Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron is a remarkable portrait of the complicated nature of heroism and courage in the face of human atrocity. His fictional commemoration of philanthropist and children’s educator-activist Dr Janusz Korczak is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy forced to live on his wits, who ends up in Korczak’s orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation. It’s a story about the best and worst of humanity, told with compassion and a beguiling lightness of touch. While Korczak’s legendary good deeds are amplified throughout its pages, up close the doctor is world-weary, decrepit and crotchety after thirty years of fighting for justice and understanding. I chat to Shepard about children’s rights, adult misdeeds, human decency and the margins of literary fame.
MR: What attracted you to write about Janusz Korczak and this final phase of his life?
JS: An old student actually broached the idea by saying, why have you never done this before? It seemed to him that Korczak was the kind of figure that I would write about and I hadn’t. I had in fact learned about him at a very early age. As a child I’d been attracted to catastrophe as a subject, partially because I had, I assume, a precocious sense of catastrophe all around us, but also because I just had a small boy’s fascination for things that go smash. I’d read about him a long time ago, and I’d never thought about writing about him because I’d always been drawn in my historical fiction to writing about the worm’s eye view, the people who are powerless or standing to one side of power. So although I’ve been fascinated by the kinds of figures you’d call the ‘great men of history’, I haven’t wanted to inhabit them.
But since I own a copy of Korczak’s Ghetto Diary, I thought I’d give it a look again, and I came across a story about a boy whose mother had said, “I’m going to stay alive long enough to get you into that orphanage.” She hung on miraculously for month after month after month until finally there was an opening and Korczak announced to the family that he could come in, and the mother promptly died and the boy was inconsolable. And I thought, what would that be like, to be in the presence of someone you know is an amazing human being, and is continually saving lives, and to not be able to fully appreciate it? And that seemed to me a fascinating way to get at both a saintly figure and to get at a subject as fraught and full of hubris as the Holocaust. So that’s where the project began.
Almost the last words of the book are from Korczak’s Declaration of Children’s Rights, ending on the statement “A child has the right to make mistakes.” How revolutionary were his ideas on children’s welfare, and how have they been interpreted to the present day?
They were pretty revolutionary in that the idea behind children’s education before that was that children had no notion of what’s best for them, and that pleasure should have nothing whatsoever to do with it. If you think about a Prussian school in, say, 1888, the idea that you would consult a child about how his education might proceed, and the idea that you would do anything other than punish the child for being wrong, was fairly radical. Korczak worked tirelessly to suggest that the child not only should be consulted, and pleasure taken into account, but the child should be allowed to make mistakes. I made that part, make mistakes, the last of the sequence for the purposes of the novel, it’s not the last in the sequence of his Declaration.
You have Korczak say, “When the adult community wouldn’t provide a stable or rational environment the children could create for themselves a world that was functional and tender.” Is that a direct quote?
It is. One of the really moving things about Korczak for me is, as much faith as he had in children, he didn’t idealise them the way someone like Rousseau did, he didn’t believe they were starry-eyed innocents, but he did think that adults had so badly mucked up the world that returning to children as a source of hope was really the only way progress could operate. And because of that, that quote seems to me particularly germane: if we leave it to the adults, children will be extremely badly served, so why don’t we leave it to the children and let them work things out? He ran his schools and the orphanage in the Ghetto as a children’s republic, essentially; they had their own government and their own newspaper, and it gave them a sense of responsibility, but mostly it gave them some sense of justice. You probably remember from your own childhood how often you’d feel that the decisions being handed down were not even remotely just, and you’d think, why can’t I at least question this? And adults had such a way then – they still do, but they had such a way then – of saying, because I say so.
Did you discover any unexpected facets of Korczak during the course of your research?
I think because I was concentrating on his last days, in my novel he’s much less the inspirational standard-bearer everybody can rally round and feel good about, and much more the man who realises his time is essentially done. So there’s a lot more despair and a lot more exhaustion that he’s fighting against, there are moments I’ve imagined that are based on moments of doubt in his journals, where he just says to the children things like, “Well we’re all dogs on a chain, it doesn’t much matter,” and then apologises for saying something so unhelpful. Given that he was in his early sixties when the Germans invaded, his health was pretty much in tatters for the entire war, and he drove himself very hard, and I found him to be a fascinating combination of heroic and stoic in the ways you would expect, and also hypocondriachal. When he was with his familiars he would complain all the time, but of course he then had to get out and march and act as though he were not weak at all.
How much trickier was it to uncover details about Korczak’s longterm accomplice and companion ‘Madame Stefa’?
Well there are a lot of biographies, and they’re quite fascinated with Madame Stefa. As soon as you explore what it’s like to be the familiar of the messianic hero, you realise what a complicated emotional position that is, because essentially what somebody like Korczak says is, “I’m not looking out for myself at all, and I never promised you anything either, so I don’t want to hear any complaining from you.” And usually the familiar agrees to that: “What we’re doing is amazing work, and I understand that my desires have no real relevance.” But you’re a human being, right? So even if you feel that way 90 per cent of the time, the other 10 per cent you’re like, “Well you know, it would be nice if you gave me a smile every now and then.”
Some of the moments I tried to dramatise in the novel, when Korczak says no, you’re not allowed that, hopefully then allow the reader to have a much more complicated emotional response: it’s like, “Really? You can’t help this woman out a little bit?” I think part of what literature is trying to do is put readers in a position where they say, “Well I don’t know what I would do in that situation.” If you imagine conflict as equal (or nearly equal) values trying to occupy the same space at the same time, that’s one of those moments when you think, well I guess a compassionate response would be to say, “Of course I love you, Stefa.” But then you think, is that really going to help Stefa? What’s the next step after that? So what I want is that moment where the reader thinks, “I don’t know what I would do either.”
You mentioned the story of the one child who was lined up to go into the orphanage. Did Aron come directly out of that episode?
He’s much more of an amalgam, but certainly the notion of writing about this figure, about a child, came from that episode, because it reminded me that when you read the survivors’ accounts in hindsight, they tend to be quite reverent and to say, “he was a saint, and I was just happy to be in his presence.” And you think, well that’s plausible. But of course that boy’s anecdote reminded me that it wasn’t even remotely like that while it was happening. In restrospect, forty years later, you think, “What an amazing man, I’ll never say a bad word about him,” but while you’re there you’re thinking, “this is dreadful.”
How might the story have been different if had been told from the perspective of one of the girls in the Ghetto?
I think in some ways any child who survived in the Ghetto for any amount of time had certain feral virtues, and Adina, one of the girls, even says with some distress about herself, “I was always that sort of child who cut lines and got things that I wasn’t supposed to get,” and she remembers at the very early stages of the war her father and sibling who are much better behaved waiting in line patiently and getting nothing, and she thinks that doesn’t seem fair. But she’s also proud that she’s the one who gets stuff for her family. So on the one hand you don’t want to make too much of the gender difference because for girls to survive they had to be every bit as resourceful as boys. On the other hand there’s one part of the gender difference that’s quite enormous, that the book doesn’t make a great deal of, but I hope is implicit, and that is boys were in much more danger, and had much more limited options in terms of getting out of the Ghetto.
If you had a shred of compassion and you suspected a girl might be a Jew, you could still brazen it out. With a boy, of course, all you need to do is pull his pants down.”
There’s a plot turn where one of the girls says, “I’m going to find my family,” and we understand that the family has quite likely been liquidated but she’s going to go anyway, and she’s going to go out into the Aryan side of Poland and take her chances. But it’s not quite as doomed as if one of the boys did it, because if you had a shred of compassion and you suspected a girl might be a Jew, you could still say to yourself, well I’ll brazen it out, who can prove she is a Jew? What she’d have to worry about is someone saying, “I know that girl, I know where she’s from, I know she’s Jewish and they’re hiding her.” But that’s really the only thing you had to worry about. With a boy, of course, all you need to do is pull his pants down. And that meant that no one wanted to take a boy in, it was just deadly dangerous. So for a boy to say I’m going to look for my family in the Aryan side, he essentially had to be entirely on his own or find someone who was astonishingly altruistic, willing to risk his and his family’s life in order to save this child, and there just weren’t that many people like that out there.
How long did it take to write?
And did your approach the structure of the novel change course during the writing?
Oh, yeah, everything does. I’m not the wizard of planning that allows me to simply lay out some beautifully symmetrical design and then execute it. I’m teaching myself as I go. What’s in place is a sense of, it’s going to be a first-person narrator, it’s going to go from his childhood in eastern Poland up to Treblinka, but not all the way to Treblinka. That already builds an arc in. Then I’m thinking, OK, he’s going to get access to Korczak, he’s not going to get access to people like Ringelblum and the people running the Judenrat, so here’s what I’m going to have access to in terms of telling the Ghetto story. How many events will there be along the way? I think I have a rough idea of that… But really I’m teaching myself as I go, and I’m thinking things like, this part of the narrative is dragging a little bit, we’re going to have to drop out some episodes.
Did you discard a lot?
Yeah, every single day, and I think a lot of writers do this, you go back over what you’ve done before you move forward, and very, very often the whole day would be spent going back over what I had done, and continually cutting and losing more and more and more. Making his voice more laconic was one thing that continually happened. He started out fairly closed down and laconic, but he got more so as the work progressed.
How many trips did you make to Poland?
Just one, and it was fairly late in the process. I’d done a lot of research with primary sources, but I was thinking that’s not really enough. And what that meant was I was going there not exactly knowing what I needed to learn, but thinking, just be open to the way in which being there will renovate your understanding.
And part of that was doing the walk from the orphanage to the Umschlagplatz…
Yeah, that I knew I wanted to do. And that actually was much more illuminating than I realised it would be. One of the obsessional ways in which the Ghetto often gets referred to historically is that all these Jews were packed into this tiny space. But a tiny space for 400,000 people’s a big space, and that hadn’t fully registered before. When I finally did the walk, it took me three and a half hours, and that was shocking to me. Warsaw, although it was almost entirely destroyed in World War II, is a very sprawling city, which means the Ghetto, even though the Ghetto was a relatively small part, was enormous.
Before the march to the square and the train, Korczak staged a production of Rabrindranath Tagore’s The Post Office at the orphanage. What are the lessons in that play that he wanted to impart to the kids?
Oh, I think they were absolutely heartbreaking. It’s essentially about an encounter with one’s own mortality, and what sort of values do we hold onto as the light is taken away from us? I’m sure he didn’t give them lecture notes on why he was doing this, but I’m also quite sure that even the smallest children figured out that they were essentially being eased into an understanding that it’s not going to be so terrible when life is taken away from us. It’s an astonishing thing for him to have done, but it’s perfectly in keeping with his way of operating. It’s so characteristic of him to say, let’s put on a play, let’s give everybody responsibilities, let’s do this in the face of what’s happening, but let’s do this about what’s happening. A lesser person I think would have tried to put on a play that had nothing to do with what was going on.
How would you feel if Stephen Spielberg came calling to adapt The Book of Aron?
Well I’d be delighted at the payday. But I can’t imagine Spielberg would come calling. If Spielberg were to look at this book, I think he would respect it but I think he would say, “This is not my kind of thing at all. Somebody needs to get those children out of there!” All of my works seem in some perverse way designed to scare away movie people. A lot of things have been optioned, but of course it’s very easy to option things, all you’re doing is saying, I’d love to make this movie… if all things go perfectly. The American satirist H.L. Mencken has a lovely line about the American film industry, he says you can die of optimism out there.
You’ve now written seven novels and four story collections. Which others are currently available here in the UK?
Project X, the previous novel, is available here, and I think Nosferatu is as well, but ‘available’ is an optimistic term. You would have to explain to your bookseller why they should order it, you’re certainly not going to find it on a shelf. I am an entirely obscure figure in England, and only semi-non-obscure in America as well, I suspect.
So the story collections have not been published here at all?
No. But Quercus is interested in bringing a Collected Stories together, and so that would solve all of that in one great swoop. Or a Selected Stories, because there are some stories that I probably would be just as happy not having in bound editions. I’ve been publishing stories since I was an undergraduate, so that’s thirty-five years, and I’m sure looking back on some of those would be somewhat akin to my showing you a video of your first date in high school.
One of the advantages of having a worldview like mine is I’ve gone from being a faintly worrisome fringe figure to someone who’s just looking like he reads the papers.”
What are you currently writing, and what’s likely to be published next?
You know, now you’ve depressed me, Mark. People talk about the drawbacks to book tours, and what that means is not just deprivation in terms of family, but also that a lot of projects have just gone on hold. I delivered this book to my American publisher in January of last year, and was hoping to stop thinking about it around then – but when I’m re-immersed in it over and over again, that means that the ephemeral nature of anything new gets even more ephemeral. Once this is over I think there will be a long period of quiet again, and I can go back to writing, and if I do get to one project it might be about the impending collapse of the American railroad infrastructure – another catastrophe story. One of the advantages of having a worldview like mine is it begins to be more and more congruent with the way the world actually operates. I’ve gone from being a faintly worrisome fringe figure to someone who’s just looking like he reads the papers.
What is the first piece of advice you tend to give your creative writing students?
To not lose contact with their sense of play. One of the things that I’m always trying to remind them is that their intuition is most likely a greater genius than they are, and that they have to allow themselves to just sit down at the desk and say, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but it pleases me. That’s where they’re going to come upon those happy accidents that actually do seem idiosyncratic and unique, as opposed to something by the numbers.
Which of your students have gone on be published?
Two are I think fairly well known in England: Joshua Ferris, who’s a wonderful writer, and one of his classmates was Matthew Thomas, who wrote We Are Not Ourselves, which may be the first big Alzheimer’s novel to come out of the American literary scene, it’s a quasi-multi-generational thing set in the seventies in New York. It has a very powerful matriarchal figure at the centre of it, and she’s trying to hold the family together as her husband battles this awful disease.
Is that something he was working on in class?
Yeah, and Josh was working on his first novel, And Then We Came to the End, a wonderfully comic novel about office life.
Are there particular short story writers that you recommend to your students?
Oh my gosh, yes, people like Miranda July and Amy Hempel and Alice Munro and Charles Baxter and Ken Kalfus and Nathan Englander, there are just armies and armies of them. If you teach short stories in a workshop, part of what you want to do is expose the students to what’s possible, what’s out there. Because one of the most important things I think you can do for a young writer is give them permission to do something a little odd. George Saunders has a wonderful anecdote about reading Donald Barthelme for the first time, and just saying, “Is this allowable?” And that’s a really important moment, because I remember myself as a young person thinking, well I know what it is I like to do, but nobody would call that literature. And when you finally find somebody who seems to have been ratified doing that, it’s quite empowering.
Do you agree with Chad Harbach that there’s tension between MFA courses and the New York literary establishment, and is that necessarily a bad thing?
You know I think that’s in some ways old news, and there’s not nearly as much tension as there used to be. It’s been de rigeur to beat up on MFA programs forever, partially because they have proliferated in a kind of wild pyramid scheme – almost any school that has a desk and an alcoholic can announce they have an MFA program. If you imagine that an MFA program’s job is to turn out writers who can make a living, then it’s a fantastic Ponzi scheme, because it’s certainly not doing that. But if you imagine its job is to create better readers – and better writers, but also better readers; people who are more likely to keep reading, and to keep reading more insightfully – then it doesn’t seem to me MFA programs are doing such awful work.
Googling your work, it’s all too easy to stumble across the phrases “writers’ writer”, and “one of the best writers you’ve never heard of”. How do you feel about such barbed praise, and do you feel that the publication of this book has raised your profile? Are you a “readers’ writer” now too?
Sometimes it’s barbed, but I think most of the time it’s a delicate way of saying no one but writers have heard of you. Certainly this has raised my profile. Whether it’s raised it in any way that’s appreciable, that’s a good question. My guess would be that one of the ironies is it’s raised my profile among writers. When I was a finalist for the National Book Award, a National Public Radio woman was interviewing me and afterwards she said, “Well how does it feel to be famous now, after all of these years of obscurity?” And I said, “Take this simple test: go out in to the street in front of this venue and tell someone you’re interviewing Jim Shepard and watch their face.” Literature in America has a very small cultural reach now, and within literature I have a small cultural reach, so the idea that my profile has been raised is a very relative notion.
Jim Shepard is a National Book Award finalist and the author of six novels and four collections of stories, including Nosferatu and Like You’d Understand, Anyway. He lives in Massachusetts with his family and teaches creative writing at Williams College. The Book of Aron is published by Quercus in hardback, large-format paperback and eBook. Read more.
Author portrait © Michael Lionstar
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.