Author Interview with Karen Shepard
In The Celestials, Karen Shepard creates a photographically precise image of small-town America shaken by the arrival of a group of outsiders. It is 1870 and Calvin T. Sampson, one of North Adams, Massachusetts’ premier industrialists, is in dire need of workers when the Crispins, union members at his shoe factory, call a strike. His marriage seems at crisis point, too: he and his wife Julia, both aged 43, have just suffered a fourteenth miscarriage.
Unaware that his decision will change the town forever, Sampson brings out 74 Chinese workmen, along with foreman and interpreter Charlie Sing, on the train from San Francisco to break the strike. These unassuming and stoic workers, known as “Celestials” for their link to the “Celestial Empire,” will induce the people of North Adams to reconsider their prejudices and make space for the Other in their midst. The women of the town help the Celestials develop English skills as well as Christian virtues through weekly Sunday school lessons, but the men – especially the strikers – resent attention being lavished on strangers and find ways of fighting back.
In a way, the North Adams shoe factory functions as a microcosm of late nineteenth-century America, in which xenophobia ran rampant and reactions to foreigners ranged from patronizing them as children to persecuting them as dangerous aliens. Meanwhile, the relationships townspeople forge with individual Celestials grow stronger, and Charlie finds himself in an untenable position when a white woman gives birth to his child.
Shepard powerfully evokes a time when assimilation was nearly impossible but genuine traditions were also difficult to sustain. Readers will be reminded of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Ann Hood’s The Red Thread, and perhaps even Alice Sebold’s Lucky when reading this beautiful, accomplished novel about ostracism and the search for true family and intimacy across cultural boundaries.
Thank you to Nanci McCloskey, publicity contact at Tin House Books, for sending me a review copy of Massachusetts-based writer Karen Shepard’s latest book, The Celestials. It’s been great fun having a virtual chat with Karen and getting answers to my many questions about the novel – and about her writing life. Here’s what resulted.
The writing process
RF: Can you give readers a quick tour through your career thus far? It seems like your four books have been very different from each other.
KS: A tour through my career can be nothing but quick, I fear! You’re right that my four novels are, in many ways, quite different from each other. The first, An Empire of Women, was about several generations of Chinese-American women. Inspired loosely by Sally Mann’s photographs of her own children, my novel is about a photographer who takes photos of her granddaughter, thus leaving her daughter sort of out in the cold. It’s about what we sacrifice to make our art, and how the legacies of one generation get passed to another. My second novel, The Bad Boy’s Wife, is set in the world of horse trainers and is about what happens when you marry the bad boy, as opposed to just having an affair with him. My third, Don’t I Know You?, is set in New York City in the 70s, and is about the long and short term and near and far effects of a murder. So, yes, although all three are quite different, I suppose I would say that they share emotional interests: how well do we know the people we’re supposed to know best? What do we protect ourselves from knowing about those people and why? I think I’m also particularly interested in emotional situations that we all think we know well – marriages, parent-child relationships, female friends – precisely because I like thinking about and exploring the ways those things we think we know best are perhaps the most mysterious to us in reality.
RF: This was your first time writing historical fiction. What were the particular challenges of this genre?
KS: Of course, the challenge when beginning any project, from autobiographical fiction to sci-fi, is to give yourself enough self-confidence, enough chutzpah to convince yourself you have the authority to pull this off. When you’re talking about historical fiction, the fraud police in your head tend to be pointing out how little you know about anything at all, but especially about, say, the 19th century, or interracial relationships in the 19th century, or shoemaking, or labor unions, or racism that may not at first appear as racism. And on and on. A huge part of getting going on this novel was convincing myself that I could learn enough. Not all, but enough to give my novel the authority it needed to be emotionally convincing. I’m not, in other words, trying to write a book that is for the history records. I’m trying to use the historically real to access something emotionally legitimate, the same way a writer like Andrea Barrett uses science, or George Saunders uses humor, or my husband, Jim Shepard, uses Godzilla or tidal waves.
RF: The Celestials had a long and difficult gestation period, and suffered a number of rejections before you eventually secured a publisher (see Karen’s witty account of this process on her blog). How did you keep faith that your story was worthwhile and would find readers one day?
KS: Keeping faith as a writer is an ongoing and never-ending prospect. The difficulty I had selling The Celestials just made that process more agonizing. I actually didn’t keep the faith, at least not when it came to publishing. My agent, Eric Simonoff, and I had stopped sending the book out after trying many, many publishers. It wasn’t that we thought the book was bad. It was that we thought we weren’t going to sell it. So, it had been several years since I had tried to sell it when Lee Montgomery, then head of Tin House Books, suggested I send it to them. In the meantime, you should imagine me writhing around on the ground, sure that I would never write again. And, in actuality, doing very little writing, or reading (even worse), of any kind. But, I would say that I never stopped thinking that the book was an okay book. And that was largely because of help from other readers who reacted so supportively to it. Even if you told me today that I would never publish again, I would keep writing. Of course, you want your work to reach as wide an audience as possible, but we do this thing we do for much larger reasons than that. I, at least, can’t imagine not writing. Certainly my sales figures make it very easy to imagine not publishing!
Use of history
RF: How did you root yourself in your novel’s time period? What was the research process like, and what were some of your chief inspirations?
KS: Given how much time a book like this took for me to research (see above about how little I know about anything really), I had to find the research fascinating in and of itself. I had to be able to tell myself that the worst case scenario would be that I would’ve spent a bunch of time reading about things I find interesting, and that isn’t a particularly bad spot to be in. So, I read as many primary sources as I could find in order to hear voices from that time period. Newspapers were incredibly helpful, as were personal letters (even if they weren’t letters having anything to do with the specific story I was researching). Industrial histories from the time helped in terms of getting to know the ins and outs of the industries I was interested in, but perhaps the most inspirational research was the photographs that the Chinese workers had taken during their time in North Adams. Many of them spent a significant portion of their small salaries on photographs, and many of those images still exist. My first novel had also largely been about photographs. I find them emotionally resonant, helpful in terms of beginning to imagine the emotional lives behind the faces in the portraits. I found them so resonant that I ended up using several of them within the text, not as illustrations, but more as ghosts, symbols of responsibility and resurrection.
RF: You use the fascinating technique of introducing certain chapters with a kind of condensed “news bulletin” about what was happening in the United States at that time. How important was it to you to create that sense of broader context?
KS: It was very important. And fun, I might add! Given how differently different groups of folks reacted to and viewed the arrival of the Chinese workers, I knew early on in the writing process that I wanted to tell the story from an omniscient voice, able to move in and out of consciousnesses at will. I also knew I wanted a voice that could time-travel, who knew what had come before and what was coming next. To give the voice that ability to remind the reader that this particular story was happening in a larger context, I used those historical recaps. I like the incantatory quality of them, almost Biblical, and this is, after all, a God’s eye point of view.
RF: How did you maintain a balance between historical figures (including Calvin Sampson and Charlie Sing) and fictional ones?
KS: Some of that balance is determined by what you have information about. Because Calvin was the factory owner and because Charlie was the foreman, more was written/recorded about them. They were both interviewed for newspapers, for example. Calvin was interviewed by the newly-formed Labor Bureau (to become the Department of Labor). And Charlie stayed in the States, actually marrying the woman he marries in my novel, Ida Wilburn. Calvin’s wife, Julia, was also an actual figure, but much less is known about her. Her obituary helped in that regard, but when it came to Julia and Ida, for example, even though they were “real” figures, most of my understanding of them is invented because there just wasn’t very much factual information about them. As I was writing, I became more or less interested in various players in this story. Where there was information, I relied on it; where there wasn’t, I invented parts or whole cloth.
RF: You expose some harsh realities about the immigrant experience in America – xenophobia and violent persecution – in a way that reminded me of Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (about the Japanese experience in America in the first half of the twentieth century). What were the challenges of confronting this shameful history but also celebrating America as a place of opportunity for immigrants?
KS: What a gratifying comparison. I’m a big fan of her work. Well, to some extent, if you write about America or Americans at all, you must deal with confronting contradictions. We are a country filled with contradictions, I think. It is, I imagine, one of the reasons that great writers come out of this country; we exist already and always in a position of interesting tensions. What I aimed for is an exploration of those tensions that was honest and rigorous for all parties involved. I don’t much like fiction where there are clearly drawn good guys and bad guys. That kind of fiction merely reinforces what we already believe (or would like to believe) about ourselves and our values. I like fiction that unsettles, that discomforts in some way, that makes me question what I believe and why I believe it. And I wasn’t interested in self-consciously passing judgment on my characters. Instead, I hoped to create a kind of story world where the reader can feel and react on his/her own, thus making discoveries he/she may not have made without visiting that story world.
RF: Did you have occasion to draw on your own family history and genealogy?
KS: Certainly I did in emotional terms. I myself am a mixed-race child. My mother is Chinese; my father was a Russian Jew [film producer Sidney Glazier]. My grandmother, the writer Han Suyin, was also a mixed-race child (the daughter of a Chinese father and a Belgian mother). She adopted my full-Chinese mother. So, the issues of being mixed, of being both, of being neither have a long history in my emotional life. But in terms of event, this book doesn’t really draw on my own history.
RF: You are incisive but also quite sensitive in your use of cultural stereotypes. I thought you had some particularly good passages about first impressions:
The factory visitors, echoing the thoughts of Americans in general: “Is it the ignorance and prejudice of race or is it merely custom and familiarity which imparts such superior intelligence and sagacity to the American faces when compared to the foreign?”
Julia describes to Sampson the individual Chinese boys in the photographs: “it was as if she were telling him that it had been discovered that crows had hopes and desires.”
Where did you see your characters adhering to ground-level prejudices, and where did you see them moving on?
KS: Well, of course, that progression is one of the things at the heart of the novel. If 75 alien beings enter a relatively isolated community, what happens? Certainly, things went better than people feared. The Chinese were, in most cases, accepted. Does that mean that the local folks were “moving on,” were no longer prejudiced and racist? Probably not. In fact, I think the Chinese were the objects of a kind of paternalistic racism. Part of why the town responded to them so well is because they didn’t see them as threatening in any way. They thought of them as innocents, as child-like, as toothless. And, of course, underestimating the power those workers had in the community is one of the reasons the events of the novel unfold the way they do.
RF: Charlie Sing is the linking figure between the Chinese and the Americans – a mediator moving between two cultures (he’s also, I think, the most compelling character, and my personal favorite). Yet he is never fully accepted by either group: the Chinese think he is disrespecting tradition by cutting off his queue and accepting Christian baptism and burial rites, and both groups reject him for loving and marrying white women. Do you think this is a true picture of the immigrant’s experience?
KS: Oh my! This is a giant, giant question. And I am wary about any answer that suggests I have any idea what the “immigrant experience” is since every immigrant experience is unique. I guess I would say that what you say about Charlie being accepted by neither group is true, but it is also true that he gets a great deal out of having a foot in both of those worlds, and he tries to take advantage of that unique positioning. In other words, he’s not just a victim of his split status; he’s a perpetrator of its opportunities. Too often, perhaps, immigrants in contemporary lit are painted as victims, and my own sense is that to succeed in America they had to be way more proactive than that role suggests. Again, I’m interested in fiction that is somewhat discomforting, that doesn’t allow us to believe what we’ve always believed just because we’ve been told to believe it.
RF: Charlie thinks “assimilation was not the goal towards which they should have been striving.” What is the goal for people negotiating between cultures?
KS: Another easy question! I think Charlie is conflicted about that point. I think at another moment in the novel he wonders whether he wanted to be liked by Sampson, or be like Sampson. In other words, is he trying to be taken care of by America, or is he trying to be America? And I think his goal changes from moment to moment as his desires change. Can one assimilate without losing some central part of oneself? Should one identify as other for always and ever? I don’t have an answer to these questions; I just have stories where some of the tensions play out.
RF: One of the American women “found it impossible to imagine herself standing in [Charlie’s] shoes.” Do you think novels have the power to make this leap of imagination possible?
KS: Oh, I certainly hope so! The central joy, burden, responsibility of fiction is to expand our empathetic ground, is to ask our readers to stand in the shoes of people we would least like to stand in the shoes of. (We’re back to that discomfort issue.) What an amazing feat books perform every day – getting us to care about people it is difficult to care about.
RF: As you’ve already hinted, photographs play a crucial role in your story, with descriptions of portraits often providing small clues to characters’ state of mind. What did you see as the significance of photographs for your story?
KS: One of the things that interested me in 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 to me, and I knew somehow those images would be integral to my telling of the story. 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 Julia Sampson, had in relation to these workers. I hope it’s as if the Chinese workers are like the shepherding ghosts of the story, the catalysts for all these events, but sometimes largely forgotten by those people most affected by their presence. 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. 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.
RF: Are the photos reproduced in the novel actual cartes de visite of the Celestials?
KS: They are. Loaned to me by a lovely family who lives in North Adams and whose ancestor was one of the Sunday school volunteer teachers.
RF: “Intimacy” seems to be a key theme in the novel – whether sought after, rejected, or forced. What did you wish to express about the struggle to find intimate relationships in which one is understood and valued?
KS: What I wanted to do was explore several characters searching for that intimacy. Like us, failing in some ways, succeeding in others, revealing things about themselves along the way. It is, however, one of the central pursuits of life for us humans – valuable connection with the rest of the world.
RF: Charlie’s situation is the archetypal tragic story of true love denied, as well as of love turned cold – he and his lover go from having a deep rapport to only “the intimacy of strangers.” Did you feel that a successful interracial relationship was simply impossible in the 1870s? Was interracial marriage difficult even in your parents’ generation?
KS: Oh gosh; I feel like a successful relationship – interracial or not – is a minor miracle, don’t you?! But, yes, from the reading I did, and what I know about my great-grandparents’ marriage, interracial relationships were difficult in a time and place when people’s attitudes about and views of “other” were so rigid. I think my parents had a less difficult time, and certainly Jim and I don’t face any of those previous challenges.
RF: The book’s ending is inconclusive; it is hard to know whether to expect reunion or a continuation of unanswered questions. Were you keen to avoid a clichéd happy ending?
KS: I am always keen to avoid clichés! The writer Tim O’Brien has written about trying to avoid endings that tie everything up in neat little packages with a bow on top. I tend to agree. Endings should be pulled down from what comes before them but they should also, I think, surprise us, and perhaps because of that, my endings tend to leave things up to the reader more than some others might.
RF: The theme of the earthly vs. the heavenly crops up often in the book, especially in discussion of Chinese beliefs about ancestors and spirits. How comfortable were you with inserting spiritual elements into your novel? What do you think the book gains from this more mystical aspect?
KS: Again, I’m not sure how intentional/conscious this pairing was, but the story lent itself to this tension. The Chinese were described as if they came from another world, and they were treated as alien. And, of course, the spiritual was hugely important to both the Americans and the Chinese. And, of course, these would be belief systems that would quite often clash. And then, I think the omniscient point of view also lends itself to that sense that God is talking and looking down on us all. I am not a religious person. I was not raised as a religious person, but it was important to this particular story, because of the time and the place and the people involved, that God be a central figure in the book.
RF: The narrator makes frequent reference to God – albeit a particular kind of interventionist God (“And the town entire marveled at the twists and turns in the roads God had laid for them”; “They lifted their faces and waited for what from His hand would be ordinary and what would be singular”). Were these references to God’s powerful action meant to reflect the devout time and peoples, or did it feel to you more timeless and true than that? Would you say you treat your characters’ helplessness before a “dice-playing” God in an ironic manner?
KS: Certainly, yes, given the time and place, I wanted to reflect the large role God played in my characters’ lives. And, as I said above, I am not a religious person, but I am certainly drawn to spiritual and moral questions. And I’m drawn to the issue of our responsibility for the positions in which we find ourselves. I think part of the progress my characters make has to be in relation to that issue of responsibility. They have to feel as if their own actions or inactions are as influential as God’s larger plan, so to speak. It is, I think, an abdication of responsibility for someone to say they are helpless before a dice-playing God. That abdication protects us from all sorts of things, most of all our personal responsibilities.
RF: I was intrigued by the way you frequently interject hints of future events, from simple conversations or reflections that will take place in times to come to larger revelations about when and how characters will die. In a few places you even use the conditional mood to express future eventuality. Why did you choose to employ this interesting strategy of letting the future peek through?
KS: I wanted that flexible omniscient point of view to be able to move through time, and to give the reader a sense of what had come before this story and what would come after it, so hence those hints about the future. It was an interesting challenge to have to walk a line between telling enough and not telling too much. And I got a lot of help with that from early readers. Ultimately, I settled on revelations that tell the reader what might happen but not how they happened.
RF: How did you hope to convey the interrelations of past, present and future?
KS: I hoped that the book would suggest the ways in which the past always haunts us, but that being haunted isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Who we will be is, of course, largely dependent on who we were, and those of us who understand those previous versions of ourselves best can, I think, become the best versions of ourselves as we move forward.
A writer’s life
RF: Everyone always wonders: what is it like to be married to a fellow novelist (and Williams College professor, Jim Shepard)? Do you read and give feedback on each other’s work? What would you say is the extent of your influence on each other’s subject matter and style?
KS: Living hell. Just kidding. I think both Jim and I feel blessed to be married to another writer who we admire and trust so much. Writing is, as you know, a solitary pursuit. To have someone who we can show both first, fragile pages to and finished drafts as well feels extraordinarily lucky. We do read each other’s stuff right away, but our editorial responses are different depending on the stage of the game. Early on, we are giving associative responses to work: this makes me think of that, etc. Later, we get out our red pens and are brutally honest. Neither of us wants a company man’s response to our work. We want, as my husband puts it, a mix of rigor and optimism. We are rigorous because we are optimistic that the other can make the work better.
I am, of course, the wrong person to ask about how Jim has influenced my subject matter or style. Certainly, he writes much, much more historical fiction than I have, so I imagine that my attempting this novel may not have happened without him. I hope that we both create a safe place from which to take risks for each other. I hope that we both encourage each other to try new things in our work. We never promise not to point and laugh. We do point and laugh quite a lot. But we don’t merely point and laugh.
RF: Novelist Hester Kaplan [see my recent review of her new novel] (who is also married to a fellow writer) says “A short story is a date, while a novel is a marriage.” Do you think that metaphor works? You have written both short stories and novels; what are some of the differences in the writing experience? Will you be publishing a collection of your short stories?
KS: Yes, I’ve heard this comparison before from other writers. For me, writing is nothing like a marriage, thank God. Whether it’s short story, or essay, or novel, it’s all like being pinned between two boulders having waves wash over you. Between the waves, you take a big breath and hope you can survive the next one! I hope to publish a collection some day, and I do have enough pages for one right now, but given my sales figures I’m told I need a novel to sell the short stories along with. That I do not have! At least, not yet.
KS: Oh my. So many. Paula Fox’s The Widow’s Children, Alessandro Baricco’s Silk, Edward Jones’s The Known World. Anything by Jim Shepard. Seriously. He’s one of the best writers on the planet and not enough readers know about him.
RF: Are you working on anything now?
KS: As wonderful as publishing a book is, it means no writing, at least for me it does. My brain is filled with the distractions of publication, and I can’t quiet it enough to get to work. But that will come. I hope.