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Issue Date: June 2004 Issue


Great Expectations


Jennifer Haliburton

Oh, expectations: those dreams of success others have for us, then deliver with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. For the short-story writer — whose concise prose so often goes unappreciated by the public, viewed as merely a steppingstone to more serious (read: longer) fare — those expectations invariably come in the form of The Novel, and the refrain is never-ending: When are you going to write your first novel? You working on that novel yet? So, how's that novel coming?

A case in point: Dan Chaon.

‡I remember being on Amazon.com and looking at those reader comments they have on there," says the Cleveland Heights author, recalling the reaction to his much-heralded 2001 short-story collection, "Among the Missing." "Someone had written about how much they liked it. Then, at the end of their review, they wrote, 'I can't wait for the upcoming novel!' — and 'Among the Missing' had basically just come out."

Of course, Chaon might as well have asked for the pressure. The success of that collection — nominated for the National Book Award and named one of that year's "notable books" by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association — virtually ensured demand for a novel. Chaon, who also teaches creative writing at Oberlin College, has responded with "You Remind Me of Me," published by Ballantine Books. Like his short stories, his first novel examines a host of characters dealing with loss, absence and fractured lives.

Despite the familiar themes, though, Chaon's switch to novel writing wasn't an easy one. For nearly two years, the third-floor study of his home Oas a bunker where the author battled the process of crafting a lengthy story.

"There were periods when I wrote like 100 pages and then I just had to throw them away," he remembers. "With a short story, you can pretty much go in and not really know what the story's about or where it's going, but you can thrash your way around and figure it out. ... [It's like] walking into a dark room and feeling your way around until you find a light switch. But with a novel, it's like a dark gymnasium."

Although Chaon eventually succeeded, don't expect him to follow the path of other ballyhooed authors by pulling up stakes and heading for some media metropolis anytime soon.

"I'm beginning to think of myself as a Clevelander," says the Nebraska native, who moved to this area 14 years ago with his wife, Sheila Schwartz, a fellow author and creative-writing professor at Cleveland State University.

"I love Cleveland. [It's a] very distinctive, blue-collar city that also has all this funkiness to it," he adds. "I love all the weird stuff of Cleveland ... like that part of the Flats that's not the place where all the people are getting drunk, but where there's these big, old buildings that have smoke belching out of them — and you're not exactly sure where the smoke is coming from."

In the meantime, while reveling in the atmosphere of the city, Chaon says he'll continue to try his hand at writing both short fiction and novels. "But," he adds, "I may change my mind, depending on whether this book gets creamed or not."


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