Await Your Reply

Dan Chaon Talks About Self-invention

by Jack Patrick Rodgers

13 October 2009


Scandalous Inspirations

Painting of Don Chaon: Lonnie Timmons III/The Plain Dealer

Painting of Don Chaon: Lonnie Timmons III/The Plain Dealer

Since we were talking earlier about genre fiction being considered disreputable, I wanted to ask what else has inspired your novels that would be considered scandalous in literary circles.
I guess most of the stuff that I love might seem scandalous. I really like horror movies; I’ll see practically any horror movie. 

If you want to talk about a weird movie that had an odd inspiring quality for this novel, it would be the first Final Destination. (laughs) It’s all about fate and about how things will come to get you no matter how you try and hide and this interconnectedness of these characters who are doomed. I think I was really interested in that movie. In fact, I will probably take some time out next week from the touring to go see Final Destination 3D.

Have you seen the trailer for that? I love how ridiculous it looks.
I have seen that trailer and it looks awesome. I’m a huge fan of – and I guess this is connected to Lost – Brian K. Vaughan’s series Y: The Last Man. I think it’s a terrific comic. (Note: Vaughan is a writer and producer for Lost in addition to being a comic-book scribe.)

I am probably depressingly influenced by indie rock music, which at my age I probably shouldn’t even be listening to anymore. I do things like make playlists for myself when I’m working that are based on whatever songs I’m obsessing about at the time.

Anything in particular for Await Your Reply?
There were a couple of songs that I listened to an enormous amount over the course of writing this, and one was “A Dream of Her” by Micah P. Hinson. The Okkervil River – a number of their albums. An album by Windmill called Puddle City Racing Lights. The Mountain Goats, which is probably really clear. And certain nerdy indie people will recognize the fact that one of the main characters is named after Mark Kozelek, who’s the lead singer of the Red House Painters and Sun Kill Moon.

One other thing – this is really sad – I was really moved and impressed by Modest Mouse’s video for “Little Motel” and it made a great impact on my thinking about the book. So you can add a link there if you’d like. It’s like the last ten minutes of Six Feet Under. It’s one of those things where it’s really hard not to cry through the whole video.

(laughs) I’m sorry, all this should completely destroy my reputation as a person of substance, but that’s okay.

That’s what I’m here for. Let’s get back to the high-brow questions in this interview then. So much of your writing is concerned with the theme of identity, and in Await Your Reply you examine it through the lens of the Internet and the anonymity it provides. Do you think the Internet is helping to bring people closer together or is it making us even more isolated?
I think it’s a complicated question. I spend an unusually large amount of my time on the Internet, so I can’t really blame it for anything bad that happens to me because it’s one of my few friends. 

But at the same time, having recently raised a couple of teenagers, I know that there’s a lot of changes between the way I grew up – I’m 45 – and the way they grew up – my kids are 17 and 19. A lot of which have to do with not only the access to the world but the sense of moving in multiple identities or avatars and the sense of being a public person in a way that I don’t think I could have handled as a teenager.

They document so much of their lives, and there are creepy people watching them all the time as well. (laughs) I mean, it’s not just their friends who are watching those YouTube videos, I can tell you!  And I think there’s something about that that is markedly different from the ways things used to be. 

At the same time, I’m not that worried about my kids and I’m not that worried about most people. You could say that the dice are loaded in Await Your Reply because the people are lost souls. They don’t have a strong family to fall back on. They don’t have a strong friendship that grounds them in the world. I think my kids have that; I have that. 

You could say the book is unrealistic in that way, because all of the characters are alienated and isolated. Although at the same time, I think those are the people who are most vulnerable and there are a lot of lost souls out there, whether they’re trolling the Internet or walking down your street. They’re there and maybe there are more of them now than ever.

It’s sort of accelerating the problems we already have. In a sense, like any piece of technology.
Yeah, I’m not one of those people who likes to point the finger at new technology as the reason that kids these days are troubled. I think that’s silly.

At the same time, I think the technology we use affects that way we think. It certainly means that things are going to be different for subsequent generations for how they think about their identity and self, in ways both large and small.

Another reoccurring theme in your work is that your protagonists try to explain their lives by describing them as movies or TV shows happening to them. For example, in Await Your Reply there’s a scene where Miles says he wishes his life was a sitcom and that he could be a certain stereotypical character.
Yeah, and he basically describes the TV show Friends. (laughs) Poor Miles. I think that goes along with the themes that I was working with in both novels that have to do with the issue of self-invention and how we conceptualize the self.

For me, growing up in a very small town in Nebraska, one of the ways that I managed to reimagine myself was through movies and books. I mean, that’s not an original idea. Walker Percy did a great job with it 40 years ago in The Moviegoer. But that process of taking on a narrative or fantasizing about a life that you want is so much a part of watching TV or watching a movie or reading a book. It’s all about becoming a different person for a little while. And that’s one of the particular things this book is concerned with.

I suppose everyone does it to some extent.

So you don’t think it’s a more recent trend? You hear so much about how this generation is so media-saturated and we can’t even deal with real life.
You know, I don’t. Think about Madame Bovary, which is about a woman who’s obsessed with romance novels and tries to act them out to her eventual despair. Kafka was constantly referring to American slapstick movies that he loved. Nabokov was a huge film buff and had lots of film references in his work.

I try to be careful about not overloading it and dating things too much. Maybe this is the hipster snob in me, but I’m always afraid that something will lose its cache or will start to mean something else eventually. Do you know what I mean? You could reference something now that seems cool, and then three years from now it will seem totally lame. And so you have to be careful about it.

Await Your Reply and your short story, “Big Me”, both focus on characters who create elaborate fantasy worlds during their childhood that eventually feel more vivid than their actual memories of their youth.  Did you take that at all from your own life?
I didn’t even think of that connection; that’s really interesting. I was that kid to some extent, partially because I was growing up in a town of about 50 people and I was really the only kid my age. So I would spend a lot of time walking around, acting out movies or comic books.

I was also big into role-playing games in junior high and early high school. I guess having a vivid fantasy life was a big part of my childhood. I mean, not to the exaggerated extent of Hayden or the kid in “Big Me”. But I think part of the process of becoming a fiction writer had to do with being a kid like that and not wanting to give up that pleasure.

What are you working on next?  Another novel or maybe another collection of short stories?
I’m actually collaborating with director Eli Roth. We’re doing a movie version of The Stinky Cheese Man.

Are you serious?
No, I’m not. (laughs) I’m just joking.

I thought for a second I was getting this amazing scoop! All the film blogs would be linking to this interview!
I’m sorry!  But you’ve heard that children’s books are the new big property. Get yourself a writer and a director and expand them. I’m actually pathetically excited to see Where the Wild Things Are.

I’ve heard that turned out really well.
I’ve heard that, too. I watched the trailer several times and it looks fantastic.

Right now I’m still between projects. I’ve got a short story collection close to finished, but I need to finish a novel first, so I’m going to work on that next. And I’m in the pre-production stages of a film version of You Remind Me of Me. That’s in the casting stages now, so I’ve been working a little bit with that and it’s been really exciting.

Who’s involved with that project?  Is there a director lined up yet?
It’s produced by Ted Hope and Rosalie Swedlin. The director is a guy named John Hoffman. But right now I’m not allowed to talk about the cast, because it’s still in negotiations. I think it will be cool, though, if it works out. I’ve had experiences with this stuff before and you never know until it’s actually in your neighborhood theater…

Are you writing the screenplay?
John Hoffman wrote the script and is directing as well, but I’ve been talking to him pretty frequently and I’ve been involved in the pre-production stuff. So it’s been nice that they’ve let me participate as much as they have.

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