February 7, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Dan Chaon has proven himself once again a master of the short story with his haunting second collection Stay Awake.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"The best of his stories arouse a feeling of deep foreboding. Then, with the reader's realization of what’s about to emerge from the shadows, comes a shock of recognition. This is the great guilty pleasure of good horror fiction: the sickening moment when the monstrosity at the heart of the story's darkness suggests itself to the eager imagination, while still withholding its true shape. "Stay Awake" is a superbly disquieting demonstration of that uneasy power."
The title of my new book of stories, Stay Awake comes from a lullaby from the musical Disney film Mary Poppins. In 1988, not long after I finished college, Hal Willner put out a compilation of covers of Disney songs on A&M Records called Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. The album contained an incredibly sinister and spooky a cappella version of "Stay Awake" sung by Suzanne Vega, which stuck with me for years and years. Even as a young man, I knew that I wanted to write a story about the feeling that the song had evoked in me.
I thought I was writing stories that were more or less "realistic"—they were about ordinary people and situations, but I also knew that there was something behind the curtain of straightforward realism. It wasn't supernatural exactly. But it was something-- something not natural, watching.
Flash forward 25 years! I was writing the novels You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, and in-between I was occasionally writing stories. I had the idea that I wanted to write a collection of ghost stories. I was thinking about the amazing collections of ghost stories by writers like Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, M.R. James, E. Nesbit, etc. I was also greatly drawn to Joyce Carol Oates' wonderful book Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque.
I knew that I wanted to create a collection that paid tribute to the idea of the "ghost story" while at the same time I wanted to adapt that form to my own purposes, so that not all the stories are necessarily exactly "supernatural." I was very influenced by my friend, the novelist Peter Straub, who once described The Red Badge of Courage as "a ghost story in which the ghost doesn't appear." That idea fired my imagination as I was working on these stories.
"The Bees" appears on Belly's sadly overlooked second album, King, which came out in 2000. The song was the inspiration for the first story in my collection, which is also called "The Bees." I started writing the story with this song on repeat, and fragments of lyrics began to crystallize into scenes and characters: "My blessed son, you have a lot to learn," sings lead singer Tanya Donnelly, and "the bees behind my eyes sing beware," and "I steal a piece of your diary/I don't think that looks like me." From these fragments, and from the melancholy and sinister music, I began to form a picture of a guilty father who had wronged his son in horrible ways, but was in denial about it. I don't actually know what the song is really about—but my story has a powerfully parasitic relationship to it. I felt like I was literally drawing on the life force of that song when I was writing the piece.
I feel a real affinity with Owen Ashworth, the singer-songwriter who has gone by the name "Casiotone for the Painfully Alone" and, more recently, "Advance Base." He creates vivid characters and situations in a short space, and I think of songs like "Natural Light" and "Toby Take a Bow" as kind of like musical versions of Raymond Carver short stories. Of all of his songs, "Bobby Malone Moves Home" is my favorite. I love the way Owen's morose, ragged voice moves across the jaunty keyboard line, and the way that series of chords becomes increasingly creepy and relentless. I love poor Bobby Malone himself, who is as vivid in my mind as if he had been the main character in a novel. The frightening sense of ennui and entrapment this song gets at is something I was trying to find in my story "Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted" –which is about a similar sort of guy, who finds himself "back home" and stuck there. The situation that we jokingly refer to as "failure to launch" is, to me, actually really scary--kind of psychological ghost story; a maze that slowly ensorcels its victims, from which they can never escape.
Occasionally I'll read the Amazon and Good Reads reviews of my books. A number of people mention that my stuff can be depressing, and I feel a little guilty about it. I don't want to be the downer guy. At the same time, I actually really like sad stories and sad songs and sad movies. The problem of loss is interesting to me, and I appreciate art that helps me think about it.
The video for Modest Mouse's song "Little Motel" is among the most memorable music videos I've ever seen. I think it's smart and wise in the way it explores grief; that clever backtracking narrative line that slowly unfolds and reveals the dream and denial of the young mother, the beautiful use of lonely, late-night urban space, the way ordinary places, like a motel or a diner or gas station can take on a kind of uncanny, haunted quality. And though it's very, very sad, and it makes me cry practically every time I see it, it's a kind of sadness that makes me feel less alone, and so I'm thankful for that. High five, Isaac Brock!
There are some artists that follow you through your life. The singer Mark Kozelek is one of those for me: he's recorded as "Red House Painters," as himself, and as "Sun Kil Moon" and "Desertshore." I frequently listen to Mark Kozelek while I am writing, and his songs speak to me of the healing and hypnotic magical power of sad music. If someone asked me to sit down and write a story, I would first of all make a playlist that included some Mark Kozelek songs, and that would help me get into the zone. It's like having fairy dust sprinkled on me. I love his voice and his music so much that I ended up naming one of the main characters in my novel Await Your Reply after him.
I was sort of hoping that he would notice this and be super excited and then write to me. But he didn't.
Idaho is another of my favorite bands, and like Red House Painters they create a certain kind of drone that is appealing to me. Very often, what I am looking for in music is a kind of hypnotic state, a soundscape that opens up into a dream world, and "Skyscrape" does that to me. It starts with a kind of sleepwalking march, the feeling of moving through a fog toward an uncertain point, which I think is exactly the state that writers find themselves in as they sit down. When Jeff Martin's voice comes in at :26, the fog begins to clear. "You know the harder you try… to be… respected…" he whispers, in his deep, somnolent voice, like a fortune teller in a trance. "It's not difficult to see…why you are…not happy…"
I was listening to this song and out of the fog emerged a drunken lawyer, disheveled, still dressed in a suit but soaking wet, stumbling down a dark, rainy Portland street long after midnight. Not respected. Not happy. Lost. I began to follow him, and that was how I wrote the story called "Take This Brother, May It Serve You Well," which is one of my favorite pieces in Stay Awake.
I love mashups. I was a DJ through most of my college years, back in the late 1980's days of Chicago "hotmixes" and house music, and I'm very taken with the work of young artists like D.Veloped, Girl Talk, DJ Earworm, and others who take samples and combine them into collage art that re-envisions the original artists and transforms their work into something fresh and new.
The idea of collage is very important to me in my own work. I tend to work with fragments at first—images, characters, details--and sort them and arrange them a little like I would a mix, as I try to find a narrative line. I want the various scenes and moments of a story to combine in the way that a mashup does, not necessarily logical but inevitable. And I want the elements of light and dark to clash in ways that are ultimately pleasing—the way that D.Veloped uses the sample of Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya,"—which, played over a minor key line, uncovers an unnoticed ache in ODB's drunk jackass bravado voice, a yearning that gives us a weirdly melancholy, backward-glance insight into his tragically short life. Or so I'd like to think.
In any case, I find myself "sampling" the work of writers that I love when I'm writing my own stories, trying to remix phrases and moods from stories in the hopes of tapping into something new or discovering some element of my story that I hadn't thought of. Favorite sample beats include Carver, Cheever, Bradbury, Munro, Method Man.
If I were forced to choose my favorite album of the last ten years, it would be Page France's Hello, Dear Wind. The album is an emotional tour-de-force, a song cycle of repeated themes and images that are interwoven and yet stand alone as powerfully beautiful individual singles. I was definitely influenced by the method of this album in the use of recurring tropes, and by the complex web of imagery. It truly feels like an album—each song speaks to the other and they gain depth when listened to as a whole.
This is what I wanted to achieve with the stories in Stay Awake. The stories were written over a period of ten years, and when I sat down to put them together I noticed that that there were a number of images and moments that appeared almost identically in several of the stories. At first, my instinct was to rewrite or edit the stories so that there wasn't any repetition. Then, thinking about it, and remembering the effect of Page France's album, I decided that I really liked the kind of weird "déjà vu" quality that this created.
I hope that some people will like this effect, though it's also a bit worrying. Recently, one of my friends pointed out the echoes he noted in the stories with a concerned look. "Dude, did you notice that you had the same thing in both stories?"
Oh, facepalm, facepalm.
Here's Tom Waits, an artist who, over the years, has probably meant more to me than any other. The stories that Tom Waits tells in his songs are written in English, but ultimately they start to become their own language—"Waitish?" –which is full of a kind of rich, complicated mood that reaches beyond the edges of the "words" or the "music" and becomes a newly invented world that you enter and exist in, a world with its own rules and logic; even its own colors. My ambition is to write stories that are sort of the fictional equivalent of his songs, but that's just wishful thinking. Tom Waits is sui generis. A god-like entity.
This song, "Green Grass," is sung from the perspective of a ghost, and so it seemed particularly appropriate.
PS: My son is friends with a kid who knew Tom Waits' kids, and once my son's friend was at Tom Waits' house and Tom Waits came in and served all the children pizza bagels.
That makes me happy to know. Say: "Hey, kids, who wants some pizza bagels?" in a Tom Waits voice, and it will make you happy too.
OK, I realize that this song has already been on the soundtrack for Where the Wild Things Are, but if I got to have everything I wanted, this song would come at the end of the movie to Stay Awake, just as the Suzanne Vega song would be at the opening credits.
I love the way that this song moves—from dirge to anthem to odd little jig and then to a kind of meditative coda. It's such a strange piece, and it seems like it shouldn't really hold together as a song at all. But it does, and that makes me hopeful.
Dan Chaon and Stay Awake links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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