Jon Chopan lives in Columbus, Ohio where he teaches creative writing and composition at The Ohio State University at Newark. In the summer, he spends his time in Rochester, New York building decks with C&R Construction. He published the story "Men of Principle" in the Fall/Winter 2011-2012 issue of Epiphany. His most recent book, Pulled from the River, is available through his website.
Willard Cook: The first question that I am always curious about is—when did you realize you wanted to write?
John Chopan: I came to writing a bit late. That is, I wasn't someone who knew early in life that I loved words or writing or stories. I went away to college because this is what my father wanted for me. But I started out studying history because I was really fascinated by it; by the way events shaped people. I suppose once I realized that this is what had drawn me to history, and once I realized how important story was to the way I interacted with people, the way we told stories while we were drinking or hanging around, this is when I realized that I was interested in writing. I took a fiction class in my junior year of college and, though I was not a very good storyteller, I became consumed by writing, by how to shape characters and scenes to understand people and their actions or people and the forces that come to create them. In this way, I think my interest in history is what drew me to writing.
Willard Cook: When you say you were consumed by writing what do you mean by that? Did you write all day long? Read all day long? Were there any particular writers that ignited you?
John Chopan: I suppose it was a little of both. I think I read more than I wrote though, which is what I needed to do. I was really taken by the work of John D'agata. I thought his way of coming to the page was pretty fascinating. And I read Tim O’Brien and Sherman Alexie. At first, even more than their ability to tell a story, I was in love with how these writers used language, how descriptive and lyric and complex their writing could be. I wanted to learn how they were simultaneously brilliant and yet also wrote in a language that was accessible.
Willard Cook: Was Tim O'Brien a catalyst for Men of Principle? How do you write about vet issues without being a vet?
John Chopan: Tim O’Brien was a catalyst in that he taught me about the power of words. But this is true of James Baldwin and Tim Seibles and Sherman Alexie.The want to write about Tully is really about knowing so many vets and witnessing their suffering. I write about it by talking to the men who I am close to who have served. I listen to what they have to say. I try to pay close attention to what it is they mean. I want them to tell their own story and I want to tell it too. Short stories are my way of bearing witness. I feel compelled to write about this, because, to be frank, I am angry and distraught. Veterans are killing themselves at an alarming rate. They are suffering from addiction, unemployment, homelessness, at alarming rates. These are, after all, my brothers, and I think this country has done, and continues to do, terrible things to its young men, veterans and citizens alike. And, even though I am not a vet, this is a pressing issue to me because, inevitably, there is going to be another war and when that war comes they are going to be recruiting my sons and nephews. They are going to be pulling my students right out of their seats in order to put bodies on the front lines. To quote Tim Seibles: “I certainly don’t want [my stories] to be in cahoots with the nightmare.”
Willard Cook: Interesting. I recently went to a benefit dinner for wounded vets and some of them told their stories to the audience.The suffering and courage was profound, but these veterans were very clear that they weren't going to let the enemy or anybody else take their dignity. In writing about vet issues how do you separate the politics and the art? Or do you?
John Chopan: I think the only way I can write about this is to separate it. But that isn't a tough task so long as I remember that my job is to describe, to focus on detail, to worry about how the story unfolds. If we look at Tim O'Brien we see how the detail, the describing, creates stories that are rich and complex. These are stories about war, sure, but never only about war. As far as I can tell the short story that worries about something like politics or themes in general, runs the risk of turning into something we'd usually see written by a speech writer or op-ed columnist. That is, this kind of story, will fall flat because it will simply appear to be arguing for a change in the reader’s position. And this means it will not be doing the work of the short story, which is much more complex. Because, I think, short stories want to disturb the reader, disrupt their certainties. Short stories want their particles to remain in our blood long after we've read them. When they are doing the right work they force us to ask ourselves difficult questions.
Willard Cook: In Men of Principle Tully is a good soldier who loses his way. Doesn't the story say a lot about what war does to men? Short stories are sometimes said to be about the moment in time. Where would you say the moment is in this story?
John Chopan: For sure Men of Principle is about war and what it has done to Tully. And in that way it is a story about a good Marine who loses his way. But, I hope, the story is also about men and how they can think they are doing the right thing by doing the wrong thing. I think Tully's buddies and their willingness to go along is representative of that. Because, never, even once they've found this guy, do they question what they are about to do. They never stop to ask Tully if they have found the right guy. In a way they have lost their way as well.
The pivotal moment that this story circles around is that moment when they find this guy, when they set out to inflict justice through an act of violence. For Tully what is even more important is the moment he realizes that he's made a mistake, both his recognition that this won't fix things for Emma and his admission that he's gotten the wrong guy. These are the moments that indict him, that represent how far he is willing to go to fix things and how wrong his perusal of justice has become.
Willard Cook: How long does it take you to write a story? Or should I ask how long did it take you to figure out that Tully couldn't fix things for Emma?
John Chopan: I'm not sure there is a set time. Each story works itself out in its own way. In the case of Tully I suppose I always knew that he couldn't fix things, or not in the way he thought he could. The trick then is taking that one certainty and finding a way to write to it, to arrive at it. This is why writing stories is so fulfilling and humbling. Because mostly we are working with uncertainties, and by that I mean that we learn the story as we write toward a moment or toward a certainty. So much of what we do is an act of faith, trying to figure out how we got from here to there, trying to imagine what might motivate or push a character to do one thing or another. That process of arriving is where the creativity is happening, is alive. Mostly, when I am writing, I am working in the dark and this means that a story may take one week, or one month, or one year to reveal its
self to me.
Willard Cook: Good answer. When do you know you’re enjoying your writing? Or do you enjoy writing?
John Chopan: I know I am enjoying it when I am lost in the story, deep in that search for where it is headed or how I am going to get the story to the one certainty I have. I absolutely enjoy writing, why would anyone do it otherwise? The beauty of this gig is that you're learning something new every time out, but it is also true that failure is acceptable, that revision is a part of the process. For me every "good" story I write is usually surrounded by two or three failed ones, or preceded by three or four or five drafts where I am working through the story, trying to make it tighter, smarter, and more efficient. I don't know of many jobs where that kind of revision and failure is acceptable. My mother, for instance, has been a nurse for thirty five years. I am pretty sure that she didn't ever get to walk into the operating room knowing that it was alright to fail, knowing that if they got it wrong they would have two or three or four chances to go back and fix it.
Willard Cook: What have you learned from writing?
Jon Chopan: I have learned a lot about how little I know. I think writing has forced me to face that. How little I know about myself, and how little I know about other people. That is why writing never gets old, because each time out I am learning something new.
Willard Cook: What are you working on now?
Jon Chopan: I am working on short stories with the same character, Tully, from Men of Principle. I am fascinated by his story. I think he has a lot left to teach me.
April 16, 2012