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.