After publishing two unforgettable collections of short stories (Fitting Ends and National Book Award finalist Among the Missing), Dan Chaon decided several years ago that it was time to attempt a novel.
"I was very interested in the issue of adoption," he says from his home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, "and for a long time I had been thinking of writing this Hitchcock-like stranger-comes-to-town novel." Chaon (pronounced "shawn") struggled to find the best structure for the novel, but the book he eventually created, You Remind Me of Me, is a work that brims with insight and packs an extraordinary emotional punch.
When we talk about the novel on a late spring morning, the pollen faeries have whisked low over Ohio during the night, and Chaon is deep in the grip of miserable springtime allergies. He coughs and sniffles and sneezes through the conversation, gamely persevering, pausing occasionally when a sneezing fit overcomes him. Chaon's wry, croupy laugh has a sonority that seems pitch perfect for the Alfred Hitchcock reference in his conversation – as well as for the darkish humor that suffuses much of his fiction.
Chaon doesn't invoke Hitchcock at random. At Northwestern he majored in both film and English. Early on he had ideas of working in the movies, but he notes, laughing, that the film part "didn't actually work out very well. I discovered that I wasn't very good at collaboration, or at least I didn't like collaboration, because I wanted all the power myself. The nice thing about writing is that you get to do all the acting, directing, writing and, you know, even the music all by yourself."
Of course even total power doesn't ensure a smooth transition from the short story form to the novel. Chaon, who has taught in the creative writing department of Oberlin College since 1999, flailed through a scene-less first draft of what would eventually become You Remind Me of Me.
Of that initial struggle, he says, "You can go into a short story not knowing what the ending is. It's like going into a dark room and feeling around, finding the walls, and then finding the switch to turn on the lights. But with a novel, you're not going into a dark room. You're going into a dark gymnasium. Or a desert. It's much harder to just feel your way around."
Chaon finally hit upon a non-chronological structure for telling his story. You Remind Me of Me moves back and forth from the 1960s and 1970s to 1996 and 1997, with most of its action taking place in June of 1997. The result of this brilliant decision is a novel that shows just how extraordinarily strange ordinary life can be. But Chaon's narrative approach is also one that makes it difficult to talk in any depth about the story without ruining a reader's pleasure of discovery.
"With this novel I've got myself into a kind of corner because so much of the plot is withheld for the first part of the novel," Chaon says. "I think part of the pleasure of the book is figuring out what is going on and how things connect, so I really worried about how they wrote the book jacket description. I didn't want them to give away things that are more interesting if you don't know them to begin with."
So let's just say You Remind Me of Me is set mostly in the small town of St. Bonaventure, Nebraska, and concerns the intertwined lives of Jonah Doyle, a line cook who was severely mauled by his mother's dog when he was a child, and Troy Timmens, a local bartender who teeters on the brink of a life as a small-time drug dealer. Around these two orbit a constellation of sharply drawn and deeply felt characters that show Chaon to be one of the best writers of American fiction today.
"I'm interested in writing about the lives of people in their 20s and 30s who don't go to college and who find their opportunities and options limited not only by a lack of education but also by the lack of anything to do in their communities," he says. "A lot of contemporary portrayals of working class people show them as TV-watching, Twinkie-eating hicks. Part of what I wanted to show is that there is a searching intellectual and emotional life in people who aren't educated and who aren't rich."
Of his lead character, Chaon says, "Jonah in particular is somebody who really is intellectually curious and wants to better himself without necessarily bettering himself financially. He doesn't want to go to college to get a good job. He wants to go to college to learn about the world."
"Troy," Chaon continues, "is a character that doesn't appear very often in American fiction – somebody who screws up but really does have good intentions. I wanted to write about somebody who screwed up in many ways but was still a good father. Without getting too autobiographical, my own father had a very hard life in a lot of ways, but he was a really good father. He really loved being a dad. And I wanted Troy to be somebody who represented that kind of pure family love."
Like his character Troy, Chaon was adopted as an infant. "That is something that has always been in my writing – the sense of other identities or other possibilities out there. Then about eight years ago, I had a meeting with my birth father and have gotten to know him a little. As it turned out, he had felt a lot of anguish over the decision to relinquish the baby, had always sort of hoped to meet up, and had been fairly active in trying to track my whereabouts down. The meeting was a very intense and life-changing experience for me. I wanted to figure out a way to get some of the emotion of that into a novel without actually writing an autobiographical novel."
"Besides," Chaon says, laughing, "I'm aware that whenever I use something or a version of someone that could be interpreted as autobiography, then I'm in trouble because people will get offended. I'm very careful about that. As a writer you learn how to find corollaries, how to channel real life into pretend life, how to transform the real impetus into fiction. For me that's a big part of the pleasure."