A Conversation with Dan Chaon
Scott Phillips is the award-winning author of The Ice Harvest, which was nominated for an Edgar Award, a Hammett Prize, and an Anthony Award and was the recipient of the California Book Prize Silver Medal for First Fiction. A native of Wichita, Kansas, Phillips currently lives in California and will publish his second novel, The Walkaway, in August 2002.
Scott Phillips: The humor in these stories often comes from inappropriate behavior in the face of the serious or taboo--the egg yolk-monocle in "Burn with Me," for example, on the day of the grandfather's funeral, or David's uncomfortably oedipal joking with his mother's young lover in "Late for the Wedding." Do most readers see the humor in those moments, or do some react to them the way the other characters do?
Dan Chaon: This has always been an issue for me. I personally think that many of the stories are quite funny, but I'm not sure how readers respond. Based on the reviews I've read and comments I've heard from people, "hilarious" isn't the first word people think of when they talk about the stories. Because of the basic seriousness of the subject matter, many readers feel uncertain about whether they're allowed to laugh. Once, after a reading at a bookstore, someone came up to me and told me how he hadn't realized that there was humor in the stories until he'd heard me read them aloud, and I found that worrisome. Maybe what I found funny was too personal or idiosyncratic? Or too full of mixed emotions? Two of the stories that I think of as among the saddest in the collection-- "Safety Man" and "Prodigal"--are also the stories that I was most conscious of trying to make funny as well. I was gratified recently, listening to the audible.com version of the sto-ries, read by the actor Dylan Baker. I loved his reading of "Prodigal" especially, because he was able to negotiate the fine line between the jokes and the grief. "Oh!" I thought. "He got it!" And it gave me hope that other readers would get it as well.
Of course, you can't tell people how to feel when they read your work. You can only hope to connect. For me, trying to translate a very particular--and perhaps, peculiar-- type of humor is among my most difficult tasks as a writer. I don't blame people if they find the stories in Among the Missing dark-edged, but I hope they don't find them relentlessly grim. I like the idea that we can laugh and cry at the same time. I like the idea that tragedy and comedy can coexist, and if there is anything of my own personality in the stories, it is this habit or urge I have to be contrary, to find ambiguity in apparently cut-and-dried emotions, to notice the sorrow at the edge of a moment of ecstasy, or to see something absurdly silly prancing around the background of some terribly sad scene. I think that very often it is a human urge to think of our feelings as states of being--to think, for example, that it is possible to "be" happy ever after, or to think that you can maintain a state of eternal outrage. People try, of course. But to me it's genuinely funny when the bigger world interrupts our private dramas to remind us that what we're experiencing is not at the very center of the universe. Is this irony? Absurdity? I guess it is, but I don't think it's bitter, ni- hilistic humor, either. I love the world, and I love people, perhaps especially in their most awkward moments.
SP: People in other parts of the country tend to think of the Great Plains as a nice, quiet place full of sweet, innocent people, which doesn't seem to be your take on the region--many of your characters are alienated from family and friends, often starting in childhood, and there's a lot of drinking and mayhem going on. Do you hear from Mid-westerners who feel misrepresented in your work? To me, having been raised in Kansas, it rings perfectly true.
DC: I haven't heard any complaints so far. The truth is, though many of the stories are set in or refer to a particular area of the Plains area of the U.S.--western Nebraska, where I grew up, or Wyoming, or Colorado, or South Dakota--I didn't set out to be "regionalist" in the sense that the stories are meant to summarize a particular sociological group in the way a book like, say, Winesburg, Ohio does. I don't mean my characters to be representative of the people of the Great Plains region as a whole.
Still, for various reasons I find myself returning to this particular setting again and again, despite the fact that I haven't lived in the Great Plains region for almost twenty years. There's something about that landscape--a spooky, haunted, craggy beauty--that seemed to evoke the mood I felt as I was writing these stories. That sense of alienation you mention could probably be evoked anywhere, and certainly it isn't the special province of the people of the Great Plains, and yet certain specific details seemed like great con- tainers for the larger emotions I was trying to get at--the way the interstate and roads are set off against the flat horizon, the sheer distances people have to travel to get from one large town to the next, the fact that many of the tiny towns I knew when I was growing up are literally in the process of becoming ghost towns, and some of them have vanished altogether. Talk about "among the missing"!
SP: In Michael Chabon's introduction to "Big Me" for Prize Stories 2001: The O. Henry Awards, he calls it a ghost story, and it seems to me that several of these stories-- "Safety Man," "Among the Missing," and "Here's a Lit-le Something to Remember Me By" in particular--could be described the same way, though none of them has any supernatural element. Would you agree with that assessment?
DC: Absolutely. I was really delighted by Chabon's introduction, because he picked up on a number of things that were important to me about the stories in the book, and the "ghostly" aspect was definitely something I was very aware of. When I first conceived of the collection, I was going through a period of reading the work of a number of the women writers of the early twentieth century--Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen, E. Nesbit--all of whom wrote these books of particularly atmospheric ghost stories, stories in which the supernatural elements were used as a means to explore the mysteries of human psychology and fate. I felt there was something about the sense of dread in these stories that I especially connected to, and that was particularly appropriate to the contemporary world that I was writing about. I recall someone once writing that The Red Badge of Courage was a ghost story in which the ghosts fail to appear, and that's an idea that stuck with me.
On the other hand, I feel like the stories are basically true to reality. To me, American life itself is often fairly haunted, uncanny, unsettling in both its large events and small details. This is a country where a town can literally dry up and disappear over the course of less than a century, where thousands of people go missing every year. It's also true that one of the commonplaces of end-of-century America is the sense that it's very easy to have a secret life. You know the old story: Someone comes in and kills his coworkers with a semiautomatic, or a serial killer spends years murdering folks and burying them in the crawl space beneath his house, and then later his acquaintances and coworkers are terribly surprised. He's described as "quiet," "a nice guy," "no one suspected anything was wrong." It's a cliche, but kind of a horrific cliche if you think about it. It's a weird thing about the society in which we live that we regularly have such a superficial "relationship" with people that we see every day, that the social codes of "niceness" and so on are often so shallow. To me, the secret inner life is at the very heart of the contemporary American experience, and not just for serial killers and wackjobs, but also for ordinary people. It's my feeling that very often the complexity of someone's inner life and emotions is not only kept in check by the social institutions that regulate our daily lives--such complexity is positively unwelcome, and that creates a lot of ghosts.
SP: Several of these stories end without the narrator knowing the fate of a friend or loved one. In "Among the Missing," Sean's mother has disappeared, and though there's evidence she just packed up and moved out without telling anyone, there's also the fact that she told Sean she was worried someone had been stalking her. Tom, in "Here's a Little Something to Remember Me By," halfway believes he may have seen his presumed-dead friend Ricky in Florida. Is there a real answer to these questions, or is the ambiguity part of the point?
DC: I think I'm very attracted to things that are unanswer-able, and the stories you mention are good examples of that attraction seeping into my stories. As a kid, I adored those "True Mystery" books, which told of unsolved occurrences like the disappearance of the early American colony of Roanoke, with that spooky final detail of the letters CRO carved into a tree. I still get all tingly thinking about it. I know that this affection for the unexplained can get me into trouble with some people, though. One of the ideas about fiction that I don't particularly like is the notion that a story or novel is a little brightly wrapped package containing a Big Idea or Deep Thought or Secret Message, a very popular way of teaching literature to young people. (For example, from one of my sixth-grade son's work sheets: "What is the theme of this story? What do you think the author is trying to say?") I think one of the biggest difficulties for an artist trying to work in contemporary society is the need to package everything for easy consumption. Walker Percy writes about this in his essay "The Loss of the Creature," where he talks about the division in a modern technical society be-ween "expert and layman, planner and consumer." That is, "The expert and the planner know and plan, but the consumer needs and experiences: the planner creates a 'recreational experience' to satisfy a 'recreational need.' "
I think one of my main interests as a writer are those moments that are unpackagable, and, conversely, trying to re-mystify the stuff that's been already packaged. I feel like we already live in a society that is too constantly encapsulating and explaining and summarizing itself, and that we're often too quick to find easy insights, themes, and messages. I'm not particularly interested in the idea of Truth, or even of "epiphany" in fiction. Instead, I think the thing I value most is the stuff that shakes us up and makes us question our solid ground. I don't feel like I can stand up on a stage and preach anything convincingly; I'd prefer if the reader and I were standing together on a common ground, both of us puzzling and wondering in the face of these moments that can't be explained.
SP: One thing that echoes throughout your stories is a sense of the grisly--the tooth in the ashtray in "Safety Man," or the burn victims in "Passengers, Remain Calm," "Prosthesis," and "Burn with Me." In "Passengers ...," there's also the little girl with her arm halfway down the snake's throat, and in "Among the Missing" we're presented with the disturbing thought of the Morrison family having been partly devoured by the scavenging fish of the lake. Would I be wrong to suggest that these details are presented with a slight amount of glee on your part?
DC: A certain amount of glee? Ahem. Well, maybe you've got me there. I'll admit that I'm a fan of horror movies and books, and that those have influenced my sensibility to an extent that I'm sometimes unconscious of. I also grew up in a family that tended to relish the gruesome and macabre, which I suppose many rural families do, given their daily closeness to the death of various fellow mammals, as well as the many dangers that often lead to accidental demise or disfigurement of people.
Although none of these stories are autobiographical in their characters or situations, I have to admit that many of them had their earliest seeds in specific grisly stories or incidents. I really did see a little girl being attacked by a snake at a county fair; and my cousin Larry, a volunteer fireman and EMS worker, told me the story of a body, being removed from a burned car, falling apart like overcooked chicken. When I was about seven, my grandfather told me the disturbing ghost story at the center of "Burn with Me"; and another cousin of mine once went out of his way to show me the corpse of a dog in a lake, which was being delicately nipped by carp and catfish. (This cousin, a Vietnam vet, also told me a war story that to this day has kept me from eating stewed tomatoes. I won't repeat it here.) But I can't blame it all on my family. My own imagination tends to tilt in that direction anyway. The earliest glimmer of the story "Safety Man" started when I thought I saw a human tooth in one of those standing outdoor ashtrays. Upon closer inspection, the "tooth" turned out to be a hardened piece of chewing gum.
SP: In "Prodigal," the narrator suggests that parental failure is inevitable, even natural; and certainly estranged parents and children crop up again and again in your work, often despite one or the other's efforts to mend things. In "Passengers, Remain Calm," though, the relationship between Hollis and his nephew F. D. seems very loving and healthy. Imperfect as he is, Hollis seems determined not to let F. D. down or disappear on him the way his father has. Is this in any way a conscious counterpoint to the strained parent-child relationships in the other stories?
DC: I don't think it was a deliberate counterpoint, but I do think that I probably gave Hollis more unconditional love than I gave to any other character in the book. Hollis is a kind of thank-you letter to a number of the older male cousins I had who helped raise me, and who were enormously kind despite their own troubles. Some of those people have died, and I think I was particularly conscious of them when I was writing "Passengers, Remain Calm."
At the same time, I think Hollis exists on a certain continuum of parental figures I was thinking about. I like the fathers in "Burn with Me" and "Big Me," and I like the way Sandi and her girls interact in "Safety Man." And even in "Prodigal" I don't think the narrator has a terrible relationship with his children. Many of these stories came into being as I was trying to negotiate through the early years of being a parent myself, and I think that a lot of my own anxiety is inherent in the fears and mistakes that the characters make. As strained as many of the relationships are, I hope they don't come across as being stories about innocent children being victimized by cruel parents. To my mind, all of the parents in the book are doing their best under their various circumstances. I share the dislike that the narrator of "Prodigal" feels for "precociously perceptive child-narrators one finds in books . . . clear-sighted, very sensitive." It's harder to be an adult than those kids think it is! As parents, we make so many mistakes, and we can't help but be aware that in one way or another whatever we do will end up becoming a permanent scar that our children will have to struggle with; and the way that even small actions and mistakes can travel through time is fascinating to me. Some of the parents in the book are more successful than others, but I don't think any of them are monsters.
SP: This is your second collection of short stories. At what point did you realize you were writing them well enough to publish? When you started getting attention and winning prizes, did that come as something of a shock?
DC: As a writer, I feel like I'm always teetering on the edge between colossal egotism and soul-crushing humility. I've been writing stories since I was in junior high school, and even back then, when I was fourteen years old, I would finish a story and immediately believe that I'd created brilliance. A few weeks would pass, and I'd reread it and realize that it was crap, and that I was in fact the crappiest cranker-outer of crap who ever existed. I still haven't fully escaped that fourteen-year- old mind-set, though I now think I am able to come to a more balanced opinion eventually, and I'm more patient with the process of revising.
Ultimately, though, the process of trying to publish still seems totally random to me. Many of the stories in the collection that went on to win prizes were flat-out rejected by any number of magazines, and even when I personally feel confident that something I've written is the best that I can do, I can't hold on to more than a hope that someone else is going to like it. It's always a shock when a story gets attention or wins a prize, and it doesn't seem like it will be less of a shock as time goes on, because it always feels to me like I'm starting over every time I start new work. I immediately enter into that old cycle: It's great! Wait! No, it's terrible!
SP: The stories in Among the Missing cover some pretty intense emotional ground, and while I'm aware they're not in any way autobiographical, I still wonder to what degree they reflect your personal experiences and background. Are there incidents here that were drawn from your own life?
DC: Inevitably there are various incidents that have their roots in real experience, and there are even details that are more or less "true" in that they formed the core around which a story emerged, though none of the stories are "true" in any historically accurate way. Rather, they are lies that reflect various autobiographical states. Certainly I'm drawing on my own experience with the landscape of the stories that are set on the Great Plains, and I'm often aware of starting the stories around the details of various bits of gossip, rumors, news reports, even the specific things I've observed. I suppose that more than anything, there's a degree of emotional autobiography. The stories were written in the years following the death of my parents, both of whom passed away in 1996, and a lot of the intensity of the experience of losing my parents was channeled into the themes and moods of the stories, even when the specific incidents and characters were imaginary.