SHEPHERD & THE PROFESSOR,
BY DAN KLEFSTAD
PUBLICATION: BLACK ROSE WRITING; 1 EDITION
(APRIL 22, 2016)
Synopsis: Most people take comfort knowing their family and friends will remember them after they die. For Susan Shepherd, “remembering” is bullshit. She wants an eternal shrine to her sacrifice: a book that never goes out of print.
Shepherd served her country in the Gulf War, got shot while serving her community as a cop, raised an ungrateful daughter by herself — and for what? A diagnosis of terminal cancer and she isn’t even fifty. If you were in her shoes, you might agree that nothing short of national perpetual acknowledgment will do.
She’s glad you feel that way; she just wrote a memoir and sent a flurry of query letters, hoping a publisher will memorialize her with a best-seller. After hitting Send, she waits not-at-all patiently for an editor to decide if her story will sell enough copies — that is if her life really mattered.
Let me begin by saying that this novel was fantastic! However, it has a TON of things going on so if you need your stories a little more simple and relaxed, this may not be the read for you. I absolutely loved this debut novel from Dan Klefstad and found myself thoroughly engrossed in this roller-coaster ride of a novel.
It begins with a query letter written by Susan Shepherd to a publisher, trying to get her memoir published. Susan has cancer and wants to be remembered for the things she has done and endured in her life. So the “audience” or “listener” of this crazy tale is implied to be a publisher or an intern in charge of sorting through queries and manuscripts.
Anyway, this novel is set in Charters, Illinois and the fictional campus of OKU. Susan is a Gulf War Veteran turned police officer and meets a new OKU professor, Daniel (later Akram) as he arrives in Charters. Daniel also quickly meets Guy who is Susan’s friend and DJ at the campus radio station. Other main players are Emma (Daniel and Susan’s daughter), her drug dealer boyfriend Jesus, Judy Peterson (arrives to interview for the open position of University President), Chief Washington (campus security and also wants the University President position), and a student named Chris who is obviously troubled and quite frustrating. The overall plot centers around the search for an appointment of the new OKU President, but along with this, Susan tells her life stories and shares her experiences in a hilarious, sometimes offensive, but very interesting way. Each character’s individual stories are intertwined in surprising ways, reminding me of the movie, Pulp Fiction. The plot isn’t like Pulp Fiction, but the way things keep coming full circle and how everyone is associated with everyone in some way.
I cannot imagine how I could discuss much more about the plot and the characters without ruining the excitement of you reading this yourself. There is non-stop action from page 1 and I do not want to include any spoilers in this review. However, Dan Klefstad’s character and plot development are amazing. He shares his characters with us more through actions and experiences, rather than description, and every character has multiple strengths and flaws. As I said before, there is a lot going on throughout this novel, but every sub-plot, side story, and so on perfectly fit and complete this novel. Susan is just constant trouble, always getting into something, Judy is the most masterful manipulator I’ve read about in my life and all of the other characters all have some personal, professional, or political agenda going on driving them to the things that they do.
Dan Klefstad’s style of writing results in a brilliant read, but one that you get wrapped up in and follow along with easily. The complex characters and genius plot made this an incredible read for me and I loved it from the beginning to end. I must say, however, although the premise of the novel is Susan writing and seeking publication of her memoirs, I’m not sure that part was even necessary regarding the overall novel. But I do see how it allows the frequent shifts between POV and time periods.
I know I haven’t alluded much to the summary of the plot, but again I don’t want to spoil anything for future readers. Just get your hands on this novel and get ready for a wonderful, crazy read!
*Thanks to Dan Klefstad for providing a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review!
Purchase Shepherd & the Professor on Amazon!
Now, get to know author Dan Klefstad a little better!
Many thanks to Dan Klefstad for allowing me to be a little nosy and provide my readers with more insight into the brilliant mind that created Shepherd and the Professor!
Shepherd & the Professor has so many different characters and different stories all wrapped up in one novel. What inspired you to write about Susan and life in Charters?
Yes, there are lots of characters and plotlines here. I imagine some readers will think they’re drinking from a firehose because of all the themes I include – university security, availability of guns, mental illness, single motherhood, ethnic and religious minorities, plus a big dose of economic dislocation. I wanted to show the range of issues facing people in so-called Rust Belt states, and the growing pressure Midwesterners face in an increasingly complex and (from their view) indifferent world. Susan Shepherd – survivor of war, sexual abuse, single motherhood and a police career – is the vessel into which I pour all this angst. Every moment of every day she’s trying not to lose her shit, but the next crisis could be the one that does it. To heighten the tension, I put her in a university town where the contrast between the highly-educated and everyone else is stark. At the heart of this “Town vs. Gown” tension is Professor Daniel Lazar (later Akram Khan) who gets Susan pregnant and abandons her for another woman.
I can honestly see this being made into a wild ride film such as Pulp Fiction. Who would play some of the main characters such as Judy, Susan, Daniel/Akram, Emma and Chris?
I’d love it if Amy Adams played Susan Shepherd and Rufus Sewell played Daniel/Akram. I imagine Elle Fanning as their daughter Emma, and Charlie Heaton as Chris Leifheit (remember Heaton as the older brother Jonathan Beyers in Stranger Things?). For my antagonist, Judy Peterson, I initially wanted Angelina Jolie, but my wife considers this “too extreme.” She recommends Jessica Chastain based on her performance in A Most Violent Year. It’s a bold choice. I’d love to see Chastain and Adams in a screen test together.
There is a touch of cannibalism in the novel, but not much detail or back story attached. What was up with the flesh-eating moment, just mental illness, extreme hunger, or both?
During the time I was creating Judy Peterson, I read something about eating disorders and how they involve an obsession with having control. As Judy evolved as a con artist, it felt natural that she’d want to control everything around her – especially as she schemed to take the university president’s job. Soon I watched her establish command over a student hotel worker named Timothy who finds a room for her. As she waits longer and longer for her plan to reach its next stage – getting this high-paying job – she runs out of money. Worse, she begins losing control over Timothy. In response, she focuses on something she can control: food. Rather than retreat a single step, she sacrifices nutrition, strength and body weight – starving herself to save whatever pennies she has left. The irony is, after her plan succeeds she wants to celebrate with steak and champagne, but can’t; Timothy still has an ace to play that denies her this meal. So eating a leftover bit of Timothy is an act of revenge – as well as an effort to satisfy her growling stomach. Call it an episode of “cannibulimia.”
I felt like the last paragraphs at the Kerner center between Judy and Jesus hinted at some sort of follow-up novel. Do you have any plans to create more wild tales about the people of Charters?
I do plan a sequel, but need my ideas to marinate for a while. Right now I’m working on another book that will be a series of linked stories about a man who works for a vampire. The working title is The Caretaker, which is also the title of a story I published in the journal Crack the Spine (Issue 209). The protagonist is about to retire, and his last duty is to hire and train his successor. The story got several good reviews recently, including one by Kerry Parsons: https://chataboutbooks.wordpress.com/?s=Dan+Klefstad+the+caretaker. This story will be the opening chapter of my next book. Chapter 2, a story called “The Interview,” is finished and awaiting judgment from a handful of journals. I hope to share good news about that in a few weeks.
Sometimes authors create playlists of songs that they either listened to while writing, mention in a novel, or both. What genre of music, songs, or musicians would you attach to this novel?
Susan Shepherd refers to a couple of country songs and artists she likes, and I think any movie or TV version would have to include modern country music. As for me, I always have jazz, classical and pop songs in my head. But I never listen to music when I write. The only thing I’ll allow near me is an air purifier; the “white noise” helps me focus.
Susan, Judy and Emma are all intelligent, strong female characters and actually quite fearless in their own ways. Yet I felt like several of the men were somewhat weak while trying to project the image of being strong and in control. Is this accidental or did you intend to build the women up more?
Yes, I did amplify the strengths of my female characters and make the men weaker. For this story I needed women to push hard against men who exert a careless influence over others. For example, Daniel Lazar (later Akram Khan) abandons Susan and their unborn daughter Emma and, 20 years later, feels little concern over how this continues to affect them. It’s not that he’s a sociopath – it’s just not expected of him to care. Judy, who cons her way into the university president’s job, must still cope with her male predecessor’s incompetence, plus a male rival’s intransigence. Her method is to fight dirty, but she has to fight twice as dirty as the men blocking her path. I guess all this reflects what I see around me every day – men who feel a certain entitlement, and women who struggle to rewrite the rules. I’ve been watching this dynamic my whole life. Not much has changed, which makes me wonder why. And when I wonder about things, I keep writing about them.
What are a few of your favorite novels you’ve read over the past year?
This year I’ve been enjoying story collections like The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed, and The Andrew Jackson Stories by Aaron Sitze. Also poetry collections like Dirt, Root, Silk by Susan Porterfield, and On This Day in Poetry History by Amy Newman. I interviewed each of these authors for NPR/WNIJ’s “Read with Me” series which is archived here: http://northernpublicradio.org/topic/wnij-read-me
Thanks, Jen, for the opportunity to speak with you and your readers. Please keep your fingers crossed for my story “The Interview.” And I hope we stay in touch…