And thank you, Jim Shepard

One of the particular treats (and terrors) of the Williams reading last week was getting introduced (for the first time ever) by my husband, Jim Shepard.  I’m happy to say that I survived.  Just barely.  For your own reading pleasure, here is his intro:

“The poster for this afternoon’s event, some of you may have noted, offered you what probably sounded like an odd bargain:  Two Writers: One Reading.  Does that mean that in addition you get one introduction, or two introductions?    You don’t really care, do you?

It does mean that I will be advancing today, principally, two claims: first, that the writers you’re about to hear are what are often called writers’ writers, and, second and somewhat paradoxically, even given that fact, considering what they’ve accomplished, they remain, in my mind, underappreciated.

So.   Let’s begin.  I am so happy to sing my wife Karen Shepard’s praises, not least because, as she never tires of pointing out, she makes me a better person.   She does this in any number of ways — as she will also point out — but one that seems particularly relevant to our gathering today has to do with the comprehensiveness and the incisiveness of her emotional intelligence, an intelligence that is continually renewed by her spectacularly good capacity for listening.   Karen, as she will also tell you, grew up with two parents who at times were stupefyingly bad at listening, and the result was a little girl – and an adult – who has been determined, at least in her own life, to turn that particular ship around.

The result has been not only someone who makes for a wonderful companion but also a particularly astute species of fiction writer: one who is hugely good at the kind of emotional intelligence that powers the empathetic project behind naturalism in particular and literature in general.  So that in her new novel, The Celestials, she can channel, in the wonderfully supple omniscient voice she has constructed, both the cultural presumptions and mindset of white 19th century America’s official version of itself, and the most intricate and intimate insights into the emotional lives of absolutely persuasively drawn and utterly idiosyncratic and memorable individuals.

She’s been doing this for a while.   In fact, her career features the best of both worlds: she’s both been writing at a consistently high level and improving with each book.  She’s written four novels, published any number of stories and essays, and teaches, as many happy faces in this room can tell you, right here at Williams.

She’s won the William Goyen-Doris Roberts Fellowship from The Christopher Isherwood Foundation, a Stella Ehrhardt Fellowship from the University of Houston, and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Award.  And if I sound bitter at the lack of high-paying honors and awards that Karen has won, and wish to use that as further evidence of just how underappreciated she is, bear in mind that that’s also because I would share in any astronomical sum she was awarded.

Now, the reason that the term ‘writers’ writer” annoys you is probably because you sense its potential emptiness, or even secret scorn, since it often sounds like a coded way of saying that no one else reads that person.

But those of you like me who have access to Karen Shepard’s private correspondence know that in her case it turns out that that term is every bit the honorific it first appears to be.    To cite just three quick examples: the writer Jo Ann Beard — about whose work I would say, if you haven’t heard, you should take this opportunity to lower your head in shame – told Karen in an ecstatic email about her current novel, The Celestials, that the novel was like the actual book itself, the object, in that it was so pleasingly compact and sturdy and beautiful, “like a pinto pony.”

Karen Russell, of whom I know you have heard, in her email was wonderfully passionate about precisely that emotional intelligence I mentioned before; the way, for example, the novel stages the reader’s encounter with racial prejudice from the discomfiting vantage point of Sampson, one of its otherwise decent and upright protagonists, and thereby allows the reader to feel the shock of his shock, and the limits of his empathy, when it comes to the Chinese boys about whom his wife is speaking: “it was as if she were telling him that it had been discovered that crows had hopes and desires.”

And as final testimony, let me offer a passage from Daniel Handler’s (better known as Lemony Snicket’s) email to me, the subject line of which was And I suppose your kids are curing cancer:

‘So I’m reading this novel, just something I picked up because the review made it sound good, and I’m loving it, I’m riveted, I’m ignoring the glares of the guys in the Indian restaurant because I’m done with my food but I ain’t moving until I’ve finished the book, and I flip to the author bio to see who this powerhouse is and it turns out you married her.  Sheesh, is it the water supply?  Some kind of multivitamin your family members take?’

Let’s let you decide.   I am happy to yield the floor to the first of two of my very favorite people on earth.    L&G: KS –“