Written by Carolina Eleni Theodoropoulos
A couple of weekends ago at the Texas Book Festival, Karen Shepard presented her new collection, Kiss Me Someone, while in conversation with Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! Shepard spoke heavily about the responsibility she feels as a writer to cultivate compassion for characters that sometimes appear monstrous.
The title speaks to Shepard’s heroines, who display in their actions both a demand and a plea, a desperation and an agency. Their sadness often builds a wall of anger leading them to act self-destructively. Instead of passive encounters—facing the hand life dealt us—Shepard is more interested in the hand we deal ourselves. She hones in the role we all take in our dissatisfactions and unhappiness.
Though her characters are unlikeable, Shepard shapes their personalities toward self-awareness. This perceptive ability forces them to evolve and take responsibility for their actions. To this effect, Shepard uses her writing to generate discomfort in the reader. To come out of fiction with the same preconceived notions you dove into it, Shepard says, is pointless, boring: “We know bigots are bad; sexists are bad.” Interesting fiction leaves you with a feeling you didn’t have when starting out; it makes you a little uncomfortable.
Shepard brings up a story by Mary Gaitskill, “Girl on a Plane,” where a man tells a story to the woman next to him, thereby exposing his capacity for cruelty and contempt. Many of Gaitskill’s readers apparently went up to her and told her they didn’t know how to feel about this story, this man; they were uncomfortable having mixed feelings. Gaitskill replied: You feel what you feel. And then you take responsibility. If you don’t take responsibility for your feelings, how will you ever take responsibility for your actions?
The last story of the collection, “Rescue,” is about a hit-and-run in a small town where the perpetrators are neighbors of the victim by less than fifty feet. It’s an old couple that colludes to leave the girl there, and who sit in its living room waiting until someone else finds her to call an ambulance. Shepard weaves many narratives of the event by dipping in and out of the perspective of the neighbors, the victim, the officer, the victim’s son, etc. The story was inspired by a hit-and-run in Williamstown in which newspapers described the victim as “neurologically devastated”—not recovering, but not quite dying. Shepard delves into small-town mentality and explores how they talk and think about this accident. How do these people make sense of the events in order to build a collective narrative that appeases their conscience?
Another story Shepard discussed, “Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When,” was a 9/11-inspired story. She was frustrated with the eulogies of the New York Times, which made everyone out to be saints. As curated portraits of grief, they honored the eulogist more than the eulogy. They were to make us feel better rather than honor the individual struggles and lives of these people. So in the story, a widow meets the mistress of her late husband to find out he bought her an apartment in their building. The widow isn’t glad he’s dead but at the same time, she battles with mourning someone she knows was deeply flawed. But “we can mourn the flawed;” Shepard ends the story, “we can, and we do.”
Kiss Me Someone is an attempt at compassion—for people who are imperfect, who are self-destructive, who have hurt others. As a writer, Shepard says, you learn empathy and how to cultivate compassion for characters you wouldn’t necessarily deem worthy of compassion. As a human you should do the same. If there will inevitably be monsters, how can we be compassionate toward the monstrous?