Spotlight on research: Professor explores complex femininity with fiction

Karen Shepard recently published a story collection, Kiss Me Someone. Photo courtesy of Williams Magazine.

Karen Shepard ’87 has always been enchanted by the world of stories and characters. Growing up as an only child, she became curious about the inner human psyche through quiet observation of those around her – and especially through reading fiction. Attending the College further kindled her interest and honed her skills in writing. Shepard is now a senior lecturer in English at the College. This semester, she’s teaching “Introductory Workshop in Memoir.” Her areas of interest include creative writing, contemporary American literature and historical fiction.

Aside from teaching, Shepard is a renowned author of four novels: An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, Don’t I Know You? and The Celestials. Her work has been published in dozens of magazines and newspapers including Self, USA Today and the Boston Globe. Most recently, she published a collection of short stories called Kiss Me Someone that delves into the raw imperfections of womanhood and the relationships between women.

Originally building off of an idea to write about specific characters, Kiss Me Someone evolved into a set of stories about female experiences. “I didn’t set out to write a bunch of stories about womanhood; I set out to write stories about individual characters with individual desires,” Shepard said. “I ask myself what my characters want and what they’re willing to do to get it.” 

The title of this latest collection comes from a scene in a novel by Paula Fox — an author of works for both children and adults — in which one character makes a secret payphone call and sees the graffiti “Kiss Me Someone” written on the phone booth’s wall. “I loved the way the phrase gets at both the sadness and anger of some of my characters,” Shepard said. “The phrase seems like both demand and plea.”

Shepard told me that her short stories explore the “opposite of a happy sisterhood between women,” which she believes is often the closest thing to reality. Her stories reveal the darker side of female dynamics and the ways that women can harm not only others, but also themselves. Unfortunately, real-world relationships between women and girls do not always live up to the warm, positive expectations that girls of all ages can have for them.

Her stories, Shephard said, often uses autobiographical fallacy – a reader’s tendency to conflate author and narrator – as a tool. She said that her fiction should not be read as thinly-disguised autobiography; though some of her stories are autobiographical, others are entirely fictional.

I admire the way that Shepard can unabashedly write about topics that are so uninhibited and raw, and even sexual or controversial, without worrying about what her readers will think or how they will react. When asked how she does it, Shepard laughed and said that she was reminded of a question her students often ask in regards to their own stories: What if my mom reads this?

It can be paralyzing, she said, to focus too much on how readers may react to one’s work. Shepard tries to quiet those voices when she’s working. Of course, she wants her work to be thought-provoking, enjoyable and even uncomfortable, but when she writes, she just drops into “story world,” as she calls it.

Shepard said that her thinking process when writing is much like what author Mary Gaitskill – who has published works for both for children and adults – wrote to a reader who claimed that they didn’t know how to react to one of Gaitskill’s stories. Gaitskill responded, “Why would an adult look to me or any other writer to tell [them] what to feel? You’re not supposed to feel anything. You feel what you feel. Where you go with it is your responsibility.”