An Interview With Ficton Writer Dan Chaon

Sara Peyton

Ballantine Books recently published You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon's long awaited debut novel about a pregnant teenager who gives up her child for adoption in 1966.

In a review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Sara Mosley wrote that the novel "more than fulfills the promise of his story collection Among the Missing, which was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2001." Chaon is also the author of Fitting Ends, originally published by Triquarterly Books in 1995. A revised edition of the short story collection was published by Ballantine last year. Chaon teaches at Oberlin College and lives with his wife and two sons in Cleveland, Ohio.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Chaon why he became interested in the issue of adoption.

Dan Chaon: I am adopted, so that issue has been part of my own mental landscape for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, I thought about it a lot. Why did I end up in this particular family? What is my birth family like? Are they more like me than my adopted family? I was a weird kid: bookish, imaginative, and not athletic. My dad was a construction worker and nobody in my family went to college. At 10, I wanted to read the New Yorker. So I wondered if some mistake had been made.

I met my birth father eight years ago and, as it turns out, he, too, is a construction worker just like my adopted father. They're both electricians. The experience of meeting my birth father and learning some of the answers to my questions was definitely the impetus behind the novel, as well as having kids. Your kids' personalities emerge early on, and as a parent you don't do much to make it happen. Both those events fed into my desire to write a novel about this particular material.

P&W: How do you describe your new novel?

DC: Here's the abstract version: It's an exploration of connections, resemblances, and the creation of identity. But I would never want to put that on a book jacket. More specifically, it's a novel that starts with a single event—a young woman, Nora, deciding to give up a child for adoption—and follows the repercussions that ripple out from that single choice through a variety of peoples' lives.

P&W: Your novel doesn't unfold chronologically. Why not?

DC: I started with multiple time frames and multiple back stories. I originally tried to write the novel by starting in the middle of the action. I got to where I had 75 pages of back story and summary, and I realized it wasn't going to work. I had to figure out a way to handle the background dramatically. I decided to dramatize some of the scenes that I had been talking about in summary, like Jonah getting attacked by the dog as a boy or Troy growing up in the trailer, Or Nora, who didn't start out as a point-of-view character but wound up as one. Once I had all these pieces I figured it would be fun to arrange them like a puzzle. I did really admire The Hours as a structural tour de force. And I was thinking about that. I was also thinking about the movie Memento.

P&W: Why do you write fiction?

DC: I've written stories since I was a little kid. To me there's something compelling about being a different person for a little while and trying out a different kind of life. I'm also interested in following someone who is making really troubling choices. I tend to make the very safest choices but I'm fascinated by people who don't. I went to school, got a job, got married—I suppose they aren't necessarily safe choices—but they work toward finding validity and finding comfort in the world as opposed to finding adventure. I try to explore alternate pathways in my fiction.

P&W: Do you understand yourself differently now that you've written You Remind Me of Me?

DC: I don't think I'll ever understand myself as well as I'd like to. But at the very least I have gotten a grip on some of those issues that have long fascinated me. Through the novel I've come to terms with the notion that there's no way to really solve the puzzle of how you became who you became. It isn't just nature or nurture. It isn't all self-invention. It's some sort of magical mix of all those things, and the novel goes through those configurations in various ways and tries out different solutions.

Ultimately, I come to that anti-epiphany moment where it's all a mystery. The most interesting thing about writing is getting to a place where there is more mystery at the end than there was at the beginning. Often novels try to explain the world to you. That's something I'm not interested in. I'm interested in taking things that people have neat packaged ideas about and unwrapping them and making them more complicated. For example people have pat ideas about nature and nurture. I was interested in taking those ideas apart and messing them up.

P&W: After writing so many short stories, did you find it difficult to write a novel?

DC: Well, writing a short story is a little like walking into a dark room, finding a light and turning it on. The light is the end of the story. I thought I could write a novel somewhat like that, but I found the space is so much bigger. It's like walking into a darkened gymnasium or field. It's harder to find the walls and in many cases, with novels, there are no walls. You could just go on and on in one direction and never find the end. So to find a structure for the novel I had to recalibrate my mind. The easiest way for me was to create an artificial structure. I hate to say this because it sounds very low brow. I actually broke it up into episodes like a TV series. I was obsessing over the HBO shows "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" and noticed they have 13 episodes each season. I thought, 'I'll do that.' So I have three parts with 12 chapters each. That's the way I conceived of controlling this broad canvas of ideas.

P&W: Are you working on something new?

DC: I'm at the very beginning of a new novel and I don't really know what's going on with it. I'm also trying to work on some short stories. While writing the novel I could hardly wait to get back and write some stories. I have a study on the third floor of my house and usually I like to write late at night after everyone has gone to bed. I like being the only person awake in the middle of the night. You have your people near you but you are also alone at the same time.