Dan Chaon, Writer

2002 cleveland arts prize for Literature

Dan Chaon’s short stories are luminous, polished, complete. Few novels can survive repeated readings, and almost no short stories (except perhaps the “household tales” of the Grimm brothers). Chaon’s delight again and again.

Almost no short stories bring the literary recognition that Chaon has already received. His work has been called “distinguished” by the editors of Best American Short Stories (1990, 1993, 1999) and The Pushcart Prize (1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 2000). Chaon’s stories have been republished in anthologies (Best American Short Stories 1996; OHenry Prize Stories 2001; Pushcart Prize Stories 2000, 2002, 2003).

Among the Missing, published in the summer of 2001, was listed among that year’s “notable books” by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly and then by the American Library Association in 2001. The Chicago Tribune and Entertainment Weekly included it among the “top ten books of fiction” for 2001, the Boston Globe among the “top five books of fiction.” In the fall, it was one of five finalists for the prestigious National Book Award, a rare short-story entry in a competition dominated by the “more serious” genre of the novel.

But Chaon’s short stories are serious inquiries into the experience of trying to figure out what things mean. Chaon’s protagonists in Among the Missing wonder especially about who’s not there at the dinner table: the mother who disappeared from her lakefront cottage soon after a family of vacationers was found drowned in that lake; the children born as the result of a deposit made at a hospital sperm bank; the brother who abandoned his wife and son, the brother who was himself abandoned and whose own son is now leaving. It is Chaon’s gift to speak in voices other than his own, in this case particularly about the relationship of adults and children, including ourselves to ourselves as future adults, former children.

Born in 1964, Chaon grew up in Sidney, Nebraska. He began writing in junior high school and soon was sending stories to magazines—all rejected, but at least once with kindness: “Try again when you get a little older.” Chaon did. He majored in creative writing in college (B.A., Northwestern, 1986), enrolled in the writing program at Syracuse University (M.F.A., 1990). He met and married his wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz, and came with her when she was hired to teach at Cleveland State University.

Chaon stayed home, looked after the children, worked at a variety of part-time jobs around the Cleveland area. But writers write. His first book of stories was published in 1996. He involved himself with CSU’s well-regarded Imagination Conference, a weeklong series of summer workshops and lectures for writers and would-be writers. He taught undergraduate and graduate courses in fiction and fiction writing at Ohio University, at CSU, and then at Oberlin, first as visiting writer, now as assistant professor of creative writing.

He continues to write and publish stories which continue to receive accolades. In the meantime, Ballantine, the publisher of Among the Missing, has reprinted his earlier collection, Fitting Ends and Other Stories, and has contracted for a novel, You Remind Me of Me.

—Henry D. Shapiro

 

Speculating on a Tragedy

My mother owned a lakefront cabin, not far from where the bodies were discovered. She watched from the back porch when the car was pulled out of the water. She could hear the steady clicking of the big tow chain echoing against the still surface of the lake. Brown-gray water gushed from the windows and trunk and hood as the car rose up.

There was a family in the car: the Morrisons. They had been missing since late May, over six weeks, and the mystery had been in the papers for a while

Before the bodies were discovered, my father had a theory. He said that it would eventually come out that the father had embezzled a large sum. Sooner or later, he said, the authorities would catch up with them. They would find them living in a big house under an assumed name in some distant, sunny state. “Or maybe,” said my father, “maybe they’ll never catch them.” He paused, a little taken with this romantic possibility. “Maybe they’ll get away with it,” he said.

Among the Missing (Ballantine Books, 2001)

Cleveland Arts Prize
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