Dan Chaon grew up in rural Nebraska. Lonely and bored, he took refuge in his uncommonly active imagination.
“It was one of those small elevator towns where there were like 15 people who lived there, and I was the only kid even close to my age,” Chaon says by phone from his current home in Cleveland. “So I used to spend a lot of time by myself making up games, making up stories and pretending, and that’s something that became a habit that I wanted to figure out how to take even into my adult life without seeming like I was an insane person.”
Flash forward three decades and Chaon has established himself as a gifted crafter of fictional worlds, delivering a pair of novels (2009’s Await Your Reply and 2004’s You Remind Me of Me) and two short-story collections (1996’s Fitting Ends and 2001’s Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award) that teem with the author’s now well-established preoccupations with fractured families, uncertain identities, dislocation and desolation, all explored with a deep sense of suspense and foreboding. (He’s also found a non-“insane” way to explore his love of fiction as a creative writing professor at Oberlin College.)
Now comes Stay Awake, a just-published collection of stories that again dives into Chaon’s obsession with characters struggling to find their way in the world. While the collection features stories written as far back as 2002, it’s remarkably cohesive in its melding of life’s mundane details — most of Chaon’s protagonists are everyday people with everyday jobs — with surrealist dread often triggered by profoundly troubling circumstances out of one’s control. Think The Twilight Zone by way of Raymond Carver.
“For a long time I really wanted to do a collection that had this kind of ghost story/horror story quality, because I’ve been playing around with that, sort of mixing the literary with the more pulpy stuff,” Chaon says. “The last few years, especially, I’ve been interested in that as a trope. When I sat down to put together the stories, it was pretty clear that there’s a kind of obsessiveness to some stuff that I’ve been writing about a lot, so it seemed like that was a good way to put together a short-story collection.”
Yet, after delivering a pair of excellent and well-received novels, convincing his publisher, Ballantine, to take on a collection of short stories — which, for a variety of reasons, typically don’t do as well commercially — wasn’t an easy sell.
“I still owe them a novel, so that was also a part of it,” he says, laughing. “It was kind of a bait-and-switch thing where I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t really have a novel ready, but, hey, here’s this!’”
“They were, of course, incredibly excited,” Chaon adds, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
As its title (and book jacket, with a bed set amid a foggy backdrop) might suggest, Stay Awake’s dozen stories delve heavily into the nature of reality, especially as it pertains to various states of sleep. It’s a topic that also extends to the reader, whose perception of and participation in the stories is a large part of the book’s immersive, uniquely subjective experience.
“I think one of the things that I’m really interested in is subjectivity and the way that we perceive things, which may or may not be how other people see them,” Chaon says. “So I guess I’ve been interested in playing with the whole idea of the nature of reality and the nature of people’s perceptions — and dreams and nightmares are a good metaphor for that.”
As usual, Chaon’s small-town background figures heavily in the proceedings — his characters perpetually yearn for a seemingly better and more fulfilling life than the ones they’re leading.
“I can’t remember who said it,” Chaon says, “but some famous person would describe the Midwest as ‘one of those places that smart kids want to get away from,’ which is mean but maybe sort of accurate.
“Nebraska is a very different kind of Midwest than even, say, Cleveland is. Nebraska had an impact (on me) because it was really isolated, it was really empty and there was this sense of being incredibly far away from the center of culture or even from the center of the United States. That sense of isolation and loneliness that’s sort of built into that landscape was very influential to me. And also the sense of longing for some excitement or longing to be part of all this stuff that you see on TV or read about was a big thing for me as a kid.”
DAN CHAON reads from and discussesStay Awake 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.