An Interview with Dan Chaon
Dan Chaonís novel Await Your Reply is my favorite book of fall 2009. And thatís saying a lot.†The number of major authors with new books out is overwhelming.†Iíll save you time right now by suggesting you move Await Your Reply to the very top of your to-be-read pile. His novel is beautifully written but also has a compelling plot. Itís hard to find a combination of both in literary fiction, and Dan Chaon expertly provides an entertaining but literary read.†
Heís no stranger to the literary spotlight.†Dan Chaon is also the author of Among the Missing, a finalist for the National Book Award, and You Remind Me of Me, which was widely regarded as one of the best books of the year by many major newspapers.†
I had a phone conversation recently with Dan, and the following interview is the result.
The idea of identity is brought up over and over again throughout the novel. Did you start the novel knowing that you wanted to explore this theme or did it stem from characters you had already created?
I think it really started with the imagery of the book and a desire to sort of engage with not only the imagery but sort of the world of the suspense thriller that I really liked as a kid and had recently found myself going back to. I had these images and I thought, ďOh, these all feel like they are images of a Hitchcock movie.Ē I knew that was the world I wanted the book to take place (in). The identity theft started out as a McGuffin more than anything else. A McGuffin is a plot device thatís used to move the plot forward but itís not really the real focus. In a lot of Hitchcock movies there is some reason the person is being chased but it doesnít matter. It really started as hereís the reason these things are all connected, but of course, the more I worked with it, the more it became entwined with the themes of the book. The hard thing about writing about identity theft and the internet was the book was written over a 3 or 4 year period and a lot changed over that time. I didnít want it to be a historical piece.
Identity theft is the thing that drives the plot forward, but itís not something that I felt like I could do a lot of description of. I feel the descriptions of identity theft and the process are treated with kid gloves because I didnít want it to take over the book. A lot of the stuff I was writing about by the time it was in readersí hands was kind of old news. Thatís the nature of the internet. Thatís why I think itís difficult for novelists to write about the internet.
What sort of research did you have to do on identity theft for the novel?
I honestly didnít do a whole lot. I think what I was interested in was the psychology of theft. I did read a lot of articles that were particularly about hackers and about some of the hacking/trollgroups that are famous. I read some stuff about those guys and women. Most of it was really made up. I was also sort of afraid of using specific things. What if a hacker reads this and gets angry?!
I think they took that term, ďthe ruined lifestyle,Ē from a specific website where someone was probably talking about it. To me thatís sort of the key to understanding what was going on. That urge for anarchy. Iím sure other people have those moments where they feel like, ďOh Iíd like to throw everything away and burn the world down.Ē Of course, most of us donít live that dream.
Iím interested in the structure of the book. Since this is a literary thriller, and you weave together three different story-lines, how do you go about structuring the plot? Do you have an outline from the first time you sit down to write the novel?
With the first draft, I had only really the bare outlines of what the chapters looked like. I knew it was going to be in triplets. What I originally planned was 30 chapters with Ryan, Lucy, Miles, Ryan, Lucy, Miles and an omniscient chapter. That was basically all I had. Sometimes I would leave a chapter blank because I didnít know what went there. I guess one of the reasons that the books has effectively fooled a lot of people, which Iím glad about, is because it effectively fooled me too. I was really surprised as I went through the first draft by the things that I discovered. As I went back and rewrote I had to adjust a lot of things to make it work. The first draft was really fun because a lot of it was about discovering these deceptions along the way along with the characters. The big reveal in the last couple of chapters didnít come to me until pretty late, and it required a lot of re-writing.
It was by writing about these characters and getting to know them that you came up with that plot?
Yeah, writing without an outline can be really scary, but itís alsoÖ thereís a little bit of an adrenaline rush that comes with it that I think will lead you to places you might not have gone before. I think if I had written an outline of this book, I would have been afraid of the material because I would have thought it was too corny. Because, on paper, if you write this happens and this happens, it sounds like a bad TV movie. I didnít want it to read like a bad TV movie! I think one of the things about contemporary writers and readers is that weíre so inundated with narrative and we grow up with so many forms of narratives that weíre kind of afraid it. Everyone thinks itís corny, itís been done before, and of course it has been done before, and I think you just have to get over that. I have to let my self-conscious trick me into doing that. Iím also always super aware of people in my family who are readers, who are not readers necessarily of literary books. I want to be sure Iím also entertaining them. With my short story collections a lot of time I wasnít. I was writing for a very specific audience.
So you were attempting to expand your audience?
I donít really think of audience exactly. I was thinking of attempting to expand the world I write about in a way. This is something that Iíve said before. I think a lot of times youíre writing for other writers, and particularly other books that youíve loved. I was thinking about all of these books I loved as a kid and why I loved them, and what about them was powerful enough that they lingered for the rest of my life. That was the atmosphere I was writing to. In some ways you could say the book is a love letter to people like Shirley Jackson and Peter Straub and Stephen King. I was one of those people who went to the library and got a stack of books and went through them in about a week. My first love was that genre. It really stuck with me in a way. Even the stories, which are not recognizably genre stories, still have a genre aftertaste.
You say in the acknowledgements that your book was influenced by many writers including Lovecraft, Nabokov and Shirley Jackson. Would you say this is the first book youíve written that pays direct homage to some of your favorite writers?
I think that one of the big things that has influenced this book in this middle part of my career was working on a story for that Michael Chabon issue of McSweeneyís, The McSweeneys Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. I did a story for that that was kind of like a horror story, but it was also a story that was about all the things I had been concerned about in my other fiction. I think writing that moved me in a certain direction, but at the same time I thinkÖ Itís funny because years after I was a fan in high school, I eventually met Peter Straub. One of the things he told me was he thought the stories in Among the Missing were ghost stories. I think heís right in a lot of ways. They arenít supernatural stories, but they certainly have ghosts along the edges of them.
Whatís more difficult, writing a novel or a short-story?
I donít know. I think for me itís rare to have a story come out in one draft. Itís rare for it to come out in five drafts. Sometimes people will say well how long did you take you to write that story? If I answer honestly, ďWell, probably about 5-7 years.Ē In some ways, the type of narrative pressure that a novel exerts makes it a little bit easier to write. Itís sort of like at a certain point it begins to roll on its own. Where a short story always feels like itís waiting for you to do all the work. A novel starts to do the work for you at a certain point. At the same time, I think both of my novels are very much short-story writer novels. They are informed by my being a short-story writer, and they are informed by my understanding of the short-story as a form. The way they fit together, the way the chapters are built, is very much the way short-stories are built. There are certain kinds of novels I read and I think I donít even know how you would do that. Especially these big sweeping novels with long themes and big chunks of historical exposition.
You like to write shorter novels then?
I guess I donít think they are that short. Compared to that epic thing, but I think that thereís a point at which for me itís hard to sustain a really kind of deep exploration of character for that amount of lengthÖ So, I guess maybe thatís why I tend to gravitate towards novels that have multiple points-of-view and multiple characters. Honestly, itís hard for me to sustain interest in a lot of novels that have a single point-of-view. Unless itís sort of a crazy person. Iím not saying as a reader itís hard for me, but, as a writer, I think it would be hard for me to sustain a single point of view. Maybe Iím ADD or something.
Are you more interested in working with several characters?
It honestly does have to do with this feeling of being trapped with a character. I feel like I guess maybe Iíve yet to find a single person that I want to be with for that long.
Isnít it thought that writing from one person is the easiest book to write?
I guess so. Thereís the assumption in a lot of places that the single point of view is the stand-in for the writer. That is something that would make me uncomfortable as well. One of the reasons short stories appeal to me is because I could be a lot of people. It was sort of less likely that people would identity the characters as autobiographical.
One of your characters, Lydia, says to another character, Miles ďWe donít value connection.Ē Has the age of the internet, twitter, etc made us less connected when it comes to personal relationships with other people?
I think if youíre somebody like Lydia you can make that argument that thatís true. Itís not true for me in my own life. I think one of the things about writing this book was, in some ways, in order to get the characters to do what they needed to do they had to be the kind of people who didnít have strong connections to family or they didnít have strong friendships, because those are things that ground us in this world. In some ways itís weird to me that the novel has this very conservative moral quality, which is by example, I guess. Itís really placing a huge amount of value on family and home and these long-term connections that are almost like Norman Rockwell. I guess in some ways the novel suggests that without those you begin to lose yourself. Somebody pointed out to me that in a story that I wrote in Among The Missing thereís a line where someone says, ďif no one knows you then you are no one,Ē someone pointed out that would in fact be a good epigraph for Await Your Reply.
You were subconsciously thinking about your future novel without realizing it!
For me, thereís this weird little thread that runs through stuff. You donít necessarily realize you're obsessed with something until youíve written about it in fifteen ways. Identity. Also the idea of what makes somebody who they are. What creates a human personality and whether thereís fate involved or not. I guess fate is a big issue for me, how much control you have over how things turn out.
Invention and stories are an important part of this book for the characters. All of the characters in the book are trying to be someone else. It seemed to me like people felt more authentic in their made-up identities. Their old selves become ghosts in a way. Miles at one point mentions feeling less real than his missing twin brother when he sees a photograph of him. And you say at one point ďIn one life, there was a city you were on your way to. In another, it was just a place youíd invented.Ē
Itís a hard question to answer. I guess in some ways Iím really fascinated by the process of invention. Some of the ways people create a sense of identity has a lot in common with the way, as writers, we create a character. Iíve been reading a lot of stuff recently about memory. Itís really interesting. The stuff we think about as memory, a lot of it is really invention as well as memory. At the same time, I think a lot of this stuff comes from the particular struggles or the particular issues that have emerged in my own life. First of all, being adopted really affected my concept of how identity works and how fate holds a place in who you happen to become. At the same time, I was very different from my adopted family. I grew up in a very rural area, most people were poor, most people hadnít gone to college. I ended up going to Northwestern, which is full of pretty well-to-do polished kids, and eventually became a college professor at a liberal arts college. There were these identity transformations I went through in my life.
The book seems cinematic. What influenced you? Did Lost influence this at all?
I wish I had seen season 5 before I wrote the novel because it might have helped me. Sometimes the way that the plot began to fit together in LOST, and the way that structurally they used flashbacks and flash forwards was really intriguing to me. I think I found that really useful as an inspiration in the writing of this book. I guess because thereís a lot of Hitchcock in the book, I guess part of me felt like I was writing a kind of Hitchcock movie. That stuff has a very big part in my imagination, as does horror, really. Iím a huge and sort of indiscriminate consumer of horror. I rushed out to see Final Destination 3D the weekend it came out. Particularly when I was putting it together in the early stages I was really aware that the imagery and the threads were really drawing on the mood of Hitchcock and horror and I donít know what genre you would call Lost at this point; supernatural mystery letís say. Even though there isnít anything particularly supernatural, if you believe everything Hayden says it is.
What writers are inspiring you currently? (Not from when you were a kid)
I guess I have a broad range of people that I am drawn to. In some ways, one of my favorite contemporary novelists and short story writers is Joyce Carol Oates, because she does so many things and something about the intensity with which she writers. Like everybody, Alice Munro. I really admire some of the people doing genre-bending. Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Alan Deniro, who are really challenging the concept of what genre means in interesting ways. At the same time, I also like fairly experimental people like David Mitchell and David Markson, where the focus is on the language. Iím right now reading Peter Straubís new novel. I just finished the book by Victor Laball and loved it, Big Machine. The new Lydia Peele short-story collection. Iím dying to read the new Lorrie Moore and Iím really excited about that. I guess I have a pretty broad reading palette. Iím open to the possibility that anything can be good. I tend to consume the books in the same way that I consume food, which is that I love a gourmet meal, but I also love beef jerky.