At One Story, we believe that being a part of the literary community is all about mentorship–turning around and offering a helping hand to the ones behind you. This Thursday, June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be honoring Dan Chaon as our 2013 Mentor of the year. Click below to see a great short film on Dan Chaon and his work, then read our Q&A with Dan about his writing experience, and how his own mentors taught him to be a better writer and teacher.
1. Dan, you’ve been a great supporter of emerging writers. But who were your mentors and how did they help you along the way?
There are a lot. I had a number of great teachers–Tobias Wolff and Doug Unger in grad school, Reginald Gibbons and Sheila Schwartz in undergrad, and also some really wonderful teachers in high school and middle school.
I have to single out two in particular. I’ve written at length about my relationship with the late Sheila Schwartz, who started out as my undergrad writing teacher and, later, became my wife. She was the love of my life in so many ways, but she was also such an important mentor, really insightful and encouraging but also tough. I think the way she helped me to set high expectations is central to my own teaching. You need someone who believes in you, but who believes in the best part of you, the part that you maybe haven’t attained yet.
I also want to mention my seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Christy, who continued to be my mentor all through high school. He was one of those rare souls who treated kids like their ideas were serious. He introduced me to the world of literary magazines, and ingrained a respect for the process of revision into me, and really helped me to understand the idea that writing is all about work ethic. When some friends and I came up with the idea to create a journal that was published out of our small Nebraska town, he took us at face value, and was able to find funding to make that happen. He had us writing to nationally known writers asking them to submit work for our first issue–and a few of them actually did. I wrote to Ray Bradbury, and had a correspondence with Bradbury, who was another life-changing mentor for me.
I’m obviously not doing any of these people justice, and I’d need to write an essay about each one. In any case, there’s an essay about Sheila here, and an essay about Bradbury here. I’ll try to do essays on all the others at some point.
2. Any words of advice for our 7 Debutantes as they start their literary careers?
The best advice I got–and the hardest to follow: “Don’t be too attached to results.”
3. How do you find a balance between teaching and writing?
It’s ridiculously difficult, because they are both utterly consuming tasks. You have to sacrifice some things to do both, and I’ve chosen to cut back on sleep and socializing. And I haven’t stopped smoking, like I should have a long time ago.
So I’m tired and isolated and smelly, but I do write a lot of words and comment on a lot of student manuscripts.
4. Your first two books were award-winning collections of stories (Fitting Ends, Among the Missing). Now, after publishing two great novels (You Remind Me of Me, Await Your Reply), you’ve come back to the short story form with Stay Awake. What made you decide to return to short stories? And how are they different from working on novels?
I never really stopped writing stories. The pieces in Stay Awake were written between 2002-2012, usually during fallow periods when I was supposed to be working on novels. The fact is, though I like working on novels, the short story is my first love and I find myself starting and working on new ones (mostly unfinished fragments) all the time. It’s a different kind of energy from the novel, a different kind of relationship with the material. To me, a story is a snapshot or a painting, full of mystery outside its borders. It’s like looking out a window of a train and seeing a scene that moves you and compels you but you won’t ever be able to know all the background and details. Novels are a lot of things, but they don’t usually allow for that kind of unsettling, concentrated glimpse into a world.
5. What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on June 6th?
I’ve heard that Zach Galifianakis will be there. Is this true?