Friday, February 24, 2012

Dan Chaon talks about Stay Awake, Suzanne Vega, buttering up his toast and more!

What's so terrific about Dan Chaon is that not only is he one of our most celebrated and brilliant authors, but he's also outrageously funny, totally hip, warped-in-the-best-way and an all around great, great guy. 

Among the Missing was a finalist for the National Book Award, You Remind Me of Me was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor and Entertainment Weekly.  He also is the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Stay Awake, his latest collection, is not only racking up the raves, but it also had me so unsettled that I dreamed about it--and I still feel haunted. 

I can't tell you how much fun it is to have Dan here on my blog again (and psst Dan, re your last question: I have the perfect person but she's a die-hard New Yorker and can't move until her girls are in college in 3 years!).

A zillion thanks, Dan!

So, I have to ask, because you’re so modest, what does it feel like to be the toast of the literary world?

As toast,  I enjoy being buttered up. 

 I read that you’re writing the script for Await Your Reply. What’s the process like, especially in adapting your own work.  Do you see things you wish you would have changed when you were originally writing the novel, or do you see the film as a different entity altogether? And did you teach yourself how to write scripts or was this a skill you already had?

I started out as a film major in college,  and my heroes were Hitchcock and Welles.   Then I realized that film was all about collaboration,  and,  being a control freak,  I got discouraged.  I drifted over to fiction writing and got stuck in it,  since I liked the fact that it allowed me to be actor/director/writer/producer/set designer/makeup consultant/etc.   and I didn’t have to worry about budget issues.  

When the production company Anonymous Content asked me if I would be interested in writing the script for Await Your Reply,  I was really surprised,   and I took some time to think about it before I accepted the challenge.   I had to get my mind around the idea that,  whatever I wrote,  it would just be a blueprint for a big collaborative project that would involve a great number of people. 

But I liked the work of the guy that they had chosen as a director,  Frederic Planchon,   and it seemed like a chance to revisit my early interest in making films,   so I decided to roll with it. 

The biggest issue was that a huge part of the novel was interior.   Most chapters involved characters thinking about stuff,  rather than actual dramatized scenes.  So that had to be dealt with.   Ultimately,  the screenplay became a very different creature than the novel.   I expect that,  as things go forward,  it will become even more different.  

The good thing is that the novel will always exist as itself.   Whatever happens with the film is not in my hands,  and that is pretty interesting.   I’ve gotten to a point where I’m less concerned about controlling everything,   and I’m just curious to see what the seed will grow into,   once it has been chewed and digested and reconfigured by many minds.   It might be awful or it might be really cool.   But in the meantime it’s fun to participate in it.  

There a huge sense of anxiety in these stories, almost an encroaching dread of ghost stories (the Bees kept me awake at night), and yet there’s also a kind of humor sifting through.  Do you think people can ever find peace or be able to really reinvent themselves? Do you think that who we are is sort of like a stain we can’t get out?

That’s the big question,  isn’t it?   I  don’t know the answer,  though I’ve spent my life thinking about it constantly.  

I have lived my life in a state of constant reinvention.   I was adopted as an infant.   My mother claimed that she “picked me out,”  that she got to walk through a room full of adoptable babies in cribs and that she chose me.   I kind of doubt that is true,  but it certainly affected my sense of myself,   the sense that I’ve always had that “who I am” is random,   the result of caprice rather than fate….

In AWAIT YOUR REPLY,  one of the characters thinks  “You could be anyone,”  and I don’t know whether that is a blessing or a curse.  

The stories in STAY AWAKE are also full of people who want to reinvent themselves,   to escape into new identities in one way or another,   and who succeed and fail to varying degrees in that endeavor.  

Do I think they will ever find peace?   No.   But I’m not sure that “finding peace” is an achievable goal,  or even a goal that I’d personally want for myself.   There is one guy in my story “Long Delayed,  Always Expected”  who seems to have found peace,  but he is irrevocably brain damaged.  

I’m curious about the title. Can you talk a bit about it?

It’s from a song from the movie Mary Poppins.     In 1988,  not long after I finished college,  Hal Willner put out a compilation of covers of Disney songs on A&M Records called “Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films.”  The album contained an incredibly sinister and spooky a cappella version of “Stay Awake” sung by Suzanne Vega.   Even as a young man,  I knew that I wanted to write a story about the feeling that the song had evoked in me,   and I  had that title in my notebook and I knew that it would become something someday.  I only had to wait 25 years.    

What’s obsessing you now?

I’m at a point where I’m waiting for the next obsession to appear.   So you could say that I’m obsessing about not having an obsession.    Lame.   I’m sorry.  

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

 Can you hook me up with an awesomely cool single friend of yours?  


T. Powell Coltrin said...

This is a great interview--very telling. I need to get my copy of Stay Awake.

Caroline, I just read the article in The Writer about you. You have a new fan. :)


Gerardo Marti said...

Enjoyed his new book very much - thanks for the interview.

Caroline Leavitt said...

Thank you journaling woman, and thank you Gerardo, isn't Dan GREAT?