Why Things Are the Way They Are
Paul Shepherd is a Writer in Residence and former Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University, where he earned a Ph.D. with distinction. He attended the University of Virginia, UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Greensboro. His work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Fiction, Omni, Prairie Schooner, William and Mary Review, Folio, Pacific Review, U.S. Catholic, St. Anthony Messenger, Portland Review, the Quarterly, Beloit Fiction, Maryland Review and elsewhere. He has served as Senior Editor of International Quarterly, and as faculty adviser to award-winning college newspapers and literary magazines.
Paul has taught college classes in creative writing, magazine and newspaper writing and modern literature.
More Like Not Running Away was the winner of the 2004 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction, and was a finalist for the Associated Writing Programs Award in the Novel, the Bakeless Prize and twice for the James Jones prize.
His book of poetry, Reasons Like Birds, is currently in submission to publishers. A second novel, as yet untitled, is scheduled for completion early in the coming year.
He lives in Tallahassee, where he works part time with family ministries at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, and with Rainbow Rehab, a nonprofit construction company that renovates homes for low-income home-owners.
We met with Shepherd at his home in Tallahassee in late January, and had this conversation at the kitchen table, a pot of coffee at the ready.
HOMILETICS: We’re down here in Tallahassee to talk to you because we think that if Homiletics subscribers read this book they will get a ton of sermon fodder or material in terms of the themes of this book, the events described in the book and its characters. So let’s summarize the plot without giving too much away.
Let’s see if I got this right. This is a story told from the viewpoint of a teenager in a family with a father who has a past, a dad who always thinks things are going to turn out better the next time, and whose disastrous mistakes cause the family to run from one situation to another, until the family can’t survive. What would you add to that summary?
SHEPHERD: The boy suspects early on that the father has a secret, and that it has to do with his violent behavior. The father has a tendency toward violence, although he’s never laid a hand on anyone in the family. But the boy has actually witnessed some things that have been very disturbing to him. And the kid is struggling pretty hard. In the first chapter, he’s been hearing voices that he thinks are from God and these voices become a lot more troubling to him as the book unfolds.
HOMILETICS: The reviewers have said various things. Some say that the book is about “blood ties” that bind fathers and sons, or it’s a book about voices and how we hear the voice of God, or it’s a book about a search for self, or it’s a book about work. What is the book about?
SHEPHERD: [Laughs] That’s a good question. Like many novels, that question can be answered in different ways. The father and son — there’s a lot going on in their lives. Probably everything you’ve mentioned could be identified as a theme. If I had to say what I think it’s about, I would say it’s about a boy growing up and finding his way in a world that he doesn’t understand.
HOMILETICS: Some reviewers mentioned Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield. Is Levi, the kid, a Holden Caulfield with a dad?
SHEPHERD: I think it’s a fair comparison to Holden Caulfield in some ways. The kid is certainly alienated. One of the things by design in the book that was a risk is that we don’t see him interacting much with other people outside his family. He doesn’t have a best friend. Increasingly throughout the book he becomes more alienated and isolated. The family moves all the time and they keep moving farther out from other people.
HOMILETICS: Because Everest, the dad, hates people.
SHEPHERD: Right. He increasingly is unable to get along with people.
HOMILETICS: So this is also a book about alienation, isolation, aloneness and separation.
SHEPHERD: And being forsaken. [He grabs his book and rifles through the pages for the first inscription before chapter one, which is a citation from Isaiah 54.] There’s an Isaiah quote: “For a mere moment I have forsaken you, but with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid my face from you, for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you says the Lord, your Redeemer.”
That’s God acknowledging forsaking us!
In the first page or two, the boy is remembering the first time he goes to church and he hears Christ on the cross saying, “Why have you forsaken me?” You have things from early childhood that sort of reverberate and that line has always reverberated in me.
HOMILETICS: I’ll tell you what, when I picked up this book, I read the first line, the first sentence of the novel, I was hooked. “The first time I heard someone preaching, when I was six, the words stuck in me like nails.” I thought, “Wow! I gotta keep reading this.” I don’t know how writers work, but was this book a conscious attempt to suggest that the human predicament is often about alienation and feeling forsaken?
SHEPHERD: Yes and no. Yes, that’s certainly what I found I was dealing with in the book. But, no, I didn’t set out to make that point. And I think that can be a problem for fiction writers. A lot of fiction writers consciously avoid that kind of agenda.
Instead, what I set out to do was to try to listen to this kid’s voice and the father’s voice and get into that situation and be as truthful as I could to that situation.
It was halfway through writing the novel that I started picking up on the themes myself, forsaken being a big one.
HOMILETICS: Nevertheless, you read this novel and it raises the question of the human condition and whether it is often characterized by a sense of alienation, feeling forsaken and aloneness, and Levi the kid as an example of how this works. And not just the kid, I guess.
SHEPHERD: Three characters — the mother, the father and Levi, and particularly the father, Everest — are really struggling with this feeling of being forsaken by God. The son, too, but the father is hardened —
HOMILETICS: He doesn’t want the church bus pulling up in front of the house to pick up the kid for Sunday school.
SHEPHERD: Right. He can’t handle that. The boy is struggling with that. His childlike faith seems to be going away. And the father feels forsaken by the mother who leaves. This is the crowning blow for him; everyone is running away from him. The boy feels forsaken by the father and mother at times.
HOMILETICS: Could we talk about their names for a minute? I’m curious how this happens. As I was reading More Like Not Running Away, I thought of Updike — for a couple of reasons. For one, I read carefully because you both have such phenomenal powers of description and metaphor, but also because Updike’s characters have interesting names. For example in his Rabbit books, Harry Angstrom, a form of angst, and if anyone knows anything about angst, it’s Harry Angstrom. And when I got to know Nora, the mother, and as I became familiar with her circumstances, Ibsen’s Nora, from The Doll House, came to my mind. Was that a conscious decision? How did these names emerge?
SHEPHERD: I struggle with names. I always have. And titles.
HOMILETICS: So a writer doesn’t always try to choose names that might be suggestive of a theme, or that might layer another meaning that the careful reader might explore. If it were me, I’d open the phone book, and point. [Laughter].
SHEPHERD: I did not intentionally choose names that way. I wanted names that were interesting and real.
HOMILETICS: Levi — so Jewish. I wondered whether there was something in that name.
SHEPHERD: For example, that name, the name of the kid was a problem. I had the novel just about finished, and I wasn’t happy with my choices. And the same with Everest. Nora I had, and Carson, Levi’s sister — the daughter of Nora and Everest. But Levi and Everest — I went through all sorts of names when I was drafting the novel. I have a nephew named Levi. I said, “That’s the name I want.” I asked my brother, “Can I name my character after your kid?” There’s no connection there, but I liked the name. And it was helpful that there was some depth to the character, and to the name. If you’re going to have a name that’s symbolic, that’s a lot of baggage. That’s really difficult.
I just read a student’s story, and the main character’s name is Job, and the character is suffering all the time, and that’s just a little direct. [Laughter]. You don’t want to hit your reader over the head.
HOMILETICS: I love the names. Levi isn’t a common name, and Everest — the highest mountain on the planet, coinciding with the father’s propensity to dream big dreams and climb big mountains that he can’t climb, and, like The Myth of Sisyphus, he’s got that boulder to push up, and follow back down and push up again —
SHEPHERD: And the danger. One of the things that is attractive about Everest [the mountain] is that, while it is not the most difficult climb technically, it certainly is one of the most dangerous climbs. It throws weather and altitude at people and even great climbers get caught on it.
HOMILETICS: I love Levi’s thoughts about “falling up.” Here’s a kid who likes to crawl out on the roof and stand on the roofline or climb high into trees and preach his sermons about the love of God and how Christ died for our sins. And he’s not worried about falling, because his “feet had never made a mistake.” But when he’s out on the roof, he tells his mother not to worry, because he’ll just “fall up.” What a great concept.
SHEPHERD: I think construction has a lot of good concepts. And that’s a standard construction concept —
HOMILETICS: See, now I didn’t know that. So any person who’s grown up in construction and works on roofs — they know about falling up?
SHEPHERD: Pretty much. I was taught that by my father when I started walking roofs. He always gave me “the lecture” when I got up on the roof. He said, “You have to think about if you fall how you’re going to fall. If you fall down the roof, you’ll be a tangled mess and your fall will be uncontrolled. If you fall up the roof, you may be able to stop your fall, but even if you come down the roof, you’re feet first. You’re in a much better position.
We’re going to fall. That’s one of the things Levi learns in the first chapter. People fall off roofs. It’s not uncommon, unfortunately.
I remember a guy who was working for my dad. He was walking the joists, and he fell down a full story. My dad turned around, and the guy was already getting up. My dad had seen him fall. And he says, “Are you okay?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, I was just getting down!” [Laughter].
HOMILETICS: So he had already in his own mind created a redemptive experience out of this! [Laughter].
SHEPHERD: Immediately! The guy was a terrific liar.
HOMILETICS: Yet if we are going to fall, we want to fall in a way so that redemption is possible. In the end, Levi does — we understand — that Levi has been able to fall up. Everest, we’re not so sure. Everest seems to be one who falls down, and does so rather spectacularly.
SHEPHERD: Levi wants to believe. The redemptive aspect of this is something that a lot of readers have picked up on. And they have also had an interesting reaction to Everest, the father, who although he struggles with such violent impulses and is in many ways a hard character, yet readers have found redemptive qualities in him. His care for the family is genuine, deep and abiding. And what he’s trying to give his son is really everything he has.
HOMILETICS: This is one reason I enjoyed the book so much. It’s such a great study in human nature, human natures. I was thinking about what Everest says to his son after he’d hired a drunk to do some construction work. In the end, he tells Levi, people just have to do what they have to do.
SHEPHERD: Some people are skid row alcoholics. You get a sense of destiny just grinding away at persons.
Working in homeless shelters, you see how much it takes to rescue some people — it’s very, very difficult to look at them and think that they’re going to change the path their lives are on, or that there is much at all that can change the path they’re on.
HOMILETICS: So when you work with them, you’re not necessarily trying to change the path they’re on, but instead to give them the basic things they need.
SHEPHERD: It’s interesting that right here in Tallahassee, we have a homeless shelter. It’s basically, “Come as you are.” Come in, lie down — you’re taken care of. They offer social services, food and so on.
There’s a new shelter that’s open now, and its purpose is to help them get back on their feet. But there was this discussion here in our town. Some people wondered why we needed two shelters. But this second shelter is different from the other one.
When you come in to this new shelter, you’re told, “We’re going to give you a set of expectations, and we’re going to help you meet them, we’re going to help you get from here to here to here with the eventual goal of getting you out on your own.” The current or first shelter is —
HOMILETICS: Hospice care.
SHEPHERD: In a sense. If people want to get themselves out on a new path, there’s a chance for them to do that, but a lot aren’t ready. It’s not where they’re at.
HOMILETICS: What writer or writers have influenced you? Or what writer or writers do you admire?
SHEPHERD: Okay. Hands down the writer who has had the greatest influence on me in fiction is Dostoevsky. I read Dostoevsky at a critical time in my life when I was going through a lot of things Levi is going through. He opened my eyes to the human condition and the potential for people to steer through that. So Dostoevsky, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
I also read when I was young Catcher in the Rye. And my heart soared when one of the reviewers of More Like Not Running Away compared it to Catcher. Caulfield is a character that a lot of young people identify with. It’s interesting to come back to that book as an older reader. It holds up well.
And then there’s a book I am trying to get everyone to read [laughs heartily] and it’s Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. It’s a tremendous story written mid-20th century of a writer in Stalinist Russia who travels back in time to the court of Pontius Pilate. The devil has come to Moscow to try to recruit this writer. It’s a compelling story. It’s also a book that made me think a lot — as much as any book I’ve read — ever. The book was never published in his lifetime.
HOMILETICS: Is it his only book?
SHEPHERD: It’s his only good book! [Laughs] He wrote one good sci-fi piece, but he was mainly a playwright. He wrote a scathing letter to Stalin which ended his career, but he was never put in prison. He was sent away to some remote post.
HOMILETICS: You have a book of poetry, also?
SHEPHERD: It’s being prepared for a publisher now with the working title, Reasons Like Birds.
HOMILETICS: I’d like to ask you about writing. Pastors do a lot of writing. Many of them take pride in their writing and storytelling. We do a lot of writing with our weekly sermon preparation and other projects. I have always been interested in the craft itself. Stories about Graham Greene, for example, tell us that he went out on his patio in the morning with a pad of paper and couple of sharpened pencils, wrote 500 words, put down his pencil and spent the day fishing or walking or something. But he did that every day and in 10 days he’s got 5,000 words. How do you write?
SHEPHERD: I love the question! One reason I like the question is because I think — at least for me as a writer — why I’m interested in that is because I am always hoping that there’s an approach that’s easier or better than the way I’m doing it! [Laughs].
So I say to people, “Do you have the answer?” because I’ve heard about 17 different ways to write, but there must be one more that will work for me!
One answer that does work for me is Ron Carlson’s approach. He’s a terrific writer. He says that a writer is the person “who stays in the room.” He sits down to write and when it’s going very well, his first inclination is to get up and get a cup of coffee because it’s going so well.
He says, “If I don’t do that and I keep writing, my best work happens between then and when I finally do get up for that cup of coffee.”
I’m a terrible person about getting up about every 15 minutes. And I have written in about every possible way.
I have a fairly busy life with the volunteer work, working at the church, at Florida State, and with my kids. So it’s hard for me to say that, “Well, I have two hours every day.”
Part of this book was written on a motorcycle while I was commuting to school two hours away.
HOMILETICS: How do you write a book on a motorcycle?
SHEPHERD: I used one of those [points to the micro-recorder on the table]. The first time I did that, I affixed it to the handlebars and I talked into it for two hours and when I went to play it back all I heard was “Whoooosssssssh!” [Laughs and laughs]. So I had to hold it closer to my mouth and I would have to take a hand off the handlebars because I had to have the recorder right to my mouth.
So I’ve done my writing on tape recorders, in notebooks, computers, napkins —
HOMILETICS: Sooooo, basically that answer is just totally worthless. There’s no —
SHEPHERD: I don’t have a secret! [Laughter all around]. No secret. Except that I try to write whenever I can, and when I’m not writing, I resort to what I call my Daily Writing Option. I write every day, but I don’t have a minimum, like Greene’s 500 words. If I realize that it’s been a month and I haven’t written, then I know something’s wrong, and I say, “I’m going back to the Daily Writing Option.” Anything that’s writing; e-mail doesn’t count. And it usually ends up being a couple of hours.
One thing writers take comfort in is to hear writers talk about writing. Some writers love to write. I don’t. I hate to write. It’s very painful. I find it boring. For your readers who don’t like writing, who sometimes feel it is a burden — there are a few of us writers out there with whom to join forces.
HOMILETICS: Why would you do something you hate to do? Here is someone who hates to do writing who’s just published a marvelous novel, and then there are others of us who love to write who can’t get a manuscript over the transom door. What motivates you to write a story like this?
SHEPHERD: It has to come out. It’s trapped inside. It’s a great discomfort to have the story and not have it out there.
HOMILETICS: Is there is something about this particular book that at some level is autobiographical and that in some way exorcised your own demons?
SHEPHERD: It did not exorcise my demons. There’s a lot autobiographical. It’s more autobiographical than A Million Little Pieces [laughter all around. This is a reference to James Frey’s best-selling book that purported to be an autobiographical account of a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser and how he copes with rehabilitation. In fact, the book, published by Random House and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, contained considerable fictive material, outright fabrications. The controversy was reported widely in the press.]. What it did do was help me understand things that had happened to me and decisions I’d made. To put a narrative together, things have to make sense.
It’s one of the things you teach students with plot. Things don’t just happen. A plot is cause and effect. What happened on page one has to affect what happens on page three.
We often think of life as not having a plot. When you’re forced to take some of the material in your life and work it into a narrative, you begin to see why something happened three years later. You can connect that to an earlier event.
HOMILETICS: There’s a chapter that has a title something like that, in which Everest is going to explain “why things are the way things are.” I wasn’t sure he ever did that. I think he got started, but perhaps I read that too quickly. For Everest, the dad, why were things the way they were? Because he had made one big mistake?
SHEPHERD: That’s what he thought.
HOMILETICS: That’s what he thought. So he is explaining to Levi, his son, that for his own life this is why things were the way they were, but it also meant that this mistake is why things were the way they were for Levi?
SHEPHERD: Everest was burdened with this secret, and had to tell his son at some point that he had killed this man, and that it hadn’t let him go.
HOMILETICS: Is it important to look at our lives to attempt to uncover some pivotal event that is the cause of “why things are the way they are”? Can we all look back and say, “That changed the course of my life”?
SHEPHERD: No, I don’t think so. We can look at current situations, and understand that they are going to create the next “Why things are the way they are.”
This is something I talk a lot about with my students. We have 800 creative writing majors at Florida State University. I’ve been going around the country to colleges talking to creative writing majors all over. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds over the last year. Of those, a handful or less will publish a book. Most of them will go into other fields.
The question is: What are we teaching them? What are they here to learn? And in my mind, what they can get is a sense of how to think creatively about where they are, and where they’re going, to see their lives as unfolding.
It’s surprising how seldom we do this. For example. My students always have new cars, cars that are very nice. They have car payments to go with those cars. They dream of being a dive instructor on a ship in the Bahamas. Maybe they do some diving. It would take a couple thousand dollars to get that instructor certification. They could do it for a couple of summers. They can’t see how to get there from where they are. They don’t see the car as what’s stopping them.
My wife is a law professor. We see this with lawyers. Lawyers make good money. It’s hard when you’re making $200,000 a year to say, “But I want to be a high-school history teacher. But I can’t do that. I’ve got this house”, and so on. But there are high-school history teachers living full, meaningful lives, on their salary. They’re not living like lawyers, but to move from being a lawyer to being a high-school history teacher takes someone seeing his own life as a story he’s writing instead of one that’s being written for him.
HOMILETICS: That’s a good point for us as preachers. Perhaps we don’t think enough about narrative and story and cause and effect. And when we go to the Bible, we get the Bible’s story, and then say, “Okay, here’s the Bible’s story — it ought to be your story, too.”
SHEPHERD: We want to superimpose the Bible story on our lives. We want someone else’s story to be our story.
HOMILETICS: Or, to tell us what our story should be.
SHEPHERD: Yes. And that’s easier. We’re really looking for that all the time. I guess it’s understandable.
HOMILETICS: Do you like listening to sermons?
SHEPHERD: I like listening to good sermons! [Laughter all around].
HOMILETICS: I don’t know if your pastor will read this. So just between you and me …
SHEPHERD: One of the most important pastors in my life would not be surprised to read in Homiletics that I said he was not real gifted when it came to sermons. His ministry was in other areas. I was talking with a homiletics professor at Wartburg Seminary about this. About how a good sermon and a good story share the same characteristics.
Stories have a form, a very simple form, and a very human form. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy form to pull off. But they work in a lot of the same ways. It’s that upside-down check mark of rising action, conflict, turning point or crisis and falling action. Good sermons certainly follow pretty much that same shape.
One of the things that people find difficult in a sermon is not knowing where they are in that shape. I’ve heard a good many sermons where it’s like waves, and we’re coming to the rising action and the crisis and we’re coming down and then we’re coming to another rising action! [laughs].
HOMILETICS: And the message in the bottle never seems to get to shore!
HOMILETICS: On page 221 of your book, you have a little excursus where it’s written: “I heard God and when God went away, I heard everything.” Can you talk a little bit more about that?
SHEPHERD: The moments when we feel forsaken by God have an important role in our faith formation. Sometimes we look at those moments when we lose our faith, or we struggle, as bad things. When we don’t hear God and want to doesn’t necessarily mean that’s it a wrong or bad thing, but it might mean that our faith is deepening. We can be overinvolved in our own vision of what God is saying to us, but there is a role for the silences in our lives, and the questions.
We certainly see around us some negative effects of a single-minded belief that what I have is the unfettered word of God direct into my heart. There’s a tube. There’s no need for questioning or evaluating that.
HOMILETICS: I was thinking of other works that have the “running away” theme, but I didn’t come up with much. There’s the movie, Forrest Gump. “Run, Forrest, run!” [Laughter all round]. Or The Fugitive, the falsely accused man running from the law. But we understand the concept of “running away” and that running away may not always be a good idea. But can running away be the right choice? Nora, the mother, runs away, and it is probably the right thing to do. In your book, the only character who doesn’t run away is Frankie, who is this really wonderful character who loves life, accepts life as it comes along, loves the Mariners, a little earthy. But everyone else is running away.
SHEPHERD: And Carson, the sister. There’s a book I’m working on now that comes before More Like Not Running Away, that deals with the father’s childhood. The father is not the main character, but it takes place when the father is a child. And there’s a book I’m going to write in my mid-50s that will pick up with some of these characters a number of years later.
But Carson and Frankie are two characters — for the book to have the shape I thought was best — they didn’t quite have the room I’d like for them to have at some point. So I’m hoping that in this next book Carson and Frankie are two people we get to know even more.
In this family of four — Nora the mother, Everest the father, and Levi the son — Carson is the only one who in a lot of ways seems connected to the “real” world and who understands what is going on in the family.
HOMILETICS: Frankie seems “normal,” and Nora likewise, although Nora is in a situation that’s become untenable, and therefore she has to make some decisions that Frankie doesn’t have to make. But it seems like Frankie has a colorful past, too. But maybe she doesn’t; I don’t know [Laughter].
SHEPHERD: It certainly feels like it!
HOMILETICS: As I said, I wondered about “running away” themes in literature, and then I wondered about “running away” themes in Scripture. One that comes to mind is the Prodigal Son in one of the parables of Jesus.
SHEPHERD: I think Paul runs away. A lot of people — when God had a vision for them — tried to run away from that. Moses, Jonah.
HOMILETICS: Even the exodus is a story of the Hebrew children running away from an untenable situation, and then wandering in a wilderness, and the prophetic lament is often that the people of God have run away.
SHEPHERD: It’s been something that’s always fascinated me as a human thing, something I hope to explore in a book some day: People leave. People just leave. Sometimes that’s what they have left, all they have left — in their own minds. I guess I am curious about it because I’m actually the kind of person who will call up old friends — people whom I haven’t heard from for 10 years — they’re likely to get a phone call or an e-mail from me, just kind of checking in. Maybe I am afraid of disappearing.
But some people just walk away and they go off to live a different life. And I am very curious about what would lead someone to do that.
HOMILETICS: Levi has this conversation near the end of the book with his sister, and she asks him, “Well, are you running away — again?” And now that God has gone and everything has come into focus he says, “No, it’s more like not running away.” He is running away, but it’s more like not running away. Which means that in this action a decisive step is taken toward resolving the issues in his life.
SHEPHERD: Yes, that’s his decisive step. He is finally on his own, taking some control.
HOMILETICS: So the concept of “more like not running away” is that sometimes we might take a step that might appear that we’re running away, but it could be an action that really addresses the core issues.
SHEPHERD: Perhaps, but you can’t run away from stuff. That’s what they’re all finding. No matter where you run, you’re not going to run away from who you are. So it’s more like not running away. The father couldn’t run away. He was running away, but wherever he ran, this thing was with him.
HOMILETICS: This would be a book, I would think, that would appeal, to college kids.
SHEPHERD: One of the things this book has enabled me to do is to connect with some people who have also felt alienation, who have gone through violence and so on. A lot of college students and young people have contacted me. I am glad we can connect through this and that the connection has something redemptive.
I love Cormac McCarthy for a lot of reasons. He’s just a terrific writer. But I know myself: When you’re really in a difficult place, you’re attracted to books that reflect that experience. If that book in the end, only reflects that experience, I have some concerns for what it means for the reader. The writers I admire are writers who take us there and then lift us up.
TO ORDER More Like Not Running Away, visit the book’s Web site, morelikenotrunningaway.com, or the publisher’s Web site: sarabandebooks.org/Authors/Paul%20Shepherd/downloads. The book can also be ordered from Amazon.com.