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Dan Chaon Writes About His Personal Ghosts

Stay Awake cover
Stay Awake
by Dan Chaon

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview
with Dan Chaon, Author of Stay Awake

 

By Diane Slocum
May 2012

In Stay Awake, Dan Chaon uses the uncanny to show how it feels to be alive now. The characters in his latest short story collection are haunted by the ghosts of their own past.

“Almost all the stories started out as small observations that I keep in a notebook.”
—CHAON

AUTHORLINK: Where do your stories come from? Do you base any on actual events?

CHAON: Almost all the stories started out as small observations that I keep in a notebook that I carry around with me—the kernels were things I noticed while going about my daily life, or anecdotes that someone told me, or something that I happened to read. If I went through each story I could probably pick out particular parts which were originally just little fragments, like the notes that Critter finds in “To Psychic Underworld.”

Here’s one example, from the (title) story “Stay Awake.” Two cases (of two-headed babies) were fairly recent, including a little girl who was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show who gave me the original idea. Many of the elements of the story including “The Two-Headed Boy of Bengal,” and the research done by Dr. Robert White are based in fact.

Around the same time, I knew a few couples having a difficult time conceiving a baby, and I had conversations with them which stuck with me. I understand the longing and desire to have “children of your own” very well, and I hope the story is a sympathetic portrayal.

I was adopted as an infant, and that has certainly made me more cognizant of the ways in which that deep desire for a baby can warp and skew relationships; the ways in which “babies” are much more than just small human mammals, but also containers for these enormous projected emotions and hopes and fears.

So there were different fragments which came together as I was writing that story. I think that, in general, that’s the way most of the stories in the collection were written. They are an accumulation of different kinds of data which are then somehow sown together into something that manages to come alive.

“ I like people who have the capacity to misbehave and do wrong things because that seems to have more dramatic potential . . .”
—CHAON

AUTHORLINK: Your character’s often have bleak or traumatic pasts – murderous or suicidal parents, dead or disabled spouses – and their lives have turned out off-center or incomplete. Why are you drawn to these characters?

CHAON: I’m interested in people who screw up. 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—in some deep unconscious way, I feel that I am part of their tribe.

Fiction 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.

I'm always influenced by weird anecdotes and news. For some reason, thinking about the extreme incidents and trying to filter them through my own understanding of the world is a very satisfying way to process my own (much less dramatic) personal experience.

In particular, I'm curious about how people process grief and how they process loss. And I'm also interested in the ways in which an event can have long-reaching consequences, ways in which we remain connected even when we’re separated by distance. And about the ways in which mistakes and the little choices that you make will travel through time. I guess it’s sort of about the presence of the uncanny in daily life, too. The people that you might have been, or the things that you might have done, or the things that happened that you wish didn’t happen — those are the real ghosts.

AUTHORLINK: You’ve published two novels and many short stories. How do you approach the two differently? When do you know whether an idea is going to turn into one or the other?

CHAON: It’s funny, because most of the time I have no idea what form a piece will eventually take. Both of my novels started out as short stories. And there are three pieces here—“Stay Awake,” “I Wake Up,” and “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands.” which I worked on for a while thinking that they might be novels.

I probably wrote fifty to a hundred pages on each of those before I gave up. For example, there are a few chapters of “Stay Awake” from Rosalie’s perspective, as a child and as a teenaged girl, when I imagined the story as a kind of ghostly Middlesex sort of book. The simple answer is that I was more interested in those stories as mystery. The novels all required me to explain things, and the explanations seemed to sap the energy out of the original idea.

“I always want to start as close to the heart of the emotion and action as I can . . .”
—CHAON

AUTHORLINK: How do you decide when to enter each character’s life and where to leave it?

CHAON: I always want to start as close to the heart of the emotion and action as I can, and I try to take the characters through a journey that leaves them changed in some way at the end. The stories tend to leave the characters at a point where they find themselves in a new place, often surprised to be transformed.

AUTHORLINK: In Stay Awake you have stories in first, second and third person. How do you decide which person to use?

CHAON: Honestly, it rarely seems like a choice to me. Most of the stories come to me in a particular voice—most of the time in third person. On the rare occasions that I use first or second person, it’s because I’m drawn into the voice before anything else, a character speaking directly to me, or through me, if that makes any sense. I do notice that most of my first person stories are extremely unreliable—that they are almost always about the subjectivity of experience in one way or another.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people gain from reading these stories?

CHAON: It seems presumptuous to suggest that they’ll gain anything—or to prescribe a specific thing that a story will do to a reader. The thing that good fiction does for me, personally, is it creates a little world in my mind that wasn’t there before. And once I’ve read a story, there is a door that I can open any time I want and go to that other place—it exists, now, and I can go back there and explore it and make use of it in any way I need to.

About Dan Chaon: DAN CHAON has won numerous awards, including the National Book Award. He teaches at Oberlin College in Cleveland, and is almost finished with his latest novel.
Diane Slocum
About
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.