by Dan Chaon
Published by Ballantine
272 pages, 2012
Dan Chaon was initially known for his exceptional short stories including the collection Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. And then he wrote two extremely well received novels: You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. His newest offering, Stay Awake finds him once again writing stories that will remain with the reader for a very long time.
Chaon’s fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction and was the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Chaon lives in Cleveland, Ohio and teaches at Oberlin College, where he is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing.
MaryAnne Kolton: Since all of the stories in Stay Awake have a sense of other-worldliness, some might say exotic or even creepy, I can't help but ask about your family and childhood. I understand you were writing at quite a young age. Was this penchant for the bizarre nature, nurture or perhaps, escapism?
Dan Chaon: I grew up in a very small town in Western Nebraska. One of those little “grain-elevator towns” along the Union Pacific railroad line -- not unlike the one in “St. Dismas,” actually. There were about 50 people there when I was growing up, and most of them were my relatives. I was the only kid my age in town. I learned pretty quickly to entertain myself, and books were a big part of that. I loved Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, all kinds of dark fantasy and horror. From quite a young age, I was obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock. I thought I was going to be a writer/film director/composer. I walked around my little town, a single block, playing with various concepts, acting them out and directing them.
That must be why a tenderness, almost sweetness, etched in some of the stories, like "I Wake Up" comes through so strongly. The vulnerability that shows itself in those moments of fear or 'different from'.
"On Friday nights, sitting in Parnell's, I'd listen to the other guys talk about themselves... and I realized that my own brain worked differently from the ways theirs did... I loved the way the events in their lives had beginnings and middles and ends, the way their stories had points to them..."
Those moments are the perfect complements to some of the really scary episodes. Is that how you live or just how you write?
Wow, I really don't know how to answer this question. Could you be more specific?
I think what I'm asking here is, is this how you live life: sort of always fearing the worst, but hoping for the best? Do the sweet moments exceed the fearful ones? Or does this idea I have of who you are just dominate your writing? Better?
Oh, OK, I think I understand what you're asking. I don't think I'm a particularly dark or gloomy person in real life. I think that most people who know me think of me as pretty cheerful. I joke a lot, and like to make people laugh. Sometimes I have a cynical or morbid sense of humor, but it's strange because I don't think I dwell on the darker side of things. At least not in my daily interactions.
Writing is different than waking life, though. I don't feel any urgency to explore the stuff that makes me comfortable and content. I'm after some kind of shadow-self, or shadow-life, not the same as my own. I'm interested in outsiders, not because I am one but because I feel I might have become one. I'm interested in people who screw up and do desperate things because, even though I'm generally conservative and cautious in my approach to the world, I have thought screwed up and desperate thoughts. I am interested in scary things because walking through them somehow makes me feel calmer and safer.
It's the "what if," of fiction that makes me want to write it. I don't do memoir or autobiography, partially because my life isn't very interesting, but also partially because the other life is what compels me.
For example, there's certainly some autobiographical detail in the story "Take This Brother, May It Serve You Well." It's about a man who loses his wife to cancer, which happened to me. But the character in the story is overwhelmed with anger and grief, and sinks into some very dangerous, weird, self-destructive behavior that leads him almost certainly to his doom. I personally didn't go off the deep end like Deagle did in the story, but I sure thought about it a lot. I sure sometimes wished I could let the monster inside me run loose, and maybe, in some ways, writing that story was a way to save myself.
And that's one of the things fiction does for us -- it lets us travel to the places we shouldn't travel to in real life. And we learn something in that journey, as readers and as writers.
Do you prefer to write short stories or novels? I’m asking this because I loved You Remind Me of Me (very sad) and Await your Reply (thrilling and inventive). For me, they were different from your stories in a way I’m not sure I can describe…
Probably prefer novels as a reader; as a writer I am a short story man at heart. Both the novels actually started out as short stories, a series of stories, which I wasn't even sure were connected, and which only slowly came together as full novels with a lot of help from my editors. Dan Smetanka worked with me on You Remind Me of Me; Anika Streitfeld on Await Your Reply; and both marvelous editors were instrumental in guiding me in finding a clear, "novel-like" rope to hold on to....
If you're curious, one of the stories that eventually became You Remind Me of Me is called "Five Forgotten Instincts," and it's included in The Best American Non-Required Reading, 2005.
I dearly wish that novels came to me whole, rather than in little fragmented pieces that I have to paste together with tears and boogers and slobber, but it doesn't seem like that's the way I think. I have a new novel that I'm working on called ILL WILL, and it currently makes very little sense at all, though it appears to have a serial killer, and alternate universes, and Cleveland, and possibly a demonic cult. It will also be very tender and heartfelt.
Also, I'm curious to know how you see my stories as being quite different from my novels. Any way you can try to describe it?
A book that makes no sense, contains a serial killer, alternate universes, Cleveland, a demonic cult and is “tender and heartfelt”. Hmm. Very funny, Dan.
I did a carefully controlled, scientific study today in an effort to try to describe the difference between your stories and novels. I reread You Remind Me of Me and compared it to “St. Dismas”, one of my favorites from Stay Awake. I believe you have already provided the answer. First, as a reader, I prefer reading a novel because it allows the writer to develop characters and plot more thoroughly. It’s much easier to get lost in the longer form. Whereas, in the short story format, as a reader, I feel like I’m just getting into it and it’s over. Not so much a difference in style as in length.
I’ve been told that adopted children always have issues with anger and abandonment. As the parent of an adopted child, I have found that to be somewhat true. What are your thoughts about this as an adoptee, and do you think it has influenced your writing?
You know, honestly, the "anger and abandonment issues" seems a little too easy and over-simplified to me. Not to say that I don't probably have them, but they haven't seemed like a huge weight on me in my life. Being adopted has definitely affected the way that I think and has certainly affected my writing.
As an adoptee, I began thinking about questions of identity very early on -- what makes me who I am? What is a self? Would I have been a completely different person if I'd been adopted by another family? What part of me is nature, what part is environment, what part is self-invention? How much is fate and how much is free will? And later, when I met people who I was biologically related to, it only complicated the mystery, rather than gave me any answers.
As you know, I've written about this extensively, both in You Remind Me of Me and in Await Your Reply. Stay Awake addresses it somewhat less directly, though it's certainly there in a lot of the stories. "The Bees" asks the question of whether we can escape our past selves. "The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands" asks a similar question: are we even the same person through our lives, or do we have multiple selves? "I Wake Up" features a character who was raised in foster care, and who has been trying his whole life to repress a traumatic childhood incident -- but the act of forgetting turns him into a kind of ghost, a kind of half-person.
I think that I've sometimes come across as "anti-adoption" in some of the interviews I've given, and I'm not. I'm against the kind of secrecy that was institutionally in place during the time I was adopted. I'm against the idea that a child is a kind of blank, empty vessel that can be transferred from one set of hands to another without any kind of effect. Even when a child is being adopted into the most ideal, loving home, and even if the child is only an infant, I still think that the transference is a traumatic event for the child, and that it does manifest in different forms in their lives. Maybe anger and abandonment issues, maybe other things.
For me, ultimately, it manifested in a way that made me a writer, so I appreciate it.
You’ve said that you often listen to sad music when you write. Do you really find this affects the outcome of your work?
Ha ha! I'm sure that it does. Sometimes people will tell me, "Your work is so depressing!" And I'll be like, "Thank you!" and then realize that they didn't mean it as a compliment. Whereas, if I ever met Joni Mitchell or Mark Kozelek, I would hug them and tell them, "You made me cry! I love you for it!" Of course, in some ways, the sad music is a chicken-or-egg thing. I really love punk rock and dance music, but that doesn't make me want to write, it makes me want to get in my car and drive really fast. Sad music is the one sure way that will get me into the mood to write. Otherwise, I guess I might have become a NASCAR driver.
Are you a religious person? If so, in what sense?
I was raised Catholic, and I went through a period of strong religious feeling when I was young. But I didn't maintain my faith in Catholicism past my freshman year in college, when I began to feel that the teachings of the Apostle St. Paul, which make up a large part of the New Testament, were not really the same as the teachings of Jesus. Paul was a Zealot before his conversion experience in Damascus and, I felt, he remained a Zealot rather than a true proponent of Christ's teachings. And his views, in my opinion, were often poisonous. The more I studied the Bible, the more I saw it as a patchwork of contradictions.
I married a Jewish woman, but didn't convert to Judaism. Sheila's mother, who lived with us during the last ten years of her life, was a very devout woman, and as you can imagine, she had some issues with her daughter marrying a gentile. But my mother-in-law and I came ultimately to be quite close, despite our differences, and though I am not Jewish in any sense I still observe the Yartzeit for my wife and her sister and her mother and father -- Yartzeit meaning the anniversary of their deaths -- and light a candle and say the prayer and recite from Psalm 91, and it is meaningful to me to do so. But, at the same time, I am not a fan of organized religion, and whatever worship I practice is private and purely superstitious. I would like to believe in the human soul; I sometimes believe in ghosts; but if God exists I have some serious questions about his leadership abilities and the choices that He has made. And I especially don't trust those that would speak in His name.
In an interview you did with Tom Barbash you said “The truth is that I’ve had so many huge scary things in the last few years -- Sheila’s cancer, my parents dying -- that every time I have some good things happen with writing I half-expect a tree to fall on me when I walk outside.” Why?
I guess it's actually just superstition: don't get comfortable or boast about good fortune, lest Fate take notice. I've been hugely lucky in a lot of ways -- with my writing career, with finding the love of my life and getting to marry her and having two beautiful kids -- and then I've been unlucky in some ways as well, so I always feel like I'm treading on eggshells when I start to think things are going well.
One last chance to tell me what you are really working on at present.
It would all be lies, so it’s probably is better if I don't. | May 2012
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, The Toucan Magazine, Lost In Thought Literary Magazine, Anatomy, Her Circle and Connotation Press among others. Author interviews have appeared recently in Her Circle and the Literarian/City Center. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.