With apologies for this long introduction but … well, this is Dan Chaon we’re talking about. Dan is an amazingly talented writer: his story collection, Among the Missing, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and … well, pretty much everyone. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And he is also an incredibly nice guy. His new novel, Await Your Reply, was released yesterday and is – no surprise – receiving rave reviews. This morning’s Washington Post calls it “hypnotic”, and Janet Maslin of the New York Times calls this “strange, stunning new novel” “both a ghost story and a valentine.” – Meg
Today, August 25, 2009, was the release date for my new novel, Await Your Reply, and I was driving down I-55 in a rented 2009 silver Camaro. Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Hungry Heart” came on the radio. “I had a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back…”
I almost felt like a character in my own novel, which is a book about people who try to jump recklessly out of their own lives and into new ones. All I needed was a suitcase full of fake credit cards, and I could have driven that Rent-a-car Camaro down to Mexico and disappeared.
I fantasized about that for a while, put on my sunglasses, sped up, pretending for a little while to be a different person, tracing a narrative for my hungry-hearted character, which was a good way to spend the hours in-between Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi.
It was also a nice reminder: the creative, story-making part of my brain was not entirely dormant. It was still working.
A lot of the time it doesn’t. For me at least, there is a period after the publication of a book in which the actual writer part of my brain shuts down. I’m too focused on the current baby to want to make a new one.
I have been incredibly, incredibly lucky to have a publisher like Ballantine. I am not a best-selling author, and yet they have been hugely supportive, sending me out on a book tour, working tirelessly to get the book into the hands of reviewers and readers, and showering me with hospitality and warmth as if I were a visiting dignitary from some exotic kingdom. (Cleveland, in this case.)
For a while, I get to live the kind of writer’s life I used to dream of. There are not as many throngs of adoring fans and Hollywood starlets as I originally planned, but still, I get to be interviewed on TV and the radio, I travel to different cities to give readings, and I get to see my book in a stack at bookstores. There it is! My book!
Would you like me to autograph that to you, personally? I’d be glad to!
Some writers groan about the publicity part of the book launch, but I don’t. I love it. I’m thrilled to go to a bookstore, and I don’t really care how many people show up. I enjoy being interviewed. It’s fun to talk about “my process,” and “the themes” of my book, and so forth. It’s exciting to wait for reviews, and to double-check my Amazon sales rank and see if anyone has posted a comment on GoodReads. I even have a beautiful, professional-quality “book trailer,” which I encourage you to admire because it is so awesome.
For a while it’s as if I’m inhabiting a character: The Novelist Dan Chaon, and that takes all of my creative energy. And for a while, at least, the actual writing takes a back seat and the small-w writer Dan Chaon (that drudge, that melancholy grub) takes a back seat as well. Or better yet, I tape his ankles and wrists with duct tape and put him in the trunk of the Camaro.
Still, in order to get back to writing, my days as The Novelist Dan Chaon will have to come to an end. There is a kind of painful transition back to the ordinary days of writing. Just writing, small w, which is hard work. It doesn’t matter how nice the reviews have been or how many kind things people have said. Once I get back to the actual page, those things are just a distraction. Or they are worse than a distraction: a hindrance. The Novelist Dan Chaon may sit in the background, commenting ruefully. “I think you shot your load with that last book, Chaon. You’ve gone to the well for the last time. Whatever was good about your writing has left you, you know. That paragraph you just wrote? Embarrassingly bad. Publish that and you’ll be a laughingstock. Remember that mean guy on Amazon? He was right. You do suck.” Etc. etc.
They say that women forget the pain of giving birth, or they would never choose to have another baby. In some ways publishing a book is a little bit like that for me. Once I have the sweet baby in my hands, with its beautiful dust jacket and its little garland of flattering blurbs, the toil that went into it seems negligible.
But then—starting a new project, it all comes back. You recall how much you had to revise, how much you had to throw away, how many times you would sit in front of a blank page and think: I will never, ever, ever finish it. When I was working on the middle draft of Await Your Reply, terribly stuck in the middle of it, actually, I used to occasionally have dreams in which I’d be in an airplane that was going to crash. And as I plunged toward earth, my last thought was: “Well, at least I don’t have to finish that stupid novel……………………………aieeee……………….”
The process of writing is continually humbling, and a big vain ham like The Novelist Dan Chaon can’t take it. Eventually, he’ll shrink to the size of a dust mote and float away, and—if I’m lucky—I’ll be right back to where I was when I first started writing. If I’m really, really fortunate, I’ll be almost back to being a kid again. I’ll have to rediscover the joys of getting a good paragraph down, of writing a sentence or a metaphor that makes me happy. I’ll have to get back to the point where the simple pleasure of making up stories, pretending, is satisfying for it’s own sake, back to the place where I’m telling a story just because I’m curious to find out what happens next. Because it’s fun to create something.
But man! It takes a while to get back there. You pass through stages of denial and anger and bargaining and then hopefully come to accept this fact: maybe nothing I write will be good; maybe I won’t be able to finish. I’ll have to accept that uncertainty before I can truly start work again in earnest.
That’s a scary prospect. It’s especially scary now, in the year that has followed the death of my wife Sheila, who was my mentor and first reader and best and most honest critic. She made that humbling process of starting over seem easier, more bearable.
But for a little while, I don’t have to worry about that. Tomorrow, WLBT-TV: Midday Mississippi awaits an interview with the Novelist Dan Chaon, and there is a pile of books for me to sign at Square Books on Thursday night. There are still some reviews to anticipate, and friendly readers to meet at receptions, and for a few months at least, I’m going to make the most of it. My silver Camaro is sitting outside my hotel right now, gleaming. – Dan