Jesse Mojo Shepard
Jesse was born in May 1970, son of Sam Shepard and O-lan Jones. His parents
married in 1969 and later divorced in 1984. Rumor has it that Jesse was named
after the outlaw Jesse James and a Cajun good luck charm.
It's not that surprising that Jesse would eventually discover his own writing
talents. In 2003 his first book of short stories was published by Bloombury
Press called JUBILEE KING. Here's an article on Jesse followed by his
Benson, San Francisco Chronicle:
He looks familiar, this lanky fellow feeding quarters into the meter in front of
Caffe Puccini in North Beach.
His orange-and-white 1966 Ford F-100 pickup has original California plates.
There's a striped Mexican blanket tossed across the wide bench seat. A sticker
on the back window reads "Peace is patriotic."
Jesse Shepard, 32, is the caretaker on a ranch in Sonoma.
"I have horses and goats and grow hay," he says, taking a seat in the cafe, out
of the rain. "It's a good spot."
He doesn't drive the truck into town too often, but that may change when his
debut collection of short stories, "Jubilee King," is published by Bloomsbury
Son of author-playwright Sam Shepard and actress O-Lan Jones, he holds a
spanking-fresh copy of the book as if it's a not-quite-familiar pleasure. His
dad reads his stories, he says, but hasn't seen them yet in final form.
"My father is really happy for me," he says. "He's been a great support."
There's talk of a dual reading at City Lights on April 24; Sam Shepard published
a collection of stories, "Great Dream of Heaven" (Alfred A. Knopf), last year.
"My whole family is a very creative group, very artistic," says Shepard. His
mother is currently in a Magic Theatre production, "Eight Bob Off." Though his
parents divorced when he was young, he remains close to them both.
Turning the book over in his hand - the cover sports a stark photograph of a
painting of a horse, which he likes - Shepard says, "I want the stories to stand
on their own. I don't want to be compared - but that's inevitable, I guess."
The work of both father and son is full of horses. "I learned to ride at 5, "
Shepard says, "but I didn't take it seriously until I was 18. I've worked horses
for 15 years as a polo groom -- and I played a little."
He grew up in Mill Valley, then he and his folks moved to a horse-boarding ranch
on Mount Tam called the Flying Y Ranch.
"My dad had horses there, and we were tenants -- it was great when I was 5, 6, 7
years old," he says. "It's gone now, replaced by an apartment complex they have
the audacity to call the Flying Y."
The '66 Ford and the distaste for gentrification aren't the only clues that
Shepard has one boot planted in the past.
"I don't own a computer," he says, "I do all my writing by hand. Not that I want
to romanticize things, but it's important for me to have a real physical,
tactile connection to the work." Which means his typewriter makes that wonderful
drrring when he slaps the carriage.
"I use an old Olympia from the '50s, a good manual typewriter," he says. "You
can get right in there with it." The manuscript startled his editors: They
hadn't seen typewritten pages for years.
His father's early work was hyperkinetic, absurdist, subversive. It matured into
the brutal, poetic realism that became his signature in plays like "True West,"
"Fool for Love" and "Buried Child," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.
There is a similar stubborn realism in his son's writing, along with crisply
bitten-off language and deadpan humor.
The story "Night Shot," for example, is a hoot. In it, a couple of hapless
"movie wranglers" - horse handlers on location for a Western - are in over their
heads when the star of the picture is Jack Kodiak, a giant grizzly.
Although the book's publisher boasts that Shepard writes from his own experience
- he has been a movie wrangler on location in Arizona, Texas and Utah for TNT
Westerns - he makes this slight correction: "It's all my own experience, but not
He has neither lived in his car nor been in rehab, though he's got one character
who does the former and a couple who need the latter.
And he doesn't read much contemporary fiction, either. "Most of it seems to come
from a similar mold, doesn't it? There'll be extreme situations, but even those
His favorite practitioners of the short story are long-dead, and mostly Russian.
He does admire Richard Yates, Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, John Cheever - all
the classic short-story writers "who have their fingers on the pulse of the
He loves Chekhov's short stories for their "sense of discovery," he says.
"With me, that's really critical. There has to be some sort of discovery in the
process of writing."
His favorite story is Tolstoy's "Master and Man," in which a selfish landlord
gains transcendence by saving the life of his serf. High drama in deep snow.
There's a Russian influence in some of the stories in "Jubilee King," he
acknowledges. He calls them "fable-type tales" in which "big plans go awry."
One such story is "Flaw in the Shelter," though the plan isn't grandiose: A man
climbs a rain-slick roof simply to free a bird from his chimney.
Slipping on mossy shingles, he falls flat on his back, "feeling his worried
heartbeat through his skull," until a sooty brown sparrow emerges from the
chimney "to resume its life."
The man is changed by this seemingly quotidian event, having seen the delicacy
of the membrane between man and nature.
Shepard writes, "The new perspective filled him with hope, a hope of still being
able to see things for the first time."
John Mark Eberhart,
The Kansas City Star:
Jesse Shepard knows how to write short stories: Directly, vividly, engagingly.
Put this debut collection from this northern Californian on your shelf, and
expect the book to acquire some company over the years, because Shepard is off
to a great start.
Jonah Rask, The Press Democrat
Let's get the father/son thing out in the open and out of the
way right from the start. Jesse Shepard, the Sonoma County resident and author
of ``Jubilee King,'' is the older son of Sam Shepard, the celebrated actor,
playwright and author of ``Motel Chronicles'' and ``Great Dream of Heaven.''
But none of that really matters. What counts is that Jesse Shepard is his own
self-made man, a writer in his own right.
What's apparent in ``Jubilee King'' -- a collection of 12 very short short
stories -- is the author's talent for writing stories that unfold like movies.
Good writers have a way of turning their quarrels with themselves and with
others into art. Like them, Jesse Shepard knows how to turn the ugliest of
quarrels into stories of uncommon grace and beauty.
Alan Baer, The New York Times:
Jesse Shepard's first story collection opens with a
recovering drug addict selling his Plymouth Valiant in the wake of his
girlfriend's death; the car can't shift into reverse. You can say the same for
nearly everyone in this thoughtful look at the West. Shepard's characters press
forward with traumas behind them but remain detached: in one tale a woman has a
flickering memory of her brutal childhood on a farm while riding above it on a
highway loop. In others, a husband secretly takes a volunteer job that may anger
his wife, and a man accompanies his married brother to a brothel when it's his
own morality that's suspect.
Indeed, Shepard's stories also roast American
self-indulgence. In ''Flaw in the Shelter,'' a vineyard manager thinks that
''lofty delusions of world peace'' once did not ''distract people from their
duty to the land in front of them''; this is the story of a man freeing a bird
from his stovepipe. Another tale lets wild horses run free - when they're
imported to act in movies. In the title story a weathered cowboy even sneaks
onto land he lost to dig for the body of his prized mare; it could save him. Of
course some of Shepard's plot twists could be more explicit. But the payoffs of
those that ring clear are distinct enough to make his sound prose welcome.
Jere Real, Richmond Times-Dispatch:
In all of Shepard's tales, there is a kind of crucial turn
that shapes a character's life or situation, a change in life's direction from
which there is no turning back. It is this subtle but meaningful shift that
makes seemingly simple events take on vital importance. In short, Shepard's
character-driven stories are revealing in their intensity of emotions.
Lisa Ryers, SF Station:
Fiction writer Jesse Shepard joins his father Sam on the
bookshelves with his first collection of shorts stories, Jubilee King. When you
read Sam Shepard's work horses, cowboys, the movie business, and humor are
constant talismans. When you see his work on stage, the details create the West:
barefeet and silver ankle bracelets, cowboy boots sealed with silver gaffer's
Jesse Shepard is not a dramatist (yet?) but he trades on these themes. Yes the
story "Night Shot" introduces us to a movie shoot in New Mexico. Yes on the
first page of "Blinkers" we see the words "knee-high riding boots" and "antique
boot-jacks. "Yes those are two brothers in "Nurturer by Nature," one a thinking
man, one an action man reminiscent of another duo from a Sam Shepard play called
"True West." But Jesse Shepard's work is more than a watered-down version of his
father's. Jesse is adept at dramatizing events that happen in a matter of
"Wax" offers the hapless attempts of a suitor to bed a woman who seems only
interested in irrigating his ears. At the end of "Already Gone" we see a man
wrenching his torso into the window of his girlfriend's car for a goodbye kiss
as he realizes he doesn't want her to leave. "He wants to tell her that she
makes him a man, but that seems ridiculous. He wants to tell her how afraid he
is, that he wants to mature and abandon rituals that are outmoded or false to
his nature. He wants her to see his heart and blood, the driving storm of his
interior, the loneliness that pushes him to be the man for her. He wants her to
understand his aloneness."
The first story in the collection, "First Day She'd Never See," chronicles the
attempts of a burn-out to sell his Plymouth Valiant-a car missing reverse gear.
Sparing the obvious metaphorical implications, the piece is a funny stab at wine
country folk (an easy target) and a sad look at romance gone bad.
Women are definitely the ghosts in Shepard's machine and throughout his work you
will find women talking like therapists, women afraid to go out in the rain lest
they ruin their hair, women who can't take a joke. They are the perfect foils
for the romantic lurchings of Shepard's male protagonists. By the end of Jubilee
King, you are left wanting for a woman who isn't so humorless. For a gifted
storyteller like Shepard, this should be an easy assignment. Otherwise, he isn't
in danger of imitating his father as repeating himself.
Kevin Smokler, San Francisco
It's going to be a long walk for Jesse Shepard toward
establishing his reputation apart from that of his father, playwright Sam
Shepard, but his first collection of short stories, "Jubilee King," indicates
he's probably up to the challenge. The collection doesn't testify to impending
greatness, but it certainly leaves open the possibility.
Shepard's first goal appears to be the creation of his own
Western landscape. While a few of the 12 stories in "Jubilee King" have the
usual lonely men with desperate horse fantasies (the collection's weakest
points, which read like Larry McMurtry backwash), many center on a West after
the mass migration of professionals and "modem cowboys" in the early 1990s, a
West where the Robert Redford-style newcomers coexist uneasily with the people
who were born and raised there. "Night Shot" encapsulates this best, a dry
report from the set of a Western movie, told from the point of view of the horse
Shepard's prose is sinewy and plain, which makes "Jubilee" go down smooth but
not melt on your lips. And while the stories are mostly a judicious single scene
(a bizarre one-night stand in "Wax," a bird mishap in "Flaw in the Shelter"),
his horse tales stumble in circles.
What we've got here is a perfectly readable collection that implies a brighter
future. Jesse Shepard hasn't quite set the plains on fire with "Jubilee King,"
but there's quite a bit more here than just a young writer's kindling.
Capitola Book Cafe:
Caretaker of a ranch in Northern California and son of
playwright and novelist Sam Shepard, Jesse Shepard writes of his own
experiences, and the result is a raw, unspoiled, and remarkably honest look at
the rugged landscape and characters of the West. Two men dig for the bones of a
long-dead mare in the hopes of salvaging a last hope for prosperity; a pair of
brothers drive along the Pacific coast in search of danger and escape; a
caretaker balances precariously on his roof to free a bird tapped inside his
chimney. Striking in their originality and tempered with dry humor, the stories
within "Jubilee King" are moments of subdued desperation, told simply and
candidly. A striking new voice in American literature.
An excerpt from
"Jubilee King" can be found at this link.