An Interview with Dan Chaon

Tom Barbash
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Dan Chaon’s terrific first book Fitting Ends came out with a university press and quietly disappeared. Not so with his second, Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and has drawn a near cult following. Dan, married to the writer Sheila Schwartz, is the father of adolescent boys, and a professor at Oberlin College, where his students worship him. “Dan rocks,” one said to me. He does. He is one of the oddest, smartest, most psychologically astute writers working today. His stories manage to be dark and often beautiful, unnerving and revelatory. He is an extraordinarily wide reader and consumer of contemporary culture, activities done mostly from his paper-strewn attic in Cleveland Heights.

—Tom Barbash

BLVR: When I first met you you’d already written several of the stories for Fitting Ends, and you were twenty-four I think. You got going at a pretty young age, no?

DAN CHAON: I was a ridiculously nerdy kid. While the other kids in my high school were having sex and drinking beer, I was writing odd, creepy stories and sending them to the New Yorker and various literary journals under the nom de plume D. Dean Chaon. Don’t ask me why I thought the initial was cool, but I did. Then, when I was a junior, I sent a story to TriQuarterly and the editor there, Reginald Gibbons, was very kind to send a note back, and then when he found out I was sixteen years old, he encouraged me to come to Northwestern. Gibbons ended up becoming a mentor to me and really was one of the best teachers I ever had. My first collection, Fitting Ends, was published by Northwestern University Press and he was the editor.

BLVR: What was that first story about?

DC: It’s sort of embarrassing. It was about a lonely middle-aged man who has a vaguely sexual crush on his twelve-year-old daughter, who is this sort of fey proto-goth girl who collects dead birds. I hesitate to analyze my younger self, but suffice to say that I’m glad the story was never given to a high-school psychologist. I remember the title: “You Are Requested to Close the Eyes.”

BLVR: The stories I remember most clearly (from our workshop together at Syracuse?) were “Going Out,” “Transformations,” “Fraternity,” stories about irresolute outsiders. They are all fairly sad. You once were explaining to me about story I’d written that writers of our generation often take the tone of the songs we listened to as kids.

DC: I think that I just wished that I could be really cool, like a rock star. But I do think that stories have a bit in common with songs, and that a great collection is a bit like a great album/CD, in the way that the stories work together and comment on one another. As a little kid, I had older cousins who introduced me to albums like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Neil Young’s Harvest, etc. I think the fact that I am a fan of sad music, and that I listen to it when I’m writing, has some effect on the tone of the stories I write. I used to write stories about or inspired by songs, and I guess I still do, sort of: a recent story of mine in McSweeney’s called “The Bees” takes its title and mood from a song by Belly of the same name, which has the lyric: “My precious son… beware of me.” That was basically the seed of the story.

I notice whole passages of “You Remind Me of Me” that were strongly affected by some of the stuff I was listening to as I wrote, bands like Sparklehorse, Red House Painters, The Innocence Mission, Julie Doiron, Yo La Tengo, Idaho, The Eels. My kids call it “suicide music,” but I find it very inspiring.

BLVR: Much of your fiction is about fate, how we don’t have as many choices in life as we may have thought.

DC: I guess that a lot of this stuff about fate and circumstance and choice is a personal obsession. I worry about stupid things like, for example, if I hadn’t decided to take a certain class in college, I would have never met and gotten married to Sheila, and then I’d be a completely different person! Choices that I didn’t know about changed my life in radical ways. I find that enormously profound, even though I know it makes me sound like a dorm-room stoner: Whoa! Even simple choices can have huge consequences, and we never get to do things over!

Of course, probably a big part of my fascination goes back to being adopted — growing up with the sense that there’s another life out there that I might have had, or multiple lives: Who were my biological parents? What if they’d kept me? What if I’d been adopted by a different family? And another part of it has to do with coming from a small-town working-class background, being the first person in my family to go to college, and finding myself in this very different, upper-middle-class college-professor life.

BLVR: Teaching full-time has slowed or killed many a promising career. You’ve got two kids as well. It’s always amazed me how you’ve gotten so much work done. Are you still getting about four hours of sleep a night?

DC: I’ve never been able to sleep very much, even when I was a kid. I used to hate being forced to lay in bed in the darkness, and just shifting in bed and staring at the shadows. I like to sleep about four or five really solid hours at night, and then sometimes take a nap in the afternoon or early evening after dinner. I love naps.

BLVR: And you still write in that little room in the attic?

DC: I know, I know. It will never make the pages of Gracious Living. But I think everyone needs their own dark cave, and I probably need it more than most people. You’ve been up there — you know how junky it is, like the nightmare freshman dorm room or the filthy hermit’s apartment stuffed with stacks of newspapers and petrified sandwiches. I do try to clean it up every couple of months, but it doesn’t work. I tend to like order in almost every other aspect of my life, but for me, the process of writing is really chaotic and decadent and indulgent. I never could figure out how those people like Bukowski could be both carousers and writers at the same time, because to me writing takes as much destructive energy as it takes to be a really good professional drunk.

BLVR: I like that. What do you mean exactly by destructive energy?

DC: Not to be insensitive, but I’ve known various alcoholics and addicts, and it does take a certain kind of determination and willpower to give yourself over to a drug so completely. There’s a lot of effort expended once you begin to completely trash your life. Sometimes, writing feels like this to me. It’s like going on an all-night bender and then waking up and thinking, “You know, I think I’ll do that again,” and pouring yourself another drink.

BLVR: I want to ask you about transitions in your work. First the transition from the stories in Fitting Ends to those in Among the Missing, because they are very different collections. And also the transition to writing a novel from working on stories.

DC: Well, I started out as a journal-writer and poet and sketchy sort of writer. I didn’t start out thinking in terms of “narrative” and “story.” The earliest impetuses for writing, for me, were simply the strange things I happened to notice in my everyday life, stuff I read about in the grocery store tabloids my mom bought, situations that struck me as compelling, anecdotes I’d heard, images, words, metaphors. A lot of time, with stories, I’ll start out with a title and try to dream myself into the story that it evokes — a kind of subconscious exercise in which I’m trawling for some kind of entryway into fiction.

I think the big transition for me between Fitting Ends and Among the Missing was that I was more conscious of wanting to do a little more with plot and structure. And I was also more conscious, with Among the Missing, of wanting the collection to be cohesive and to work as a whole, as a book, rather than just a bunch of stories I’d written. To go back to the music metaphor, I wanted Among the Missing to be a concept album, rather than a group of singles packaged together.

BLVR: And the “concept” was, obviously, absence, things missing in people’s lives.

DC: Well, yeah, I guess. I knew from early on that I wanted the collection to be titled Among the Missing, and that the stories would fit with that title in some way. But I was also trying to figure out a way to deal with the fact that I was working on all these stories that felt somehow connected but didn’t have a common thread in the way a “novel-in-stories” does: it wasn’t the same narrator, or a group of people who knew each other, or the same town, or whatever. But they were very much interconnected in my mind. I was working on a lot of the stories at the same time, and in fact, a few of the tropes actually appeared in multiple stories before finally settling someplace specific. It’s weird to look back at old drafts and see that Sandi in “Safety Man” once suffered from the unexplained blackouts that now plague the narrator of “Big Me,” and that the blow-up doll in “Safety Man” actually first made his appearance as a brief image in “Falling Backwards.” There was a lot of traveling back and forth between drafts — and I ultimately had to leave out about seven or eight stories once I’d cannibalized them for parts. I recently published a story, “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow,” in the spring 2003 Mid-American Review which was originally part of the Among the Missing collection, but which shared too many elements of “Late for the Wedding.” Early on, in fact, the two were the same story before splitting up into competing versions. This happens to me a lot, and I feel like I’m a pretty wasteful writer in this way.

BLVR: So it would seem like maybe the novel was the logical next step, right? Because you could make use of all of those interconnections and shared elements that you were wasting.

DC: To be perfectly honest, I found the transition into novel writing extremely hard. I was under contract with Ballantine to deliver a novel after Among the Missing, and I’d written a one-page proposal/summary, but I really had no idea how to proceed. As a short-story writer, I usually just start at the beginning and write through to the end. At first that’s what I thought a novel would be like. I think that the way that I write stories is by instinct. You have some basic ideas — a character, or an image, or a situation that sounds compelling — and then you just feel your way around until you find the edges of your story. It’s like going into a dark room… you stumble around until you find the walls and then inch your way to the light switch. With a novel, it’s more like you’re in a dark gymnasium, or a dark field. You can’t stumble around blindly as easily and find your way.

When I was going into the novel, I knew a few things about the situation, and some aspects of the characters lives, but I didn’t know much else. In my first draft, I was trying to write it as if it were a very long short story. I had as a model the kind of short, “perfect” novel, like The Great Gatsby, which takes place in a self-contained period of time, and follows a direct line of chronological action from beginning to end. It didn’t work — at all. The problem is that even in my stories I don’t generally think in such direct lines, and what I had come up with was layer upon layer of summary, flashback, and interior monologue — almost no scene at all.

BLVR: I remember those drafts.

DC: I was pretty scared. It was a disaster, and I knew it. The novel didn’t seem to want to follow the model that I’d contrived for it. But I was also lucky because my editor, Dan Smetanka, was very patient and really helped me to see how to begin to structure stuff — how to think in terms of novelistic scene, rather than short-story scene. A lot of times in my short fiction there isn’t much dramatized scene — there are a lot of short, interconnected bits, snippets of conversation, continual action, and so on. I frequently rely pretty heavily on voice.

Eventually, after a lot of failed attempts at revision, I ended going back and taking the first draft apart — putting it back into fragments, and developing each one in the way that I might develop a story. I began to see that there were actually four lines of action, like four lines on a graph, each of them separate in time, and I saw how I might move back and forth between them. In any case, once I gave myself permission to play more with a fragmentary structure, the novel felt more comfortable.

BLVR: But you still had to pull it all together.

DC: Yeah. Ha, ha. It took me a very long while before I really got a sense of how novels work as architecture. Ultimately I tried to control it in an artificial, structural way. I sat down with a piece of notebook paper and made up three sections of twelve chapters, thirty-six in all — which gave me at least an illusion of order. I ended up setting up a skeletal structure for myself to work with. I had some of the chapters already written — and I began to juggle them around in the thirty-six slots I’d made for myself. I broke up pieces of what I had and started with Chapters 3, 5, 6, 7, 13, 14, and 36. And then once I had those in place — like support columns – I started to fill in the spaces between them. It’s a structure, I suppose, that’s a little akin to contemporary serial television (Six Feet UnderThe SopranosE. R., etc.) with the idea of “episodes” that make up a “season” — and it also riffs on the structure of some of Robert Altman’s or Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. (It occurs to me that Carver might very well have written a novel if he’d taken the approach that Altman did in his adaptation of Carver’s stories, Short Cuts.) In terms of books, I think I learned some things from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me, to name a few contemporary novels, as well as Dickens, but I don’t think anyone else will see the connections. I’m actually very curious to hear what people compare this book too, since I’m not really sure how to describe it.

BLVR: It’s a really terrific piece of work. You put a lot of stock in the reader’s ability and inclination to jump about and make the connections. I never felt lost in the book. I felt as though I was circling about few indelible moments in the lives of these characters.

DC: I’m glad that it feels like it makes sense. Now that I’m done, I’m kind of amazed to see that the finished product actually does have a kind of three-act structure, in spite of the fragmentary approach I took. And it’s not as plotless as I’d at first worried that it was. At least I hope so.

TB The first chapter of the book, the description of the dog attack, is devastating and gorgeous. Where did that incident come from, and at what point in the process of writing the book did that scene arrive?

DC: Well, the character of Jonah was around from the very beginning of the story. One of the first lines I wrote was, “I like for people to look at my scars.” And in early drafts there were long first-person monologues from Jonah’s point of view. He talked about the dog attack, but it was never really dramatized. I think that a big breakthrough for me was a discussion I had with Dan Smetanka about it. He was like, “This is the most compelling material you’ve written so far, and yet it’s all in flashback and summary. Why don’t you sit down and write ten pages where you dramatize the moment of that dog attack?” And when I did that, it really transformed my concept of the book and how I was going to put it together. The dog started out as this very abstract violent incident in the past. But it ended up that the relationship between the boy Jonah and the dog Elizabeth brought me to a much deeper understanding of Jonah’s mental life. And Elizabeth the Doberman became an important figure in the book in her own right, and actually one of my favorite “characters” in the book.

BLVR: You read a lot of contemporary fiction, just about everything as far as I can tell. What compels you to read so broadly?

DC: You know I can be a very compulsive person, and I have to admit that most of the time I read in the same way that I smoke and chew gum and jiggle my leg a lot. I read a lot, but at the same time I’m not a particularly good or diligent or discriminating reader. I go through maybe close to a thousand or more books a year, but a lot of times I’ll only read bits and pieces of any one individual text. There are even certain works that are very important to me (Like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for example) that I probably haven’t ever read all the way through from beginning to end, just certain passages over and over. I tend to read at stuff, rather that through it, if that makes any sense, and maybe there’s something a little bit rodent-like about it, like a gerbil gnawing on woodchips in those, tiny, rapid obsessive bites.

BLVR: Your story “The Bees” was in some way a departure, but actually you’ve had several stories that could in one way or another be called ghost stories — certainly the title story of Fitting Ends.

DC: I wrote the story for Michael Chabon’s issue ofMcSweeney’s [McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales] and part of the mission was to write a “genre” story. I wanted to write a horror story. But in some ways, I have always thought of myself as a kind of ghost-story/horror writer, though most of the time the supernatural never actually appears on stage. That was the stuff I read when I was a kid — Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub.

There was a great line in Straub’s novel Ghost Story, which I read in high school and which stuck with me, in which Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is described as “a great ghost story in which the ghost never appears.” Years and years later I actually met Straub in person, and I was mortified when he pointed out that I’d actually been using his line in interviews without giving him credit. It had sunk so deep into my head that I almost felt like it was my own thought. So anyway, I like to think that a lot of my stories are “ghost stories in which the ghost never appears.” And me and Straub are now friends — despite my thoughtless theft. There are a actually a few specific things in the novel that are homages to Straub’s books.

BLVR: There was a time not so long ago when I’d show your stories to people who’d never heard of you and they’d always ask, Why don’t I know this guy? Now you’ve got some notoriety. Has it changed the writing process, or make you think of your work differently?

DC: It’s nice, and I am really happy with the attention I’ve gotten in the last few years. I feel like I paid my dues. But at the same time, you know how the writing world is. You can’t count on notoriety lasting very long, and there’s no way to predict whether anyone will care about your books or you in three years, let alone ten or twenty. A lot of people work really diligently to maintain a “profile” in the writing world, but that’s so hard, and so boring most of the time. So you just keep doing what you like to do, I guess, and try to enjoy it. 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. Of course I care about it a great deal, but I don’t trust it to last. Not one bit.

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