I discovered Dan Chaon through his short stories, which a UW professor recommended in 2001. It was the time of year the ground froze and the sky grew dark before dinnertime, the perfect moment to find a book worth staying inside for.
That professor wasn't a traditional literature scholar but award-winning author Lorrie Moore, so my interest was piqued. I picked up Chaon's Among the Missing when it hit bookstores about a month later, brimming with chilling tales that drifted into my mind's darkest corners. I could relate to the grief and powerlessness the characters experienced. Acknowledging this ugliness within lifted a burden I wasn't aware I'd been carrying.
Since then, Chaon has written two novels, won numerous Pushcart Prizes, and taught students such as Lena Dunham, creator of HBO's Girls, at Ohio's Oberlin College. I talked shop with him before his trip to the Wisconsin Book Festival, where he'll read from his short-story collection Stay Awake (Oct. 18, 5:30 p.m., Central Library's Community Room) and conduct a writing workshop with graphic novelist Lynda Barry (Oct. 20, 11 a.m., Central Library's Bubbler Room).
Isthmus: I've read that your stories often begin with a dream or a daydream, or some other image in your mind. Do you recall how the image at the beginning of "The Bees," the first story in Stay Awake, came to you? You paint an arresting picture of a kid with night terrors.
Chaon: It started with my son having night terrors. The difference is, unlike the guy in the story, I'm not a violent, child-abusing alcoholic… You just stumble across images a lot of times, especially in Cleveland, where I live. Like, there was a beauty school near my house, and it closed down, like a lot of places in Cleveland do. I walked by it, and there were all these hair dryers piled up in the middle of the room, like dead spacemen. I thought, "That's got to be an image in a story," and it did. It's in the story in Stay Awake called "Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted."
Then there's always stuff in the news that will inspire me in one way or another. It's often crappy local news of some kind, but after I watch it, I get to thinking.
Lorrie Moore wrote one of the endorsements on the jacket of Among the Missing. I recall that she liked her students to write stories about childhood, because that part of life tends to be filled with stories: the ones your parents read you, the ones other kids tell you, the ones you compose about yourself. What kind of kid were you, and do you think that's shaped your writing in a significant way?
She has an anthology about childhood that is just excellent, but the funny thing is that she never writes about childhood herself. Me, I grew up in rural western Nebraska. I was the only kid my age in my school, so I spent a lot of time in my own imagination.
I wasn't really on the same page as the rest of my family. They loved me, but they didn't quite know what to make of me because I was a pretty weird little kid. They were watch-football types, and my dad was an electrician. And then there was me, this weird little kid talking to himself all the time and writing stories and not doing a lot of the things other little boys do.
I was geared toward that mode from an early age. Even from kindergarten, I was really interested in different ways of putting together a narrative. I loved movies and comics and novels and TV, pretty much all of it.
Is it true that you started submitting stories to The New Yorker as a teenager?
Yeah. It's funny. I was in this very small town and wanted to feel sophisticated and move into the larger world. I'd go to the library and read The New Yorker, and it was like reading Chinese. The cartoons weren't even funny. It wasn't even that the writing was so adult; it was about stuff I had no experience of whatsoever, and I really couldn't imagine it.
So submitting stories to The New Yorker was an exercise in futility. It was something I had to go through... to figure out the adult world. During childhood, you have no idea what the right answer is, so you're just trying on all these different outfits and personas and hoping you can figure out something that will fit.
A lot of your stories focus on some kind of existential sadness, and I've heard that you like to listen to sad music when you write. What sorts of things have you been listening to lately?
Let me see what I've got on the turntable right now… I’ve been listening to Bill Callahan, the guy from Smog. The National is great, of course, and Volcano Choir, they have a terrific album out now. And there's this guy called Daughn Gibson. I've been listening to his stuff a lot because it's very ominous and noir-ish. The novel I'm working on has a lot of those elements. It has a high body count and a lot of dark things happening in it, so Daughn Gibson has been helping me through it.
I'm at about the 100-page mark, and I’m feeling good. I want it to be done in a year, but every once in a while, you wake up and think you've been delusional in thinking what you've been writing is good. You realize it's bad and full into a slump and have to scrap it and start over.
I have that pattern. I wake up and think, "Oh my god, what have I been thinking this whole time?" This goes on until the book is finished, and then I'm fine. It's in the past, and then I'm working on something new.
What part of the short story tends to challenge you the most: beginning, middle, end, dialogue? Or is it different every time? For example, I think endings can be really difficult to get just right.
I'm the same way with endings. I like the sort of oblique or dropped endings that people like [Raymond] Carver are really great at. I tend to shy away from the "everything's tied up and the end credits roll" sort of ending. But I'm aware of readers wanting to have some kind of satisfying experience with a story, so trying to find the balance between how weird I can get with the story and still having people enjoy it and get something out of it, I feel like that has driven a lot of the ways i approach the short story.
I was moved by your essay on your late wife, Sheila Schwartz, in The Rumpus. Could you share a few words about how she shaped your career as a writer?
She was one of my teachers at Northwestern. We fell in love and got married and have two kids together. In a lot of ways, she was my most important teacher and was a cheerleader for my work. She also had a great eye as a reader and a critic. I relied on her to help find a direction for the crazy stories I was writing. She was someone I could go to for advice and to tell me what sucked and what not to do.
I can't imagine having any kind of career without her.