May 2010 issue
Cleveland Heights author Dan Chaon shares his latest work at the fourth-annual Ohioana Book Festival.
A car racing down the road with a severed hand resting on ice in the passenger seat. With this image, Dan Chaon’s latest novel, Await Your Reply
, captures the reader’s attention. A web of complex puzzles then subtly unfolds for the book’s characters –– and readers –– to solve.
It’s scenes like this that have brought acclaim to Chaon –– a 2010 Ohioana Book Festival featured author. With a string of successes, including 2002’s short-story collection Among the Missing
and his novels, You Remind Me of Me
(2004) and last year’s Await Your Reply
(named by Publisher’s Weekly
as one of the year’s 10 best books), he’s made a name for himself as a smart, entertaining writer of stories that examine who — and why — we are.
“Identity is important to all of my work in various ways,” Chaon says. “It’s a theme that I came by fairly honestly, as I’ve had many transitions in my own life. Because I was adopted, I was always curious about what life I could have had if I’d been adopted into another family, and why I ended up in that particular place.”
“That particular place” was the small town of Sidney, Nebraska, where the writer was raised. From there, he attended Northwestern and Syracuse universities. He moved to northeast Ohio in 1990 when his wife, writer Sheila Schwartz (who died in 2008), took a teaching position at Cleveland State University. Chaon has taught creative writing at Oberlin College since 1998. When he’s not in the classroom, he can be found writing in his home’s third-floor study, which he describes as a “cave.”
“I moved from growing up in a small, poor town to living in a suburban, upper-middle-class community and working as a professor. Having these major shifts in place and social class has certainly influenced the way I think about the way people move in the world,” he says.
Chaon’s focus on individuals and the journeys they take manifests itself in plots in which fate and chance play major roles. The familial relationships he pens are, as a rule, complicated. In You Remind Me of Me
and Await Your Reply
, Chaon weaves multiple story lines to create a complex yet exceptionally engaging experience for the reader.
“I tend to work in a fairly fragmentary way, which may come from being a short story writer and thinking like a short story writer to some extent,” he explains. “But I also like to imagine my particular narratives as a collage rather than a straightforward, linear chronological story.”
With topics as diverse as secret adoptions and money-laundering schemes, Chaon’s novels revolve around characters who are quietly complex, yet believable.
“I don’t base my characters on real people, but I do draw on having kids who are in that stage of becoming their own person — and remembering what [that stage] felt like,” he says. “I wanted to write about that really intense period of your life –– between, say, 17 and 22 –– when you think you can be anyone.
“I’m interested in the kind of person who is confused about how he fits into the world, the kind of person who has this great potential to change himself in some way,” he says in reference to Await Your Reply
And whether he’s spinning a web of intricate relationships or hinting at the cause of a severed hand, Chaon is ultimately concerned with entertaining the reader.
“[As a writer], I think you want to amuse yourself. And if you can do that, then, hopefully, you’re going to amuse the reader,” he says.
As for the Ohioana Book Festival, Chaon appreciates the recognition.
“I spent a lot of time just writing, and nothing was really happening with it. Now, I feel that if someone gives me an honor or asks me to read somewhere, there’s something really special about that,” he says.
At the festival, Chaon will join an impressive group of Ohioans for panels, readings and conversation, including poet Andrew Hudgins, children’s and young-adult author Angela Johnson, cartoonist Ted Rall, sportswriter David Lee Morgan Jr. and romance novelist Lori Foster.
For more information about the Ohioana Book Festival, which takes place Saturday, May 8, in Columbus, visit ohioanabookfestival.org.
When you go:
The Ohioana Book Festival
Ohioana and the State Library of Ohio
274 E. First Ave., Columbus 43201. 614/466-3831.