Q&A With Author Dan Chaon

"I’m a junkie for extreme states." - Dan Chaon

Posted Feb 15, 2012

Dan Chaon's new collection of short stories, Stay Awake, is a disturbing - in a good way. Here's more from Dan:

Jennifer Haupt: Are you often awake late at night, contemplating extreme situations and emotions?

Dan Chaon: I admit that I'm a junkie for extreme states, and especially troubled psychological states. I have to admit that Psychology Today was one of the first magazines I started reading, back when I was 13 or 14,because I was the kind of kid that was curious about the mysterious human mind -- I hoped to learn about telekenisis, multiple personalities, psychosis,and various other cool and terrible things that happened inside people's heads.

On the one hand, my curiosity was merely titillation -- I wanted to see the extreme edges of the feelings that I was myself experiencing. On the other hand, I've always felt a strong empathy for people who are caught in psychological turmoil.

JH: Which of these stories was the genesis for this collection?

DC: Back in 2003, I was asked to write a story for McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon. Chabon's project was to combine so-called literary writing with pulp and genre storytelling elements, and I was very much inspired by what he had to say. I felt like the story I wrote, "The Bees," was a breakthrough for me, and I learned a lot from writers like Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Kevin Brockmeier -- and many others -- who were doing interesting work with genre-bending. It opened me up to the idea that "literary" didn't necessarily mean "realism." And I started looking at the ghost stories written during the modernist period by people such as Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bowen and Shirley Jackson. It seemed to me that these stories really spoke to the contemporary condition. I thought: maybe we need the uncanny to find a way to express the way it feels to be alive right now.

JH: Is there a question you are trying to answer for yourself through writing fiction?

DC: Fiction is a particular kind of rhetoric, a way of thinking that I think can be useful in your life. It asks you to image the world through someone else's eyes, and it allows you to try to empathize with situations that you haven't actually experienced. People write fiction in their minds all the time-every time we read a "human interest" news story, or a true crime tale, we find ourselves fascinated because we're trying to understand why people behave the way they do, why they make the choices they do, how we become who we become. Imaginative empathy is one of the great gifts that humans have, and it means that we can live more than one life. We can picture what it would be like from another perspective.

JH: If you couldn't earn a living writing, what would you do?

DC: I love teaching -- it's sometimes hard for me to choose between working on my own stuff and working with students, because my students have so much fresh and exciting energy.

JH: What's the most disturbing and inspiring book you've read during the past year?

DC: I loved the graphic novel Lint by Chris Ware. I think Chris Ware is one of the great geniuses of my generation, and he's doing things with the medium of comics that no one would have imagined possible twenty years ago. It's as if he's creating a new language: his work actually transformed the way that I think about narrative.

JH: What is the one true thing you learned through writing the stories in Stay Awake?

DC: I wanted to play around with the idea of what a "story" meant. I've written melodrama, I've written thrillers, I've written traditional short fiction with epiphanies at the end. I wanted to find a structure that was satisfying to readers and yet broke with the expected in some way.

JH: What's next for you?

DC: I'm in the process of completing a screenplay for my novel Await Your Reply, and working on a new novel.

Dan Chaon is the acclaimed author of Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and You Remind Me of Me, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. 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 he 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.