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Book Talk: A Peek into Loss and Darkness with Dan Chaon

In the world of Dan Chaon's stories, nothing is quite what it should be -- or perhaps it's the way it always was, and nobody saw it clearly before.
/ Source: Reuters

In the world of Dan Chaon's stories, nothing is quite what it should be -- or perhaps it's the way it always was, and nobody saw it clearly before.

A widower finds cryptic messages on dollar bills blowing along the street. A man and his wife try to cope with having a baby that is born with two heads. Sleety nights invite images of skeletons flying through the air.

Written roughly over the course of a decade, the tales in "Stay Awake," Chaon's second short story collection, were inspired largely by his desire to try mixing elements of ghost and horror stories with literary fiction. They evoke comparison to classics such as those by Ray Bradbury, whom Chaon admires.

A National Book Award finalist whose wife, novelist Sheila Schwartz, died of cancer in 2008, Chaon describes the stories as also being about "loss and about dealing with loss...about being able to understand what continuing on means."

Q: What would you say is a common thread in these stories -- you mentioned loss, is there something else?

A: "I think the way that everyday life can become uncanny is a thread that ties things together. I think the feeling that seems to have grown large in the United States of something having gone off the rails and you're not quite sure where to pinpoint that having gone wrong. I feel that it's that mood of dread that I'm particularly interested in trying to capture."

Q: Can you elaborate?

A: "I think that there are times when we're just going about our daily business and, you know, driving to work or doing the dishes or whatever, and then there are those moments when you lift your head and there's a sense that something is strange. Or a sense that something is different that you haven't looked at in the right way up until that moment. My son and I were talking about this concept -- he's a biology major in college -- and he was talking about the concept of umwelt, which is about the semiotics of animals. A fish can only see the things that matter to a fish, so that if we're trying to understand fish consciousness or tick consciousness we have to understand what those creatures see. Humans are really the only animal that we know of, that has the ability to step outside the umwelt and look from a different perspective, or to see something that exists outside out of ordinary consciousness.

"I think in some ways that that's what I'm trying to get at, because loss does sort of put you outside of the umwelt. I hope that doesn't sound pretentious."

Q: You've written both short stories and novels, what are the pluses and minuses of short stories?

A: "The obvious plus of novels is that people actually read them, but beyond that I think there is still an audience for short stories and a strong interest, I think, in stories that do something a little different.

"For me, the appeal of the short story is that with a novel, you're really creating a world. Whereas with the short story, it's a slice of life with all this space around it, and you and the reader are collaborating on creating. With the short story there's a sense that you and the reader are sort of on the same level. I like that feeling, that you're just glimpsing something through a keyhole and in some ways, the mystery can remain in a way that it can't remain in a novel.

"I think that some readers find that frustrating, but it's something I find super-appealing. I sometimes find I'm disappointed by trying to tie things up too neatly, it can feel kind of pat. There's that point in a movie where somebody has to explain everything and why everything happened, and that's always my least favorite part of movies because it's not as enthralling as it was in my imagination."

Q: What do you emphasize most: character, setting, plot?

A: "I think what I start out with is some kind of image or scene, and then from there I'll work towards a character. From the character and that moment then I think plot will begin to emerge. With a lot of stories, the opening image is frequently the thing that I started with -- whether it's the image of the baby with two heads, or the image the guy hitting the deer in the semi. Then I tend to begin to explore the characters in these images and make them move forward in some sort of plot-like way."

Q: What place do creepy stories have in our lives -- has anything changed in their role over time?

A: "I think we've always been drawn to them. I think that the need to shudder is maybe similar to the need to laugh, that we have these desires for a certain kind of adrenaline.

"But I also think that in some ways it's a way for us to explore things that we otherwise try to shut out of our minds. It's sort of like a roller-coaster, we can explore what it's like to be on a hurtling box going straight downhill without actually having to experience the actual danger of it. I think in some ways that's the appeal of scary stories, creepy stories - it gives us a chance to peek into the darkness, without having to actually go there." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)