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Off the Page: Dan Choan

With Dan Chaon
Award-Winning Short Story Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2004; 1:00 PM

It's easy to lose oneself in Dan Chaon's stories. Intelligent and precise, they plunge a reader into a world that is both real and odd, believable and, if one stops to think, unbelievable. One has to go back and read them again to see how carefully they are constructed.

Finalist for a National Book Award for his second collection, Among the Missing, Chaon is now publishing his first novel, You Remind Me of Me , in which a man tracks down the brother he never knew, whom his mother gave up for adoption years earlier. The Post calls the novel "large, generous and ? quite moving.."

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Chaon was online Thursday, July 8 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about his new novel.

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, and welcome to Off the Page. Dan Chaon is joining us to talk about his new novel--let's get right to questions.

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Carole Burns: Do you remember the germ of an idea that became YOU REMIND ME OF ME? How did it develop into a novel?

Dan Chaon: There were actually several pieces that I was working on at once. One had to do with a young man that had been scarred by a dog. That came from a Cleveland news story about a kid who had been scarred by a dog, and I was fascinated by the not only the attack itself but by the prospect of having these very noticeable facial scars that would be the first thing people noticed when they met you.

The other piece that I had was this guy, Troy, who was a small-time drug dealer. I was really particularly taken by his character, by this smart but uneducated working-class guy who had a close relationship with his son. I was working on a story about him but I didn't have a plot to go with it. So as I began working on these things, you began to see how they fit together, and how they worked in a novelistic way rather than a short story way.

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Washington, D.C.: I love your stories--though I haven't had a chance to read your novel yet. Are you still writing stories? What do you think you're better at writing--novels or short stories?

Dan Chaon: I am still writing stories, but switching back and forth is very difficult, because to me the process of writing a novel vs. writing a short story is a completely different mental process. Part of that has to do with the degree of spontaneity. With a story I tend to write more subconsciously without knowing the ending and where things are going. With a novel I think I'm more aware of the architecture of plot and structure. I don't really like one better than the other. I guess it's like the difference between being married and dating. With a story there's the thrill of discovery, you're in and you're out and you're gone. With the novel it's a long process of getting to know one another and learning to live with one another. In terms of whether I'm better at one than the other, I don't really know and I guess I can't make that judgment myself. I guess I'll see if I make it through the reviews alive.

It took about two years to write the novel. There were some elements that were there beforehand. I was working with some stuff I had already written. Really, the middle part of the book took the longest for me to write, because I kept changing my mind about what was going to happen. The more I got to know the characters, the more I found they didn't necessarily want to do what I thought they were going to do. I had to backtrack and redo things again. I talked about spontaneity, and the spontaneity in the novel is more lumbering, because turning a novel is sort of like turning the Titanic. But those surprises can come.

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Bethesda, Md.: Periodically we are told the short story is dead. Then, too, the novel has expired a number of times. Literature itself has the dwindles. Does any of this seem so to you? Has the shrinking fiction industry affected you directly?

Dan Chaon: I saw that article today, about a report by the Census department, that says the audience for literature and the arts is shrinking. But it doens't seem so from my vantage point. As a college teacher, there are certainly at Oberlin many more students who want to be creative writing majors than we can actually take into our classes. There are huge numbers of people who are involved and engaged in literary pursuits and reading and the arts. So I don't feel it personally. On the other hand, I grew up in a family where no one read books, and I grew up feeling like an oddball in that respect. So I'm not the person to talk to about this issue because I feel like I'm around more people now than ever before who love books.

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Carole Burns: How interesting that your own upbringing wasn't filled with books. How did you find them?

Dan Chaon: I don't really know why I was so drawn to books. But I remember from an early age wanting to pretend to read books, being fascinated by books, getting books from school and bringing them home, getting books from the library and the book mobile. I can't quite explain it in any analytical terms. It seemed to be one of those mysterious things like falling in love at first sight. Maybe there's something in my nature that made me attracted to books. I loved the Pokey Little Puppy, that was a Golden Book. All those Golden Books, I remember having great affection for. And then I found a book at a garage sale when I was about five, called the Violet Fairy, that had all kinds of fairy tales from all over the world, and I was very drawn to them.

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Anonymous: Do you have any tips for helping an undisciplined would-be writer? (me, of course) When I have a good idea, the words just flow onto the page & I can't think about anything else, but at other times I force myself to write, and it sounds....well, forced.

Dan Chaon: Everybody has that. And the real trick is to be able to forgive yourself for the bad writing you do or the forced writing you do, and to realize that first drafts are first drafts, and revision can turn forced writing into good stuff. To me revision is so important a part of the process. So along with putting yourself on a schedule and writing every day, you have to let loose of the idea that if it's not flowing along perfectly, then it's not worthwhile to do. It's not as fun. But very often the stuff that comes through hard work and revision has more depth than the stuff that comes easily through inspiration.

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Angers, France: Hi!;
My childhood seems clearer and more visual to me now than ever. As a southern born American who has been living in Europe for a long time, I'm wondering if you think an old lady like me should try to recapture her youth in writing. If so, would anyone but me care?
Comments?

Dan Chaon: If it's important to you and you can capture something vividly, it's worth doing. And there's no way to guage whether other people will care or not. But I suspect that if you've done something that pleases you and moves you, there are other people out there who will also be interested.

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Carole Burns: The characters in your novel all seem to be haunted by how they could have made their lives different--one moment, which they could have changed. Do you think these moments actually exist for people? Why did you choose to write about this?

Dan Chaon: Yes, I do think they exist for people, and they exist over every minute of our lives, we can make choices that can change the way they turn out. We may not always know which way things will change. For example, there was a particular class that I took at Northwestern, and if I hadn't taken that class I wouldn't have met my wife. I'm fascinated by the ways life is made up of randomness and choice, like fractal geometry.

Carole Burns: Though the characters in your novel seem unable to make changes they need so their lives are more what they want.

Dan Chaon: With Jonah, I think he's too invested in the possibilities of change, so that a lot of his choices lead him to reinventing himself and not being able to make longterm connections. Whereas I think Troy is so invested in the idea of putting down roots and making a family that he can't get out of some of the entrapments that he finds himself in. They both have different kinds of blinders.

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Arlington, Va.: Where did you come up with the parrot in your short story (was it "Among the Missing")? I love that parrot.

Dan Chaon: A friend of a friend was housesitting for a couple that had a foul-mouthed bird, and I became really interested in the way in which anthropomorphism can be used to explore the character the anthropomorphiser--the person doing the anthropomorphing. And it just seemed like a really cool thing to have in a story.

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Washington, D.C.: What was the biggest challenge you faced moving from the medium of the short story to that of the novel? And, was there always a novel in you, waiting to come out, or did you discover it?

Dan Chaon: I think there was a novel in the material that I was interseted in, and I was having trouble controlling it within the short story form. The transition was difficult for me because I wasn't sure how to handle the structure of a novel. And ultimately, I think I ended up inventing a somewhat modified rather than classical version of the novel form, particularly in the way that I dealt with chronology. YOU REMIND ME OF ME is definitely a short story writer's novel, I would say.

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Carole Burns: YOU REMIND ME OF ME has an interesting structure, switching among different narrators, as well as cutting forward and back in time. Why did you choose that format, as opposed to an omniscient narrator?

Dan Chaon: One of the dictums of short story writing is to start in the middle of action, and I tried to do that with the novel. And then I found myself swamped with layers upon layers of flashback and summary. And the only way I could figure out how to handle that 30 years of time was the break it up into fragments, and arrange the fragments in a way that showed their interrelationship.

Regarding an omniscient narrator: To be honest, I like the feeling of inhabiting a person's point of view, and since the novel is so much about dramatic irony, i.e., what people don't know about their own lives, an omniscient narrator would have lost the feeling of the characters' individual quirks of thoughts.

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Angers, France: Thank you so much for taking the interest to answer my question. I'm itching to get started!; If you see a book that looks like steam is rising off of it, it might be mine!;
Thank you

Dan Chaon: Good luck!

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Washington, D.C. : How long had you been writing when your first "break" came, and what was it? Do you have any advice for those of us still waiting for ours? Thanks.

Dan Chaon: I'm not sure what to think about questions of first breaks, because everything for me took a really long time. I published my first story was I was 20 in a journal called TriQuarterly, but then I didn't publish my first book of short stories until I was 30, and that book was published by a small press and probably sold less than 500 copies. My first book with a major publisher was AMONG THE MISSING, which I published when I was 36. So it was a very steady process for me, and really the life-changing thing was the National Book Award nomination, which opened a lot of doors and made people more aware of my work than I had ever expected them to be. The O'Henry helped as well. The best advice I can give to anybody is that it really is for most people a very long process, and you can't be too tied to results, because you can't control most of what happens to you. The only thing you can control is the effort and quality that goes into your own work. Sometimes you're lucky. I know people who have been very lucky with their work, and I know people who have been very unlucky, and it doesn't seem to have much to do with quality.

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Cleveland, Ohio: First of all, I really liked the book. I wondered if you could make the transition from short story to novel and I think you pulled it off. I look forward to your next novel.

My question is that I took as a major theme that we are all extremely influenced by our parenting system and in many ways "stuck" with the results, bad or good. I see this as kind of the opposite of the common self chatter you hear about "don't blame your parents for your mistakes...they did the best they could...you have free will...you can be anyway you want...blah, blah, blah..."
Were you aware of this theme and do your agree. I think I do.

Dan Chaon: I think my purpose in writing the novel was to look at the questions of nurture and nature, not necessarily to find an answer to the question of what turns us into the people that we are, but to try to get deeper into the mystery of that. I don't think it's one or the other. As an adoptee myself, I've seen both sides of the coin. Parts of me are definitely genetic; parts of me are definitely a result of my upbringing; and other parts appear to be my own invention.

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Carole Burns: I noticed that your first book was published originally by Northwestern University Press--then I noticed the very prestigious magazines that had published the stories in that book. Had you approached commercial publishers with that book? How did you make the transition to Ballantine?

Dan Chaon: I got a different agent. I changed agents, and I found an agent who was willing to really work hard for me, and who was very aggressive. He was lucky, and I was lucky, that the tactic worked. I found a few editors who were interested in AMONG THE MISSING, and I ended up signing a two-book deal with Ballantine. The O'Henry award came after the new agent. I had various publications and smaller awards. I had the Best American in 1996. One of the things that he used were blurbs. He sent me out to ask people that I had met or that I thought would be sympathetic to get blurbs for the book before he even sent it out to publishers. I have no idea what the point of blurbs is. For some reason it was effective.

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Washington, D.C. : What are your favorite authors, current and classic?

Dan Chaon: I can give a really long list, but I'll give a shorter list. Two authors who have been major influences on my writing are Alice Munro and Russell Banks. Other writers that I love are David Means, Linda Barry, Michael Chabon, Denis Johnson, John Edgar Wideman... And then in terms of more classic literature, I love Dickens, and Nabokov, and Borges, and Elizabeth Bowen. I love Edwardian ghost stories. And Raymond Carver. He's getting a bad rep from some people, and I'm going to stick by the guy. I'm tired of people bad-mouthing Ray Carver.

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Carole Burns: Thanks, Dan, for staying late to answer a few more questions. And thanks to the question-eers.

Please join us in two weeks, when the Irish writer Colm Toibin, finalist for a Booker prize, talks about THE MASTER, his new novel about Henry James.

Remember, you can get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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