Appears in Other Voices #41
Over the course of the last year or so, we interviewed more than twenty short story writers for our forthcoming textbook, Story Matters, including such masters of the form Stuart Dybek, Tobias Woolf, Grace Paley, Pam Houston and Ha Jin. Conceiving the book, Dan Chaon was one of the first writers who came to mind when we made our first-picks list and we were thrilled when he agreed to an interview. We made the drive from Indianapolis to Oberlin College, where Chaon is an associate professor of creative writing, and met him for coffee at a café near the campus to talk about his stories. It was a pleasure to be in the presence of a writer so obviously fascinated by the creative process and so articulate in speaking about it—particularly the genesis and evolution of “Big Me,” the story we decided to use in the anthology section of the book. The interview that follows, one of the first we did for Story Matters, remains one of our favorites!
Chaon is the author of two short story collections Fitting Ends (1995) and Among the Missing (2001), a finalist for the National Book Award, and a novel, You Remind Me of Me (2004).
There’s always something or someone missing in your stories. In fact, in your most recent collection, Among the Missing, the narrator of “Prodigal” says, “We are already lost, even to ourselves.” Would you talk about the issue of loss, how and why it seems to be the central issue in this collection and in your work, generally?
DC: The collection formed around two really central events in my life, which were having kids and realizing how wrong I was about just about everything that I thought about my parents. The very act of having children suddenly frames you in time in a way that I think makes you become aware of yourself moving through stages in life. And through the generations. Then there was the death of my parents, which happened quite suddenly. Both of them died in 1996, and most of the stories were written in the two or three years after their deaths. I’m not advocating stories as therapy, but I certainly think the mood of the collection, the directions that it took, were influenced by coming to grips with grief and saying goodbye to my parents.
There’s often a disconnect between parents and children in the stories. Is there an autobiographical element in that?
DC: I was the only person in my family who went to college. I grew up in a very working-class family and there was a lot of weird tension about that. I remember once one of my aunts asking what I did for a living and I told her I was a teacher. She said, “Oh, what grade?” I said, “I teach college.” She looked at my father and said, “How can you stand him?” The very act of becoming a college professor was making this pretentious statement, showing off. She said it jokingly, but really not.
Along with that—and also reflected in the stories—goes a kind of sadness and longing rooted in the knowledge that the people you love can’t love you the way you need to be loved because they don’t know you.
DC: Yes. In parenthood and marriage there is, to a certain extent, a character that you are playing for people that’s taking up a part of your life that’s not what’s happening in your head. The first four years of my kids’ life, I was a stay-at-home daddy, which is a weird thing, coming from the background that I came from. It’s a weird thing for a man to do. It may be why, for the first time, I tried writing from a woman’s perspective. This was really attractive to me because it felt like I could talk about things that were happening to me internally and not feel like I was getting too close to myself. I felt like there was a mask that allowed me to talk about certain aspects of emotion that made more sense in a female voice than in a male voice.
Sometimes writers—and readers—are territorial about certain points of view. Did you worry that you might have been criticized for writing from a woman’s point of view?
DC: It doesn’t bother me. There was a review of Edward Colson’s first book, The Intuitionist, which was written in the voice of a woman and the reviewer implied that there was always something sexual about writing from the point of view of a different gender. I don’t find that at all. I find it very much like writing from a place you live in when you are very a little kid and you’re not attached to any gender.
It’s also true that the farther away you get from yourself in creating a character, the more you have to rely on observation, which can make for a stronger character. Your stories are full of the most amazing details: the tooth in the ashtray in “Safety Man,” the evil parrot in “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me” and the inflatable doll in “Safety Man.” How did those stories gather and how did the details find their way into them?
DC: Gathering is exactly the right word. There’s a center of gravity, and it’s always sort of frightening when all of the pieces start to come together. “Safety Man” started with a desire to write a story about a haunted house, which never made it into the story. Originally, it was about a man whose wife had died.
That’s a long way from a story about a woman whose husband has died and who has bought an inflatable man to ride home from work with her.
DC: Yeah, it is. I was on an airplane and found an advertisement for Safety Man in the “Sky Mall.” I clipped it out, put into my file, and the guy changed into a woman so that I could incorporate Safety Man. Then, the year my parents died, I was teaching down at Ohio University. I was there all week, then driving back home on the weekends. Living in graduate housing, which is like living in a motel room—very thin walls. I was very emotionally high-strung like the character Sandi is. One night some song came on the radio and I got all teared-up; then I lost it and I was sobbing. The woman who lived next to me was a graduate student in math. She was from China and didn’t speak English very well. I remember her knocking on the wall, saying, “Hello, hello, are you all right?” And I didn’t say anything. Then the next morning when we were both taking out the trash, and I said, “Hello, how are you?” I didn’t say anything about what had happened the night before, and I was thinking about the ways that you are able to put on a certain kind of face no matter how emotional you are. So the story started coming together: the idea of somebody who is really feeling crazy but who is completely functional. The other thing about Sandi is that I gave her one of the problems that has plagued my life and that is that I do have small hallucinations. I usually catch them. I did see a tooth in the ashtray. It was actually a piece of dried-up Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, but I thought it was a tooth for a moment and it made me panic.
You mentioned a folder as part of your gathering process. What’s in it?
DC: Usually, there’s a lot of story beginnings. I feel that they are connected, but I’m not sure how they are connected.
Each story possibility has its own folder?
DC: Yes. There was the haunted house folder, and I knew that the tooth was going in there. And a Popeye cartoon. It’s an old cartoon from the 30’s. Popeye is warning about going out into deep water and he says, “Don’t you know what a terrible feeling it is, kids, to stick out your toe and think there’s a bottom and there is no bottom?” It doesn’t actually appear in the story. But later in the story, Safety Man is sort of like a noble sea captain who says something along that line. The cartoon was an inspiration for that.
This is kind of a silly question, but it’s hard not to visualize all those folders with bits and pieces of stories in them. What would happen if one of those pieces got in the wrong folder?
DC: They’re always getting in the wrong folders.
Do you ever take something out of one folder and put it in another?
DC: Yeah. That parrot in “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me” hopped around from story to story. In a lot of the early versions of things, it was just a small detail. That happens to me a lot. A small detail in one story can get magnified in another one. There are a number of images in the collection that hopped from story to story. There are things that happen in several of the stories that probably are too similar.
In that gathering process, there’s a moment of combustion where you’ve got all kinds of things— among them in “Safety Man” a haunted house, a grieving spouse, the Popeye cartoon—but it was finding the ad for Safety Man, the inflatable doll, that made the story become what it ended up being.
DC: Right. Usually for me it’s an opening line or an opening set of actions that gives me a tunnel through a story, like the image of Sandi blowing up Safety Man or letting the air out and being ashamed of it. In that story, I had the tension—she has this secret—and it pulled me through the story. With “Big Me,” it was the blackouts. “It all started when I was twelve years old” was the first line that came to me.
Do the first lines like that one usually remain the first lines of the stories?
DC: Yes. There’s all this stuff that’s out there, pieces and images and character details. Maybe they belong in one story, maybe they don’t. It’s like flotsam. The first line is a little clothesline that I can start hanging the stuff on.
Your first lines give the reader an entrance into the world of the story. When the narrator in “Big Me” says, “It all started when I was twelve years old,” the reader is grounded in that moment. Somebody is telling a story and whatever it is, it happened a while ago. It gives the reader a place to stand, a way to enter the story. It’s very deft. Do you think short story writers have to do that since they don’t have the space a novel offers for rambling around?
DC: My biggest problem as a writer has always been that I don’t think in terms of narrative as much as some people do. I have never been able to write a kind of stripped-down, one scene classical story like “A Worn Path,” where it starts at two o’clock and ends at five o’clock. For me, a story doesn’t proceed chronologically and it doesn’t proceed with a single line of coherent action, as in Poe’s classic idea of “unity of effect.” I’ve never been able to figure that out. Actually, the stories that I like and the ones that have inspired me have been the ones that are really wasteful and profligate stories. Like Cheever’s “A Country Husband,” Tony Early’s, “A Prophet of Jupiter.” Basically anything by Alice Munro. These great stories of explosive wastefulness just keep piling on detail and piling on layers of narrative and layers and layers of possibility. That’s what compels me about story.
How do you recognize the difference between a big, “wasteful” story like that and what really needs to be a novel?
DC: There’s a kind of internal compass. In a story, you’re in a room and you know that there are four walls on all sides. You can guide yourself by knowing that, okay, I’ve got to touch this wall and then I’ve got to touch that wall. With the novel, you’re not in a small room, you’re in a great big field or a desert, and there are no walls. You can keep going in one direction forever. For me, the process of learning to write stories was learning what my own walls were, the walls I was writing within. Those generally have to do with the sociology of the story and the sense of place, a character in some sort of anxiety, some sort of plot line, and theme or mood. I touch one wall, then go to another one, then back to the first. I keep balancing those four things until I finally get to the end. Ends are hard for me. With all of these stories, I got to the point where I was at a climax, but took me forever to figure out what the right thing to happen was.
Why do you think that ends are so difficult for you?
DC: I have a tendency to say, okay, I got them here, and not have a climax. With “Big Me,” for example, I really resisted that scene where he actually confronts Mickelson. It took a really long time for me to get up the guts to do that scene. I tried every single thing I could think of to get around it.
Why didn’t you want to write the scene?
DC: It had such huge potential to be corny, and I’m always afraid of being corny. But I knew in my heart that that was just avoidance behavior. Most of the time I know I have to have those scenes and I just have to figure out a way to get to them.
“Big Me” reflects all the central issues of your work, generally. Where did it come from? How did it evolve?
DC: You’ll think this is ridiculous, but it started out with a song by the Foo Fighters, “Big Me,” that I kept hearing on the radio when I was driving back and forth from Cleveland Heights to Ohio University. It’s strangely cheerful, but it’s got an underlying menace to it. I do a lot of things to try to generate stories. One of the things I play around with is to find a title and then burrow into it. I have my students do this. You take a title, you try to figure out what that title evokes for you, where it takes you in terms of character or plot or image. So, I started with the title and I came up with these early free-writing pieces that had to do with what I was like as a boy.
I had recently re-read The Diary of Anne Frank. There’s a passage in the story about it, probably the first stuff that I wrote. It’s about the future person that he is imagining. About the future people we could become. There are so many people that we could become, and we leave such a trail of bodies through our teens and twenties that it’s hard to tell which one is us. With that as a grounding philosophical point, I thought about the idea of this kid writing to a future self. I found it interesting to play with identity and with my own desire to write a story that was full of unreliable narrator trapdoors. Some of the books I love the most, including everything by Nabokov, are full of this unreliable narrator stuff that keeps opening up and becoming more and more and more bottomless. I thought, wow, that would be fun to do. It got really ridiculous for a while. I took it way out of control. He was finding bodies in his trunk and then when he would open the trunk they weren’t there. Stupid stuff. The idea of the blackouts was also something I was interested in. Something we talked about with the Sandi character in “Safety Man” is seeing things that aren’t there and not seeing things that are there. Again, this was right after my parents had died. There was a lot of arguing between my brother and sister and I, including stuff like what happened and what really happened—everybody, as a sibling, has had those conversations. Everybody has a different version of reality. That fed into the story, too. It made the Mark character a little more extreme. He has a completely different reality than the narrator.
As fast as the reader thinks one thing, Mark enters and offers a completely different point of view. He’s the opposite of the narrator, comes in with the absolute opposite. He seems to overreact to everything. The truth is somewhere in between.
DC: Everyone had a different version and everyone was lying to one another. They were so scattered that they could never come together and put together the story of the family. It’s kind of like what I was going through at the time. You know how things can go insane, even things like the cleaning out of the house. My sister had a great line, and I have to find a way to put it in a story. We were talking about who was going to get the house. My brother wanted to live there and my sister said, “Danny, I just keep thinking I would rather see that house burnt to the ground than have him live there. Do you think that’s selfish of me?” Some of that stuff fed into the mood of the story.
Each character in the story, what he or she says or does or thinks, gives the reader useful information about the narrator and his problems. The wife, for example. Mainly, you come away with the sense of a kind of push-pull relationship between them. She asks questions, but it seems that something about her doesn’t really want to know the answers.
DC: My wife hates my wives. I very often have useful wives who ask the right questions and dispense wisdom and are critical of the precisely right things. She asks, “You don’t think of me that way?” There are a few stories, especially in a sort of memoir style, where you’ve got a big sweep of time and you can use a character who’s skeptical and critical to ask the exact right questions so you don’t have to go round about it. That’s her function.
It seems you’re saying that the trick is in choosing the particular aspects of the character that you put on the page. How does that work with minor characters, people who aren’t involved in the central action of the story but somehow help trigger or clarify it?
DC: For me, it’s gathering. We do this all the time. You see a little detail and think, oh, that tells you so much about that person. And you write it down. Or you remember it. Then you use it later. Central characters get defined by their observations. The more you have them observe things, the more you get to know them. Then when you’re going back with the second and third and the fourth draft, start to see, oh, that’s the wrong thing for him to think. Dennis, the main character in “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom,” for example. When I started writing that story, the first thing I was working with was someone who projected a lot. He hears the floorboards and then he projects all of these things onto the person upstairs. I wanted to continue with that as a trope of his character. With a short story like that it was pretty easy to do. There were other aspects to him, but that was the clothesline I was holding on to.
So, the better you know the central character of a story, the better you will understand how to characterize the people around him.
DC: One of the things you always want to do is throw people in the way of the main character that are going to test their particular weaknesses and illuminate their character. Very often, a student whose story goes astray aren’t testing the character hard enough or they can’t let go of something—I want to have this mother in here.
Do you think creating character in short stories is different from creating character in the novel?
DC: The only thing I can say about the difference is that you get in and out so much faster. It’s like with a short story you had a week-long fling that you’ll remember forever. With the novel, it’s like you had a long marriage that ended in divorce. You remember them both very vividly, but you remember them in very different ways. With a story you can make somebody come vividly alive with a couple of strokes as long as the reader is willing to have a ton of white space all around him.
Does the writer always know what’s left out about the people in a story?
DC: No. I don’t know. People will say, “What happened to the mother at the end of ‘Among the Missing’?” I don’t have any idea. “Is Wendell guilty?” I don’t know.
Once you know who the central character is, how do make the choice to tell the story in first or third person?
DC: For me, the first person has become almost sole province of dramatic irony. Maybe that’s because I got so tired of that memoir/first person voice as it is practiced currently. Certainly there are writers whose first person narrators are trustworthy; but for me, first person has to have something to do with the way the guy or the woman perceives the world that’s skewed. Third person for me is not that different from first person. Mainly, perspective is less of a concern for me in the third person.
Would you talk about the imaginary city in “Big Me?” Where did it come from?
DC: I played Dungeons and Dragons, so I had a lot of maps that were based on this little town where I lived, which only had, like, fifty people in it.
So you actually had a town like the narrator’s Beck, when you were growing up. An alternate reality that you created for yourself.
DC: Yes. I did. And I had different things happen in it that were sort of comic-book-like.
And you kept a folder with the maps.
DC: I don’t have the maps or the folder anymore, but I did at one time.
Was Beck always part of the story?
DC: Yes. Once I started thinking about where the setting was, it was always in the story. When pieces started to fall together, that was one of them.
So you had the song and you liked the title and started fooling around with it. Then went to the idea of a diary and how many people we could have been. You were thinking about family. Were you writing the story in sections, not chronologically?
DC: Right. Again, it’s those four walls for me, and one of the walls is, where is it? What’s the sociology of this place, what does it look like? My process tends to be fragmented. A story never comes this scene, this scene, this scene. I think, where is this place? What has this person’s childhood been like? I’ll write a paragraph about each thing and then shuffle them around and feel them. Those are usually my first five or ten pages.
Is that shuffling around physical, like working with the pieces of a mosaic?
DC: Yeah. I can’t compose on the computer for that reason. I usually do it in longhand. I’ll start the story and then I’ll write the next paragraph. Tear that off. Then I’ll go back, write a different paragraph, and if it works, I’ll go on to the next. Pretty soon I have a big stack of things that have the same paragraphs on them, but they also have several alternate versions of different paragraphs and different approaches. I’ll write two paragraphs and then I’ll think, oh no, this paragraph is actually where it starts and so I’ll tear the paper off and start with that paragraph. I do a lot of rewriting of the same sentences and paragraphs. Over and over. I usually don’t work on stories all at once. I’ll work on a story for a while, like for an eight-hour period one night. Then the next night I’ll work on a different story.
What surprised you writing “Big Me?”
DC: Mark, the brother, surprised me all the time. What he would say. When he said, “Don’t you remember the time Dad chased us with the gun?” I was, like, oh man! I can’t believe you just said that. And then that final scene with Mr. Mickleson totally surprised me.
DC: Because it was like being possessed by somebody. I actually did write it by acting it out. Up in my office, on the third floor, sitting there, I’d say the line, I’d write it down, then I’d think about it. I’d try out different responses. There was a point where, acting out Mickleson’s responses, my voice changed.
Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
DC: Yes! And I suddenly, sort of, loved him. He’s such a crazy, weird guy.
You had all these things: the song, the place, your geeky childhood self, but Mr. Mickelson is the moving action that turned a bunch of stuff into a story. When did he enter the mix?
DC: It was after I got to the point where I thought about the kid writing to “Big Me.” The plot urge was: You, know what? I’m going to send somebody back just to scare that kid to death. And that was when Mr. Micklelson appeared. He came to the town, and the kid, because he’s such a weird kid, thinks, Oh, he looks like me. I wonder if he is me. For me, personally, the easiest plot to work is the mystery plot. You’ve got somebody who wonders about something, so you send them off to find clues about it and that keeps the tension going.
It’s interesting the way time works in the story. The structure mirrors the sense of the narrator thinking it through. How did you come to that?
DC: One of my favorite stories of all time is Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods,” which is about someone trying to understand a story and trying to sort out what’s true about a story. I think that was certainly an aspect of “Big Me”. I didn’t want this piece to be located simply in the past. I wanted to have that other layer of the adult looking back on the child who’s looking at a different adult who the child thinks is himself. So there was a little bit of a hall of mirrors. One of the things I wanted to do with time was to have the looking back and looking forward happening at once. I wanted to have a sort of mini-plot that follows the present time guy, which would be minimal. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but he’s investigating his past at the same time the kid is investigating this guy he thinks is from the future.
And the deeper he gets into it, the more the narrator talks about in this matter-of-fact way—he had blackouts, he stole things, he tortured the cat, he broke into the house—the more the reader realizes how unreliable he is. You talked earlier about the bottom falling out of the story. Was it falling out for you, as a writer, too? It was, wasn’t it? You were being surprised all along.
DC: That was the thing that was the most fun. Like I said, there were points were I had to sort of rein myself in. There was a point where I thought, oh, this guy’s going to turn out to be a serial killer. And then, I thought, no, I hate that idea. It’s so corny.
The story could have been corny, but you never let it happen. There’s tension all over the place. Almost like a web. Reading it feels like the process you described, kind of like bouncing off the story’s walls. How did you come to the story’s ending?
DC: I kind of knew that I wanted it to end with the character coming out of a blackout. There were other versions, where it was a little more extreme—coming out of the blackout and entering into a life that was golden, but he didn’t know how he got there exactly. I also sort of wanted him to meld a little with Mickelson, so there’s the sense that his last line has a kind of Mickelson-like quality.
Ultimately, what would you say “Big Me” is about?
DC: I think it’s about the fear that we are not really the same person over time, and that what we are is really some sort of monster that has taken over for the real us that used to exist. Or, vice versa. That the real us that used to exist was a monster that we aren’t anymore—but may become again. It is an examination of the question, “Who is the real me?”
Those little diary entry things, where I was saying, “I hope that I will become…” That was something I did when I was a kid. From a less philosophical point, the story’s about wanting to go back and scare the shit out of that kid I used to be: You will become this whacked out, scary person. That was kind of fun.
What did you learn, going through the process of writing the story? Generally, what does writing teach you?
DC: In terms of craft and process, sometimes I’m thinking of specific things that I want to be able to do that I can’t do until I set myself a goal. The things I just love about somebody else’s writing; I want to be able to do that. Like the Sherwood Anderson story. I wanted to do that. And I wanted to do something with a really unreliable narrator. So there is the technical element. Then there’s also this very personal stuff. I’m finding a way to fit these things together. The thing that I’m always learning is that when you find the right kind of electric, magnetic match for one image and another or one piece of story and another it changes both pieces. There are some that have magnetic repellent and they don’t work. When they hook together there’s something that’s better than a drug.
DC: Yeah. It is like that. Whatever that stuff chocolate gives off, some drug in it, that really warm, ooohhh, that’s-so-great feeling. You’re learning something there, but it’s hard to say what it is. It’s very subconscious in some ways. It’s not like a moral. It’s about—oh, you now understand why clouds and stop signs fit together. The greatest pleasure you can get from a story is the moment when somebody comes alive and is outside of your control. They’re not characters anymore. They’re people.
What’s your history as a writer? What kind of training made you the writer you’ve become?
DC: I started out writing very young because I grew up in the country and I didn’t have a lot of other entertainment. I was very book-oriented, so a lot of the stuff I was interested in as a kid had to do with making up pretend games.
Were you the Andy O’Day of “Big Me?”
DC: In some ways, yeah, I was that kind of kid. But I think most writers were. I had a lot of interest in fantasy as a genre. Ray Bradbury was one of my favorite writers. When I was in junior high, one of my teachers encouraged me to write to one of my favorite writers. I wrote to Ray Bradbury and he wrote back to me. I sent him some stories and he was very encouraging. So at a very early age, thirteen or fourteen, I began to have a sense of myself as a writer. And to really want to do craft-oriented things.
I think for me a lot of the training had to do with imitation—reading and imitation and learning how stories work technically. I think once you begin to learn how stories are put together, then you can vary from that and play around with the form. By the time I was in high school, I had started sending my work out—ridiculous as that was, but I didn’t know it at the time. I sent a story to Reginald Gibbons at TriQuarterly. He wrote back and said, “we can’t publish this, but have you ever considered coming to Northwestern as a student?”
How did you even know about TriQuarterly?
DC: From Writers’ Market, which I bought every year.
How did you know about that?
DC: The lady at the bookstore in Sydney, Nebraska—a very small town of about 5,000 people.
There was a small writers’ group that met there, and it was all women who were writing poetry and short stories. They were in their 40s and 50s. The lady at the bookstore suggested that if I was interested in writing I should join this writers’ group. So I did. That was where I learned about Writers’ Market and Writers’ Digest magazine. They were very serious about getting their work published, so I learned a lot from them, especially about the market. There are people like that in every small town. They are determined to be writers and they may have gotten a few publications here and there. I got encouraged by them. I suppose I was like a weird little mascot.
So that led you to Reginald Gibbons and ultimately to Northwestern.
DC: He suggested that I look at Northwestern—and my family was very upset about that, by the way. They were very upset that this man would write me and want to take me some place far away from home. They were suspicious of him. I was attracted to the place not only because it had this creative writing program, but also because of radio and television and film, which I was very much interested in at the time. I thought I was going to be an actor/director/writer and do all of those things. My idol was Orson Welles—Orson Welles before his fall. I applied and I got money to go there and I did, though everybody in my family felt that I should go to the University of Nebraska.
And after Northwestern?
DC: I wandered around Chicago for two or three years, then went on to do creative writing at Syracuse, where I worked with Toby Wolff for two years. I got an M.F.A. there.
What can’t a graduate degree in writing teach?
DC: It’s like Gardner talks about in The Art of Fiction, when he says that there are some people who can’t look at a puppy without seeing a cute puppy, who can’t look at a child without seeing rosy apple cheeks, who can’t look at a grandma without seeing a dear old lady. I think maybe you can’t teach someone how to see the world in a complicated way when they are just not inclined to. I think you can teach someone how to write a good sentence. I think you can teach someone those simple things like “show, don’t tell. ” Everybody has something to talk about.
But just because they have something to talk about doesn’t mean what they say will be interesting. So often student stories are technically proficient, yet flat somehow. They have a good idea, but there’s nothing in it that’s going to bring them up against their own best material.
DC: That’s the other thing. I think there is a difference when you write a story because you want to write a story, any story, and writing a story because you want to write that particular story.
And the need to write that story.
DC: I always worry about saying need, but there is that.
What do you think an aspiring writer could best learn from reading “Big Me?” What does it offer a student of contemporary literature?
DC: I’m proud of what it does with the issue of an unreliable narrator and I’m proud of the way it is a memoir/slash mystery story. I wouldn’t mind if they read it alongside “Death in the Woods.” I guess I would want young writers to know that they don’t have to answer every question and sometimes it’s more fun if you don’t.
Are there stories you love to teach, stories that you think are particularly instructive to young writers?
DC: “Circle of Prayer” by Alice Munro, “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” by Lars Gustafason, “But Maybe We Didn’t,” by Russell Banks, “Fever” by John Edgar Wideman, “Merry-Go-Sorry” by Cary Holladay, “Sara Cole, A Type of Love Story,” “Pet Milk.” I’m thinking of stories that have that kind of uncontrolled—no, not uncontrolled. I don’t know how to say it. Waste? They have so much stuff in them. It doesn’t have to be a long story either. “Vitamins,” by Ray Carver, has that kind of crazy richness that makes you think, why didn’t you just write a novel? The problem with writing a novel is that you realize how wasteful you are in story writing.
Some writers believe that every good short story can be unpacked into a novel.
DC: I believe that’s true. But you’re after a different thing. Novels are always about trying to understand the world, whereas stories are always about why the world is so unexplainable. Flannery O’Connor is a great example of that; her stories are always about how impossible it is to understand the world, even though every one of her characters is trying as hard as they might to do it.