Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Read this Book: Await Your Reply

Dan Chaon is a genius. No, really, I mean it. I was so knocked out by his stories Among the Missing, that I carried the collection with me everywhere for weeks, and when I read his first novel, You Remind Me of Me, I kept wishing I had a better adjective for it than superb. Await Your Reply interconnects three different story lines in ways you can't imagine, unrevealed until the last taut, disturbing and incredibly powerful pages.

Dan's also got one hilarious sense of the absurd and he's the first person I think of when I see a link about hideous sweaters or freak food from the fifties. Thank you, Dan for letting me annoy you with all these questions.

In Await Your Reply, you juggle three different story lines—Ryan who is running identity theft scams alongside his father, Miles who is struggling to find his vanished brother, and a young girl Lucy, who is traveling with a man she begins to think she doesn't know at all. When the stories finally connect, the effect is shattering. How on earth did you handle this juggling act in the writing? Did you map each story out separately and then figure out how to thread the together? Do you outline? What’s your writing process like?

I tend to write in very small pieces—I still work like a short story writer, I think, because the chapter is my main unit of construction. At early stages I tend to focus on the paragraph. On jots in a notebook. The book began with sketchy pieces that eventually became chapters 1, 2 and 3. Images: the hand in the ice cooler, the motel on the edge of a dried up lake, the guy driving his car all night, passing into the arctic circle. My imagination tends to accumulate around such little fragments, building forward and backward and outward. I put together a novel the way coral makes a reef. It’s not always pretty.

Once I established the basic through-lines for the book, I put together a very abstract outline. I imagined it as three groups of 10: Ryan-Lucy-Miles, Ryan-Lucy-Miles, Ryan-Lucy-Miles,Omniscient narrator. 30 chapters in total. This gave me a framework to work with, and I would end each character-based chapter with a cliffhanger so I would have a “push” when I got back to the individual thread. I thought of the “omniscient narrator” sections as place-holders that would allow me to take stock and explain the book to myself.

This structure didn't end up exact, but it more or less holds true. I actually wrote the book more or less as it appears, in alternating chapters. Of course, there was a lot of revision as I discovered new things about the characters and situation. But part of the fun was uncovering the connections as I went along. The stories didn't come together in the way I originally thought they would: that was a surprise for me as well.

As the stories in Await Your Reply came together, it all began to feel fated to me—as if none of these characters really had any choice or chance (even though they certainly could have done a wide variety of other things). It was almost like film noir on the page. Do you believe in fate?

That’s a hard question, and maybe it’s the “big” question of my life. Do I believe in fate? I feel like a lot of my work is torn between romantic humanism and logical determinism and straight-up nihilism, and I never seem to be able to make up my mind.

I was adopted, and I think that has always contributed to my thinking on the subject. I grew up knowing that my life was an accident, knowing that I could have had any number of possible lives, or none at all. Of course, everybody feels this way to some extent, but it feels more immediate when you begin life as an infant who is “chosen” by a particular couple. Why them?What if it was someone else? What would my life be like? And of course I grew up just as Roe v. Wade was giving pregnant teen girls additional options, so I couldn't help but think that my very existence was an oddity of a certain period of American history.

But of course everything is random. I just so happened to go to Northwestern University, where I met my wife, and circumstances conspired so that we would fall in love and get married and have our kids, and so on. Still, when I think back on those events, I can’t help but imagine that it was meant to be.

For the characters in Await Your Reply, the self is a kind of Ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail. While they are busy trying to reinvent themselves, their old identities are following along behind. But I’d like to think that at least one or two of them will be okay, and that not all of them are purely victims of fate.

You began as an acclaimed short story writer. What made you want to move onto novels and was this a difficult incarnation?

I moved into the novel form kicking and complaining. When I sold Among the Missing to Ballatine, I was contractually obligated to produce a novel as my next book. So I didn't exactly choose the form, and I think that I bring a certain “short story” sensibility with me even as it looks like I’ll be working with the novel form for at least a while longer.

The thing that I like about short stories is the way that the narrative is edged all around with shadow, you’re dealing with one single incident and the territory outside of that is unknown--in the way that old maps were drawn, before the world was round.

In many ways, I prefer the “slice of life” way of thinking about the world; I've never been good at trying to encapsulate or summarize or offer up big philosophical overviews. Yet, at the same time, I’ve gained an appreciation for the kind of expanded canvas that a novel can offer.

Ultimately, it seems to me that these two narrative forms, novels and short stories, can interact with one another in interesting ways. I’ve been working on short stories which reconnect with characters from You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, while at the same time I’m thinking about short stories that I’ve been working on as potentially parts of a novel.

It reminds me of that old Sesame Street cartoon that I loved when I was a kid:

Yeah, I still think that’s profound. It still makes me a little weepy.

Your books are dark, but I also want to mention how hilariously funny you are and how you seem to have a huge interest in the weirdest,, funniest things in the world—i.e. strange posed photos of people from the fifties, strange food sites. So are you laughing in the darkness or are you a genuinely happy soul?

A genuinely happy soul? Gee, Caroline, that’s a tall order—and I probably wouldn't make the cut. I wouldn't describe myself as “light-hearted.”

But I do like to laugh, and even more I like to make other people laugh. But it depends on your sense of humor, I guess. The two of us, you and I, have a similar funny bone, I think—a little dark and a little campy. We’ve shared terrifyingly hilarious magazine ads from the twentieth century, and awful cookbooks, and so forth. And I imagine that you probably get the dry jokes that are peppered around in my work, which I often secretly chortle over. Miles, I think, is often endearingly humorous. I love the scene with him in the bar with his friend, and his big sex scene sent me into fits of giggles. And I thought Ryan’s songwriting was awesome. And I enjoyed Hayden’s mean, stand-up comedian observations.

In short, I think there are a lot of moments of levity in all my books, but it seems like most readers focus on the “dark” aspects. In fact, one reader review took me to task for my utter humorlessness, and I felt very guilty. Do I just think that I’m funny, when I’m actually not?

I tell myself that it’s probably an acquired taste—a peculiar sort of laughter. I’m not trying to convince anyone, but I’m not trying to apologize, either. Sometimes I feel like the absolute best effect in books is the moment that makes you laugh and feel like crying at the same time.Lorrie Moore is a master of that; so is George Saunders. So was my late wife, Sheila Schwartz.

My own sense of humor owes a lot to Sheila. Sheila died of Ovarian Cancer in November, 2008,after an eight year struggle with the disease, and that was as terrible as it sounds. But at the same time we both learned how to joke about the situation. Sheila was the funniest person I have ever known. She had a spine of steel and a heart of gold, and it was that weird combination—brutal irony mixed with compassion and empathy for people’s foibles—that made her such a great observer. Such a great writer.

Here is one of the essays that Sheila wrote during her illness, called “Three Cancer Patients Walk Into A Bar.” I think is horrifying and hilarious and terribly, terribly heartbreaking, all in equal measure.

The reviews have been absolutely phenomenal for this book. Do you ever read your reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads ( the from-the-masses reviews?) Have you ever gotten a bad review and if so how do you deal with it? Do you take it to heart or just laugh and go make yourself a sandwich?

It’s foolish, but I read everything. I have been warned against it, but ultimately I am really curious to know what readers have to say. It matters to me.

Of course, sometimes the people that write reviews for Amazon or Goodreads or whatever are idiots, but that’s actually pretty rare. Most of the time, if someone cares enough to bother to write their response to your book, they’ve usually spent as much time thinking about it as the average newspaper reviewer. And—realistically—those online reviews are likely to reach more readers than any newspaper ever will.

Some of the positive reviews on various social networks have been incredibly heartening and inspiring. And some of the negative reviews have hurt pretty bad, especially when I can see their point-- you’re right, I suck-- to the extent that I actually wish that I could give those people their money back, or reimburse them for the time they spent reading, or erase the memory of having read my book from their mind.

My wife, Sheila, had a wise thought about this. “You’re not writing for people who don’t like your books,” she said. “You’re writing for people who love your books.” And that’s the most comforting advice I’ve ever received.

Still, there are the nasty and stupid reviews, where I fantasize about hunting those people down and torturing them in some kind of Saw IV way. Of course, they think they are safely hiding behind some fake Internet identity, but someday I will find them, and they will be sorry. That means you, (Name withheld) from (town withheld), (state withheld.) I think you're a dick.

What question should I be absolutely mortified that I didn't ask you?

You should have asked me how to say my last name. "Chaon” = “Shawn.”

Much easier than it looks. But widely mispronounced.


Tish Cohen said...

Okay Dan had me at hunting down nasty reviewers in teensy tiny type and I now must hunt down his book. Great interview, Caroline. And I hope you're feeling better, cutie!


Randy Sue said...

Thanks for this absolutely wonderful interview, you two.

Meg Waite Clayton said...

Wonderful interview. And I'm glad for the link to "A Cancer Patient Walks into a Bar" too. I'm off to read it now.

Susan said...

I absolutely CANNOT WAIT to read this book! What a great interview. I LOVE Dan and his writing and have been a fan for a long time.

Katharine Weber said...

Great conversation, you two.

Cari said...

A great interview with one of my absolute favorite writers. Thanks for this, Caroline!

Lisa said...

That was great, thanks to both of you. I thought the book was a total knockout, and bits and pieces of it have stuck with me in the weeks since I read it -- always a good sign. I've bookmarked Sheila's piece to read later -- thanks for that too.

Clea Simon said...

Lovely writer - fun to read an interview. Thanks!