Dana Cann in the author of a novel, Ghosts of Bergen County (Tin House Books). His short stories have been published in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, Barrelhouse, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Florida Review, and Blackbird, among other journals. He’s received fellowships from the Maryland State Arts Council, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Dana earned his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where he also teaches fiction workshops at The Writer’s Center. He can be found online at www.danacann.com.
In Ghosts of Bergen County, a New Jersey couple confront grief amid addictions and the companionship of a mysterious girl. NPR says, “Ghosts of Bergen County is a tough, compassionate book by a writer with a keen sense of what makes us human, and what makes us, at times, wish we weren’t. As a novel, it’s excellent; as a meditation on grief, it’s stunningly perceptive.”
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Ghosts of Bergen County. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially a first novel—and especially a first novel that’s found such a nice publisher and been so warmly received. The path is seldom a linear trajectory.
Dana Cann: Thanks, Curtis! I’m a 55-year-old debut novelist; the path to publishing this book definitely wasn’t linear. I didn’t start writing fiction in a serious way until I turned thirty. After a dozen years of story writing, I tackled a novel but was unable to land an agent. That book was flawed—the novel I needed to write to learn how to write a novel. The manuscript never found a home. I discuss it in greater detail here. Then I tackled a new novel, Ghosts of Bergen County. I’m a slow writer who has a family and a full-time job. It took about 8 years to write this book. I completed the first draft in 2012, and embarked on a new search for an agent. I got a lot of interest, but no one would take it on. The last agent to reject it—someone I really wanted to work with—said the ending was a problem and they couldn’t see a way to make it work. I pulled the book back and spent the next year reworking the ending. Then I embarked on a new agent search, and found Mark Falkin out of Austin, Texas. He totally got the book and wanted to work with me. He wrote a strong pitch, and we wound up at Tin House, which was remarkable for me. All these years I’d been sending Tin House (the literary magazine) my short stories and never got any interest. So I was surprised and beyond pleased that they wanted my novel.
CS: Can you trace the book back to its origin? An image or scene or conversation that struck you and made you want to go deeper? In the end, what survived of that initial seed?
DC: I’m blessed with vivid dreams, and I woke one morning having dreamed that a friend and I had used heroin, shoplifted in a mall, and were being chased around by store security. It was such an inexplicable and memorable dream. It seemed important, and I felt compelled to explore it. The scene based on that dream is in the novel, about a quarter of the way through.
CS: Your bio features short story credits from some very fine journals. Did you start by considering yourself primarily a story person—or was the desire to write a novel always there? Have you found any challenges in shifting gears between writing shorter and longer pieces?
DC: When I started writing fiction I wrote short stories. Period. I remember attending a short story workshop early in my apprenticeship and talking with another student, who’d completed his MFA. His thesis was a novel, and I remember marveling at what an accomplishment that was, even if the novel was never published. Years later, I would complete an MA in writing, and I was still writing short stories exclusively. Once I was done with the program, I felt free to explore longer forms. I’ve written only a few short stories over the past ten years. I’ve really taken to writing novels.
CS: Much of Ghosts of Bergen County addresses how we handle (and mishandle) grief. What about this current drew you? In times of grief, we sometimes find solace in those who share it—and at other times, the pain of reliving it forces us away from those who might help us the most. Did you see this dynamic at play in the lives of Gil and Mary Beth?
DC: Grief is universal, something we all experience sooner or later. I recently visited a book club, where one of the members made an insightful observation based on her own experience with grief shared with her husband: Gil and Mary Beth grieve separately, in very different ways. Gil throws himself into his work and then, with the help of an old friend, finds solace through drugs, while Mary Beth grieves (and suffers) alone, numbed by high doses of anti-depressants. But the novel’s not nearly as bleak as that might sound. It’s about grief, sure, but it’s really about overcoming grief and the arduous path to healing.
CS: The novel is set in 2007, on the brink of the financial crisis. I know you’re involved with the world of finance—what about this particular moment made you want to use it as a backdrop for this story? What extra elements did it bring to play in the lives of the main characters?
DC: My protagonist, Gil Ferko, works for a private equity firm in Manhattan. 2007 was interesting because it was the height of the bubble. We often hear about the housing bubble that burst and brought on the recession in 2008 and 2009, but everything—from corporations to commodities—had become overvalued in 2007. Strange things became apparent to me that summer: values continued to soar, but banks stopped lending. Bubbles form because of greed. There’s a theme running through the book about “collective burden,” which relates explicitly, in the context of the novel, to the ghost element and how those haunted share complicity for the dead through an aggregate, internalized guilt. Implicitly, though, collective burden could also apply to the private-equity kings and investment bankers who whip markets into such a frothy state that bubbles form and then pop and bring us all down, whether we play their games or not.
CS: The writing is beautiful and lyrical—a style that’s decidedly literary. Then there are the book’s haunting, supernatural elements—perhaps real, perhaps embodiments and projections of grief—either way, you’re still stepping into territory not usually claimed by literary novels. It’s a fine line, I’m sure—and I’m wondering how difficult was it? When did the decision to go this route hit you? Was it there from the beginning? Or did it arise as you came to explore the suffering of these people?
DC: This is interesting because I can’t actually remember how the ghost element became central to the novel. Yet it always was. I know this because the oldest file on my hard drive that includes my earliest foray into the world that would become this novel was named “Ghosts.” I’m not sure if the ghosts I was imagining at the time were literal or figurative. In Ghosts of Bergen County they’re both.
CS: What’s next?
DC: I’m writing a new novel set fifty years in the future about a Christian reality TV star who loses his faith amid the collapse of America. I’m early in the process, though. Don’t hold your breath to read it.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarker, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.