If Dan Chaon were a filmmaker he’d probably be considered an auteur, someone whose work keeps touching on a list of private obsessions: sudden, unexplainable disappearances; kids who spend their time obsessing over elaborate fantasy worlds and are barely able to comprehend real life; faulty memories; people who are not who they claim to be; suicides; children trying to move on from the deaths of their parents. And above all else, the theme of identity, and people who are haunted by the lives they might have lived, if only things had turned out a little differently.
A typical Chaon character is a loner reeling from a recent personal tragedy, torn between childhood dreams and aimless, disconnected reality, and convinced that solving a mystery from the past will help everything finally make sense.
The filmmaking analogy is apt for another reason. Chaon’s work is greatly interested in the way that people use movies and TV shows to try to make sense of their lives. In the opening chapter of his first novel You Remind Me of Me, the protagonist remembers a childhood incident where he was viciously attacked by a dog as though it were a scene from a film. But unlike so many postmodern writers for whom these references become a dead end, symbolic of a generation’s inability to comprehend anything except through the filter of the media and entertainment, Chaon uses them only to dig deeper into the minds of his characters and to better understand their loneliness.
Chaon continues his streak of outstanding, character-driven stories and edges into thriller territory with his latest novel, Await Your Reply, about three lost souls who slowly realize they’ve put their lives in danger. Lucy is a high-school student who’s run away with her lover, a former teacher, and trusts him when he says he’s waiting to inherit a fortune; Ryan is a teenage slacker who is shocked to learn that his uncle Jay is actually his biological father and a cyber criminal running an identity-theft ring; Miles has spent most of his life searching for his missing twin brother Hayden, a pathological liar able to win friends and impress women while Miles remains alone.
By the end of the novel it will become clear how these people are connected, even if the characters themselves might not realize it. What Chaon is ultimately detailing here is the very modern anomie created by our dependence on technology, reminding us that the Internet can bring out our exhibitionism or allow us to lose ourselves in the total anonymity it provides.
I hope I haven’t made Await Your Reply sound like a dreary slog about self-obsessed introverts, because the truth is that the novel is as involving as a good mystery, moves like a first-rate thriller, and contains a great deal of strange, poetic imagery and insight into the idiosyncrasies of human nature. On a related note, when I recently had the opportunity to interview Dan Chaon I didn’t know what to expect, but I had some vague notion that I was going to be speaking with a “serious” artist (he was a finalist for the National Book Award, after all).
Instead, Chaon turned out to be funny, unpretentious and eager to talk about a wide range of influences from Madame Bovary to Final Destination (seriously). Here’s what he has to say on the pain of being a “genre” writer, whether or not the Internet is corrupting us all, and the children’s book he’d love to adapt into a film (Hollywood, take note).
Await Your Reply is more of a thriller than your previous work. What inspired the novel?
I’ve always had an interest in the thriller genre and in particular, growing up I was a big fan of people like Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson and Peter Straub. And in recent years I’ve become friends with a lot of people who are working in sort of the middle-genre area – people like Kelly Link, Alan Deniro and so forth.
I had an idea that I really wanted to try to do something that played around with my interest in genre while still remaining true to what I had been working with before. That was the original impetus. I guess I started out with images rather than a plot idea, per se.
What images were they?
The one I started out with was the hand in the ice bucket in the first chapter. And the image of that motel on the edge of that dried up lake.
And then I had a weird dream in which I was driving to the Arctic. And that was something of an early impetus, maybe because I had been reading all these things that were about the Arctic. (laughs) I reread At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft – well, I guess that’s set in the Antarctic. And I had just read this book by Kevin Brockmeier that’s also set in the Antarctic.
It struck me that the images and the landscapes all had that this iconic, post-apocalyptic quality to them that felt connected even though I didn’t know how the characters were connected.
You mentioned that you really admire writers who write what’s thought of as “genre” fare. Do you think there’s too much of a tendency in literary circles to divide things into neat genres and to say that one thing is literary and worthwhile and another isn’t?
Yeah, I definitely do. And I don’t think that it’s been particularly beneficial to either group. Especially when I was in college in the ‘80s, there was this really strong emphasis on realism only, and I remember being told in a creative writing class that “we don’t accept genre writing at all.” And that really put me off from writing about stuff that I might have otherwise written about for a long time.
I had a couple of experiences right after Among the Missing came out that really helped me to remember how much I had been influenced by genre. One was that Michael Chabon asked me to contribute to this anthology called McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which was basically so-called literary writers working with pulp material. And writing the story for that really opened up a lot of possibilities for me and changed the direction I was going in.
The other experience was meeting Peter Straub, whom I’ve really admired since I was a kid, and having him tell me that he thought Among the Missing was in some ways a collection of ghost stories or horror stories. And that really got me thinking as well about the ways that definitions of genre are often based on where the book is placed in the store. It’s not so much based on what you’re really writing about.
And obviously, thinking about all the great ghost-story writers and genre writers of the past, which include people like Nabokov and Elizabeth Bowen.
Since this book has a very complex structure that ties together neatly at the end, was it any more difficult to plot or to write? Did it feel less spontaneous to work on than You Remind Me of Me?
Actually, it didn’t. I think I plotted them out in a very similar way, where I did a kind of frame for both novels. I knew how many chapters were there and I knew the general architecture of the book, but I didn’t know, in either case, what was going to happen when I was writing the first draft.
So when I finished the first draft of Await Your Reply, obviously I had to go back and do a lot of revisions to make the plot elements fit. But in a lot of ways the early conception of it was as much a surprise to me as it was maybe to the reader. A lot of these things just appeared as I went along, or maybe a better term was that they were discovered as I went along.
I read in another interview that you’re a big fan of the TV show Lost. Is that still the case? It’s also interesting that both of your novels seem to resemble Lost somewhat on a structural level.
Personally, I loved the most recent season of Lost to death. There are some similarities, I guess, between them, particularly in the way that it’s working with time and hidden interconnections between people. And also in the way that the character plotting and the suspense plotting have been dovetailing in that show. That was something that I think I learned a lot from and really admired.
I guess I wasn’t prepared for the direction that the most recent season took, but I really liked it a lot. I’m really excited to see what happens and see if they can pull off the whole thing. (laughs) I wish that I could include some of the swoosh sound effects in my books so you could know that you were switching from one time period to another.