“The feeling of being an outsider, and the identity theme, are hardwired into me. If there’s anything really autobiographical in my fiction, it’s that feeling. I always feel that way.”
Dan Chaon’s excellent new novel, Await Your Reply, opens as a boy is rushed to the hospital, his severed hand stuffed in a Styrofoam cooler. It’s a classic Chaon opening: strange, gripping, lyrical—and impossible to stop thinking about. And yet this book, which follows the lives of three strangers through locales as disparate as the prairielands of the Midwest and the desolate expanses of the Arctic Circle, is a genre-bending thriller, a different and more ambitious effort than his three previous works: the novel You Remind Me of Me and the story collections Fitting Ends and Among the Missing. Classic Chaon, in other words, means fiction that is at once instantly recognizable and wholly different than anything else he’s written. Recently, Chaon talked with Rumpus writer Molly Antopol about how he put together his unforgettable new book.
The Rumpus: This book has such a cinematic opening; I felt the same sense of shock and surprise as when I first started You Remind Me of Me—I couldn’t stop seeing that dog attack. Do you see these as full scenes in your head before you start writing?
Dan Chaon: Absolutely. That’s how I work, whether with stories or novels—they start with an image that comes to me in a daydream, and a lot of times I’m walking around with these pictures in my head for awhile before I start writing. I keep a daily journal of whatever weird thought comes into my mind, like when I had a dream I was in North Dakota in the middle of a blizzard and for some reason the Egyptian pyramids were there, too—that I was able to shuffle into the book.
Rumpus: Are you writing toward those images, then?
Chaon: It usually goes like this: I start with an image, then I go from the image toward exploring the situation. Then I write a scene, and from the scene I find the character, from the character I find the larger plot. It’s like deductive reasoning—I start with the smaller stuff and work backward.
Rumpus: Do you keep the smaller stuff?
Chaon: A lot of the time. The danger in writing about a world you don’t know very well is that you can get lost in it, and sometimes I’ll end up with a hundred pages I don’t know what to do with. But I hold onto them, and oftentimes I can cannibalize things later. I like working that way—it feels like things are being discovered more organically, and there’s a sense of discovery and surprise that’s an important part of the process for me. I always worry that knowing too much about a novel or a story early on in writing will close it down—it feels fatalistic in some way.
Rumpus: Who do you show your work to first?
Chaon: My main reader was my wife Sheila, and I haven’t written a lot since she died. I’ve written a few short-shorts since finishing this novel and I’ve played around with another novel I was working on before [Await Your Reply], but it hasn’t felt very organic so I’ve been rethinking it. I think right now I might have to write about how it feels to be a widower. The last book I was working on existed when Sheila was still alive and it doesn’t feel like it’s real anymore. So I’ll have to rethink it.
For me, the process of writing a novel happens mostly in your head before you actually start writing. I wrote Await Your Reply in about nine months, but there were five years in between this and my last book.
Rumpus: What was your process like for those five years?
Chaon: I scribbled a lot of notes on index cards and figured things out in my head. When they’re still in my head, ideas can be revised and discarded very easily without having to commit to them.
Rumpus: Issues around identity feel integral to all of your books. Was that something you were consciously exploring when you first started writing, or did you notice it as a recurring theme after you’d been at it awhile?
Chaon: Identity issues are hardwired into the way I think about character—it’s almost as if I can’t get away from them even if I want to. With this book, I started with these creepy, iconic moments I was interested in writing about. I knew I wanted to play around with genre-esque imagery, and the identity theft stuff came in the middle, when I was figuring out how the characters were connected to those images. The book felt like an attempt to [write] something that wasn’t like a traditional Dan Chaon story.
Rumpus: What’s a “traditional Dan Chaon story?”
Chaon: You know, sad people from the Midwest who are disturbed in some sort of existential way.
Rumpus: Even though you seem to be moving away from quieter, more traditional fiction and embracing plot and suspense, you still always spend just as much time on your characters’ inner lives. How do you strike that balance?
Chaon: Plot was always secondary in my mind, even though it was driving the book. I was focused on individual chapters, and a lot of things happening in the book were character-oriented. Many of the chapters happen completely inside the characters’ heads, and a lot of the more plotted things occur in between the spaces of the book. That’s a trick that I have to be careful of—it can feel gimmicky and lead me to a place where I avoid writing scenes.
Rumpus: Were there places in this book where you felt like you were relying too heavily on white space?
Chaon: Absolutely—one of the things I rarely do is write about sex. I think Lucinda Rosenfeld was right, when she wrote that there could have been more sex between George and Lucy [a high school teacher and the student he runs away with]. But I was worried that, as a college teacher, if I wrote too much about intergenerational sex my students would be creeped out.
Rumpus: A lot of your female characters are attracted to these creepy, enigmatic men.
Chaon: When I was younger I was attracted to people who had that kind of artifice—people who were incredibly polished and had a complex persona that always seemed to be turned on. I was really interested in these kinds of people because I felt so unformed… Writing about women’s sexuality is very scary for me because I’m always afraid I’ll get it wrong. I spent a lot of time talking to Sheila about whether what I wrote seemed accurate to her—and to be honest, a lot of my female characters have more elements of my own sexuality than the male characters.
Rumpus: The thin line between fantasy and reality seems to be the other big theme that runs through all your books—was that a motif you were aware of exploring from the beginning?
Chaon: The kind of person I find myself interested in is a cross between being very emotionally complex and very immature. That’s what I felt I was like when I was younger—when I left Nebraska for college at Northwestern, I’d read an enormous amount but had spent so much time in my own head that I didn’t have extensive social skills. Suddenly I was in this world where I was surrounded by these incredibly polished and wealthy kids who had gone to prep schools, and I felt daunted by them. I don’t think people were aware of how full of anxiety I was… For a long time I felt like I was living in a place where I shouldn’t have been.
That feeling of being an outsider and the identity theme are hardwired into me. If there’s anything really autobiographical in my fiction, it’s that feeling. I guess that’s my “psychological problem.” I always feel that way, even though it seems like I shouldn’t anymore.
Rumpus: You’ve been teaching creative writing for a decade. Are there still technical or craft issues that you struggle with yourself?
Chaon: Plot and scene are still the hardest things for me, though I think they’re the building blocks of what makes a story work. They’re what my students struggle with as well. I don’t think people are naturally inclined toward plot or scene. I’m teaching a class in the spring about the pedagogy of scene, looking at screenplays and fiction and comic books. In a way, teaching it will be a chance for me to talk to myself about it as much as to my students.
Rumpus: I remember taking a screenwriting class and it was understood that by page 15 a big plot point needed to happen. That always made a lot of sense to me in terms of fiction writing, but it felt like an embarrassing thing to admit—it’s almost like it’s taboo to assign those kinds of rules to a story.
Chaon: Right. And that kind of advice often can feel artificial, and it’s something that for a long time I was resistant to. There’s that great Lorrie Moore story “How to Become a Writer,” where her narrator thinks plots are for dead people. For a long time I just wanted to write about interesting images and my characters’ thoughts, even though as a reader I get frustrated when things aren’t happening. You can recognize in your own reading habits what writers are doing that works and what doesn’t. I’m becoming much more aware of that after reading a decade of student stories—like, thank God something’s happening in this story, someone isn’t just wandering around thinking about his girlfriend.
Rumpus: In Await Your Reply, a lot happens plot-wise, but I often felt that with your stories it was more about the fear of bad things happening than those events actually occurring in real-time.
Chaon: I started out as a poet who primarily wanted to write about image and moment. Over the years I’ve been trying to teach myself how to do plot and scene. My first story collection had the most issues with the plotlessness, and when I was writing my second collection I was teaching myself how to make things happen. In some of the stories I really had to force myself to have a real event take place. Otherwise it starts to feel like a gimmick and an avoidance technique, which is really what it is.
Rumpus: I remember reading that passages of You Remind Me of Me were affected by the music you were listening to as you wrote. What were you listening to when you were writing the new novel?
Chaon: A bunch of songs informed the book and helped me understand the mood—and, in some cases, the characters. I know a lot of people don’t listen to music when they’re writing because it distracts them, but for me it’s almost a way to get into the self-hypnotic state that I need to be in to write. Maybe it’s because I grew up during the MTV generation, but to me a perfect song is one I can imagine a music video to, a song that can take you into a dream.
Recently my son and I were driving to Florida and we made up videos for every song we heard. When writing Await Your Reply, certain characters had their own playlists, other characters had their own songs, and when I listened to them it would open up a daydream, as if I were watching them in a movie.
Rumpus: I like that in your acknowledgments you include so many of the writers who were instrumental to your writing. Are there other people, writers or otherwise, who you find yourself writing for?
Chaon: I was always writing for Sheila. She was my first great teacher, my first great reader, and I wanted to make her happy and to not disappoint her. I think we’re always in some ways writing to the teachers who gave us early love. I still think about Toby Wolff when I’m writing—he makes it so rewarding to make him happy, and so getting that “dad” stuff from him was really intense for me. And I still think about the writers I loved when I was a kid. In some ways all of my fiction is like a conversation I’m having with the writers I read when I was first falling in love with books.