Dan Chaon is the author of the novels You Remind Me of Me (2004) and Await Your Reply (2009) as well as the short story collections Fitting Ends (1996), Among the Missing (a National Book Award finalist in 2001) and the recently released Stay Awake (2012).
Chaon lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and teaches creative writing at Oberlin College.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
Ha ha! That’s a grandiose way to start things out!
But I actually do believe in that transformative power. I think it happens in a small way, individual by individual. I don’t think it has anything to do with best sellers or the front page of the NYT Book Review or anything like that. Mostly, it happens to kids.
I think about growing up in rural Western Nebraska and waiting for the Bookmobile to come to the little town where I grew up, which had about 20 people. How I longed for books by Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Charles Dickens and so forth. How news from those other worlds utterly transformed my sense of what was possible. Certain books tell us that we are not alone. And that can be life-saving. It’s like a smarter and more complex version of the “It Gets Better” YouTube campaign.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
I just sent a copy of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son to my son. I also gave away my copy of Josh Bazell’s new book, Wild Thing, to a student of mine, because I thought he needed to read something fucked up and funny and scene-based. His work was a little too solemn and navel-gazey.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever written?
Listen, I’m Midwestern. We don’t do that braggy shit. That’s for someone else to decide.
What’s the best sentence you’ve ever read?
I’ll go with one that I can’t shake, from James Joyce’s “The Dead”:
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Describe your writing routine.
Gaze out window. Smoke cigarette. Write sentence. Walk the dog. Write more sentences. Smoke more. Gaze more. Write more sentences. Feel depressed. Take a nap. Write more sentences. Drink coffee. Surf the internet. Write more sentences. Feel especially depressed. Write more sentences. Consider suicide. Drink a few beers. Write more sentences. Take another nap. Gaze out window.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so what’s on your ideal playlist?
I have all kinds of playlists, depending on what the story needs. But if I’m looking for music to put me in a Dan Chaon mood, I look to Idaho, Red House Painters, Destroyer, Arcade Fire, The National, Yo La Tengo, Lambchop, Modest Mouse, Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits, Cat Power, Page France, Broken Social Scene, Sonic Youth and so forth. Lot of others.
Which inspires your writing more: beauty or controversy?
Beauty. For sure.
Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
There are a lot. But I like Prairie Lights in Iowa City and Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
What historical literary destination would you most like to visit?
Does this mean time travel?
Is Facebook good for you?
Is it good for anyone? This is too difficult for an interview question.
What about Amazon?
Thou shalt not bite the hand that feeds.
Do you own an e-reader?
No. But I have an iPad, so I can do it if I want to.
Which will last longer: cable TV or the printed word?
The printed word. This is a stupid question.
What non-literary profession would you find most compelling to pursue?
What is one of your vices?
What isn’t? I indulge in most all of them. Of the seven deadlies, I probably don’t engage as much in Greed, Wrath and Pride as I indulge the other ones, which are pretty hard to avoid. Especially Acedia.
What is one of your prejudices?
I don’t particularly like the Tall.
Favorite books of the past few years?
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.
It’s the most expressive and descriptive word in English.
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