Imaginative Leaps: Karen Shepard and Andrea Barrett in Conversation

Andrea Barrett

Karen Shepard’s newest novel, The Celestials, will be published by Tin House Books in June. She’s also the author of three previous novels: An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, and Don’t I Know You?, as well as numerous stories, articles, and essays.

In May, I had the chance to talk with her about the process of writing this new book, and about the pleasures and perils of historical fiction. 

Andrea Barrett: You’ve worked with historical elements in your fiction before (most notably in An Empire of Women), but I think this is the first time you’ve worked with actual historical figures—an even more difficult challenge. Recently I was mulling over Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, which involves a large group of historical figures. Mantel writes in her author’s note:

My main characters were not famous until the Revolution made them so, and not much is known about their early lives. I have used what there is, and made educated guesses about the rest. [. . . .]

The events of the book are complicated, so the need to dramatize and the need to explain must be set against each other. Anyone who writes a novel of this type is vulnerable to the complaints of pedants. [ . . . .]

I purvey my own version of events, but facts change according to your viewpoint. Of course, my characters did not have the blessing of hindsight; they lived from day to day, as best they could.

Your wonderful new novel, The Celestials, includes historical figures—among them, seventy-five Chinese laborers who arrived in North Adams, Massachusetts, in 1870, and Calvin Sampson, the shoe manufacturer for whom they worked. Some documentary evidence exists for them–a lot in a few cases, a little in others, virtually none in still others. As you wrestled with all this material, how did you find your way between the “educated guesses,” the fear of the “complaints of pedants,” and your own understanding of how facts might “change according to your viewpoint”?

Karen Shepard: Wow, Andrea. Way to ask the softball questions.

So, I had never written anything historical of this scope before, and it all seemed hugely daunting. How facts might “change according to your viewpoint” was the easiest of the three. I knew there would be a flexible, omniscient viewpoint, able to swoop in and out of anyone’s mind, able to linger or not in those minds. Part of the appeal of that for me was that this event, the arrival of all these strangers in a contained community, obviously meant different things to different people, so I knew that the reflection of a variety of views would be a priority. The “educated guesses” were knottier for me. What could I make up about history? Could I only write what I knew had happened, or could I also write what I knew hadn’t happened? I imagine I would answer these questions differently for each different historical project. For this one, I felt that I had to get the building blocks right but at some point I had to take the facts as I’d learned them and make something truly imaginative out of them. It was like building with Legos. I had all these many-colored, differently shaped facts, but I had to build the spaceship. So, for example, the character Alice, the mixed-race baby who shows up about a third of the way through the novel, is invented but the building blocks for her were there. In an imagined version of history as I understood it from the facts, it could have happened. Again, I might feel differently in another project, but in this one, Alice felt like an imaginative leap that would help explain and explore what I found most interesting about this story.

And, finally, my fears about the “complaints of the pedants.” Well, of course we fiction writers want to get it right. But, that said, there is no way to get everything right for everyone. This is true whether you’re writing autobiographical fiction or sci-fi. I remember one reader objected to a name I had given a character because it was also the name of a “famous” knitter, and it was confusing to this reader. But, writing historical fiction, of course I was worried about all the experts in the world who know way more than I do (more on that below) about everything. All I could do was try to do my research well. And I’m lucky to teach at a place like Williams College, so I had some of those experts vet the manuscript for glaring errors. On top of that, I had an extraordinarily diligent editor and a copy editor who was even more obsessive than I am. I’m more concerned, however, with the people in the world who may be connected to this story in more personal ways. Many of my characters have descendents with a personal stake in this story. I hope that nothing I’ve written offends them, but I can’t guarantee that, and my worries about that couldn’t be something I thought about while writing. It was like writing autobiographical fiction and thinking about what your mother might think. That way madness lies. I hope that all my readers will feel that I haven’t treated my characters with kid gloves, but that I’ve treated them with the rigor and honesty that real people for whom I have enormous sympathy and respect deserve.

AB:  That’s such an unusual thing, to have to consider the feelings of the descendents of your characters! And it makes me even more curious about the photographic portraits that appear in the novel at various points, but without any labels or captions. The faces and figures seem to float mysteriously in the narrative; we can guess at who they are, but we can’t be sure. Can you talk about how you hoped these would function for the reader, and what this might add to our experience of the novel?

KS: I seem to be drawn to photographs. My first novel was inspired in part by Sally Mann’s photographs and was about a photographer and her subject. One of the things that interested me about this story in the first place was the fact that so many of the Chinese workers had used a significant part of their relatively small salaries to have photographs taken of themselves. The way they chose to preserve and represent their self-images was fascinating, and I knew somehow those images would be integral to my telling of the story. I didn’t, however, want them to be illustrative. If I had a model it would, of course, be someone like W. G. Sebald. I wanted, I think, the reader to have the experience I was having, and the experience I imagine many of the local townspeople, especially Sampson’s wife, Julia, had in relation to these workers. I hope it’s as if the Chinese workers are the shepherding ghosts of the story, the catalysts for all these events, but sometimes largely forgotten, or undifferentiated, by those people most affected by their presence. The townsfolk, the media, Calvin Sampson often referred to the Chinese as a group: the boys, or the workers, or, even more problematic, our boys, or my boys.  I wanted the reader, after reading for a while, to be reminded visually of these workers being individual, “real” people. And I wanted the reader to feel watched. I certainly felt the responsibility of history’s eyes on me, and I wanted to replicate that somehow for the reader as a way to explore what our responsibility and relationship to each other and our shared histories are.

I also was drawn to the idea of the photos as resurrection. This episode in history was, with some exceptions, largely forgotten. Only two of the workers stayed on in town. By 1880, almost all of them were gone. So I imagined the photographs operating much the way the wrecked train and its passengers in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping work: the disappeared who are, of course, still present, influencing us all in ways we may or may not be willing or able to understand.

AB: I got badly sidetracked while working on a novel called The Air We Breathe by trying to learn everything possible about the period, the place, and the situation. Much of what I investigated turned out to be entirely tangential, and I was slow to understand what was essential and what not. Did you ever find yourself overwhelmed by all the research for The Celestials?

KS: Oh my. When did I not find myself overwhelmed by the research? And the writing. And the rewriting. What are we writers not overwhelmed by? At least the first two years of my research consisted of discovering everything I didn’t know about everything. What did I know about nineteenth-century labor strikes, nineteenth-century immigrants, nineteenth-century interracial couples? Shoemaking, labor unions, Baptists, Methodists, and on and on. It was one chasm in my knowledge after another. But the good news is, as opposed to what I imagine it’s like to work on a nonfiction book, a fiction writer isn’t looking to be comprehensive. A fiction writer is reading all that fact in order to find the details that ring emotional bells for her, that grab hold of some deep, often unclear, interest. And, yes, you may have to do a huge amount of reading to find enough of those details to be the seeds for your fiction, but at some point, you start feeling that your work is not about gathering more facts, but about starting to make stuff up. At some point, both because of and despite the facts, anything can happen, and that’s both terrifying and hugely exciting. Plus, of course, as you yourself know, the reading isn’t just a burden; it’s a huge amount of fun. What writer wouldn’t want to be given permission to sit in a comfy chair and read for months on end, all the while getting to tell her children that “Mommy is working.”?

AB: I love that moment when “despite the facts, anything can happen”— Frankenstein’s monster on the table, glued and stitched together from so much laborious fact-gathering, suddenly lifts an eyelid, reaches down to tear off a poorly grafted limb, begins to move on its own. Until then, I never know if what I’m working on will actually turn into a novel or a story. After that moment, I feel that the project really exists.

But then there’s the issue of defining where the edges lie. In a known sequence of events: When to start and when to finish? In a large cast of characters: Who will be a point-of-view character, and who will not? How did you make those determinations for The Celestials?

KS: Whenever I answer questions like this one, I feel like such a fraud. Who really knows, when in the thick of it, how we make the determinations we do? Well, to be honest, whenever I answer any questions, I feel like a fraud. Or, really, I just feel like a fraud. (But I digress.)

Looking way back, with a whole bunch of retrospect, I was initially interested in the effect this contained group of strangers had on an entire community, and I knew the larger community would be a central subject of the novel. In terms of when to start and when to finish, I knew I wanted to start with the arrival of the first seventy-five workers, but I thought I would go much farther in time than I ended up going. I initially thought the novel would cover the longer effects of the workers’ time in North Adams. I thought I might end with Charlie’s death, years later, in California. But somewhere in the writing of the last third, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. The novel had become more about Julia and Calvin Sampson than I initially thought it would, and I had written those opening pages about them, and I was so struck by the fact that they had died within a day of each other, that I found myself ending with them as well.

In terms of characters and voice, one of the inspirations for this book was Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. His wonderful novel takes a God’s-eye view of a fictional county and the voice is supple and flexible in terms of time and place. I wanted to try something like that, and it seemed the right kind of thing to try with this particular story. So I knew early on that my novel would be omniscient, and I knew I would move around in terms of time, but how to decide which of the thousands of possible characters I would zero in on? Some of that was decided once I realized how important the mixed-race baby would be to the story, and I didn’t know that for a while, but again, looking back, that obsession was there from the beginning. One of the earliest things I wrote was the description of Julia Sampson as someone who has lost thirteen pregnancies. I had given her that deep, deep desire to be a mother from the very beginning, and once I recognized that, I thought more consciously about who mattered most in terms of this one very large consequence to the presence of the Chinese in this town.

AB:  I love The Known World too—and your mention of it brings us back to the beginning in an interesting way. In a number of interviews, Jones stated that he did very little research for the novel, that he mostly made up the characters and the situations, and that he relied on his imagination and his previous knowledge of the time and place to convey the fictional truth of that novel. That fascinates me, in part because it’s so different from my own experience, and I think about that a lot. I wonder if you did too, as you were working on your own novel. Would you ever try that approach? And do you think you’ll continue exploring historical fiction? Or do you feel you might want to work on something contemporary next?

KS: I’d read that, too, about Jones, and I guess I choose not to believe it. Well, not so much that, as I guess I imagine him doing a lot reading over the course of the decade he was working on that book (or, really, over the course of his whole life), but perhaps not knowing it was “research.” His “previous knowledge” was based, I imagine, on a lifetime of reading. So can I imagine making up an entire world, an entire community without “real” research. Yes, I guess so. Perhaps because I live in a small town now but didn’t grow up in one I’m fascinated with the dynamics of an insulated place like the town I now live in, so I’m toying with the idea of a more invented place than North Adams in 1870 as a setting (and character) for another project, but I’m also reading about an actual woman from an actual time period who did some actual things. Enough said about both of those, however, or it will all turn to dust and I will never write again.

Andrea Barrett is an American novelist and short story writer. Her collection Ship Fever won the 1996 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of three novels, An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, and Don’t I Know You? Her short fiction has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction has appeared in More, Self, USA Today, and the Boston Globe. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she lives.