Monday, August 13, 2012

Meg Pokrass Uncaged Interview with the Amazing, Wonderific Dan Chaon who talks about the rain of frogs in the movie Magnolia, writing to Ray Bradbury, video games and more

Note from Caroline: 
Meg Pokgrass is back with another fantastic Uncaged Interview and with none other than one of my favorite writers on the planet--the brilliant, hilarious, man with-a-heart-the-size-of-Jupiter--Dan Chaon. Dan's most recent book is Stay Awake (Ballantine) which is coming out in paper this October. Other recent publications include stories in the anthologies Shadow Show: All new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury, and 21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology. He's written the afterward to the re-release of Thomas Tyron's novel, The Other and he co-edited along with Norah Hardin Lind and Phong Nguyen, Nancy Hale:  On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master. He's also just completed a screenplay based on his novel Await Your Reply for the production company, Anonymous Content. Dan's other books include two novels, Await Your Reply and You Remind Me of You, and two story collections, Among the Missing and Fitting Ends. He lives in Cleveland and teaches at Oberlin College, where he is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing and Literature. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Meg and Dan for this glorious mischief!

Ray Bradbury's letter to Dan

Portrait of the author in a field perfect for space alien invasions

Ray Bradbury, the canine

MP: What are your favorite movie SCENES of all time?
DC: Aw,  this is a party game where you always end up rethinking yourself in the morning,  but okay,  I’ll play.   But I get to choose 20.   NOT definitive!   
--Orson Welles tearing apart the room in Citizen Kane after his wife leaves him.  (All of Citizen Kane, actually)  
--final confrontation in the church steeple in Vertigo  (all of Vertigo, yeah. )  
--final confrontation scene in Rear Window.   (All of Rear Window, too)
--Michael Corleone closing the door in Kaye’s face at the end of The Godfather  (all of Godfather…) 
--“Baby Mine” scene in Dumbo 
--Nicholson and Shelley Duvall argument on the stairs in The Shining  “Wendy,  give me the bat…”  
--Kieth Carradine seducing Lily Tomlin through song in Nashville
--The wedding party scene in Freaks: “One of us,  one of us…”  
--W.C. Fields in the grocery store in It’s a Gift.
--The buried alive scene in Blood Simple;   also,  M. Emmett Walsh’s dying laugh at the end of the film.
--Disconnecting Hal the Computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  
  --the rain of frogs in Magnolia.  
--the opening voice-over sequence in Election
--the elevator kiss in Drive.  
--Gweneth Paltrow appears to the strains of Nico’s “These Days” in The Royal Tennenbaums
--Swimming girl’s death in the opening part of Jaws
--Agnes Moorehead’s boiler room breakdown in The Magnificent Ambersons
--Henry Fonda putting a shoe on Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.  
--the farmhouse scene in Inglorious Basterds
--Gandalf and the Balrog in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.  “You shall not pass!”   

Note* Meg,  I spent about an hour on this and I still could completely re-do it.   I hate you.   

MP: Favorite TV shows of all time?
DC: I’d say that Six Feet Under is close to the top.  If I ever need to cry,  I just watch the last eight minutes of that show.   But it was pretty brilliant all the way through.    
Right now,  Breaking Bad is up there, too,   but I’m waiting for the final season to show its colors.   Once upon a time,  I would have mentioned Lost,  but the final season broke my heart.   Mad Men is also probably one of the top five.    
I have the typical list of HBO shows that I’ve loved or am loving:  The SopranosDeadwood,   and Rome;  and Game of Thrones and Girls, though they are still too young to list as “all timers.    A lot of my friends insist that The Wire is the best,  but I haven’t made it through more than the first season yet. 
I loved The X-Files during its run,  despite its many logic problems,  and I still find it extremely watchable.    Dexter was great before it wasn’t.   
And Twilight Zone.   I love me some Rod Serling.    
MP: What are your favorite horror films?
DC: An impossible question for me,  since I consume horror movies like peanuts.   I easily watch one a week,  and I don’t care how bad it is,  really.   I’ll watch direct-to-video schlock on Amazon with great pleasure.   
But OK,  let’s play.  Here’s one for each decade from 1920 onwards.  
Nosferatu (1922);  Freaks (1932);  Dead of Night (1945);   Night of the Hunter (1955);  Psycho (1960);  Halloween (1978); The Shining (1980);  The Silence of the Lambs (1991);   The Ring (2002);  Let Me In (2010)  
And I could go on and on, because these are not that surprising or interesting,   but I will not.  Back,  evil temptress!     

MP: Five favorite film directors… 
  1. Alfred Hitchcock:  who was a brand name when I was a kid,  with his own “Mystery Magazine” and TV show and series of books,  plus the Hardy-Boys-esque YA series called “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators,”  which was my favorite.   I didn’t actually see a real Hitchcock film until I was in college.   Then:  mind=blown.   Such a beautiful and compact use of image to convey narrative and suspense.   So strangely full of intense emotion.   
  2. Stanley Kubrick:   I never felt much for him as an “auteur” but most of his films rank among my all-time favorites—from Spartacus to Lolita to Dr. Strangelove to 2001 to Clockwork Orange and The Shining.   There are so many great scenes.   Also,  is AI  a Kubrick film or a Spielberg film?   
  3. Orson Welles:   Doesn’t have that many great films,   but the ones that are great are really amazing.   Citizen Kane,  I know it’s a cliché,  but it slays me.  Magnificent Ambersons:  amazing.  
Touch of Evil,  astonishing. Also,  the hall of mirrors scene in Lady from Shanghai,  and many other individual scenes.   I am moved by the story of Welles’ restless,  desperate,  hopeless attempts to create movies against various impossible odds.  

  1. The Coen Brothers:   There is no contemporary director who can lay claim to the number of masterpieces these dudes have created—from Raising Arizona to Fargo to Big Lebowski to No Country for Old Men to A Serious Man  to True Grit.   They’ve never made a bad film,  though they’ve made weird ones.   And they’ve never compromised.   
  2. David Lynch:  His movies have meant a lot to me,  even when they don’t make any sense at all.  Mullholland Drive is one of my top ten films of all time,  and I watch it over and over.   I wish he would make another movie,  and quit making weird music remixes.   

MP: Favorite Stephen King book titles?
As someone who was pretty miserable in high school,  Carrie meant a lot to me—the movie as much as the book.  I would sometimes fantasize about turning the tables on various bullies with my psychic powers,  and that was very, very calming.  I loved Salem’s Lot  as well.  I reread it recently and it still holds up,  it’s still quite a remarkable technical achievement,  and scary as hell.   I also have a vivid memory of the stories in his collection Night Shift,  which made a big impression on me when I was first trying to write stories as a high school student.   

MP: Who are your favorite comedians alive or dead?
Line for line,  it’s probably W.C. Fields.   I love all his films,  I love his vocal delivery,  and his sense of physical comedy.   Lee Evans is probably my favorite living comedian.   
As a kid,  I really loved Paul Lynde,  I don’t know why.  There was something about him that was both funny and scary—a kind of hostility that seemed like he knew a bad secret, and I found that fascinating.  
I still like comics who have a scary quality to them.  Sarah Silverman comes to mind, the meanness masked by sweetness,  or vice-versa.  Bill Murray is like that too.   
The funniest movie I’ve seen recently is called Four Lions.  It’s about Jihadists in London planning a suicide bombing, and it’s really hilarious.   No, I’m serious!   It made me laugh out loud!   LOL! 

MP: Why doesn't someone set and/or make a film in Cleveland?

How can we make that change?
DC: Actually, quite a few films are shot in Cleveland—most recently parts of “The Avengers.”   And Cleveland has a film board that actively promotes the city as a location.   
But I agree that it’s an underused location.   I’ve been working with a production company that is planning a feature film based on my story “The Bees” and they’re planning to scout locations in this area,  so hopefully something will come of that.   

MP: When you had the correspondence as a kid with Bradbury, how long did it take before you felt as though it were normal-(ish) if it ever did.  How did the relationship change the way you thought about yourself?
DC: I don’t think it ever really felt normal.  It wasn’t like we became friends.   We sent letters back and forth, and his were so amazing and beautiful (even the stationery!)  that it felt like I was getting missives from a Greek God—or at least that’s how it seemed to me,   a kid growing up in rural Nebraska.   
It’s hard to explain how completely surreal this correspondence was.   The town where I lived had a population of about 20 people, literally,  and we were poor—my father was a construction worker,  my mom was a housewife,  and neither one had gone to college—and there weren’t really books in our house.  I was a reader in spite of vague discouragement and disapproval.  I certainly didn’t know anyone who was a writer, or who cared about writing and books.   
So the letters I got from him all seemed slightly supernatural.   It wasn’t any more believable than if I told you I got letters from Charles Dickens…or letters from Gandalf.   That’s how surreal it seemed to me.   
But Bradbury was also very practical in his advice.   He spoke to me about the daily life of writing, and gave me the first glimpse into the concept that writing was something that actual, living people did.   If I had said to my parents,  “I want to be a writer,” it would have been like saying  “I want to be a cartoon character,” or “I want to be a fairy princess.”   Not real.     
I don’t think I would have ever pursued writing if it weren’t for his letters.   I wouldn’t have believed it was possible.  I wouldn’t have been able to imagine a path for myself.   It was an eccentric kindness that transformed my life.     

MP: If one does not have a mentor, forever or for long stretches, can one mentor oneself? How?
DC: No, I don’t think you can mentor yourself.   I think we need to have other people who encourage us,  set us straight,   help us aspire to what’s great and interesting in our own vision.   I’ve been lucky in my life to have had some wonderful teachers and editors who have meant a great deal to me.  My junior high English teacher,  Mr. Christy.   My college teacher and editor,  Reginald Gibbons.   My grad school teacher,  Tobias Wolff.   My wife—who was also one of my college teachers,  and a writer—Sheila Schwartz.   I still have their voices in my head,  and I can call on them when I need them.    
But a mentor doesn’t have to be a flesh-and-blood living person.  Many of the best mentors,  for me,  exist only in books. Hélène Cixous’s  Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing.   Flannery O’Connor’s Method and Manners.   Brenda Euland’s If You Want to Write.  Virginia Wolff’s Moments of Being.  Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature.     These are some books that helped and challenged and “mentored” me in ways that a great number of real live teachers didn’t.  
And of course the books that I’ve loved are mentors and teachers as well.   A favorite book is a person who can speak to you,   you can have a conversation with it.    You just have to learn how to be quiet long enough that the voice of the book can start speaking.   
A lot of shit can get in the way of that voice:  “I’ll never be as good as this!”;  “I wish I could win a Pulitzer Prize!”;   “This is supposed to be a classic?”;   “These are very impressive sentences!”;   “What an intriguing narrative device!”   
You have to figure out a way to shut up and just read.   Just listen.   Then maybe a book will start talking to you and give you some advice.   

MP: What is the most important aspect of being a writer that Ray Bradbury
conveyed to you?
DC: First, that writers write.  Bradbury said that quantity was more important than quality in the beginning,  and he encouraged me to make writing a daily habit—write a story a week,  was what he told me.  
He also encouraged me to be a reader.   “You must be in the library when you’re not writing,” he told me,  “reading,  finding, knowing poetry,  essays,  history, you name it.”   
These are things that I pass on to my students—basic,  but,  I think,  essential advice.  

-What is it about video games that intrigues you? How would you like to see them develop? If you could make a game, what would you like to have in it, how would it ideally be structured, etc.
My favorite video games are the ones that create an entire world,  one that is non-linear and non-directed,  which can be explored in any order.   Some of the ones like this that I’ve loved are Baldur’s Gate,  Morrowind,  and (most recently)  Skyrim.   I like the process of “discovering” the story and making decisions about which direction I want to go.   If I could create a game,  it would be some kind of role-playing adventure in which you could interact with characters and have a huge variety of choices and paths open to you.   
When I was a kid I was obsessed with the maps in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books,  and I used to write little fan fiction stories in which Frodo would end up far South in Haradwaith,  or on the shores of the Sea of Rhun,  or exploring the Grey Mountains—all places on Tolkien’s map that don’t get much attention in the actual novels.   I wanted to be in Middle Earth—and video games hold out that possibility.  
The best video games,  to me,  are  akin to the process of writing a novel  (as opposed to reading one,)  in that you are,  in many ways “creating” your own story as you go along.   It’s collaborative to some extent (in the manner of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books,  though much more complex)   but there’s still an immersive engagement that feels directed by the player.  I think as AI software becomes more sophisticated the possibilities for a player to have creative interaction with a game will become ever greater.  It will be,  in many ways,  like writing your own story.    
I’ve done a little modding with the Elder Scrolls and Neverwinter Nights games,  and to me the most interesting possibilities are in developing the dialogue and reaction branches of the player’s interaction with non-player characters.    One game that did a particularly good job with creating interesting and complicated relationships with NPCs was Dragon Age—though unfortunately it didn’t allow as many choices in how you were able to interact with the story and world of the game—the narrative of the gameplay was pretty rigid and didn’t give a lot of choices.  
 I’d like to see something that creates the character depth of Dragon Age and the world complexity of Skyrim.   It’s hard,  though,  because it would require so many man-hours of work that most players wouldn’t even notice or encounter.   But that’s my dream.  
If you were trying to out me as a total nerd, Meg,  you’ve succeeded admirably.   

-Is "play" important to a writer? How so (if it is?)
Writing is play.   At least fiction writing is.   We’re essentially doing the same thing we did as children when we “played pretend”  and invented make-believe stories and acted them out with action figures and stuffed animals.   
I think we sometimes forget that,  because the world of Writing and The Arts is so full of anxiety and envy and self-promotion and pretention and posers and haters.   It’s poisonous stuff,  and for me,  the competitive who-got-that-award,  who-got-that-big-advance, who-had-a-story-in-the-New-Yorker, who-recognized-my-nametag-at-AWP,  who-limned-the-front-page-of-the-New-York-Times-Book-Review,  who-was-listed-by-Granta’s-best-novelists-under-twelve—it just made me miserable,  made me loathe what I was doing.   
I learned that I had to find a way to get back to “play” if I was going to write at all.  To find a way to get into that zone,  that dreamworld of a kid who is moving two rocks around and making them talk to one another.   I had to rediscover the pleasure of inventing stuff for its own sake.  Otherwise,  I don’t see what the point of doing it is.     

-Please talk about your new dog! How did you find him/her. How is it to have a dog around? Does it change things?
My dog’s name is Ray Bradbury, named in honor of the late writer.   Ray is a rescue dog,  a strange hybrid mutt,  part Corgi,  part Pit Bull,  as far as I can guess.   He was abandoned, tied up in a back yard after his owner moved away,   and he went through a couple of dog pounds and then was taken in by an organization called Canine Lifeline,  in Cleveland,   which is how I found him.    

He is a very polite, gentle spirit,   and when I first brought him home all he wanted was to be petted and to snuggle up close to me.   He wasn’t particularly interested in toys or treats or even food--just physical contact.    He reminded me of what it feels like to be grief-stricken.   

When I first stroked his face and ears,  I noticed that there were weird little hard pellets under his skin.     They were bb’s.   Apparently, someone had been shooting him in the face with a bb gun,   there are about twenty bb’s.  There is one just below his left eye, and he’s lucky it didn’t blind him.   

It’s strange to me that he still believes in people.   Yet he does.   He approaches strangers with a diffident hopefulness.   He knows lots of commands—sit and stay and heel and come and shake hands,  and probably some that I haven’t discovered yet. 

I can’t help but think that there must have been someone who loved him,  that he lost someone who took time with him, talked to him,  and then they were gone and there was nothing he could do about this. No way to express it. How long was he alone in that back yard before he was delivered into the hands of fate? Most of us know what that's like, at some level.

Does it change things?   I’m not sure what you mean by “change,” but I want to say that yes it does alter things a little.   My wife died a few years ago, and both of my sons are in college now, and this is the first time in my life that I’ve actually lived alone.   Having a companion in the day-to-day makes a difference.   For me at least it does, and I hope for Ray as well.  I like to think that our finding each other makes some tiny, almost imperceptible alteration in the world—the fact that he has a home,  the fact that I’m less lonely.   Though of course I’m being sentimental.   The world will go on, as Joy Williams says,  “infinite in its possibilities and uncaring.”