The stories in Stay Awake are riveting, twisted, macabre, complex and darkly humorous. Previous works by Cleveland-based author Dan Chaon include the novels You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. He teaches writing at Oberlin.
Amy Steele: You started out writing short stories and have also written two novels.
Dan Chaon: It’s what you start out with in college. I was even writing stories when I was a kid. I was reading Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson and those old anthologies/ thrillers that were supposed to be edited by Alfred Hitchcock. Stories to Read with the Lights On and things like that.
Amy Steele: What appeals to you about writing short stories?
Dan Chaon: I’m someone who has a lot of ideas. A lot of the ideas aren’t particularly novel-like or something I want to spend an entire 200 or 300 pages exploring. The story gives you this opportunity to play around with a particular idea and get in and get out and I like that.
Amy Steele: What are the challenges in writing a short story?
Dan Chaon: There’s the challenge in compressing some information and figuring out what belongs in the story and what doesn’t . The other issue is how to get a resonance and make a reader care about a character and make them feel something about the character’s state by the end of the story.
Amy Steele: What are the elements of a good short story?
Dan Chaon: I don’t know if you can describe it exactly. I think stories vary so widely. There are great short stories that have a traditional three-act structure and there are great short stores that are just monologues and there are great short stories that are mostly concerned with language. The fact that the form is so flexible is one of the things that makes it so wonderful.
The only thing you can say about what makes a short story great is that it gives you that friction at the end where the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Amy Steele: What is the market like for short story vs. novel?
Dan Chaon: What market are we talking about? The market for individual short stories?
Amy Steele: Everyone thinks they can and will write a novel but then some will write a short story.
Dan Chaon: I don’t think there’s the market for short stories that there was during the golden age of magazines. When you had The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Saturday Evening Post. That’s pretty much gone. There’s still a huge number of small literary magazines. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that’s going on online. Publishers are resistant to short story collections a little bit because they don’t sell as well.
But they still continue to publish quite a few of them so I don’t think it’s impossible. If you’re betting the odds, you’re probably better off writing a novel first. There’s always that story of someone who publishes a short story collection right out of grad school and then works 15 years writing a novel that ends up being a big flop.
Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing about the darker side of people?
Dan Chaon: I’ve always been attracted to the morbid and the scary and to mystery. I’ve been a lover of ghost stories for a long time. I think one of the things this collection reflects is trauma and how people deal with loss. So I think those two things are complementary. Ghosts and horror stories and trauma and loss.
Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.
Amy Steele: How did you come up with the idea for “The Bees”—kind of a paranormal, creepy story?
Dan Chaon: It started about a child with night terrors. And I was thinking a lot about how people change over time or don’t change. I just had this idea about a dead-beat Dad returning after a long time lapsed and having been a changed person. And how and whether that would be forgivable. I’d heard an anecdote about this from a friend. The long absent parent and whether they could be forgiven was on my mind and that’s where the story began to emerge from. I had been asked to write a story for an issue of McSweeney’s that had a supernatural element to it. It all came together in a way that I thought was pleasing.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to write a story—”Stay Awake”—about a baby with craniopagus parasiticus? What kind of research did you do?
Dan Chaon: I think the core of the story was seeing something on a talk show. I want to say it was Oprah but I don’t remember for sure. Some parents who had a child with this condition. Then I found myself googling some info about that really strange condition and becoming really fascinated by it.
Amy Steele: Do you write story ideas down all the time?
Dan Chaon: Yeah. And I do read a lot of the weirder news stories. The stuff at the bottom of the page that’s more pulpy. I find I get a lot of inspiration out of that.
Amy Steele: “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow”—about teenagers whose baby dies shortly after birth—and “Take This, Brother, May It Serve You Well” deal with topics most people want to avoid and with truly unlikable people. What do you enjoy about those stories?
Dan Chaon: In terms of unlikable people, I find them more interesting in some ways. I like people who have the capacity to misbehave and do wrong things because that seems to have more dramatic potential for me. As a reader and as a writer. It’s one of the places that I’m interested in looking at. People who have done something that they regret in one way or another. At least that guy in that one story had a lot of things to regret and that made him a lot of fun to write about. Also he was pretty funny in a lot of ways because he was so angry and jerk-ish.
There is a stage you reach, Deagle thinks, a time somewhere in early middle age, when your past ceases to be about yourself. Your connection to your former life is like a dream or delirium, and that person you were once is merely a fond acquaintance, or a beloved character from a storybook. This is how memory becomes nostalgia.
–”Take This, Brother, May It Serve You Well”
Amy Steele: How do you decide whether to tell a story in first-person or third-person?
Dan Chaon: A lot of times it just seems to emerge from the situation. With that voice, that was the driving force behind the story in some ways. That kind of constantly riffing, smart-alec-y voice. I didn’t even know where it was going at first. It was just riffing on all these observations.
It was probably one of those dutiful married person fucks that happened right before they went to sleep or right after they woke in the morning . . .
–“Long Delayed, Always Expected”
Amy Steele: How does writing influence your teaching at Oberlin and how does teaching influence your writing?
Dan Chaon: You get to spend time with people who are interested in the same subjects as you are—exploring language and the process of creating stories. In some ways you’re dealing with the same problems whether you’ve written five books or whether you’re just starting out. What kinds of language are evocative and what kinds aren’t. How do you create a feasible character. All that continues to be a challenge. To be able to talk about it with my students helps me as a writer. I think being a teacher helps me to think about these issues in dynamic ways.
Amy Steele: How does living in Cleveland/ the Midwest affect your writing? Have you always lived in the Midwest?
Dan Chaon: Yes, I’ve always lived in the Midwest. I grew up in Nebraska then I moved to Chicago for college. I went to grad school at Syracuse. So that was my one foray outside the Midwest although Syracuse still feels pretty isolated. Now I’m back in Cleveland. I guess there’s a particular feel of the landscapes in the Midwest that have a particular power that I’m drawn to.
Amy Steele: What about people supposedly being so polite and nice in the Midwest?
Dan Chaon: One of the reasons I may be interested in people’s secrets and the unexplored aspects of people’s identities is that I’ve grown up among that politeness. You don’t really say what you think a lot of the time.
purchase at Amazon: Stay Awake: Stories
for more info: Dan Chaon website
Dan will appear at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, February 8.