The Natural Bridge Three-Part Interview #1 – Author Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon

Anita Streitfeld

Jennifer Burgess

How’d you get to be, you know, the way you are?

I grew up in a very small town in Western Nebraska, and by very small I mean less than 50 people. It was called Brownson, a little grain elevator town alongside the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

It so happened that I was the only kid my age in town, and so growing up I spent a lot of time by myself. Of necessity, I spent a lot of time alone, entertaining myself, and a good portion of my childhood was spent engaged in a series of complicated imaginary games – long, involved narratives which were extensions of books or comics or TV shows I liked.

As it turned out, this was a good preparation for becoming a fiction writer. I still find that I need a lot of time, alone in my own head, and the process of writing a novel isn’t that different from the kinds of games I would play as a kid.

In my version of the world _____ would be a perpetual New York Times bestseller, _____ would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and _____ would play at least once a day from every radio in the world.

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about such questions. As a matter of fact, back when I was a movie-obsessed college sophomore, I actually started to make a list of all the “undeserving” Academy Award winners and nominees over the years, with my own preferred films replacing the Academy’s “mistakes.” Citizen Kane didn’t win? Outrageous! Vertigo wasn’t even nominated? Rocky beat out Taxi Driver? Etc. Etc. It was a kind of silly exercise, but it was a fun way to learn about the history of film and a reason to watch a lot of movies. For a while, I was working on a novel which was an “alternative history” of Hollywood, which featured Franz Kafka as a screenwriter – in my alternate universe, he didn’t die of TB, but immigrated to Los Angeles, where he worked with various people like the Marx Brothers and Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Every once in a while, I pull this book out and look at it but then I get daunted (see question #3).

The “what-if” game is a lot of fun, but at the same time the wording of your question gave me pause. Is there any novel that I’d want “perpetually” on the best-seller list? Would I want any of the songs I really love to be playing “at least once a day from every radio in the world?”

Actually, no. I worry that this sounds snobby, but I find myself thinking that my favorite books and songs might feel somehow less special if everyone liked them.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy participating in big cultural zeitgeists. I had a great time reading and talking about the Harry Potter books along with everyone else, for example, and I love it when a catchy song becomes a huge inescapable hit – I’m as happy as anyone to turn up the radio when Rhianna or L’il Wayne or whoever has a new song.

Nevertheless, there’s something peculiarly satisfying about those bands and authors who are not part of the huge public discourse – those artists who seem to be speaking only to you, or to a small, passionate audience, a secret that you’ve got that the rest of the world hasn’t gotten its hands on yet.

That sounds very selfish, but so be it. My very favorite music and books are mine. I like that not everyone knows about them.

What sort of story or poem (in terms of subject matter, plot, theme) have you promised yourself you would never write?

I have a weird feeling about historical fiction, and particularly historical fiction that is about a real person.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to put down people who write historical fiction, and in fact some of the novels that I’ve loved fall under that category. For example, Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief, which creates this amazingly vivid nineteenth century world of orphans and body snatching and wild frontiers; or John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is actually more of a riff on a nineteenth century novel that it is “historical;” or Robert Graves’ freaky, haunting I, Claudius. And I adore Eric Larson’s novelistic non-fiction book, Devil in the White City, among others of that genre.

And yet…for me, personally, as a writer, there’s something about trying to insert oneself into a historical moment that seems to freeze my imagination. Part of it, I guess, has to do with the research, which doesn’t appeal to me; and part of it has to do with the way that that “history” creates a rigid frame for the book. To me, writing about a historical personage would be kind of like a coloring book, in which the outline of the picture is already drawn for you and all you get to do is choose which crayons you want to use. I would want to lie. I would want to change the outcomes. I think it would be difficult for me to stay true to the historical truths of the person, or the time period, though I would also feel responsible for presenting them accurately.

I think it would be particularly hard for me to fictionalize someone who is still alive, or who still had living relatives who knew them. I think I would always feel like an imposter.

Going back to my “Kafka in Hollywood” novel, one of the things that always seems to stop me is my fear that I can’t accurately get at the cultural complexities of the characters, that I’m too much outside that world to be able to truly inhabit the consciousness of those people. When I’m writing, I have to feel that in some ways the characters are me, that I could be them, even though at the same time my work isn’t particularly autobiographical. The “Kafka in Hollywood” book would filter everything; and, as I said, I would need to be able to change history to suit my own ends. Which I think would bother readers.

Of course, I may change my mind. I may find the perfect subject and then I’ll have to eat my words.

Do you experience a letdown when you finish a book? If so, how do you make the careful transition from years of working on a single project to finishing and not working on it? How do you reenter the world?

Actually, it seems like the life of a book lingers for a good while. With Await Your Reply, I finished the main writing of it in October, 2008; then, shortly thereafter, it was going into copyediting, and then I was talking to my publisher about the cover art and the summary and so forth, and now I’m getting ready to start touring and reading from the book and talking about it in interviews. The book’s life will (hopefully) continue on for a while.

In my experience, it takes a year or so after the actual publication for the book to begin to fade away. Eventually, it starts to seem like something that happened to you a long time ago, but for an extended period it remain immediate, and it tends to crowd out thoughts of something new, even though it has been “finished” for a while.

During this period, I’m still waiting and thinking about future books, but it’s a bit like how I imagine it must feel to begin dating after a long, complicated, messy divorce. You’re still really involved with the “old” book. You’re not sure whether you are capable of loving again. All of the new potential books are being compared to the “old” book, mostly unfavorably. And you’re still spending most of your time talking about that “old book,” so it’s still heavily on your mind. It will take a while to get over it.

And the new book is still uncertain. You don’t know whether you will fall in love with it in the same way. Maybe you will never fall in love again?

I never truly believe I’m going to be able to write another book until I’m well close to finished with it.

Once upon a time you were unpublished and largely unrecognized. What have you learned in the years since then that makes the act of writing easier…or harder?

Truthfully? Almost nothing has changed.

I have enjoyed some success with my work, and I’m grateful for that. But at the same time, I never feel particularly confident about a new project. With each book, I learn some tricks, but I’m never sure whether they will apply usefully in the future. It always feels like I’m starting over, completely in the dark, and stepping into it always feels fraught and dangerous and the probability of failure is ever hovering.

Ultimately, I have to return to the same mind set that I had when I was “unpublished and largely unrecognized,” the mind set where I’m doing this writing, creating this stuff, for my own pleasure and just hoping that someone else will like it.

Once I start thinking about previous successes or failures, once I start thinking about reviews or things that readers have said to me, the power shuts off. I have to forget all that stuff. I have to get back to the simple pleasures of story and character and language: a cool, resonant description, a good sentence, the right word.

Probably, I’m always trying to find a way to return to that kid that I was back in Nebraska, when it was just enjoyable to make stuff up, to pretend.

When you’re alone in front of a blank page, that’s all that matters.