Staying Awake with Dan Chaon

Published February 6, 2012

ABOVE: DAN CHAON. PHOTO COURTESY OF ULF ANDERSEN

Dan Chaon writes about coping with tragedy in his new collection of short stories, Stay Awake. His crime stories are quiet, eerie, sad, and thrilling, and they might feel gothic if they weren’t so rooted in the banality of everyday life. As it is, Chaon marries the ordinary and the unfathomable with a finesse that impresses and devastates at once. As a writer, Chaon is the stranger lingering at the funeral, the passerby who returns to the scene of the crime—and you will follow him, afraid of and enticed by the ghosts that may or may not appear.

We chatted with Chaon about the infidelity of writers, the value of insomnia, and real zombies.

CLARE STEIN: Stay Awake is your first collection of short stories to be published in 11 years, since Among the Missing in 2001. I’ve heard you say that if a novel is like a wife, and short stories are like high school girlfriends. How was the transition back to your high school girlfriends?

DAN CHAON: Well, it was kind of like I was cheating the whole time, in some way. I went back and forth between writing the novels and sort of sneaking out to work on stories occasionally. These stories were written over the last 10 years or so, as I was taking breaks from the novels I’ve written.

STEIN: There’s a note of mystery to any short story, because the full context is withheld from the reader, in a sense. Do you think it’s easier to write a mysterious and eerie short story than a novel with that same tone?

CHAON: Probably. A novel requires a certain kind of world building and also a certain kind of closure, ultimately. Whereas with a short story you have this sense that there are hinges that the reader doesn’t see. I would say that all short stories have mystery naturally built into them.

STEIN: I know that the stories in Stay Awake focus on the moments after tragedy or major trauma. In most of those cases, did you invent those tragedies or are they based off of real happenings that you’ve heard about or experienced?

CHAON: There’s a bit of both. I’m certainly very influenced by what you would call “contemporary headline horror,” stuff that is true crime or for one reason or another catches our attention in the media, those strange cases that we end up obsessing about. I’m always influenced by weird anecdotes and news. And, you know, lastly, probably things that have happened to me in my own life.

STEIN: Why are you drawn to the moments after the trauma?

CHAON: I guess 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 and a life over the course of years.

STEIN: Do you think that your characters deal well with tragedy and grief?

CHAON: [laughs] I love that question. I don’t think anybody deals well with tragedy or grief, but maybe my characters are particularly bad at it. Which is why I love them.

STEIN: The stories are at times so eerie that they’re on the cusp of being supernatural. You’ve quoted Peter Straub before to describe your writing as ghost stories in which the ghost never appears. Would you ever consider including an actual ghost?

CHAON: Yeah, I’m sort of moving in that direction a little bit. I actually did a story for an anthology called 21st Century Dead—that’s a new anthology of zombie stories—and when the editor contacted me, he said, “They have to be real zombies, they can’t be metaphorical zombies.” So I did manage to write a story in which there are real supernatural zombies. I’m pretty happy about that.

STEIN: How do you find the time to do all of this writing? I imagine that since you’ve been writing these stories over a period of 10 years, you were working for a lot of that time. Is “Stay Awake” also a personal mantra for you?

CHAON: Yeah, definitely. I guess I’ve been blessed with insomnia because I do a lot of my writing at night. Because I don’t sleep as much as I probably should, I have that extra time to write weird stories and think odd thoughts.

STEIN: How many hours a night do you sleep, on average?

CHAON: Four to six, probably.

STEIN: Do you think the fact that you’re usually writing at night affects the tone of your stories?

CHAON: I suspect that it does. I love to write when I feel like everybody else is asleep and when I feel like the world is kind of empty in some ways. I find, oddly enough, that I write about loneliness and isolation a lot.

STEIN: The ideas of fate and independent choice have been recurring themes in your writing. Have your thoughts on that matter evolved over the course of your writing career?

CHAON: I suspect that they evolve depending on my mood rather than a sort of global evolution. I feel like I go back and forth between being fairly fatalistic and really more hopeful about the possibilities of things changing. And will see how that goes in this election cycle. That will probably strongly affect how fatalistic I am.

DAN CHAON’S STAY AWAKE IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE ON THE AUTHOR, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.