November 19, 2009
Dan Chaon is enjoying more success than ever with his new novel, “Await Your Reply” (see our coverage here), and we at Three Guys couldn’t be happier about it, because, well, the dude deserves it. Great book, great guy. And for those of you who don’t know how to pronounce his name, it’s pronounced /Shawn./ Last week, JC and I threw some questions at Mr. Chaon, who was so gracious as to field them. The results, the first batch, anyway, are after the jump. Look for a second round with Dan Chaon soon. In the meantime, go out and read Await Your Reply.
JE: Okay, so this is something I’ve been dying to ask you about, given the narrative structure of AYR,which required so much finesse in order not to tip your hand: how did you approach this trio of stories? It has the polished feel of a narrative which has been scrupulously plotted and outlined, and yet I sense there must have been a learning curve, and a lot of discovery along the way, resulting in a lot of reverse engineering, and editing, and shuffling, and re-plotting, and re-allocating of information.
DC: This started out as three separate short stories. I often write groups of stories that are connected by theme and certain narrative tropes, but in this case I had a presentiment that they were somehow part of the same (longer) story.
For most of the first draft, I didn’t know how they were connected. I was just writing forward with each of the three narratives, nervously feeling my way into blank space. A lot of the time during the first draft I was anxious because I thought I might have to throw the book away, and when it started to come together toward the end, I was surprised to discover that a number of the characters weren’t who I thought they were. It’s cool when you can manage to fool yourself.
Of course, you’re absolutely right that the “plot,” as it is now, is a work of reverse engineering–once I figured things out in the first draft, I had to go back and make a lot of the earlier chapters fit into a jiggered timeline, and a reorganized concept of who was who. But it was surprising to me how much was already there, too, as if I had left clues for myself without even knowing.
One of my personal favorite stories that I’ve written is a piece called “Thirteen Windows” (in Fitting Ends, my first collection.) That story came out of an exercise that one of my teachers gave me. She pointed out that I repeatedly wrote scenes in which characters looked out of windows, and she gave me an assignment in which I had to write a story where every single scene featured a window. I think she thought she was going to break me of a bad habit. Ha!
In any case, I think this novel is a little bit like that. Ultimately,a lot of the architecture is not so much “scrupulous,” as it is simply obsessive-compulsive. I run along the same tracks in my mind over and over, and I do the same thing here: versions upon versions of the same idea, which luckily ended up suiting the plot and theme.
JC: You spend a great deal of time dealing with the concept of identity in this novel — not just identity theft, but identity abandonment, as well. One of the great lines is “who would you be if you were not yourself?” which opens a whole boatload of interesting philosophical questions. How did that theme come about in the writing of the book, and what do you make of this identity shell game?
DC: Tonight my younger brother and I happened to be driving through Twinsburg, OH, and I made note of the fact that Twinsburg annually hosts a“Twins Days!” Festival. Twins from all over the country come to celebrate their special connection.
“Ugh,” said my brother. “Twins are creepy.”
And I was silent for a moment. “Hmm,” I said.
“I would never want to have a twin,” my brother said. “I would always be nervous that he would try to kill me. “
I laughed at this–it’s kind of non sequitur, right? But actually there is something serious at the bottom of it, which is the idea that we have that we are unique. But what do we mean when we conceptualize a “self,” a “me?” Why is it so important to believe that a person exists as a single continuous unbroken narrative through time, as an “individual? ” I pointed out to my brother that most of the twins I have known began to distinguish themselves from one another from an early age. By adulthood, even the identical twins that I have known look remarkably different from one another.
We like the idea that the individual self is a snowflake, inimitable, and that having a twin could be somehow unnatural and even dangerous.
But wait! Why shouldn’t you have more than one life, more than one self– why not dozens? hundreds? With the internet, we now have at our fingertips the ability to try out any number of avatars, to play act any number of different personas. And yet we still like to hold on to the idea that there is some essential, true core that exists.
At the end of *Await Your Reply, *one of the main characters thinks: “You could be anyone.” And it might be the ultimate freedom, but it also might be a terrible negation: if you are anyone, then you are also no one.
It strikes me that the central theme in this book is actually quite conservative. The characters are all at loose ends, adrift, and it would be harder for them to transform if they had other people who knew them, who held them in a stable grasp. It occurs to me that we are us because of the people we love–our family, our friends, our community–who hold us to a consistency.
JE: Identity being the major theme of AYR, I’m curious if (or how) the fact that you were adopted has impacted your own sense of identity, and how this might possibly color your fiction.
DC: the simple answer is that adoption has deeply affected my sense of self from a very early age. I remember, for example, a picture book for adopted children that my parents used to read me, which explained that my parents had “chosen” me because I was “special.” And I remember fantasizing about the lives of my biological parents, in a way very similar to the way that Ryan and Lucy fantasize about the Other Lives they want for themselves.
For me, the adoption stuff has continued to complicate my life in a whole variety of ways well into adulthood. I met my biological father when I was in my late twenties, and I’ve had a very close relationship with him and his family ever since. (In fact, my biological half-brother, Jed, who is 24, has been living with me here in Cleveland since my wife died last year–so I have truly, for all intents and purposes, moved into a different life.) At the same time, I have a separate, and complicated, relationship with my adoptive family (my adoptive parents both died in 1996;) and there’s also my biological mother, who I have only spoken to a couple of times, and who has kept my existence a secret from her own family.
Whew. Did that even make any sense??
All that being said, adoption wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I was writing this. More pertinent, I think, was the fact that my wife was gravely ill when I trying to finish the book. Her impending death ultimately colored the emotions of the book a lot. That last chapter, and that Carlyle quote that Hayden uses,and just the general sense of loss and finding oneself alone. The longing for that one person and the certainty that they will disappear.
JC: In your acknowledgements you give a hat tip to a number of writers who have influenced you, including, surprisingly to me, a number of horror and fantasy writers like King, Bloch, Lovecraft. What is it about those genres, or those authors, that you’ve found so influential in you’re own writing.
DC: I’m kind of surprised that you’re surprised, JC. As an avid consumer of fantasy and horror, the connections seem really apparent to me; but of course that’s looking at it from the inside.
On the one hand, I rarely work in a mode that is overtly supernatural, but I feel like a lot of the moods that I’m most attached to–dread, and a sense of uncertainty about reality, and the difficulty and dangers of trust–are all tropes that find their most vivid roots in horror. I’m friendly with the horror writer Peter Straub, and he once told me that he thought that most of my stories struck him as like ghost stories, even if the ghost never appears. I think that’s a good assessment.
In **Await Your Reply**, I found that I was being drawn into a world that was peppered with iconic dark fantasy stuff–evil twins,hypnotists and magicians,mysterious disappearances,past lives and dismemberment.
There are a number of fairly direct citations within the text. The house in Nebraska where Lucy and George stay looks a lot like the house in * Psycho,* for example, and George’s mother has a Hitchcockian quality, though she’s less like Norman Bates’ mom and more like Bruno’s mother from* Strangers on a Train. *Patricia Highsmith’s *Talented Mr. Ripley *stalks around the edges, as does Daphne Du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. To some extent, I conceptualized Lucy as a modernized Du Maurier or Shirley Jackson character.
Miles and Hayden’s relationship draws on all kinds of stuff, from Jekyll and Hyde to Frankenstein to the old 1970’s Thomas Tryon bestseller *The Other, *which features a pair of twins called Niles and Holland. Meanwhile, Peter Straub’s *Ghost Story *features a mysterious woman who appears in the lives of the main characters in various guises, under different names, and Lovecraft’s sense of unspeakable ancient societies and secret worlds underpins a great number of Hayden’s obsessions.
The idea behind this was that the “real” world of the novel would be shot through with a kind of eerie artifice, that real locations would also have the quality of a dream, or a stage set, or a certain deja vu. All the characters are in the process of reimagining themselves, and this is always, it seems to me, an act of confabulation.
I had some fun with this. Hayden, I think, is a true Fortean. He truly does believe in a world full of cryptohistories and conspiracies, asdo his Russian compatriots, who (if you translate the Russian in Chapter 5) are eager to talk about recent breakthroughs in telekinetic research.
But the other characters–Miles, Lucy, Ryan–aren’t so secure about what’s real and what’s not, and I was interested in the way the fantastic intruded in their realist lives.
The “Russian Mobsters” who Ryan encounters in Chapter 14–straight out of central casting–are actually real guys. The conversation Ryan has with them is taken practically verbatim from an encounter I had with a trio of friendly, drunken tourists I met when I was in Las Vegas, and the sense of “threat” comes from the movie cliches that Ryan (and, perhaps, the reader) imposes upon them.
On the other hand, one of the big supposed villains of the novel is a horror movie nerd who freaks out at the sight of real blood and carnage.
In short, I was attracted to the idea that the real and the fantastic would share the same space in the novel, layered upon one another. And–as in all the best ghost stories–we never know how much is just a reflection of the characters’ psychological states.
JE: Okay, everything you just said illustrates one of the reasons why your fiction is great: because there is so much going on beneath the surface, so many ideas, so much intertextuality, and awareness of what came before you, the sum of which could very easily result in work that was convoluted, or heavy-handed, yet your story is so crisp and focused and efficient in its execution, that the effect is a kind of electricity that pulses beneath the work, palpable but invisible—charged, the whole work is charged, like each sentence has the energy of all the sentences which were cut in order to arrive at the one that remains. And yet you’ve stated that you were groping in the early stages of composition. Don’t you get the feeling sometimes that our stories exist somewhere already, fully formed, and that our unconscious mind (or perhaps even something outside ourselves) just leads us to them through a distillation process? Almost like the act of composition—the rough, rough, rough drafts—are just an act of faith? Or am I just too stoned again? Fuck, I think I’m too stoned again. Does that make sense?
DC: Yes, you’re probably too stoned again. But join the club. There’s a big stoner in practically every book I write. I love you guys.
I truly believe in the power of the subconscious. I don’t outline, and I don’t know what is going to happen when I begin a story or a novel. I have images, and characters, and glimmerings of plot, but no real outline.
There is something suicidal about this approach, because it means that you can get to the middle of a book and realize that you have nowhere to go. I’ve had this happen a couple of times, and it is a terrible experience.
But at the same time, I find that I’m not really interested in a narrative in which I already know what is going to happen. The problem with outlining is that it seems to me that the characters become flat, that there’s a kind of determinism at work in which you’re basically reiterating what you already know about the world. The thing I like about fiction is that it offers this chance of discovery.
Have you seen this new TV show, *Flashforward? *It’s not particularly great, but I’m interested in the premise. Basically, there is an Event in which everyone in the world has a Vision of the Future. The big question of the show is whether you can change this vision, or whether is it fated to happen no matter what you do.
To me, that’s my big question. What does free will mean? And that is why I write the way I write. With the hope that the characters will somehow show me the way….that I’ll be able to grope through based on imagery and situation. And I suspect that actually I came to this method based on watching television, rather than on reading novels. I’m embarrassed to say that I probably learned novel structure from the episode arc of shows like **The Soprano*s and *Lost** and *Dexter. *The classic structure of books like *The Great Gatsby *or *To the Lighthouse–*two novels I love–don’t realistically have much influence on how I actually work. * *
As it happens, the next piece that I’m working on might be a television series. I’m working lightly on a possible television pilot about a medical process which allows you to bring the dead back to life, at a cost. It’s sort of ER meets Six Feet Under meets Dead Like Me. The Resurrected are kept in a kind of medical ghetto, in cold storage, where they can be visited by their loved ones. The main character is a guy who tries to commit suicide in the first ep. Only to find that his wealthy wife has had him resurrected…to his dismay.
Ha. Ha. Ha.