Interview: Dan Calhoun Safe Sex
Lit Riot Press Interviews Author Dan Calhoun on his Book Safe Sex
"It’s rare to see a modern writer who so beautifully and abrasively confronts truth"
Safe Sex is a collection of short stories and a novella by author Dan Calhoun. A confused drifter crosses paths with a charismatic hustler. A grad school dropout struggles to make sense of her life and figure out how to live harmoniously with her boyfriend. A lonely gay man stuck in Kansas begins a sexual and emotional relationship with a straight woman. A high school girl, reeling after the suicide of a former friend she taunted, seeks understanding from her Christian aunt and a classmate. A gay man struggles with expressing the psychological implications of living with HIV as he cuts himself off from family and friends. A man—haunted by a past transgression— investigates a murder, discovering the world isn’t as neat as he believes. This collection—five stories and a novella—explores the intersections of gender, race, orientation, religion, secularism, sex and death, attempting to make sense of what it means to be an American in the 21st century.
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Interview: Dan Calhoun
Author Dan Calhoun grew up in Florida. He earned his MFA from Wichita State, Kansas and recently completed his PhD at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, LA where he teaches English. A great interview with Dan on authorship and books, the role of the writer in society, early reading and writing experiences, and on influential authors and their books.
LRP: How do you find or make time to write?
Dan Calhoun: Luckily, I attended an MFA program while writing Safe Sex. A lot of people criticize MFA’s but I had a good experience and I worked with some great faculty. I had three years to write and revise and I’ll always be grateful for that time.
LRP: What do you like to read in your free time?
Dan Calhoun: I’d love free time! Right now I’m preparing for comprehensive exams (I’m a PhD candidate) and I have to say I enjoy having a reading list. I’m getting acquainted with a lot of classic works I’ve overlooked.
On Writing as Part of Daily Life
LRP: When do you write? Do you have a routine?
Dan Calhoun: Honestly, I don’t have a set routine. Sometimes I write during the day, sometimes at night. When working on something, I try to write every day for at least two hours. I’ve found that not writing for a few days messes up the creative flow.
LRP: How do you begin a writing project?
Dan Calhoun: Usually, a character pops in my head and I think about the character for a while. I try not to over think plot and let that come naturally when writing. Usually, I ask myself questions about the character. Who are they? What makes them interesting? Where in their life should I begin telling their story?
LRP: Do you keep notebooks? Use special paper?
Dan Calhoun: No. I rarely write in longhand since it makes my hand ache after about five minutes. All notes about the characters I keep in my head unless something pops in my head late at night and I want to jot down a sentence to trigger my memory the next day.
LRP: Do you listen to music when you write?
Dan Calhoun: No, but I sometimes put on trash tv for background noise. I think music would distract me too much. Oddly enough, listening to people argue helps me with dialogue and reminds me to avoid “literary” speech.
LRP: Do you share your writing while you are still writing or wait until you have a draft?
Dan Calhoun: I like to keep my writing under wraps until I have a draft. I’m afraid off talking about a piece before it’s complete. I have a fear that if I talk too much about it, I’ll exhaust my creativity and blank out when it comes time to sit down and write.
LRP: What about ideas for books? Do they percolate for years before you write, or do you work it out as your write?
Dan Calhoun: Weirdly enough, the big project I’m working on involves old territory but in a different way. I feel like I’m ready to write about what I had wanted to write about when I was 17. Other than that I don’t dwell on stories for a long time. In some ways, I have creative ADD. I’ve talked to a few writer friends who have worked on stories for years and I can’t imagine having the dedication to work on a story for years.
LRP: What book or chapter of a book are you most proud of writing?
Dan Calhoun: The first chapter of the book I’m currently writing felt like a stylistic breakthrough so I’m pretty amped. Another piece is the story “Beginning to See the Light” from my book Safe Sex. It captured a lot of emotions I had about being gay and lonely in Kansas and, honestly, re-reading the story years later feels like reading a journal entry but I’m glad other people can read it and maybe empathize with that feeling of not knowing how you fit in.
LRP: What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?
Dan Calhoun: To be honest, I don’t think I can say it any better than Joan Didion so I’ll quote her, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Writing helps me make sense of my world and reading helps me make sense of other people’s worlds.
LRP: If you could express one thought to all your readers what would it be?
Dan Calhoun: I’ve found that I enjoy writing about difficult people and I’d like readers to understand that difficult, or jerks, have depth and are struggling just as much as nice people.
On Authors and their Books
LRP: Do you have a favorite author?
Dan Calhoun: Not sure I can pick one. Some favorites: Rachel Kushner, Peter Nadas, Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin and Jean Rhys.
LRP: Is there one author who has influenced your writing more than any others?
Dan Calhoun: When I was 18, Elfriede Jelinek blew my mind. She was very extreme, merciless and reading her books felt like stumbling onto something illegal. When I was 25, I read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamerthrowers and it connected with me a lot. I felt the restlessness of Reno, the protagonist and I loved how Kushner used the past to comment on the present. Right now, Peter Nadas’ Parallel Stories is having an influence on my work. He writes very candidly about sex, some readers are very resistant and I understand why, but I think his focus on the body and sex is moving. In the novel, he focuses on various totalitarian regimes that kept 20th century Europe in a chokehold. These regimes annihilated bodies without second thought so contrasting this brutality with a love of the body creates something beautiful.
LRP: Do you think the relationships between authors and readers are changing?
Dan Calhoun: Probably. Personally, the only relationship a reader should have with a writer should involve the book in hand. I don’t really want to know Rachel Kushner’s favorite meal or Peter Nadas’ favorite movie.
On the Role of the Writer in Society
LRP: What does it mean to be a writer in troubled times?
Dan Calhoun: We have a romanticized view of a writer working in troubled times. I don’t want to work under horrible conditions imposed by a rouge government because it destroys the soul and creativity. I’d rather live in a culture that ignores writers than a culture that persecutes them.
LRP: If you wrote a book about the future — the way you imagine it will be — what kind of book would you write?
Dan Calhoun: As a gay man, I don’t take anything for granted. All the freedom America affords me is a hiccup in history. So I imagine the future is probably grim.
On Early Writing
LRP: What are your earliest memories of words? What are your earliest memories of writing?
Dan Calhoun: When I was a kid, I used to draw pictures and write a sentence or two underneath the picture. I remember writing a few page length “books” about my dog, Molly.
LRP: Do you remember your first books?
Dan Calhoun: I used to collect Goosebumps books for the cover pictures. I think the first book I really loved was Wayside School is Falling Down. I read it multiple times and wished I attended that school instead of the one I was forced to attend each day.
LRP: What do you like about reading? / What do you like about reading?
Dan Calhoun: Reading is the closest a person can get to entering the mind of another person. I love reading books written by people of different backgrounds because I appreciate their perspective.
LRP: What did you dislike about reading?
Dan Calhoun: I really hate when a novel has a random, super long chapter. Like the first two chapters are ten pages and then the third chapter is 50 pages. Something about this annoys me. It’s petty I know.
LRP: What does your family think of your writing?
Dan Calhoun: E.M. Forrester once talked about Andre Gide’s writing and said he’s lucky that he doesn’t have a mother to read his work. Well, I do have a mother and I’d rather not think about her reaction to my work while I’m writing. My parents have always supported my writing and my reading even if they didn’t understand it and I very much appreciate that.