the country's future and a split with his wife.

Jim Shepard is a professor of creative writing and film at Williams College.
Michael Lionstar / Knopf
Jim Shepard is a professor of creative writing and film at Williams College.

"I knew that I was interested in the challenges facing cities with climate change ... and I was quite moved with how proactive and energetic the Dutch [are]," he says. "They're doing all of the right things in order to prepare for what's coming and I was quite moved by the likelihood that all of those things aren't going to work anyway. So the tension of doing everything but refusing to face what's coming down the road seemed quite powerful — and also like the sort of thing that I could embody in the man's personal life as well."

Imminent catastrophes, both in personal lives and the outside world, are present in many of Shepard's stories as well as his collection's title, You Think That's Bad. The pessimistic outlook, he says, was fully intentional.

"[The title] does seem to embody some of the characters' worldviews," he says. "[It's like saying,] 'Wait until you see what's coming.' "

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