By David McNair

Buy this book on!Dan Chaon’s short story collection, Among the Missing (Ballantine), came out in 2000 and was recently nominated for the 2001 National Book Award. Since its publication, the book has slowly and quietly earned the respect of several of our finest writers, including Lorrie Moore who calls Chaon "one of the best short story writers around" and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, who calls Chaon a "marvelous" writer. After reading "Big Me," one of the stories in Among the Missing, Chabon said, "I am confronted with an unfathomable mystery such as that of the endurance of a single human identity over time, but also with new proof of the enduring value of telling tales in the ongoing struggle to understand those mysteries." Indeed, Chaon’s stories expose, examine and illuminate the mysteries of everyday life in ways that are hard to forget.

Chaon is also the author of Fitting Ends and Other Stories. His writings have been selected for Best American Short Stories 1996, The Pushcart 2000 and The O’Henry Prize Stories 2001. Chaon, who lives in the Cleveland area with his wife and two children, spoke with Gadfly about his beginnings as a writer and his approach to fiction writing.

Gadfly: How did you become a writer? What’s your story? And why do you write? (And don’t say to melt the frozen sea within us.)

Dan Chaon: I guess my becoming a writer was an accident. I grew up in a very tiny rural community in western Nebraska, and my background wasn’t literary at all. Instead, it was, I suppose, what you would call working class, a little redneck, maybe. My father was a construction worker, and my mom was a housewife. Neither one had graduated high school. Growing up, I didn’t know any adults who read books for pleasure.

On the other hand, I was not discouraged from becoming an avid reader myself, though I think it was considered a little strange. Actually, I think that I was a fairly strange child—I was a sleepwalker, I talked to myself, I spent a lot of time involved in elaborate imaginary games that were more than occasionally mortifying to my parents (such as the time when I pretended for several days to be blind). In short, if my parents had been more well-to-do, I would have spent a lot of my childhood in therapy.

I wonder what a therapist would have done with me because the truth is that I spent my childhood with a fairly tenuous sense of reality. My earliest memory is of being about 2 years old, in a department store with my mother during the Christmas season and climbing into the center of a circular rack of shirts. I believed that I was lost—it seemed to me that there wasn’t just one layer of shirts around me but a whole forest of them that went on endlessly, and I didn’t know how to get out. I don’t remember hearing anyone calling for me, only that when I was finally found, my mother was very angry and the store itself was empty and closed. The strange thing about this memory is that I remember being discovered by my mother and a man who was dressed in a bright red jacket with gold buttons, wearing a tall black hat, like a Nutcracker soldier. I know that there couldn’t have been such a man, though I remember it vividly. My mother claimed that this event didn’t happen at all—I never got lost in a store, she said, and it occurs to me now that there simply weren’t department stores like the one in my memory anywhere near the rural area where I grew up. Ultimately, I have no idea whether this very specific remembrance has any basis whatsoever.

I was extremely lucky, though, in that as I was in the process of turning from a strange child into an even stranger adolescent, I encountered a really wonderful teacher, my seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Christy. We were given creative writing assignments in his class, and we could read any book we wanted for extra credit. I began to write a lot, and then another important thing happened. In the middle of the school year, Mr. Christy gave an assignment for us to write letters to our favorite author. Mine was Ray Bradbury, and once I’d written the letter, I went a little further than the other kids and actually found his address in a directory and sent it off to him, along with some stories I had written, which were pretty slavish imitations of Bradbury’s own work. The amazing thing was that Bradbury actually wrote back to me, praising the stories and offering a critique. Bradbury was full of kindness and hyperbole and told me that he thought I would soon be published. I was around 13, and this is when I decided that I was going to be a writer. I began sending stories out to magazines, being basically too ignorant to know any better and not quite realizing that the rejection slips I was getting were form letters. By the time I went away to college (at Northwestern University), writing was a habit that I’d gotten into. And I was encouraged by my teachers there as well, including one of my lifelong mentors, Reginald Gibbons, who eventually published my first book, Fitting Ends and Other Stories, at Northwestern University Press.

I recognize now that I was extremely fortunate. I had parents who, however puzzled they were by my weirdness, were tolerant of it and loving; I stumbled upon encouraging teachers at just the right time in my youth and college years; and, finally, I happened upon a particularly generous spirit in Ray Bradbury, whose kindness put me on a track I might not have had the confidence to pursue otherwise.

As far as why I write, I can’t cite any large goals. The act of writing is a source of pleasure and comfort to me, perhaps simply an obsessive-compulsive behavior that has chanced to result in a somewhat socially acceptable identity. There’s nothing logical about making the choice to be a writer, and I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of the decision to devote my life to a pursuit that is in many ways childish and frivolous and difficult to justify. I like to play pretend, to invent characters and situations, and I like words, pretty sentences. I don’t have a noble or lofty goal in mind—I’m not interested in melting your frozen sea, don’t worry—though, of course, I do have to believe that literature sometimes has the mysterious power to transform people, since I’m one of its victims.

Explain a little bit about your creative process. Where do you find inspiration? How do you come to a story, and how do you push it through to the end?

It’s hard to answer this question in an intelligent way because I think my process is different with each piece, and also basically boring to narrate. I tend to write in little fragments which accrue, bit by bit, and which are inspired by any number of things—newspaper accounts, bits of gossip, things seen in passing, memories, whimsy. These fragments get reworked and rewritten and polished and begin to merge together over a period of weeks or months or years. By the time I’m finished, it’s hard to recall that there was a "process" since the whole becomes so separate from the many tiny mental gestures that make up its creation, and I’ve spent so much time existing in the dreamworld of the story that it no longer seems invented. It’s as if the characters and their world have always been there—they existed before the story started, and they continue to exist, living their lives after the story is finished.

What are you trying to achieve in a story? What kind of experience do you want a reader to have?

I don’t have a specific agenda, and, in fact, I have a dread of agendas. There’s an idea that a story or novel is a little brightly-wrapped package containing a Big Idea or Deep Thought, a very popular way of teaching literature to young people. (For example, from one of my sixth grade son’s worksheets: "What is the theme of this story? What do you think the author is trying to say?") I think one of the biggest difficulties for an artist trying to work in contemporary society is the need to package everything for easy consumption. Walker Percy writes about this in his essay "The Loss of the Creature" where he talks about the division in a modern technical society between "expert and layman, planner and consumer." That is, "The expert and the planner know and plan, but the consumer needs and experiences: the planner creates a ‘recreational experience’ to satisfy a ‘recreational need.’" We live in a society that can turn a work of art as wrenching and personal as Munch’s "The Scream" into a cute piece of kitsch, with a mini-industry behind it.

I think one of my main interests as a writer are those moments that are unpackagable and, conversely, trying to re-mystify the stuff that’s been already packaged. We live in a society that is constantly encapsulating and summarizing itself, puffed up with bland insight, theme and message. I’m not particularly interested in the idea of Truth, or even of "epiphany" in fiction. Instead, I think the thing I value most is ambiguity, uncertainty, "mystery," for lack of a better word. I don’t feel like I can stand up on a stage and preach anything convincingly; I’d prefer if the reader and I were standing together on a common ground, both of us puzzling and wondering in the face of these moments that can’t be explained.

How are short stories culturally significant, meaning, how do you think they impact the world (if at all)?

I don’t think it’s my job, or any writer’s job, to explain the world to people or to encapsulate the grand sweep of society, or whatever. Every few years, some writer or another will have a public breakdown in the pages of Harper’s to tubthump about how he (it’s always a He) wants to be culturally significant. They will wax over the power of the 19th century novelists, like Dickens, to "speak to and influence society," etc. There are various literary writers who long for a glamorous past time when they could stride across the world making pronouncements. Those times when Great Literary Figures walked the earth: Fitzgerald! Hemingway! Mailer!

As for me, I don’t think I’m clever or ambitious enough to be Culturally Significant in that way, and I’m not sure I want to be. I’m not a fan of grand pronouncements and summaries of society. The writers I admire and the writers I aspire to be like don’t enter into the Culture, they enter into individuals, almost by stealth, reader by reader. There are certain stories and novels that I read over and over and which have deeply enriched my understanding of and experience of the world and which have great personal significance to me. Among them are Imagine a Great White Light by Sheila Schwartz; The Progress of Love by Alice Munro; The Man Who Was There by Wright Morris; Escapes by Joy Williams; Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman; Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart; the single story "That Evening Sun" by Faulkner, as well as The Sound and the Fury; and many others. These are works that accompany me through my life almost as spirits that hover at the edge of daily consciousness; they are part of my thinking. If I have an ambition to influence the world, it is to have written something that a reader, a specific individual, will carry with him or her, something that he or she will love and remember for a lifetime. Those private moments of connection are much more interesting to me than the possibility of mass appeal, and in fact, there are many people who I don’t want to be my readers. As I was touring for my book, there were times when I wanted to snatch my book from the hands of certain people (mainly journalists, unfortunately) and say, "This is not for you. I didn’t write this for you. You’ll be happier elsewhere, with another sort of book." I don’t mean that to sound elitist, though I suppose it is. I don’t want to write a book for everybody, nor a book for a generation, nor a book for a certain country or ethnicity; instead, I hope that there are particular people I’ll connect with who will find something to need and cherish in these stories. One of the aching and beautiful things about Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, is the way it suggests that a book might have the power to gently, yet profoundly, touch various people over time, over a century, and that those people the book influences become spiritually connected in a kind of chain. That’s not necessarily cultural significance, but to my mind it’s much better, much more lovely and hopeful and much closer to what I think art is supposed to do.

 What do you think the biggest obstacle to being a fiction writer is?

I guess probably loneliness. I think that for most people there’s a very long apprentice period where affirmation of what you’re doing is rare and the various pressures of leading an ordinary life—making money, falling in love, raising children if you have them—all of these things make it harder to spend enormous amounts of time by yourself writing pages and pages that maybe aren’t that good and, even if they are good, maybe won’t find a publisher. There has to be a constant internal re-affirmation that what you’re doing is worthwhile, even once you’ve been recognized and published and gotten good reviews. You don’t get over—or I haven’t, at least—this problem of questioning the value of what you do, which is why I suppose some writers fixate on the idea of being "culturally significant." Most of the immediate gratification for the long hours of isolation has to ultimately come from within, and much of the long-term gratification is oddly removed. I finished the book Among the Missing in 1999, so though I am very happy and proud of all the good reviews, the truth is that the book hardly feels like my own anymore. I’m too focused on the work at hand, which is, of course, being created in solitude. And there’s naturally the fear that the new book is no good at all, despite the nice things that people are saying about Among the Missing.

Your stories seem to wrestle with the essential, unknowable mysteries of life. Do you have a particular religious faith or spiritual philosophy that guides you through this territory? Or does the act of fiction writing take you there?

I am not a traditionally religious person, and I suppose—I’m almost embarrassed to say it—that I’m basically an old-fashioned secular humanist, in that I find most of my spiritual solace comes from the people I love and the works of art and literature that have touched me. I do think there’s a spiritual component to the act of writing fiction or any act of artistic creation. But if I have a spiritual philosophy, it’s constantly evolving, I’m still in the process of discovering it and I hope I always will. I think the strict adherence to a particular version of Truth is the source of much evil in the world. I’d like to say that kindness is a general value that I can manage to advocate, but even that is complicated, many edged, dangerous.

Many of the stories seem to border on a kind of magic realism—"Safety Man," "Big Me." Is this conscious? At times, I felt like the stories could just veer off into the totally fantastic and surreal. Can you explain this?

Well, on the one hand, I think that this may be simply my early influences peeking through—I grew up on a steady diet of SF and horror and ghost stories, and that’s still a love of mine. On the other hand, I feel that American life itself is often fairly grotesque, uncanny, unsettling in both its large events and small details. Think of these things: A passenger plane turning almost gently to fly into a skyscraper; a small girl, Jon Benet Ramsey, heavily made-up and dressed as a sexy woman; a mother in Texas pursuing her child down the hallway so that she can catch him and drown him in a bathtub; a lake in Minnesota where frogs grow extra legs, two heads. Are these magical realist details? When I was living in Chicago, I saw an elderly homeless man stumbling around a busy street screaming "I’m on fire! I’m on fire!" while people hurried past him on their way to work. When I was a child, our neighbor would string up the deer he’d shot and hang them in an old elm tree by their antlers, and I stood at the window during a thunderstorm to see the deer spinning like a top in the wind and flashes of lightning. Once when I was in college, I startled awake in the middle of the night and found that I was sitting at my desk, drawing circles on a sheet of paper in my sleep. Perhaps I have a morbid sensibility, but these are the things that I notice and remember. I often have the presentiment that my own life could veer off into the surreal and fantastic, so I suppose that gets translated into the stories.

In the story "Safety Man," the complexity and powerfulness and sacredness of the main character’s grief are positioned beside the mother’s packaged comments. Is this an issue with you as a writer—the reliance our culture has on self-help knowledge and armchair psychology as opposed to the mystical knowledge that is present in great art and literature? The story seemed unique to me because it refused to map out any familiar psychological territory.

I am generally troubled by the way certain types of psychology and the "psychological" have managed to turn individuals into specimens of particular types of "illness." Even the most complex of emotions, like grief, are often seen as disease that needs to be "cured." For a free society, we have pretty rigid ideas of what a healthy mind is, which I think results in a large number of people who live with a great disparity between their public persona and their inner life. One of the jokes of the story "Safety Man" is that the main character, Sandi, is slowly losing her grip on traditional " reality," but no one notices. She thinks, "Sooner or later, they’ll begin to realize that she is not really one of them; that she is in a different place entirely." But no one does. She remains "functional." One of the commonplaces of end-of-century American life is the sense that it’s very easy to have a secret life. You know the old story: someone comes in and kills his co-workers with a semi-automatic or a serial killer spends years murdering folks and burying them in the crawlspace beneath his house, and then later his acquaintances and co-workers are terribly surprised. He’s described as "quiet," "a nice guy," "no one suspected anything was wrong." It’s a cliché but kind of a horrific cliché, if you think about it. What does it say about the society in which we live that we regularly have such a superficial "relationship" with people that we see every day, that the social codes of "niceness" and so on are so shallow? To me, the secret inner life is at the very heart of the contemporary American experience and not just for serial killers and wackjobs, but also for ordinary people. It’s my feeling that very often the complexity of someone’s inner life and emotions is not only kept in check by the social institutions that regulate our daily lives—such complexity is positively unwelcome. And our reliance on psychology (and even more horrifying to me, pharmaceutical psychology) is part of the problem.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got a novel called You Remind Me of Me, which I’ve been working on for a couple of years and I'm still grappling with, though it’s coming along and hopefully will be finished within a year. It’s about a family that has collapsed and been scattered and the efforts of the disturbed, dreamy youngest son to make sense of what went wrong and re-connect with what has been lost. It’s very funny.

I also have plans to finish a third collection of stories, Thirteen Windows, which will be a collection of supernatural tales. From there, who knows?