By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
People who debate the value of the fiction workshop—can literary greatness really be taught?—sometimes forget how transforming it can be for a young wannabe to stand before a living, breathing writer. Forget "Skip the adverbs," forget "Show, don't tell"—the most valuable part of Writing 101 is learning, through direct observation of a master's passion, that literature is worth the best of our talent, and energy, and time.
This was true for Fiona Maazel, who had the fortune to work with Jim Shepard during her senior year of college. (Shepard, one of America's preeminent story writers, gave "By Heart" a taste of his teaching style with a post on Flannery O' Connor.) His energy and insight hit first and hardest; more gradually, she developed a deep appreciation for her master's work. Maazel told me that a line from Shepard's classic "Love and Hydrogen"—a story about two doomed lovers and a very star-crossed airship—encapsulates what she loves about Shepard and the heights she aspires to on the page.
In Fiona Maazel's new novel, Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press), the melancholy leader of a global self-help group and his ex, a hapless spy, seek each other in a world as teeming and empty as ours. Maazel's first novel, Last Last Chance, won the Bard Prize for Fiction, and her work appears in venues like The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, and N+1. In 2008, The National Book Foundation named her a "5 under 35" fiction writer. She spoke to me by phone from Brooklyn, New York.
I ended up in Jim Shepard's creative writing class by accident. A friend asked me to take the class with him, but I wasn't so hot on the idea. Even at age 21, I sensed that fiction writing would expose all of my deficiencies—as a thinker and as a person—but that if I wanted to excel in this discipline, I'd have to lay bare my inner life and then some.
I walked into class on the first day (my friend having prevailed in the end) knowing nothing. Not about writing or contemporary literature, or that these subjects would be my life's work and thrill from that moment on. Jim is a legendary teacher for reasons that aren't that hard to quantify: he's incredibly shrewd about fiction and how it works; he's hilarious and incisive—a supremely generous reader and ever mindful of what we're all trying to do the second we put words down on the page and, more importantly, why it matters. He made fiction seem necessary—vital—and, in a way, weaponized. You could do something with fiction. You could change lives.
I never want to forget that there are global consequences to even the most personal, local gestures.
That year, I started reading his work, moving from his first book, Flights, to Lights Out in the Reptile House—a great novel with one the saddest endings in the world. Then came Nosferatu, about the silent film director F.W. Murnau and his travails, and Jim's first collection of short stories, Batting Against Castro, which is masterful, even though it's not the work for which he's now best known.
Of Jim's stories, "Love and Hydrogen" is one of my favorites. It's about two gay Nazis serving aboard the Hindenburg in 1937 and ostensibly about how a combustible mix of desire and jealousy can have lethal consequences. But really it's about what happens when hubris meets up with a kind of cosmic impatience with our unending need for more. More love, more thrills, more power.
Throughout the story, people are always offending god—with their ships, their guns and ecstasies. They are rising and overreaching, which all gets dramatized through images of floating and flight, not only of the ship's ascent but of the mind as it contemplates scenes of its own devising, which might be the worst heresy of all. "Imagine five or six city blocks could lift, with a bump, and float away," the story begins. Imagine. Rise up and out of yourself and see what happens. Following, there's backstory about the two lovers ascending mountains, and one of them flying over Calais on a bomb raid—everything about height, exultation, and certain kinds of joy.
Which all seems nice enough until the question is posed: "How much happiness is someone entitled to?" the implication being that groping for more than you're allotted in this life will come at a price.
It is useful to remember that this is 1937, after all. We're talking about the Nazis, and what the Hindenburg represented for the German ascendancy. Which means that what's also at issue here is the Third Reich's undoing by its own hand. By the end of the story, we find ourselves at a very precise intersection between the local and the global—between what's happening on the ship and what's happening in the world, between, of course, love and hydrogen.
And so the sentence that means so much to me in this story is as follows:
From the ground, in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg malingers in a last wide circle, uneasy in the uneasy air.
For starters, malingers seems like such a curious and notable choice of words in this context. To malinger—to fake illness—why choose that word when the ship really is ill? It is, after all, about to implode. Except perhaps not to someone looking at it from the ground—someone who doesn't yet know what's coming. In this way, the sentence signals what later becomes an astonishing shift in perspective. I imagine there's a gaudy showmanship to how the Hindenburg might have appeared in its final moments to an onlooker. And when you think about World War II, just two years away, the zeppelin in those moments of show becomes a hapless and tragic proxy for a much bigger calamity in the works.
Hence what is most memorable about that sentence for me: "uneasy in the uneasy air." The ship's uneasy because it's about to blow—but so is the air, so are the times.
In my work, I never want to forget that there are global consequences to even the most personal and local gestures. Even something as vast and terrible as genocide begins with just one person, one perpetrator. Whenever I feel my work is getting too small, too domestic or pedestrian, I have only say to myself: uneasy in the uneasy air, and I am put right. Back on track.