Interview: Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon’s novel You Remind Me of Me was widely praised for its emotional complexity; the NY Times called it “beautifully disquieting.” He’s written two collections of short stories — Fitting Ends and Other Stories and Among the Missing — the latter of which was a National Book Award nominee. He shares thoughts on writing, grad school and myspace with Hot Metal Bridge.

HMB: If you look at the arrangement of your two short story collections, it can be said that Fitting Ends is like a mix tape and Among the Missing is like a concept album — was that planned, or how did that come about? Was there an idea about themes?

Dan Chaon: It was something I thought about in the beginning because I had read a non-fiction book that was called Among the Missing: An Anecdotal History of Missing Persons from 1800 to the Present by Jay Robert Nash. It was about strange disappearances in American life. It’s no longer in print but it’s a very good book. I decided I wanted to write a story that had the idea of unexplained disappearance as its theme. I wrote the story “Among the Missing” and then I thought why don’t I just call the collection this and make the collection center around that idea.

HMB: “You Remind Me of Me” has a unique structure. When did the novel structure emerge in your writing process?

Dan Chaon: It emerged out of feeling desperate about what was going on with the novel in the first draft. I had the idea that a good novel started in the middle of action and then filled in the background as it went along and had a pretty clear arc of action. I started the first draft at the point which is now about page 110, right where Jonah comes to town and I thought I’d fill in information as I went along. The problem was that I got more and more interested in the background stuff. I started to like the background info as much or more than I liked the present time dramatic action stuff. That’s the thing that’s hard for me. I have a hard time writing dramatic scenes without filling in with lots of summary.

So I decided to take out some of the summary and begin making it into scenes. That’s my issue with first drafts: I’m never dramatizing enough. Then, the more I broke it up into these fragmentary dramatized scenes, the more I liked having it broken up. It seemed to make sense for the themes of the book and it seemed to make sense for the way my mind worked — how you get a little chunk here of Jonah, then you move on to Judy for a while. And it was just a nice feeling as a writer to jump between times and places and people’s minds. And I really liked the feel that gave the book.

HMB: Your work has a lot of short sections (as opposed to long sections). Is there a reason for writing in that style?

Dan Chaon: I don’t feel like I have a lot of control over stylistic choices. I’d like to write those big, W.G. Sebald paragraphs, but I’m not good at it. Whatever happened to me as a kid has made me a little jumpy. Maybe it’s A.D.D., I’m not sure. I think in those little pieces a lot, jigsaw puzzle pieces. It makes senses to me as a way to put things together, and I think that’s what I naturally gravitate toward, rather than the long, well-paced, 3000 word scene.

I was taught that the 3000 word scene was the natural building block of novels. Remember The Great Gatsby, how Fitzgerald has those very stately interconnected scenes, and it’s just like [wonk] [wonk] [wonk] walking down the red carpet to the end. I can’t figure out how to do those scenes.

HMB: How seriously do you take reviews of your work?

Dan Chaon: I try not to take them seriously at all. Of course everybody’s dream is to get their work out there in the world and to see somebody on the airplane reading your book, and to have a stranger write to you and say “I read your book!” But in some ways it’s a very weird experience and antithetical to the reasons you start writing in the first place: you like being alone a lot and being in your own mind, in your own private world. That’s one of the most difficult things for me to negotiate, is to get away from the world of publishing and the world of reviews.

HMB: So you don’t read them?

Dan Chaon: I do read them. And I obsess over them. But I think it’s not good for me as a writer to do that. One thing I have started doing is, my agent sent out my stuff and I said, don’t tell me anything unless it’s good news. I used to just pore over my rejection slips and if somebody said “Thanks, maybe the next one,” I’d say: “What does that mean? What do they want with me?” And that’s one thing I’ve given up.

HMB: General advice for people working on novels?

Dan Chaon: The best advice is to find characters and find a situation that you want to spend a lot of time with. Because you basically get married to these people for a long period of your life. Years. And if it’s not something that is as compelling as your girlfriend or the most recent season of “Lost,” whatever might distract you, you shouldn’t probably be writing it. To me, finding the stuff that I really was compelled by and wanted to go back to, that was the most important. I feel like a lot of the instruction I got about novels was hanging over my head in a way that made me not want to write a novel. “Find a controllable amount of time,” “write a three-act structure” — I still cannot write a three-act structure. Even in a short story, I can’t write a three-act structure.

HMB: What are some challenges you face when writing a story?

Dan Chaon: I get really trapped by chronology. It’s like getting somebody from one place to the other, from the car to the hospital or whatever, that drives me crazy. Arg! Now I have to describe the street they’re driving on and to get them in through the hospital doors and the nurse has to talk to them — and I don’t want to do all that. I just want to write the little parts that are interesting. And so I found very tight editing and fast cutting really useful and interesting. I still don’t do transitions very well. Like in Dickens or something — how does he get from point A to point B? That is so hard!

HMB: What is the difference between writing a short story and a novel?

Dan Chaon: I think the novel is something that you live with for a much longer time, so it feels like it has a larger claim both on your affection and on your dislike than the stories. Stories are like girlfriends you had in high school, novels are like being married to somebody.

HMB: Who do you write for?

Dan Chaon: I think — I hope this doesn’t sound insane — but I sometimes find myself writing for other writers, writers I love, dead writers a lot of the time. When I wrote my first short story I was obsessed with Ray Bradbury and I remember wishing, I don’t know, wouldn’t it be cool if Ray Bradbury read this—!! That’s still the kind of person I think of more. I like the idea that I’m in some weird way having conversations with other writers that I really admire. To me, at least part of what you’re doing in art is connecting to this larger chain of stuff that you’re responding to. Whether it’s literature or whether it’s film or whatever.

HMB: What is your opinion about genre fiction in the writing workshop?

Dan Chaon: When we use the term genre we’re not talking about Italo Calvino, or Vladimir Nabokov or Donald Barthelme. All of whom you could say at some level are genre writers. I think what we mean by “genre” at some level is hack writing, the kind of stuff that is churned out just to supply grist for a marketing niche — anything that is tied to a formula, rather than writing that wants to make a claim to be art, or to discover something about the world.

But, at the same time, I think all the formulas for fiction — whether you’re talking about SF or Romance or Western or Horror or whatever — all these sometimes formulaic genres have also produced great works of fiction. It just depends on how the individual writers have responded and adapted and made use of those forms. There are people like the Bronte sisters, for example, who were responding to the gothic form in an interesting way. So I don’t really think that the term “genre fiction” is a useful workshop term. I think there are plenty of really good writers who are stuck in that ghetto with that “genre” label.

HMB: Like who?

Dan Chaon: Peter Straub is one who works in the “horror” genre: “Ghost Story, Houses Without Doors.” Philip Pullman, who writes children’s fantasy novels. Kelly Link, who writes fantasy. These are some of my favorite contemporary writers.

HMB: Did you go straight into grad school after undergrad?

Dan Chaon: I took a few years off. I was originally a film major, so the first job I had out of college had to do with projection. And I did some DJ work, and did some bartending. I kind of floated around for a few years before gong to grad school at Syracuse. Tobias Wolff was there. A guy called Douglas Unger was there.

HMB: What did you do right after grad school?

Dan Chaon: I got a job in Cleveland. I was married and had children, and my wife and I moved to Cleveland. She had got a job at Cleveland State in the English department. I got a job with a catering company until I was fired. Then I knew a guy who was a grad student at Cleveland. State and he thought it would be really awesome if we didn’t pursue academia at all, if we just became construction workers. So we started a roofing business and that went on for a little while until I fell off a roof. So my wife told me I couldn’t do that anymore, because she was afraid I was going to die. So then I got a job working with youth in a literacy program. Then my book came out and I was able to get some adjunct, creative writing teaching work.

I don’t know what to say about the grad school thing. The real problem with having an MFA (or an MA, which is what I had) is it’s really hard to get a teaching job without a book. You end up teaching as something like an adjunct composition teacher, which I didn’t really enjoy doing, besides which it didn’t pay a living wage.

But I was lucky in that I had a community, this writing group that I was meeting with every two weeks. You had to bring stuff in to talk about, and that was really important to me to have that group that were really excited about reading each other’s work, and talking about literature. That kept me going more than anything else, having that group of readers and that continued excitement about what it was like to write a story.

HMB: What are your writing practices? Do you try to write for a certain amount of time each day?

Dan Chaon: I used to do a time limit. Right now I’m working with a page limit. That seems to work much better. I usually try to do a page a day. And that sounds like not very much , but it actually works out very well for me in terms of getting a steady amount of work done. Some days I get a lot more than that done. The trick is in not giving your self a free pass.

HMB: How’s the new novel coming along.? Or: What are you working on now?

Dan Chaon: I have a collection of short stories I’m working on and a novel called “I Wake Up,” and then a second novel, sort of a side project, called “Sleepwalk.” All of these are in process but nothing is immediately forthcoming.

HMB: You’re on MySpace. Why did you do that and do you have any great strange stories about people contacting you?

Dan Chaon: I have two teenage children ages 15 and 16 and they wanted to have MySpace pages. I was a little nervous about it so I said they could be on MySpace if I could also be on MySpace. So I really started to be on MySpace just to spy on my children. And also my younger brother — I have a lot of siblings and half-siblings and quarter-siblings and such (there’s no such things as quarter-siblings but you know what I’m saying) — my half-brother is working to become a rap star and he has this whole thing that he’s trying to do with MySpace, he’s trying to get a record contract. It was never a promotional thing for me. I never meant for it to be a promotional thing. I do get contacted from time to time by various people who are like, “Are you this Dan Chaon?” or whatever. But the primary purpose of it wasn’t to be sort of a book promotional thing, except among relatives.

HMB: Have you had some weirdos contact you?

Dan Chaon: No. Not really. If you’re a weirdo on MySpace, the last thing you’re doing is hunting for short story writers. There are lots of better people to stalk.

HMB: What’s the song on your MySpace page? Do you switch songs often, or is that the one for you?

Dan Chaon: Right now it is my brother’s rap song. He is a rapper called Neglected Poetry.

Derek Handley made sure this interview happened. And now Hot Metal Bridge is friends with Dan Chaon on myspace.