Chaon Writes His Way to Book Award Nomination
by Douglas Diesenhaus
Nov. 14, Professor of Creative Writing Dan Chaon will find out if
he is the recipient of the 2001 National Book Award for his collection
of short stories, Among the Missing. Presented by the National Book
Foundation, the Awards purpose is to enhance the publics
awareness of exceptional books written by fellow Americans, and
to increase the popularity of reading in general. Chaons
nomination as a finalist in the fiction category was announced last
month. On Wednesday, he will attend the ceremony, hosted by comedian
Steve Martin, at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Manhattan.
Chaons first book, Fitting Ends and Other Stories, was published
in 1996. In response to the enhanced exposure his work has been
receiving, Ballantine Books, publisher of Among the Missing, will
be re-releasing Fitting Ends with an additional three new stories
around the end of next year. His work has appeared in many journals
and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, The
Pushcart Prize, and The 2001 OHenry Awards, for which he won
the second-place prize for his story Big Me, a piece
that appears in Among the Missing. Ballantine will also publish
Chaons forthcoming novel, I Wake Up.
Among the Missing had received critical acclaim since its release
in July, but the nomination for the Award forced the book and its
author into the limelight. Chaons book is unique in that,
out of the five nominees, including Jonathan Franzen, Louise Erdrich,
Jennifer Egan and Susan Straight, his is the only one that is not
Im proud because its rare for short story collections
to be nominated, he said. At the same time, I think
that the book has a kind of thematic cohesion that I think makes
the stories hold together as a unit, so its not radically
different from the experience of reading a novel.
the media exposure has only recently become more intense, students
who have taken classes with Chaon have known of his devotion to
both the craft of writing and to his work as a teacher since he
first arrived at Oberlin. The incredible support from his students
contributed to the creative writing departments decision last
year to retain him in a permanent position on the faculty. Students
who have read his new book are showering Chaon with even more praise.
His stories are as thick and sad and beautiful and funny as
he is. I feel completely lucky to have had him as a teacher, and
even luckier that I forced him to become my friend, too, said
senior Emma Straub, who has a concentration in creative writing.
Other students have taken their devotion to more extreme levels.
I admire Dan so much that Ive even started to dress
like him, said senior Edan Lepucki, a creative writing major.
The loyalty felt by many of Chaons students was evident even
before the recent wave of publicity, so much so that many of them
seem to consider themselves members of the Cult of Dan Chaon. At
his reading on Oct. 15 in King 106, where he read the story Big
Me, Chaon was greeted with cheers and raucous laughter from
the throng of satisfied students. There is even word that one or
more students are compiling a collection of Chaons classroom
quotations, perhaps with a book-length complilation of his witticisms
If they are collecting quotes from Dan, they should also try
to get a lock of his hair because Ive heard this can be useful
in gaining power over a person, said junior Christina Congleton,
also a creative writing major.
For his part, Chaon feels comfortable with students who interact
with his classes in this way. One of my concerns as a teacher
is trying to find a balance and comfort level in the classroom,
because the process of workshopping students writing can be
so stressful. I want people to be able to have fun, and laugh a
little bit, and hopefully that makes the enormous amount of work
that were doing less of a drag, he said.
some students take a slightly different view of Chaons celebrity
status. I only hope that this wacky compilation of quotations
doesnt bring all the media hype and buzz
about Mr. Chaon into a state of absolute ridiculousness, senior
creative writing major Kayla Blatchley said. He really does
deserve sincere recognition, and not just the giggling squeals of
over-anxious undergraduate co-eds with too much time on their hands.
student commented on Chaons practice of telling stories about
his own life in class. On the outside, Dan is funny open,
and infinitely kind, but on the inside hes greedy for love,
running a sick popularity contest for which hell do anything
to win, senior creative writing major Ryan Miller said. Obviously,
this type of person draws a crowd, especially if he can tell a good
story. My favorite is either the one about him pretending to be
blind for several days when he was a child, or when he told his
son that they were cooking the cat for dinner. These stories dont
appear in his book, but the ones in there are good too.
As is usually the case, though, some feel left out of all the fun.
I tried several times to gain admission to the CDC (Cult of
Dan Chaon) but was consistently rejected, senior Molly McDonald
Meanwhile, the strange but true reality of Dan Chaon has only become
stranger. Recently he posed for a photo shoot for the Jan./Feb.
issue of Book magazine with eight other writers.
They shot us up against a white background, like a Gap ad
young womans job was to find an apple crate for me to stand
on, since I was the shortest person there. All the other writers
were tall and thin and beautiful, Chaon said.
Chaon has dealt with the critical acclaim and student support with
aplomb, according to Blatchley. Upon any congratulations or
mention of success, he blushes up like a schoolgirl, she said.
so, Chaon seems to be taking all that has happened to him in stride.
I take writing and the art of fiction very seriously, but
I dont take myself particularly seriously as a Writer,
Next Wednesday, the many who have benefited from Dan Chaons
teaching will hold their breath as the announcement of the award
is made. Regardless of who wins, though, Chaons impact has
clearly been felt passionately at Oberlin.
If I could be any person, place or mineral, Id be Dan
Chaon, Ryan Miller said. Hes a pretty good person