Many early reviews have mentioned that your new collection, Stay Awake, is disturbing and depressing. One Amazon review says: “For those wanting to float in a dark world of unsettling edges and places you want to leave quickly, I’d highly recommend this book.” Another Amazon reader asks: “I would just like to know what, if anything, makes Dan Chaon laugh.”
I do not know this word, ‘laugh.’ What is it? The sound of this word has an unsettling edge that I find disturbing and depressing. It makes me want to leave this place quickly.
Why do you think the word “dark” appears so often in the reviews of your new collection?
I think they mean “dank.”
Your stories include a family burnt to death in a mysterious fire, a kid whose parents commit suicide, deadly car accidents, and a murderous mother, among other grim subjects. Two pieces feature dead babies. Do any of your stories look at the lighter side of things?
Ah, but of course there’s a lighter side to dead babies. I once heard a wonderful joke about dead babies when I was a youth attending Sidney Junior High School in Sidney, Nebraska. It goes like this: “How do you unload a pickup truck full of dead babies?”
Stop. That’s in very poor taste. Are you saying that you intended these stories to be funny in some sick way?
Perhaps we don’t share the same sense of humor. One of the most comical stories in the collection is set in Portland, Oregon. An alcoholic lawyer whose wife has died of cancer wanders into the black Portland night to buy cigarettes. Imagine courting doom and looking for Marlboro Lights while strolling through five miles of dank human hair. In important literary circles simply setting a story in Portland, Oregon makes it hilarious.
It sometimes seems as if you’re scornful of the reader’s natural desire for some uplift or hope.
I like to imagine my readers in a dank, windowless cell, filthy, naked, and utterly alone. They have not eaten in days, but suddenly they hear the hollow footsteps of a guard approaching. A plate is rudely shoved through a tiny opening at the bottom of their prison door. And on that plate is an autographed first edition of Stay Awake, with an affectionate, personalized note from me.
Okay then. Did you have anything else you wanted to mention?
You didn’t let me finish my joke. The answer is: “With a pitchfork.”