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Dan Chaon

August 10, 2010

When I got to p. 136 of Dan Chaon’s novel, Await Your Reply, I flipped to the end. I was trying to get a sense of how far I’d gotten in the story, and where I was on the narrative arc. Honestly, I was feeling a little impatient. There are three protagonists and three stories and they had not yet come together. In fact, they didn’t even seem close. When was it going to happen? How were they related?

I found out that I was not quite half way through. I also saw the Acknowledgments page. I love to read acknowledgments–I feel sort of greedy for them, like writer’s gossip (who is his agent, who are his writer friends?), and sometimes read acknowledgments before I even start a book.

So I was not prepared for Chaon’s opening sentence: “My wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz, died after a long battle with ovarian cancer shortly after I completed this book.” Those words, so simple and straightforward, made me ashamed of my eagerness. And terribly sad.

I don’t know Dan Chaon personally. I’ve read his first novel, and some of his stories. I read an interview with him several years ago that helped me greatly in the struggle to completely rewrite the first draft of my novel, China Between Us. In that interview, he talks about writing You Remind Me of Me, how the first draft was almost all summary, no scenes, and how he had no clue how to put it together, how his editor talked him through it, gave him ideas on how to proceed, how to think about structure. I felt so grateful to Chaon for revealing himself to not know how to write a novel, to have to muddle through, and he seemed to do this without a sense of anxiety, no fear of the vulnerability that comes with exposure. He was just saying what happened, like it was okay not to know, and to figure it out.  (http://www.believermag.com/exclusives/?read=interview_chaon)

Like even I could do it.

He was my first choice of workshop leaders at the Napa Valley Writers Conference in 2007. Before assignments were made, he had to back out of the conference, for personal reasons, so I never got to work with him.

Haunted by the death of his wife, this morning I looked him up again, this time typing both his and his wife’s names into the search engine. Again, I found a straightforward, beautiful piece, not an interview this time but an essay by Chaon, with the title “What Happened to Sheila,” in The Rumpus. Again, he gives specific details in a simple, open, fearless manner, only these are about his wife. He tells about her writing life, including the fact that she searched unsuccessfully for years for a publisher for a novel that he thought was brilliant. (Before she died, and after many rewrites, she did finally find a publisher!) He describes the circumstances in which they met (he was her student) and fell in love. And he shows her battle with cancer, that she refused to accept that she would die, and kept her sarcasm alive like a weapon. It made me like them both. http://therumpus.net/2009/01/what-happened-to-sheila/

Late last night when I finished Await Your Reply, I was thrilled by the puzzle Chaon put together. I remain curious about the novel’s effects, in particular, how Chaon gets readers to read that many pages (definitely more than a hundred, possibly as many as two hundred) without revealing an explicit connection between the three narratives. And when the connections did become clear, why did I feel excited rather than tricked?

But today what I’m struck by is the oddly full reading experience: his latest novel, the acknowledgment, the interviews and some of his previous work, and the essay he wrote about his wife. This isn’t usually the way I read. I doubt it will become the way I usually read. But it was wonderful.

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