An Interview with Dan Chaon
By Claire Jimenez and Elizabeth Furlow
Claire Jimenez: Last year, Jill Schepmann, a former graduate student, went to a session you did at AWP about the Midwestern Gothic. I missed it but I thought it sounded so interesting. What do you think are the characteristics of the Midwestern Gothic and how does that translate into your writing?
Dan Chaon: Well, I think there’s a lot of ways to interpret what “gothic” is and you can wiki “gothic” and it will give you a list of things, but to me the main thing that it has to do with is secrets and the threat of violence in some ways or the loom of mortality, and the sense that in some ways the landscape is actually mirroring a psychological state. The Midwest seems like a perfect place for the gothic because it is sort of determinedly unbeautiful, at least where I grew up, which was Nebraska. It’s a very threatening landscape. It’ essentially a desert landscape that people very foolishly try to tame. Nebraska for a long time was considered part of the great American desert, just some place to pass over. Then they had the brilliant idea of trying to sort of trick immigrants into coming there and trying to farm. So it’s like all these towns in Nebraska, over a period of a hundred years were established and abandoned. I think another aspect of gothic is that sense of the world in decline. The classic gothic would have an old castle or a dilapidated mansion.
CJ: Like ghost towns.
Chaon: Right. But Where I grew up it was towns that were abandoned because it just wasn’t feasible. They wanted to recreate little German villages or little Czech villages and it wasn’t really feasible in this kind of hostile environment. Now, I live in Cleveland which has a different kind of gothic quality. It’s the Rust Belt and there’s sort of a similar kind of sense of decline and ruin in many places, where It was a city that was built on industry that no longer exists in this country. Steel and so on and so forth. And wealth that was built on that has also gone elsewhere.
Elizabeth Furlow: Do you think it’s possible to write a gothic narrative in a city that has a burgeoning economy?
Chaon: Yeah I do think so. But I think you have to find the rot. There’s a different kind of rot.
EF: Why do you think you write the gothic?
Chaon: I don’t know what it is. I guess there’s something about that kind of spookiness. It’s like a combination of things that are spooky and things that are romantic, that I’ve always found really appealing and beautiful. I remember as a kid just loving pictures of castles and also pictures of old houses that were in some ways on their way out.
I’ll tell you how you can write a gothic story about Nashville. You would need like an old house. You’d need somebody who was maybe part of the old time country music industry, like somebody the age of Loretta Lynn. And you could do sort of a Sunset Boulevard thing with that character. Because basically you’d have to have somebody who represents the old ways in some sort of way or somebody who’s shut out from the modern world. That’s a big part of the gothic.
CJ: In a lot of your stories there’s this really great sense of suspense that you craft and I wondered if that was something that happened naturally in the first draft or if when you’re revising are you sort of crafting it so that it builds up?
Chaon: I think it’s something that’s purposeful for me, in that I don’t naturally come to plot, as the first thing I think of. I was talking to you about this sort of collage element. And I like to throw lots of things in there, like I saw this weird thing and then I read this weird thing. And I found that one way to control that collage urge and give it some sort of reign or force was to come up with a very strong suspense line that would create a road for the story and so then I could hang all this stuff along the side of the road and it would be fine, because there would still be an urgency and forward movement.
CJ: So it’s something that comes a little bit afterwards, after the collaging and you make it accumulate.
Chaon: It’s almost like if you’re doing a mash over something you have to have a really strong beat to tie everything in order to make it feel likes its coordinated and working together. To me the suspense line is like the drum. That’s what holds everything together.
EF: So is it a collage of images that you think of?
Chaon: I think it’s a collage of images and anecdotes and sometimes little incidents that I’ve been thinking about for one reason or another. I mean the story “Stay Awake” started out as, I’d seen this baby with a deformity on Oprah and the baby had two heads. One was coming out the side of the back of his head. They were talking about what the parents were going to have to do because the heads soon would have to be separated. One obviously didn’t have a body. Then I was online and I was really interested in this condition. So started accumulating all this weird stuff, like there was this stuff about this doctor who was doing head transplants on monkeys. (laughs) He was like taking one head and putting it on another, and I was like I can’t believe that you can do that. And just the history of this disease and how some of the children were displayed in sideshows. And how the skulls were very precious and were stolen by various people and sold to medical museums. All this weird stuff that wasn’t really a story. It was just like one of those very long feverish google searches. But I guess that I needed to have some suspense line rather than just a bunch of weird stuff about two-headed things.
CJ: So how do you decide how to order the images.. that’s sort of a weird question.
Chaon: It is sort of a weird question
CJ: It’s intuitive.
Chaon: It is intuitive and I think it requires a lot of fooling around. Again it is like collage. Does this belong here or does this belong there?
EF: So with these google searches do you actually try and keep track of all these exact details or does it kind of just pass through your mind?
Chaon: I usually take notes. I have a note book that I work with and I take lots of notes. A lot of times I don’t keep track of where I got pieces of information.
CJ: Do you ever have to stop yourself from the research part of it?
Chaon: Yeah, but you know it is this thing that for some reason in contemporary life is just part of the heart of what we do. Right, we just go into that internet mode where you go from one page and then click on another page. And then pretty soon you look at your history and you’ve gone through like thirty things. Somehow we’ve wandered through this little weird path through the woods.
CJ: And then you’re whole afternoon’s gone.
Chaon: Yeah, but at least I feel like I can make use of that to some extent or I have been able to make use of it. The afternoon for writers, you have to have those lost afternoons. It’s part of the process. Either you’re staring out the window or you’re listening to music and something is brewing.
EF: That seems to go along with that whole collage non-linear process. Have you ever tried to write a story that doesn’t have a plot?
Chaon: Every novel that I ever write starts out as this big mash of different things. And then I have to figure out a way to reign it in and give it plot orientation. Because otherwise it’s just this big mess that nobody’s ever going to want to read.
CJ: In that Believer interview you talked about how there’s a difference for you between writing a novelistic scene and a short story scene. What were the differences for you?
Chaon: I think stories often have these half scenes, where it’s part summary and just a few touches of dialogue that maybe happens in a small section. Rarely do stories have more than one or two full fledged like cinematic scenes, where it’s actually in real time and you’re getting action and dialogue and so on and so forth, where as I think most novels are built on those cinematic scenes, you know the scenes that go on for five or ten pages. And those are really hard for me. Cinematic scenes are really hard because it’s got it’s own sort of beats. I feel like a lot of times it’s easy to get lost and just have people talking about wearing stuff.
CJ: Yeah, like how do you know what’s necessary.
Chaon: I know. Well you know there are events that have to be dramatized that the reader has to see them. I think dramatizing action is super hard and choreographing action. I don’t know if you’ve ever written a fight scene…How do you describe it? It’s really hard. But that’s a specific type of skill. And I have to say, I found it was easier to learn how to write cinematic scenes by reading genre. I don’t know if you’ve ever read some airport novels, there are just two or three pages that are mostly scene and that’s what they’re built on. That’s kind of what The Great Gatsby’s built on, too. The Great Gatsby’s really like just six scenes. Really long scenes.
CJ: How long is that novel?
Chaon: It’s like 120 pages.
CJ: It’s really like a novella.
Chaon: Yeah it really is.
CJ: When you were writing this most recent short story collection, what were other short story collections that you were reading?
Chaon: I was definitely reading some old stuff. Like Eudora Welty and Henry James, Edith Wharton, E. Nesbitt. A lot of the sort of Edwardian ghost story writers of the turn of the century. Elizabeth Bowen is somebody that I really got into. She’s a British writes from I guess the thirties and forties mostly. But one of the things that was interesting to me was that it was very common in that period, especially for women writers to do ghost stories. It was just like publications must have really loved to have ghost stories or something like that. But the ghost stories were often kind of metaphorical expressions of feelings of helplessness and of repressed rage and a sense of powerlessness. I felt like there was also something about the way these particular types of ghost stories they were presenting made sense in modern times. I mean I think there has been something about the years since 9/11, where there’s been this sense of dread and powerlessness about the world and the sense of something bad is going to happen any moment. That reminds me of these stories from the turn of the century and reminds of this sort of mind set. I don’t want to get too political, but I think in some ways it had to do with particularly women writers being aware of the oppression of the culture they were in, but not being able to address it directly, and not even being able to put a name on it. And I feel like there’s something about contemporary culture that’s really oppressive for us in a lot of ways that we can’t really put a name on.
CJ: What are some of your favorite ghost stories?
Chaon: There’s a really wonderful one by Edith Wharton called “Afterward” that starts out with this really creepy moment, where they’re talking to a realtor about the new house that they bought and they jokingly ask if the house is haunted and the realtor says: “Oh yes, but you won’t know about it till long afterward.” You won’t know that you’ve seen a ghost till long after you’ve seen it.
And a contemporary version of a haunted house story that I love is Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals.” It’s a really beautiful and strange haunted house story. Shirley Jackson has an amazing novella I guess you would call it: The Haunting of Hill House, that I love. It’s a beautiful book. It’s so sad and scary.
EF: Do you think you’re going to continue to write ghost stories?
Chaon: I don’t know. I think the next book is sort of turning into a paranoid thriller kind of conspiracy thriller. I don’t really know whether it’s going to stay that way. But I’ll tell you the genesis of it. I’ve always been interested in the period of the 80’s and 90’s, when people very strongly believed in satanic ritualistic abuse as an actual thing. I was interested in the West Memphis 3 Case, partially because of how that played into people’s unfounded belief that there were satanic cults out there sacrificing babies and killing puppies and things. And how that plays out in the lives of not just the people who are affected by it but by people who have built a career around identifying and rooting out this non-existent thing. And my main character is this psychologist who has testified against a number of people and whose specialty was at the time Satanic ritual abuse until it became clear that he was researching a non-existent phenomenon. I’m interested in playing with that and playing with how he deals with that. Yeah, so it’s a little bit a paranoid thriller. And it’s got Satanists in it.
CJ: It sounds pretty fun to write.
Chaon: It is pretty fun to write. And it’s also got like heavy metal.
CJ: Do you have some lyrics that you’re working on that you’re going to put in it?
Chaon: (laughs) Yeah.
EF: Earlier you talked about how young writers have a difficulty keeping their lives in perspective and knowing how to write. Do you have any advice for how we could understand our limitations and work around them and through them?
Chaon: Yeah. I think one of the things that we miss out on in contemporary life is a sense of a variety of other people’s experience. Growing up in a small town with a lot of my family around I would spend time with people that were older than me, people who had different life experiences and all that stuff. And I think sometimes college students, you’re only around other 18-21 year olds. And my suggestion is to get out. Go volunteer at an old folks home or talk to your aunts and uncles and grandparents. Spend some time listening to their stories. I think we don’t do that enough. Some people do, but I think a lot of us don’t. I don’t know. Just go to some bar and talk to a drunk.
CJ: Yeah, it’s putting yourself in uncomfortable situations.
Chaon: Or just sort of finding out how people do live their lives and getting a stronger sense of what the possibilities out there are for different people. I do think it’s very natural for people to get into a kind of isolated modes. A kind of culture where everybody’s sort of having the same experience, even the same politics and income level and that’s what suburbs are all about. I live in a suburb where people tend to be professors, doctors, lawyers and everybody has Obama signs.
CJ: Or like MFA Grad School programs.
Chaon: Yeah exactly. That is different from growing up in a small town or wherever where the janitor and the principal live on the same block.
CJ: One last question. Let me see…If you could write any short story what would it be? A story that somebody else has written.
Chaon: God, that’s a good question.
CJ: I stole it from Tony Earley.
Chaon: I would have very much liked to write the last three pages of Joyce’s “The Dead.” Just the last three pages. I don’t like the rest of the story. And I would have liked to write Raymond Carver’s story “Fat.” That’s a beautiful story. So scary.
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