Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dan Chaon's Guest Post: The World of My Fiction

Greetings, Readers! It’s Dan Chaon, blogging for Well-Read Donkey about my new book, Await Your Reply, which is due out next week.

One of the things that was fun for me about this new novel is that it takes place in a wide variety of settings—from Ohio to the Northwest Territories of Canada to the Las Vegas Strip, from a hotel in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to the Centro Historico neighborhoods of Quito, Ecuador.

This is a pretty big departure for me. I started out my writing career thinking of myself as something of a regionalist writer, focused on the Western Great Plains area of Nebraska where I grew up. It’s a funny thing, since it’s been almost 25 years since I lived in that region; but the landscape remains a really big part of my imagination and often provides an inspiration for my writing. Even in this new book, a large section takes place on the Nebraska prairie.

The apartment building in Cleveland Heights where my character Miles lives.

At the same time, though I’ve lived in Cleveland for almost twenty years, Await Your Reply is the first time I’ve used Northwest Ohio as a main setting. What’s that about? I’m not sure—I guess it takes a long time for a sense of place to soak into my brain.

But I also think that my canvas has naturally begun to expand in recent years because I’ve been doing a lot more traveling. When I was growing up, my family tended to stick close to home, and we didn’t make many trips beyond the Nebraska-Colorado-Wyoming area where we lived. Even as a young adult, I tended to be a homebody. I moved away to go to college in Chicago, at Northwestern, and then later went to graduate school at Syracuse, but it wasn’t until I began going out on book tours that I really did any significant amount of traveling. Readers will notice that a significant portion of this book takes place in hotel rooms, and that owes a lot to the time I’ve spent on the road doing readings and lectures and signings.

And as I’ve begun to have more experience with a national and international audience, as I’ve worked with translators and traveled abroad to literary festivals, I’ve been increasingly inspired to expand the world of my fiction. I’ve been interested in finding ways in which I can work with a larger canvas, without losing the essential grounding that I found in those Midwestern landscapes that I’m so attached to.

In You Remind Me of Me, the main character, Jonah, believes himself utterly alienated from the larger world: “…he had no connection to the major world of human endeavor—no relationship to politics, or sociology, or economics, or the great movements of his time. The stuff that would be remembered. What could he say but that his people were the detritus of various empires.” In contrast, Await Your Reply begins to imagine the ways in which even people like Jonah are connected to the larger world, and especially the ways in which globalism and the age of mass communication has begun to touch the lives of the marginalized characters that have been my particular interest over the past few books.

Here's a picture of the dried-up lake in Nebraska, which was one of the early settings that inspired me as I writing Await Your Reply.

In any case, the geography of the book is a mixture of the real and the imagined. The lake is based on Nebraska’s Lake McConoughy, where I used to vacation when I was a kid. Lake McConoughy really is drying up, and there really was a motel with a lighthouse theme in the area. The image of the lighthouse on the edge of an empty lake was one of the early inspirations.

A lot of the Cleveland locations are taken directly from my observations, having lived here now for over twenty years. Matalov Novelties, is, of course, invented, but Parnell’s Pub is quite real. You can usually find me there on Monday night.

Some of the other locations were inspired by my travels. I wrote a good portion of that Las Vegas chapter (Chapter 14) while staying at the Mandelay Bay Hotel as a guest of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

And I wrote parts of Chapter 24 when I was visiting Quito, Ecuador, with my son Philip. Still more of the places here are completely invented.

Here's the street in Quito where I decided I wanted one of my characters to live.

I patched together my version of Inuvik from YouTube videos and travel brochures that were kindly sent to me by the town of Inuvik; similarly, I researched Abidjan via the internet and through books I collected at my excellent public library.

I found this photo of a Banks Island NWT research station on the Internet. That was one of the places that I wanted to visit, but I never got the chance.

And luckily, I’m a fiction writer. When I didn’t know something—or when some geographic detail didn’t quite fit with my plot—I just made it up.


  1. Mr Chaon,

    I very much look forward to reading your latest novel, which I've just seen reviewed in the New York Times. I'm intrigued by the theme of fractured identity, and I admire authors who seek to bridge literary fiction and genre-based storytelling.

  2. Hi, George, I just saw the NYT myself about an hour ago. I was really happy about it. I hope you end up liking the book!

  3. every time i come to vegas im amazed from all the stuff you have to do. it doesnt matter if i come alone or with my family/friends we have so much to do! and im not talking about casinos..not at all.