Author reflects on self-identity
There are a lot of questions to ask about a book that opens with a severed hand on ice and ends with the timeless meditation, “Are we not all of us spirits?”
But first, the nitty gritty: Dan Chaon, did you even like any character in this book?
“I loved them all,” Chaon replied Saturday night at the final event of the 2011 One Book One Mesa County program at the Avalon Theatre. Chaon wrote this year’s choice, “Await Your Reply,” a novel that balances elements of pulp and noir fiction with questions about identity and the nature of self. And it’s woven with characters who don’t exactly come across as easily likable.
“I found them all really fun to spend time with,” Chaon said. “I don’t know if I would want them for relatives, but I feel like they all have a little piece of me or something I love put into them.”
The novel is composed of seemingly disparate, interlocking stories that, Chaon said, came together piece by piece. Chaon opened his presentation by reading the first and last chapters of “Await Your Reply,” then answering written questions from audience members.
He said that the novel started as a collection of short stories based on ideas he’d wanted to write about: a dried lake near the miniscule town in Nebraska where he grew up; separated twins; and a scene in which a boy is being driven to the hospital by a person he’s not sure he can trust. From those ideas grew a story about Ryan, a college student who learns the person he thought was his uncle is actually his father; Hayden, a brilliant, schizophrenic con man separated from his twin, Miles; and Lucy, a girl waiting for her life to begin who runs off with her high school teacher.
When asked if the fact that he was adopted influenced the book, Chaon said it has “made an impression on my philosophical views about how we live. But this book was more just my thinking about how identity works in society.”
He said having teenage sons influenced his writing, especially watching them “deciding who they want to be, then deciding again, then deciding again.”
The novel juxtaposes tragedy with dark humor, which Chaon said mirrors his own sensibilities.
His family, he said, tended to be Stoics who made jokes when experiencing tragedy. He grew up loving Alfred Hitchcock stories and “The Addams Family,” he said, and because where he grew up is so small — 15 to 20 people, most of them his relatives — he spent a lot of time in his own head.
“As a novelist, you have to spend a lot of time pretending,” he said, then admitted that while writing “Await Your Reply” and envisioning the realities of an escape scene, he actually had someone tape him to a chair.
For now, he does not intend to write a sequel, he said. He has a short story collection called “Stay Awake” coming out in April 2012, and he’s working on a novel tentatively titled “Ill Will,” slated for release in 2014.
The plot of his novel in progress, he said, is very convoluted in his head, “but like ‘Await Your Reply,’ it’s about what’s real and what’s not.”