Dan Chaon's new novel, Await Your Reply, opens in three stages. The individual storylines could be the beginnings of separate novels, but for the fact that each character — a young man racing through the night toward a hospital to reattach his severed hand, a high school graduate fleeing her small hometown with her high school history professor, and an obsessed man who has traveled to the Arctic Circle to reunite with his long-lost twin — seems to be either running toward or away from something that we don't yet fully understand.
The mysterious scenes unfold in short blocks of prose, and their lack of explanation might confound were they not such perfect little vignettes by themselves. Gradually, deftly, in alternating chapters, Chaon reveals his characters — their complicated, troubled pasts; their uncertain and, we fear, ill-fated quests — jumping backwards and forwards in time. More similarities are revealed: they have traded, or had stolen, their identities and must contend with starting new lives. The more that is revealed, the stranger the novel becomes. And then, about three-fourths of the way through the book, it becomes obvious that these are not distinct, parallel storylines, but three lives edging incrementally toward each other into a tight braid. It's one of the most fascinating narratives we've read in ages.
We've long been admirers of Chaon's use of character and humor in his unique depiction of domestic woe. He's managed to marry this gift with the art of an illusionist storyteller. Await Your Reply is another major work from one of the most consistently interesting American writers around.
We're eager to welcome Dan Chaon to Turnrow, where he'll sign and read from the new book, which is receiving loads of great reviews, from New York to L.A. Prior to his visit, he submitted to a few questions about his craft....
Turnrow Book Co.: We've spent the summer trying to convince people that short stories are the perfect literary form for time-crunched Americans. Why, outside of classrooms and literary circles, do you think short stories are such a tough sell? Who are some of your favorite contemporary practitioners of the form?
Dan Chaon: My younger brother is a truck driver, and he reads a lot — usually audiobooks — when he's on the road. His favorite writers are Zane Grey and Larry McMurtry, but he'll read about anything he can get his hands on, from the epic fantasy novels of Robert Jordan to classics like Slaughterhouse Five. But he doesn't much like short stories. When I gave him my first book, a collection of short stories called Fitting Ends, he read it but had to admit that he didn't much like it. "I wish you would give me an appendix and tell me what happens to the characters after the story is over," he said. "They just sort of stop. Did you call it Fitting Ends as a joke?"
In other words, he likes Plot. And I think a lot of contemporary short stories — mine included — tend to be elusive and mysterious when it comes to endings. That's something I like, personally. But it doesn't satisfy the same itch as novels do, for many readers. They may be shorter, but a lot of times short stories require a lot more of the reader's attention — and participation —than a more straightforward novel does. I think that short stories are popular in the classroom and in literary circles because they often do require the reader to answer some of the unanswered questions themselves, with their own imagination and intuition. I love that, but not everybody does.
Still, my brother liked my second collection, Among the Missing, a little better. There's a story in there about a foul-mouthed parrot that he was particularly taken by. And subsequently — maybe he's getting older, maybe he's humoring me — I've been able to get him to take a look at some short story collections. Last October, I gave him the anthology Poe's Children, edited by Peter Straub, and he was pretty enthusiastic about a lot of those stories.
One contemporary short story writers I particularly admire is Joyce Carol Oates, who I think is one of the great masters of the form. Other contemporary practitioners I recommend: Jean Thompson, whose new book, Do Not Deny Me, is one of my favorites of this year; Aleksandar Hemon, who has an excellent new collection called Love & Obstacles; the strange and wonderful Kelly Link, whose collection Pretty Monsters I like to give as a gift for young adult readers. I have a lot of favorites, because I read a lot of short story collections every year, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Wells Tower, whose first book is Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned a short story collection that knocked my socks off.
TBC: We read that you wrote Await Your Reply in a kind of piecemeal fashion, with bits of inspiration and ideas cobbled together. And yet it seems like a completely realized idea that is told in a bit of patchwork style, jumping around in time and subject. How did you construct it, and did you know that the three storylines would eventually weave together? Also, how do you approach writing a short story versus a novel?
Chaon: The process is not that different for me between short stories and novels. In both, I usually tend to start with images. The descriptions that were at the core of Await Your Reply were there early on: a severed hand in an ice bucket; a lighthouse on the edge of a dried-up lake; a man who hasn't slept for days, driving down an empty highway, an air-freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror, turning in the breeze of the defroster; snow falling on an Egyptian pyramid.
I had the intuition that all of these odd images fit together somehow — the early working title for the book was Sleepwalk, which I guess helped me to put a finger on the mood. (In my mind, that old Santo & Johnny song "Sleepwalk" from the 1960s was playing as these scenes scrolled by.)
My first step was attaching individual characters to these images and the accompanying soundtrack, figuring out who they were and what they were doing and why. Eventually, I began to see how the various sets of characters were connected, but that actually took a long time and a lot of thought.
I think that some people imagine that a book is written like a blueprint for a house, that everything is laid out beforehand and you just add the lumber and drywall of prose. But for me, at least, the process of writing has to involve discovery and surprise. I have to get to know the characters before I know the plot, and I have to have these images — scenes, moods, iconic objects — before I can get to know the characters. At least in the early stages, writing is like forcing myself to have a waking dream.
Ultimately, I do think that I bring a short story writer's sensibility to my novels, in that I tend to work in small pieces — with the chapter as my main unit of construction — so the patchwork quality comes to me naturally.
TBC: You've said that you read a lot of mysteries and fantastical fiction when you were young and impressionable. You can really see that influence in the new novel, more than anything else we've read of yours. Creating suspense, whether it's subtle, character-driven suspense or plot formulas, seems essential to successful fiction. Do you approach a story with the aim of creating suspense or is it something natural that arises from your story and/or characters?
Chaon: There's an old bit of advice — I think it might be from Hemingway?— that says you should always stop writing for the day at a place that leaves the situation or scene unfinished, in a state of anticipation. This is something that is very effective for me as a writer, and as I was working on this book it was particularly useful, because there are three different threads, three stories told round-robin style, so I could leave off of one character in a state of suspense, and then go on to the next one, and it would give me some time to stew about what was going to happen to the previous character. Because I generally don't know what's going to happen as I'm writing, suspense is built into the process. The trick is creating situations which don't lead you to rambling dead ends.
Of course, there were a lot of mis-steps along the way as I was writing, a lot of chapters and subplots and so forth that had to be scrapped or totally re-written. Aren't you glad books don't have deleted scenes like DVDs do these days?
But anyway the plotting was also a little easier with this book because the characters start out in dire situations, so the anxiety was built in from the beginning.
TBC: Your fiction has a distinctive sense of humor. We described it as "cheerful melancholy." It's funny but always just covering up something much darker and uncomfortable. What sort of humor are you drawn to?
Chaon: Bless you for finding the books funny. My books are meant to have some humor in them, but occasionally I'll get a reviewer who will not really see any humor, and I've been accused of being relentlessly bleak. Which I hope I'm not.
I guess I do have a dark sense of humor a lot of the time. I like stuff that has some kind of edge, where the humor can also be a ward against sadness (as in the work of Lorrie Moore) or it can act as a protest against the stupidities and injustices of the world (as in, for example, the work of George Saunders or Flannery O'Connor or Kafka, all of whom can be breathtakingly bleak and completely hilarious at the same time.) Word for word, David Sedaris is one of the funniest writers in America, but I don't think anyone would call him light-hearted.
Chaon: Oh, lots of concerns, but none that are strong enough to get my nose away from that dang computer screen.
I like Facebook because it keeps me in touch with people I might not otherwise talk to as frequently. It's a little like creating your own small town, and you can follow peoples' doings and their daily lives even though they are far away.
I use twitter mostly to keep up with literary news and that sort of thing. Most of the people I follow are booksellers, or book bloggers, or in the business in some way. I don't do a lot of socializing on there. I use it more as a news aggregator — there's nothing better than following a lot of smart people who point you in good directions in this big sea of endless information.
As far as e-books, I can see the advantage of being able to carry a lot of books in a single compact space. It's one of the things that sold me on the iPod. But I still have a strong attachment to the book as an object. I like to hold them and turn the pages, and I like the fact that they still work without having to be charged up. How amazing and magic is that? Entertainment you don't have to plug in!
TBC: Read any good books this summer?
Chaon: Besides the story collections I mentioned above, I've enjoyed a bunch of new novels, including, most recently, Victor LaValle's Big Machine and Peter Rock's My Abandonment. Right now, I'm reading Total Oblivion, More or Less by Alan DeNiro, which is due out in November, and I'm loving it.
A book that came out earlier this year which continues to be on my mind a lot is Lies Will Take You Somewhere, by my late wife, Sheila Schwartz, and not just because we were married, either. I learned nearly everything I know about writing from her, and it's a flat-out brilliant book: dark, funny, and strange in all the right ways.
* We hope to see you at Turnrow on Wednesday, August 26, at 5:30 p.m. If you can't make it, reserve your signed first edition of Await Your Reply.