In Search For Answers, No Guaranteed 'Reply' A new novel from Dan Chaon, Await Your Reply, explores online deception and real-world identity crises as three characters try to answer the question, "Who are you?"
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In Search For Answers, No Guaranteed 'Reply'

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In Search For Answers, No Guaranteed 'Reply'

In Search For Answers, No Guaranteed 'Reply'

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On the surface, Dan Chaon's new novel, "Await Your Reply," is about Miles Cheshire, who's been on a 10-year quest to find his twin brother Hayden. Ryan Schuyler, a college dropout who goes to live with a father he never knew and Lucy Lattimore, who drives away after high school graduation with her boyfriend - her history teacher. These three narratives add up to one burning question: Who are you? Dan Chaon joins us from WCPN in Cleveland. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAN CHAON (Author, "Await Your Reply"): Oh, thank you.

HANSEN: The title, "Await Your Reply," is taken from those spam letters we've all received about money being held for us in a foreign country and if we just do this, then we'll do that. Was it inspired, this novel, by the issue of identity theft?

Mr. CHAON: Well, I think it actually started with the images that are prominent in the first three chapters. I was interested in the kind of post-apocalyptic quality of certain landscapes that I was thinking about a lot. In fact, the first thing that I started with was this hotel on the edge of a dried up lake in Nebraska and I started writing about it because the lake where I grew up, Lake McConaughy in Nebraska, was in fact suffering from a drought and a lot of it had dried up. The places where we used to swim and boat and ski were actually just dry sand.

And the identity theft stuff came in a little bit later as I was trying to put together how all of these different pieces fit together. And I - and of course, getting spam constantly as we all do, I was really aware of that as a cultural phenomenon.

HANSEN: The idea of that dried-up lake that, you know, there's a ghost town that was flooded when there was a lake there, at least as I read it in the book, and now…

Mr. CHAON: Right. That's correct. And, in fact, that's a fairly common phenomenon. Most states have drowned towns, as they're called, during the period when we were crazy about building reservoirs. A lot of these little valley villages, people got moved out and the water came in and they left the houses, or at least the foundations.

HANSEN: Yeah. So, it's the idea that something was there and now it's been replaced and it's lost its identity, but it's more like - it's like a ghost.

Mr. CHAON: It's one of the things that happens in America a lot. It's a really interesting part of both the American dream and American culture that we reinvent ourselves and that towns spring up suddenly and may vanish just as suddenly. I mean, particularly growing up in Nebraska, there isn't a lot of history that goes back beyond the settlers. A lot of the towns are from the turn of the 20th century. And some of them lasted and some of them didn't.

HANSEN: In Nebraska, where that ghost lake is, Lucy and her history professor hiding out at an abandoned motel and there's this gothic house behind them and it's straight out of "Psycho." I mean, this - deliberately, right?

Mr. CHAON: Yeah, it kind of is. Yeah, pretty deliberately. Meanwhile, while Lucy's staying at this abandoned motel, she finds a cache of old videos and one of the ones that she watches is Rebecca. There's a little bit of a Hitchcock obsession that's running through the whole book.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. CHAON: Not only Rebecca, but I guess there's a Vertigo scene that comes, kind of, a little bit later, where George transforms Lucy.

HANSEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, he keeps asking her: If you could be anybody, who would you be? Who would you be? Who would want to be? The idea of reinvention, you know, people who reinvent their lives and then you get into the questions of identity, your first novel, "You Remind Me of Me," involve twins and as does this one.

Mr. CHAON: Right. Actually, they weren't twins. They were just brothers.

HANSEN: They were just brothers. Well…

Mr. CHAON: They were just brothers. They - I think they were three years apart.

HANSEN: Well, what fascinates you about twins? How does this - I mean, we have Miles looking for his twin brother Hayden, but there's more to it than just twins.

Mr. CHAON: Right. I mean, I think the thing that particularly fascinates me is that the sense of, here is somebody who has the exact same genetic makeup as me. We were in the womb together. And there's this romantic sense for me, since I wasn't a twin, that you've got this, this person who you're connected to in this incredibly deep and complicated way.

We're so involved in the idea of the singularity of the self, but at the same time, it seems like the self is much looser than it used to be. There's a lot more ways that you can slip out of yourself and into somebody else, if you care to. In fact, I guess most of us do in one way or another. We all have our different avatars that we're working with in Facebook and Twitter and so on and so forth.


Mr. CHAON: I guess not everybody does that, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Well, I think it's become more prevalent because we can.

Mr. CHAON: Right.

HANSEN: We can…

Mr. CHAON: And it's fun. I mean, it's fun to be someone else for a little while.

HANSEN: Yeah, but if you're causing someone else harm because of it, that's…

Mr. CHAON: Right.

HANSEN: …a whole different story. That's the moral of your tale in many ways.

Mr. CHAON: Right. And I - in fact, I mean, one of the other inspirations for the computer aspect of the novel was the behavior of various trolls on different Web sites. And by trolls, I mean people who deliberately go onto Web sites to disrupt and to cause harm, or at least to cause an emotional uproar amongst the more staid participants. And people have done some remarkably cruel and awful things over the last few years because we trust, in some ways, a person who appears in a chat room or whatever, is more or less who they say they are.

HANSEN: Yeah. The scary thing to me about the book is that people are so gullible. We so often believe what people tell us about themselves, even if their stories are fabricated.

Mr. CHAON: Right. And yet it's necessary to live in the world, to have some kind of trust that people are genuine, right? I mean, it would be a horrible way to live if you couldn't trust anyone. And I guess that's the dichotomy that I'm trying to think about in the book is how much trust is useful and how much trust is necessary to live in the world.

HANSEN: Actually, the reader, me, and anyone else who does, didn't make the connections between the three narratives, the three stories until about two thirds of the way through the book and it's rather jaw dropping when you start to make those connections and even more jaw dropping as you get toward the end. Did you know when you were writing the book how it was going to end?

Mr. CHAON: No, I did not - not during the first draft. And, in fact, I was really surprised by a lot of the twists and turns that came up as I was writing. There were people in the book that are real and people who are not. And as I was writing about them, I assumed that they were all real up until I started to realize that there were deceptions going on.

It's fun for me to write, at least the first draft, with a kind of openness about the plot because it helps, I think, to be able to discover things along with the characters. It helps, I think, to develop the characters and it also helps to keep, sort of, my options open in terms of where things are going to go.

I mean, I know a lot writers will work with an outline. And the problem for me with an outline is that it creates this kind of pre-determinism that I have a hard time working with.

HANSEN: Who are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHAON: I'm a pretty normal guy, you know. And I've found my life, really, in a way that has made me extraordinarily happy. I mean, I started out as, you know, a kid in a sort of small, poor community in Nebraska. And I ended up going to college, which was unlike my - the rest of my family. And I ended up as a college professor at Oberlin College, married and with two kids.

It may be that part of the reason that this novel spoke to me so much is that, you know, I can see all the places along the way - along that journey where I might have taken a different path and become a radically different person.

HANSEN: Why should I believe anything you say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHAON: You shouldn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Dan Chaon's new novel is called "Await Your Reply." It's published by Random House and he joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Dan, thanks a lot.

Mr. CHAON: You're so welcome.

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