Please welcome author Dan Chaon and his discussion with staff interviewer Carol Reid on his new novel, Awaiting Your Reply!
“But imagine yourself in pieces.
Imagine all the people who have known you only for a year or a month or a single encounter, imagine those people in a room together trying to assemble a portrait of you, the way an archaeologist puts together the fragments of a ruined façade, or the bones of a caveman. Do you remember the fable of the seven blind men and the elephant?
It’s not that easy, after all, to know what you’re made up of.”
More a novel of mysteries than a mystery novel, Await Your Reply explores the fragile illusion of personal identity, the lucidity of madness and the sticky web of kinship which both drives and destroys the characters’ senses of self.
Miles Cheshire searches for his brilliant, chameleon-like twin brother, Hayden, who years earlier may or may not have been responsible for the house fire which took the lives of their mother and stepfather. Now in his mid-twenties, Miles’s search for his twin takes him on a parallel journey through his own memories of their childhood and each’s perceptions of reality.
Eighteen year-old orphan Lucy Lattimer and her former history teacher George Orson are lovers on the lam from the tiny nowheresville where they met and formed an alliance. After a period spent in the abandoned motel Orson presents as having been his childhood home, he persuades Lucy that in order to go on together, they must cast off George and Lucy and emerge as other people. What do they have to lose?
University student Ryan Schuyler is dead- at least, that’s the plan. His black sheep “Uncle Jay” has recently revealed to Ryan that he is in fact Ryan’s father and that Ryan’s life so far is an utter falsehood, that his “parents” are the sister and brother in law of Ryan’s deceased mother. So why not fake his own death and fall in with Jay, an online scamming entrepreneur?
The story bounces unapologetically among these three plotlines which begin as very distinct, separate entities. As the novel hurtles to its conclusion, the distinctions become muddled and even more mesmerizing.
This is a dazzling, dark, beautifully rendered novel which is well worth several reads. Highly recommended.
CR: Greetings, Dan! Await Your Reply was my first experience reading your work and I plan on searching out everything you’ve ever written. Can you remember the original character or image which generated this story?
DC: All three of the opening chapters started out as short stories—or fragments that I thought were short stories, and the images in the first chapters were there from the earliest stages. A man and his son on the way to the hospital, the boy’s severed hand in an ice chest between them. A young woman and her older lover arriving at an abandoned lighthouse on the edge of a dried up lake. A guy driving north past the Arctic Circle under the light of the midnight sun.
CR: As a short story enthusiast, I was thrilled to discover that you’ve written extensively in that form .Somehow in this novel you manage to maintain the focus and precision of a short story. Were you aware of this while writing?
DC: Absolutely. I tend to think in smaller pieces, and for me the chapter has always been the most important unit of construction when I’m trying to put together a novel. Creating a chapter feels something like writing an individual short story to me.
CR: One of the most attractive and disturbing themes in AYR is the apparent ease with which the characters slip in and out of identities. Do you think that people have an immutable core which remains their true identity or that we are nothing more than the stories we invent about ourselves?
DC: I guess that has always been a question for me, and I’m not sure I came to a satisfactory answer. I’d like to believe that we have a core—a soul—but I also feel like it’s fragile, easily lost. I suppose at heart this book suggests that the soul is most in danger when we are cut loose from the people and places that ground us to the world: our families, our friends, our communities.
CR: The concept of drowning comes up several times in the storyline. Are you a swimmer?
DC: I can swim, but I am not a swimmer.
I suppose that the idea of drowning fits in with the theme of the novel; there are also deaths by fire and freezing, too—which are also metaphors for being subsumed.
It’s also true that I’m kind of morbid.
CR: I particularly enjoyed the way you set the story in abandoned hotels, drowned towns, what I think of as the “kit towns” of the Far North, as if places have just as little solidity or permanence as people. How did you choose the settings?
DC: As I mentioned above, the landscapes came to me early on—even before the plot—and I suppose that I knew that the three narratives were connected because they shared the same mood.
I grew up in Western Nebraska, and I’ve always been drawn to desolate landscapes. The town where I grew up, Brownson, was one of those little prairie grain elevator towns, with a population of about 15 people. In the past twenty years, that town has more or less ceased to exist as people have died and moved away. So I came by that sense of impermanence honestly.
CR: Do you own an atlas like the one described in the novel?
DC: Not exactly. But I was thinking of the old atlas that my grandfather had, which I think was from the 1920s. I was fascinated by the countries that had been renamed or taken over, the way the political boundaries had shifted so radically. I wish I still had that Atlas, but it’s long gone.
CR: Fathers don’t get very good press in this story. How has your experience as a father shaped the father figures in the novel?
DC: I was certainly influenced by the experience of having teenagers, and watching them struggle with a lot of big identity issues that the characters in the book confront: who will I be as I become an adult? As a parent, you want to try to guide them, but you can’t force them to become the person you want them to be, either. I suppose that the parents in this book are exaggerated examples of the bad choices I saw around me: the parents who wanted to be “friends” with their kids and lost all authority in the process; the parents who wanted to direct their kids lives without a good sense of what the kids themselves wanted; the parents who failed to pay attention to the signals their kids were sending out….
In short, all the things that you worry about as you’re trying to do the right thing.
CR: I believe you’re currently on tour. Has your audience changed now that you have a novel which is being promoted as a literary thriller?
DC: I never have a good sense of who is reading my book. The audiences have been bigger this time, in general, so maybe some of those people are thriller readers.
CR: What’s next? Novel, story collection ?
DC: I have a story collection that is almost done, but I’m contracted to finish a novel before that. So I’m at work on some ideas. Nothing I’m ready to talk about yet, though.
CR: Thanks for your time, much appreciated!
DC: My pleasure!
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