Haunting and intense, Stay Awake, Dan Chaon’s latest collection of short stories, peels back the layers of ordinary lives marked by accidents and isolation, dark pasts, and uncertain futures.
Many of the bizarre circumstances and events you describe feel eerily familiar. Are any of these stories based on real incidents?
I’ve been a big collector of news of the weird for a long time, so some of the stories are at least loosely based on specific cases. The title story deals with a certain type of Siamese twin called craniopagus parasiticus, of which there have been a couple of contemporary and historical examples. And with the story “I Wake Up,” I was drawing quite a bit on cases of women who murdered their children, particularly Andrea Yates back in 2001. Throughout the book I’m playing with contemporary headline horror, which has always fascinated me.
Is the process of collecting bits and pieces central to your writing generally?
I’m a very collage-oriented thinker, and I don’t find that stories tend to come to me in three act structure so much as they accumulate, so fragments are really important to me as a writer. There are a couple of stories here where fragments—actual discoveries of fragmentary writing or pieces of things—play an important role, and perhaps there’s a degree to which I’m subconsciously commenting on my own writing process. Also, I was interested in the ways in which collage, using a more modular rather than a direct narrative form, can perhaps create certain kinds of moods more successfully than a linear narrative can. I think we see this approach in recent film and television, where using multiple concurrent narrative lines creates this very interesting, moody, puzzle-like quality.
The brooding, unsettled atmosphere of the collection feels quite germane to our current cultural moment. Was this a deliberate decision on your part?
The collection does feel very contemporary to me as well, which I view more as a matter of coincidence than anything else since the stories were really written over a period of 10 years. The first story, “The Bees,” which I wrote for a McSweeney’s anthology in 2003 called McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, was really the inspiration for the collection. That anthology asked contemporary literary writers to work with a genre element, which I found very freeing and which helped me to understand the story’s more realistic elements in new ways. At that point, I started toying with the idea of writing a book of ghost stories, and this collection is a product of playing with the ghost story and with horror forms. As I was finishing up the collection last year, I realized that there was something about the mood of the stories, a mood of loss and dread of what comes next, a sense of things not working out the way we thought they were going to, that really spoke to the current moment in an immediate way.