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Lives that burn below the surface

Secrets ���� everyone has them, but at what point is one compelled to divulge them, and to whom? Dan Choan’s latest short story collection, “Among the Missing,” is full of characters whose seemingly everyday lives are darkened by deception. Simple deception clouds the way his chracters see themselves, and obscure facts of their very existence prove to be a damper between them and their loved ones.

Choan’s characters are everyday folks ���� midwesterners primarily ���� and the question of identity focuses on the impasse often found or created between two people. A true short story master in the tradition of his mentor Tobias Wolf, Choan cordially agreed to an e-mail interview with me while I was away at a poetry workshop. And he had a lot to say.

You examine male to male relationships quite a bit in your work. There seems to be a fear inherent in all of your male characters, an insecurity, no matter what their age. Is this a conscious thing?

Well, it’s conscious to the degree that I’m a guy and I’m aware of the cultural expectations and pressures that tend to get in the way of male to male communication, at least in American culture, which is all I know about really. I think that this was more of an issue for me in the first book, “Fitting Ends,” and maybe less of a focus now. In “Among the Missing” I was trying to explore a female perspective more than I had before ���� four of the 13 stories are from a woman’s point of view, and a couple of others, particularly in the title story and “Late for the Wedding” I wanted to look particularly at male/female relationships, particularly mothers and sons. And I also hoped that a couple of the male to male relationships could even be seen as kind of positive and loving.

As far as the insecurity goes, I don’t think that’s specific to just the male characters here.

People ���� men and women ���� are definitely insecure in these stories, and sometimes almost neurotically so, but given the society that they live in, maybe they have good reason to be insecure and paranoid. For me, that’s the larger question. Is there something wrong with me, or is there something wrong with the rest of the world?

The characters in “Among the Missing’s” stories often find themselves alone. In most cases, it seems a simple case of misconnection or miscommunication between family members, but it reaches into their outside worlds as well, and of course has serious consequences on their psyches. There is something missing from each of them, and the only (nearly) tangible thing, is an honest relationship with those close to them. Do you think characters need to be open with others in order to be real, true, “rounded” characters, or is this missing piece or part of them the link to knowing who they are? Do you believe maybe that no one, real or fictional, is truly “round?”

I guess I kind of think the opposite. One of my characters (In “Safety Man”) makes the comment that she doesn’t “think most people are interesting enough to have souls,” but I personally think everyone is probably round if you look closely enough. I suppose that a lot of my conception of character comes from the idea that people’s inner lives are often rich and complicated even when they don’t know how to express that complexity to one another. In some ways, I guess that many of the stories are riffs on the problem of the “real, true” self vs. the various performances that most of us have to put on for the benefit of the public. Anybody who has ever worked in retail probably knows exactly what I mean. Anybody who’s ever had an e-mail or chatroom friendship knows what I’m talking about.

To a greater or lesser degree, much of our communication with other people has an element in which you are aware of creating or acting out a persona, a version of yourself. And yes, I think this often extends to members of our own family in some ways. One character, in “Here Is A Little Something to Remember Me By,” asks the question: “Do you ever get the feeling that there is more than one of you?” I guess that’s one of the fears that’s circling around under the surface of the stories. It’s not just miscommunication, it’s misinterpretation, and often even deliberate misrepresentation. And even if you want to be “real,” it’s often difficult.

The narrator in the story “Prodigal” talks about this directly, speaking of his relationship to his young sons: “It’s hard to guess what they imagine I am. I doubt that they think of it much; I am ‘Dad,’ that’s all. It’s strange how easily we fall into these roles ���� the form-fitting personalities that my children think of as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ As they’ve grown, we have increasingly given over pieces of our lives to these caricatures, until the ‘Dad’ part of me casts a shadow over what I think of as my ‘real’ self.” And then later the narrator says, “Even from the beginning, when their infant’s eyes begin to focus on your floating face, the way a cat will watch the moon, already you are a ghost of yourself.”

The narrator of “Prodigal” is a lot more cynical than I myself am, but he does express a fear that I have, and that I think runs through the collection. I remember once when my oldest son was in pre-school, he was asked to clip out pictures from magazines and catalogs to represent his family. And for me, he clipped out a picture of a football player (maybe what I think of as the diametric opposite of myself) and for my wife he clipped out a picture of a Miss Clairol model. We were like, “Um, where did that come from?” And that’s not even a question of miscommunication, that’s just the tissue of cultural signs that begin to separate us the minute we begin to be socialized.

Given the many walls of interpretation and social expectation that you have to pass through to relay your “self” to someone else, even being “open with others,” as you say, isn’t enough in a lot of cases. Sometimes I think something almost mystical has to happen for people to be able to see through all that static to the “real, rounded person” underneath. But I’m romantic enough to think that those mystical moments of connection do happen from time to time. Just not very often.

Many of your characters hold secrets, or at least refrain from truly speaking there mind. They are often surrounded by calamity and family troubles, yet retain a “surface quiet.” They hold so much in, yet the narrator divulges so much information. The long breaks between dialogue, during which the narrator tells all the secrets, almost serve to fill that empty space in their lives, even as it post facto serves to fill the space between lines of dialogue. How do you respond?

I think maybe I’ve answered a lot of this in my answer to your earlier question. But yeah, secret lives are very important to what I’m trying to explore in this collection. The “real” me vs. the persona that people know as “Me.” A lot of the characters in the collection are liars and fakers in various ways, and I’m very interested in those sorts of people, but I’m also interested in the ordinary public personas and masks that we naturally put on to negotiate our way through our daily lives, and the ways in which those masks can also separate us from the people in our lives.

One of the commonplaces of end-of-century American life is the sense that it’s very easy to have a secret life. You know the old story: someone comes in and kills his co-workers with a semi-automatic, or a serial killer spends years murdering folks and burying them in the crawlspace beneath his house, and then later his aquaintances and co-workers are terribly surprised. He’s described as “quiet,” “a nice guy,” “no one suspected anything was wrong.” It’s a cliche, but kind of a horrific cliche if you think about it for very long. What does it say about the society in which we live that we regularly have such a superficial “relationship” with people that we see every day, that the social codes of “niceness” and so on are so shallow?

To me, the secret inner life is at the very heart of the contemporary American experience, and not just for serial killers and wackjobs, but also for ordinary people. You asked previously about well-rounded and complex people, and it’s my feeling that very often the complexity of someone’s inner life and emotions is not only kept in check by the social institutions that regulate our daily lives ���� such complexity is positively unwelcome.

When I went off to college, I moved from a very small town in Nebraska to Chicago, which at that time in the ’80s was full of homeless people. I remember one day I was walking through Dailey Center and there was an elderly man stumbling around screaming, “I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” and swatting at his back and hair. He wasn’t really literally on fire, of course. But it amazed me to see all of these busy hurrying people averting their eyes and rushing on to their appointments and such and just pretending that this screaming old man didn’t exist.

It’s an image that stuck with me, because it seems like a good metaphor for a lot of what’s creepy about the lives we live today. And it applies just as well to the small town where I grew up. There may not have been insane homeless people there, but there were plenty of figurative screaming old men on the corners of day to day life. Like this one kid I knew in high school: his mom was having a nervous breakdown, and his dad was a heavy drinker, and there was consistent insanity at home, and yet here he was, going to school, taking tests, playing in band, chatting pleasantly with his peers. You can admire that to a certain extent, right? But it’s also, to me, pretty frightening.

I like to tell people that these are ghost stories set in the real, non-supernatural world. I guess that for me the ghosts are the secret lives that people are living, the “real” identities underneath the masks, all that stuff that’s burning and whispering just below the surface.

Dan Choan wil read from “Among the Missing” tonight, June 25 at 7 p.m. at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne.