Dan Chaon Doesn’t Want to Hear About Your Middle-Class Norwegian Life

The novelist and story writer, whose new book is “Sleepwalk,” wishes more authors would write about ‘anything other than themselves. I love writers … who use some aspects of their own experience to tell a far-out tale.’

Presented in BY THE BOOK – for The New York Times – May 2022

My cmnt: I include this article because Dan Chaon is a native Nebraskan and fairly famous author and teacher. He, like most liberal/leftists and English majors/teachers, is an imbiber in the Global Warming/Climate Change hoax, voted for Hillary, believes the earth and mankind are doomed to extinction in the near future, thinks communism is a fair and just economic system and believes Darwinism explains life on earth.

My cmnt: The Chaon interview is entertaining and did a good job of letting me know about him as a person. I had a roommate in my college years who had a bookshelf full of science fiction so I read most of it. That Chaon actually corresponded with Ray Bradbury as a youth struck a note with me. Being a flute player (I dislike the term flautist) I too wrote a letter in my youth to the world famous musician Carmine Coppola requesting his workbook for the flute enclosing a check for $5. To my surprise he wrote me back, returning the check, informing me the book was out of print but thanking me for my interest. I still have his signed note.

My cmnt: Immersing oneself in novels and works of fiction, especially the macabre, demonic and murderous kind, as Chaon has cannot be good for the soul. At best it could allow you to earn a living teaching it; at worse it will warp your mind making it impossible to know and appreciate God as you descend down the dark path to death and destruction.

My cmnt: My favorite professor during my time at UNL taught Western History and was a hoot to listen to. Just before our big, written final he quoted the poem below to us. I would offer it to Chaon and all people who spend way too much time reading novels. I’ve included professor Duly’s obit below the interview.

The Tables Turned

By William Wordsworth – published 1798

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless–
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Below is the Times interview with Chaon.

Rabih Alameddine, “The Wrong End of the Telescope”

Robert Cozzolino, “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art”

Rita Dove, “Playlist for the Apocalypse”

Marie Myung-Ok Lee, “The Evening Hero”

Daniel H. Pink, “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward”

Watty Piper, “The Little Engine That Could”

Sam Szabo, “Comics Will Break Your Balls”

I’m kind of afraid of that term, “Great Book.” How do you gain enough confidence to declare something like that?

I read the NYRB edition of “Nightmare Alley,” by William Lindsay Gresham, after the movie came out, because I really loved the del Toro film, and also because the book I’m working on now involves a traveling carnival. I was impressed by how wonderfully weird it was, and how 1940s high modernist in its structure and use of interior. Kind of Nabokovian, even. I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before!

People may hate me for this but some of my favorite reading experiences have been with audiobooks in the car on a long trip. I love that intense feeling of being “inside a book” while driving and the way the world of the story subsumes the interstate and the passing towns and it’s like dreaming.

One that pops to mind is “The Gangster We All Are Looking For,” by Le Thi Diem Thuy.

I started reading Peter Straub when I was a teenager, and his work has been seminal for me. His novels are poetic, intricate experiments in structure and the various uses of suspense. They take the templates of genre — ghost stories, serial killer thrillers, war tales, cosmic horror — and twist them like a Rubik’s Cube.

I admire Joy Williams for her spare, unflinching eye and stark gallows humor, the rich and strange images of our doomed world that she fearlessly evokes.

Percival Everett is a brilliant writer who is willing to try everything, in all styles and genres — from westerns to retellings of Greek myth, from crime novels to surrealism and blisteringly hilarious social critique — and I have looked up to him as a model for the kind of omnivorous and unpredictable writer I’d like to become. (I can’t write as much as he does, though.)

Similarly, Jennifer Egan always impresses me with her scope and mastery of form. I love how daring she is, and how emotionally insightful. I feel like she and Jesmyn Ward are writers of my generation who will be remembered, if there are still people left to remember such things. I love the poetry of Erin Belieu and Dana Levin. My friend Tom Barbash is a wonderful writer and critic and also a deeply kind person who has been enormously helpful to me since we were in graduate school together.

I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for Ray Bradbury. I wrote to him when I was in seventh grade, and sent him some of my stories, which were basically Bradbury fanfic, and he wrote back with critiques, suggesting that I submit my work to journals and so forth, and introduced me to the idea of becoming a writer. His kindness and generosity to a young Nebraska nerd still boggles my mind; I can’t believe how lucky I was. He transformed my life and gave me a path I couldn’t have imagined for myself.

Our relationship changed when I decided to go to college. Bradbury actively disapproved — “what can you learn in college that you can’t get from your library?” he said — and he worried that it would interfere with my writing.

And it was true. I ended up with a very different sort of mentor — the poet Reginald Gibbons, then editor of TriQuarterly Magazine, who would push me toward a more realist, literary style. My first major short story publication was in TQ when I was a senior in college.

I spent a lot of my life trying to find a way to please two dads — Bradbury and Gibbons — and you know what? I think I almost have done it. I am grateful to both of them.

That term is kind of galling to me. “Guilty Pleasures” presumes the true “quality” books are the ones that are like eating your vegetables, books we get a head-pat for slogging through dutifully and being edified by. That seems really limited and elitist to me. Personally, I love writers who just don’t care what you think about them, and they don’t necessarily want to be “good for you.” For me, a “guilty pleasure” is a work that’s transgressive enough that you may think twice before recommending it to just anybody — Alissa Nutting’s “Tampa”: so fearless. Carolyn Ferrell’s “Dear Miss Metropolitan,” which is so jaw-droppingly disturbing and yet enchantingly, achingly beautiful; Daniel Kraus, who wrote the most out-of-control Y.A. book I’ve ever read, called “Rotters”; the forthcoming novel “Anybody Home?,” by Michael J. Seidlinger. For me, the guilty pleasure isn’t a Little Debbie snack, it’s habanero hot sauce, it’s phaal curry, it’s Kimchi Jjigae.

My favorite thing as a teacher was intuiting which individual book might make a difference to a particular student. I vividly remember giving my beloved copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart” to my student Rumaan Alam back in the late 1990s. This was not a book I’d generally recommend to the average 21-year-old, but it seemed to click with Rumaan, and we spent some very happy times discussing it. I felt as proud as if I’d set them up for a date!

Anything other than themselves. I love writers like Emily St. John Mandel, Usman T. Malik, Mat Johnson, Sequoia Nagamatsu, Sanjena Sathian — who use some aspects of their own experience to tell a far-out tale. I find myself less interested in books that outline the banalities and humiliations of your middle-class Norwegian life or whatever.

I like difficult characters — characters with deep flaws who are struggling, maybe they are bad people, but they are moved toward kindness or altruistic acts. So much of our daily life is full of cruelty and indifference, and sometimes we think that is the human condition. But I do like characters who affirm that there is also a human instinct toward empathy and connection. I’m such a sucker, that always makes my heart swell.

Genre is not as important to me as my sense that the writer is deeply emotionally engaged and taking risks. For example, Kathryn Davis. I can’t say what “genre”she’s working in, but I will read whatever she writes. On the other hand, I’m generally less enthused about work that is simply replicating a pattern of familiar plot points and emotional beats.

The big ones for me were Ira Levin’s “A Kiss Before Dying” and Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Also, of course, the films of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change.” My son, an ecologist, says there are far scarier books out there, but Kolbert is about as much as I can handle.

One of my guest bedrooms is basically a library, with built-in shelves on every wall, and that is all fiction and poetry, shelved alphabetically. The guest bedroom on the third floor has two walls of shelves with anthologies, comics and nonfiction, more randomly organized by size, and I spend most of my reading time there because it has a nicer bed.

Honestly? I don’t think anyone who knows me would be surprised by anything. I mean, maybe if I owned “The Art of the Deal” or “Elon Musk: The Life, Lessons & Rules for Success”or something. But I don’t.

When I was in grade school, I got a set of story anthologies for young readers, “edited” by Alfred Hitchcock: “Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbinders in Suspense,” “Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery,” “Alfred Hitchcock’s Witches Brew” and “Alfred Hitchcock’s Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense,” which introduced me to works by writers such as Muriel Spark, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Tolstoy (!) etc. I can’t believe what they were marketing to kids in those days! In any case, those books opened a whole new world to me.

I’m far less worried about whether I’m keeping up with what’s trendy, and less embarrassed by the randomness of what I’m drawn to. I’ve also accepted that I’m never going to get to all the books I want to read in my lifetime, so I’ve come to peace with the rambling inanity of my whims.

I’m going to be sentimental. I would love to have a quiet candlelit dinner with my late wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz. Afterward, my friend the late poet Wanda Coleman would drop by for dessert, and then — why not? It’s my fantasy — Shirley Jackson would pop in for a nightcap. I’ve always felt a strong connection to Shirley and when I was a kid her voice was a kind of imaginary friend to me, I don’t know why. We’d all sit out on the back deck and smoke weed and watch fireflies moving among the tomato plants.

When I was a kid I memorized Bible verses to get prizes at Vacation Bible School, but I haven’t ever read the Bible from cover to cover, or the Talmud or the Quran or any of the popular religious texts except for Anton LaVey when I was in a super-goth phase in college. A friend recently sent me the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and I might check that out at some point.

“Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities,” by Frederick Drimmer.


Leslie Duly, 57, Dies; Led Bemidji University – in the New York Times, May 12, 1993 archives

Dr. Leslie C. Duly, an educator and president of Bemidji State University in Minnesota, died Saturday in his home in Bemidji. He was 57.

He apparently had a heart attack, said Jack Rhodes, spokesman for Minnesota’s state universities.

Dr. Duly took over as the seventh president of Bemidji State in 1990, after serving 10 years as vice president for academic affairs. During his tenure, he strengthened cultural-diversity programs at the university, which has 5,200 students.

Before joining Bemidji State, Dr. Duly was a member of the faculty of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln from 1968 to 1980. Earlier, he taught history at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and Memphis State University.

Since 1977, Dr. Duly was co-editor of “International Studies Notes,” a quarterly of the International Studies Association. He published extensively in the areas of law, administration, race relations and on the role of ethnicity in the 20th century.

He was a native of Kenmore, N.Y. A graduate of the University of South Dakota, he received a master’s degree in Australian history from the University of Melbourne and a Ph.D. in British and Commonwealth history from Duke University in 1965.

Surviving are his wife, Diane; three daughters, Susannah Duly of Duluth, Melissa Semerau of Hammond, Ind., and Abigail Duly of Grand Forks, N.D.; a son, William Duly of Minneapolis, his mother, Lucille Duly of West Amherst, N.Y., and two sisters, Priscilla Kuntz of Clarence, N.Y., and Lucille Schoepf of Chester, S.D.

A version of this article appears in print on May 12, 1993, Section B, Page 7 of the National edition with the headline: Leslie Duly, 57, Dies; Led Bemidji University.

2 thoughts on “Dan Chaon Doesn’t Want to Hear About Your Middle-Class Norwegian Life

  1. People turn to the self when they’re only allowed to have one view of ‘the world’. People turn to the world when they’re only allowed to have one view of ‘the self’. The ideologues play the one against the other. When the trap springs, there will be nowhere left to run.


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