[13 October 2009]
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.
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.