Every tale ever told depends in some way on isolation. No matter whether a novel is set in a hectic city or a pastoral village or a single claustrophobic room, that book’s author has to build a narrative container for its characters so we readers understand where our focus should be: We pay attention to these people, this conflict, and not all that other potentially interesting stuff out there. After all, one book can’t fit every person and place in the world. The solar system. The universe. Beyond! No, writers must limit themselves, choose what to include and what to leave out, in order to tell their stories.
Of course, that container can take any shape. A novelist might set their book in as tight a space as one person’s mind. She might place her story within a marriage, as Lauren Groff does in the split narrative of Fates and Furies, or a family line, as Yaa Gyasi does in her multigenerational epic Homegoing. Writers sometimes build a physical structure around their characters: a mansion in The Haunting of Hill House, a train in Murder on the Orient Express, a reform school, a whaling ship, an asylum, a gulag. Or writers choose the limits of geography.
Settings with natural boundaries—islands surrounded by ocean, peninsulas cut off by mountains, oases in the desert—have shaped some of the most exciting books in print today. This list brings you eight novels perfectly limited by geographic barriers. The stories below are set in places remote to most of their readers, yet the skill of their authors, the bold lines of their containers and the sharp focus on what happens within, make them compelling to us all.
1. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The island novel against which all others are measured. In this 1954 classic, a group of British schoolboys is marooned after a plane crash in the Pacific. Stranded far from the world they know, the boys establish their own miniature civilization, which soon turns toward violence. Golding’s novel shows exactly why stories in remote settings fascinate us: Stripped of outside influence, kept alone together, these characters reveal themselves for the eager, cruel, conflicted creatures they—and we—really are.
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
García Márquez’s flawless novel follows the rise and fall of the town of Macondo, established beside a river in Colombia. To José Arcadio Buendía, the town’s founder, Macondo seems idyllic, a pristine spot protected by water on all sides. That vision is shattered as generations of the Buendía family see their home transformed by the national railroad, new government, and foreign companies. Over the years, Macondo’s population is corrupted by forces external (an army massacre of striking workers) and internal (genetic mutations caused by incest). The novel describes a paradise lost—and convinces us that paradise never would have lasted anyway.
3. The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
After an island in the Pacific and an isolated settlement in South America, this entry on the list takes us someplace stranger, more surreal. Abe’s dreamlike novel strands us in a town sunk in sand. The impossible terrain rules the story: All the people in the town pass their days shoveling back the dunes, and Abe’s main character is conscripted for the task. He has to clear the sand or he’ll be killed. Using the twin pressures of nature and community, the book pushes its characters to their haunting, unforgettable ends.
4. The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
Lin’s debut novel is set on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Containing nearly half the state’s population, Anchorage has robust infrastructure, plenty of industry, and strong ties to the rest of the world—it’s no village in the dunes—but those connections soon fray outside the city, where Alaska’s subarctic climate and wildlife rule. This book shows just how bleak life in such a distant, threatening place can be, as a family struggles to move forward after the death of a child.
5. Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen
Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, is home to fewer than 18,000 people. It’s the cultural and economic center of a country that is sparsely populated, difficult to reach, and almost entirely covered by ice. Korneliussen takes us there through this daring novel, which weaves together the lives of five young people. She cracks open our frozen imaginations to show us Greenland in all its queer, loving, heartbreaking beauty.
6. Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda
Lush and grotesque, this novel places us in a nameless village perched on rocks over a river. Its inhabitants cling to the perceived moral excellence of their remoteness, their bloody customs, and their oppressive conformity. They don’t wish to know anyone or anything else. Rodoreda, one of the most important figures in Catalan literature, worked on this book for 20 years, until her death. Geographically, politically, socially, the village’s cruel isolation is an expression of what Rodoreda herself faced under Franco’s dictatorship, when she was exiled from Spain.
7. Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
This award-winning novel takes place in the fictional Desperance, a town in the desert bordering Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Wright digs deep into the red ground where her story is set to explore fights between local families, mining operations on sacred ground, and colonization of Aboriginal earth. Her story fixes itself in place as her characters move in and out of Dreamtime, through the past, present, and future, to show the full scope of what this land means to its inhabitants.
8. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
In this fictional history of Earth’s settlement of Mars, Bradbury’s characters attempt to transpose onto another planet all the conveniences of home. They end up bringing their diseases, weapons, and fears instead. As Bradbury puts it, “Men are men, unfortunately.” Along with the other novels on this list, The Martian Chronicles leverages a raw, remote setting to expose our common humanity. Stories set in such environments let us see what is resonant, what is fundamental, what is shared. Separated from other people and stressed by geographic extremes, characters and societies reveal their weaknesses (greed, selfishness, the violent desire for power) and cultivate new strengths (curiosity, fortitude, a drive toward genuine connection). Turns out, no matter what remote place we wind up in the Milky Way, we can’t escape ourselves. Like the authors of our favorite books, we are working within limitations—yet inside those boundaries there is so much room to explore.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Pablo García Saldaña.
The literary world has been waiting for a Carmen Maria Machado collection for several years, and in October, Graywolf Press will oblige with the release of Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of Machado’s haunting, graceful speculative stories that has been longlisted for a National Book Award. The Internet became aware of Machado in 2014 when her story “The Husband Stitch” was published by Granta. “The Husband Stitch” was something new altogether, and went on to be nominated for a Shirley Jackson Aware and a Nebula Award, among other honors. Every new story by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad has further stoked anticipation.
Machado’s stories take place in a version of our real world that has been subtly distorted. Identities blur, women become invisible (literally), and lonely individuals seek intimacy at the end of the world. But these events don’t occur in some alternate science fiction reality; Machado’s spaces are recognizably our own, forcing us into the emotional upheavals of their protagonists. Machado’s writing is both vulnerable and fearless, in complete control even as her characters lose control entirely, and she wields her unique voice to explore identity, marginalization, mental health, and what intimacy looks like in the light and shadow of all three.
We recently had the chance to talk over email about benevolent sexism, urban legends, and her writing process.
The Millions: “The Husband Stitch,” first published in 2014, seemed to be the story that made the Internet perk up and really pay attention to the name Carmen Maria Machado. It’s the story that opens Her Body and Other Parties. What has been the significance of that story and the response to it on your career as a writer and the formation of this collection?
Carmen Maria Machado: I always tell people that they should write the stories they want to see in the world, and that’s advice I try to take as well. I was nursing “The Husband Stitch” in my heart for a very long time—not that structure or narrative specifically, but the emotional arc. I thought a lot about benevolent sexism as a powerful and damaging force, and realized it was a critical note I needed to strike in Her Body and Other Parties. And then, one day, I had the story structure to tell it in a way that felt faithful to my own musings.
Of course, the explosion of interest around that story, and the persistent love of it, is really encouraging to me. I never imagined when I was writing it that it would have that kind of power and longevity. I’m not sure there’s anything more exciting or rewarding as a writer. But I don’t think it has much to do with me as an artist, particularly—rather, I think it was a note that needed to be struck. I think people were hungry for it.
TM: Your comment about benevolent sexism brings up a powerful piece of writing that was one of the first things I ever read by you: your essay “A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity” for L.A. Review of Books. My wife and I both grew up in the Evangelical purity culture (and have since left the faith), and the essay spoke to a lot in our own pasts. While Christian purity culture is never mentioned in “The Husband Stitch” (the story takes place well before the emergence of that late-20th-century movement), it grows from the same soil from which that movement would later mushroom. Was that connection on your mind during the writing of this story? How does your background in the Christian purity culture impact your writing?
CMM: I think it serves as a constant reminder to me of what happens when people are not vigilant about the narratives young women absorb about themselves and their bodies and sex and sexuality—how catastrophically damaging they can be. I don’t think I can solve that problem single-handedly or anything, but I can provide an alternate narrative for those who need it.
TM: There’s this fascinating way you intertwine innocence and betrayal in that story without obscuring either. They are separate threads, braided together here—desire that is beautiful and desire that is toxic—and the reader can trace both throughout. Your use of so many old folk tales and urban legends—stories we all passed around among our friends as spooked kids and teenagers—takes the reader back to a more open, unprotected age, and then they’re confronted with the ugliness of patriarchal entitlement. Can you tell me a little about how that story came about? What ties those old legends together, and what made you flip them on their heads here?
CMM: I was a Girl Scout for almost my entire childhood, and when we went camping I really loved the part where we told scary, theatrical stories around the campfire. I enjoyed hearing them, and I was really good at telling them. The version of “The Green Ribbon” I heard at that age—which is the one famously retold by Alvin Schwartz—has stuck with me ever since; I don’t know why. (I’ve been trying to explore this very question in an essay.) It’s possible that I was fascinated by the question of the ribbon itself—how did it get there? How did she go her entire life without disturbing it?—but there was something about the ending that really distressed me. Alfred asking and asking and asking, and Jenny relenting on her deathbed. Was she trying to fuck Alfred up as her final act on this earth? Was she just tired of saying “no?” Why did she give him what he wanted? Like the best folktales, the story was spare enough that a reader could project all sorts of things into it; the flatness serves as a kind of scrying pool for whoever is looking inside.
And, so years later, when I was at a residency in New Hampshire, I sat down and found myself combining several ideas: a sex-loving, midcentury housewife, the story’s title—which I’d learned about from my OB-GYN nurse aunt—and the woman with the green ribbon. I revisited all of those questions, to try and find my own answers.
The secondary urban legends and stage directions didn’t come until later drafts. When I went to go add those secondary stories, I consulted Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy. I flipped through the pages until certain stories spoke to me as ones that could stand one of her retellings. I think urban legends (and folktales, and fairy tales) have this way of showing us what we already know to be true, and I wanted these narratives to reflect that fact.
TM: For you, the speculative elements in your fiction seem to be a way to subtly tug and pluck at the strings of reality on a very personal level. How did you get started writing speculative stories, and how do these elements play in your imagination as a writer?
CMM: I get “into” stories in a number of ways, but a lot of my ideas come from observing what’s around me and pushing into it a little. My wife and I play this game where we’ll see something and I’ll lean over and suggest a fantastic alteration to it. For example, we’ll see a little kid playing with her reflection in a large window, and I’ll say to my wife, “What would happen if the reflection stopped following her?” I do this in my own head, too, and sometimes I’ll stop talking mid-sentence and my wife will say to me, “Are you getting an idea right now?” as I run for paper and pen. (Or, if I’m driving, I’ll say, “I’m about to say some weird sentences to you, please text them to me.”)
When I teach, I talk to students a lot about “play,” and how that critical part of your young imagination can be snuffed out if you don’t feed it and take care of it. There’s been a lot of good and interesting writing about this idea of nursing one’s creative subconscious—I’m particularly fond of this essay by Kelly Link—and I think it’s an element of craft that doesn’t get touched on enough. Before plot or dialogue or even character, the mind needs to be observant, nimble, playful, and curious around the world around it. Without that, fiction is DOA.
TM: I’ve found Kelly Link’s thoughts (the essay you linked to) about writing from our obsessions, no matter how trivial they seem, to be tremendously helpful. Do you similarly maintain a list of these obsessions for yourself, as Link does?
CMM: I do! I make lists of obsessions, of fears, of images that strike me, of phrases that might make good titles, of potential formal constraints, of stories only I think I can tell, of memories, of sentences that come to me, of settings that give me a thrill…list-making is so satisfying, and such a useful way of cataloguing what’s going on inside my head.
TM: A number of your stories are only one degree separated from our present reality. A plague is wiping out humanity, or women are becoming incorporeal for no discernible reason, but otherwise the characters and settings are, for lack of a better word, normal. They’re what we’re all living every day, and then this awful warping occurs. What does that method open for you when you’re writing a story?
CMM: As a young woman, I did read some secondary world and/or portal fantasy (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books), but my absolute favorite work presented a familiar world with tweaked fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror elements: A Wrinkle in Time, the work of Lois Duncan, Behind the Attic Wall, all of Louis Sachar’s books, John Bellairs. I was not leaving for another world; instead, I was being shown potential avenues of perception in my own world. I don’t think this is, like, aesthetically superior or anything, it’s just what tickled my own imagination. I think it created in me an acute sense that magic could be just around the corner. And quite frankly, so much of our world is just straight-up surreal—look at the current political climate, for example—that this kind of worldbuilding often feels very natural to me.
TM: Who are some writers, past or present, who inspire you creatively?
CMM: I’m particularly indebted to a certain generation of 20th-century writers: Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Jane Bowles, Lucia Berlin, Patricia Highsmith, Lois Duncan, Ray Bradbury, Gabriel García Márquez. But there is also an incredible line-up of contemporary folks who have shaped me into the writer I am: Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Alice Sola Kim, Kevin Brockmeier, Nicholson Baker, Bennett Sims, Sofia Samatar, Alissa Nutting. And I’m discovering more every day: I recently finished Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door and Kathryn Davis’s Duplex—the first novels of those writers I’ve ever read—and I feel like my imagination is firing on every cylinder.
TM: Your book’s title directly reveals a theme that weaves through every story in the collection: women’s bodies, the ways they both serve and betray these women (or are used by others to do the same), the ways they are both pleasured and violated. Can you tell me a bit about that theme and how is defines so much of this collection?
CMM: I am singularly obsessed with the body; even my interest in the mind is rooted in the body, since the two are inseparable from each other. I’d be lying if I said this interest didn’t stem from my relationship with my own body: with moving through the world as a fat, queer, not-quite-white woman, experiencing physical ailments and struggling with mental illness. My mind is housed in my body; my body is flawed and also falls outside of specific culturally-acceptable parameters and is also actively oppressed. It experiences pleasure and brings me joy and it suffers; I fight against it and love it and accept it and loathe it. How better to grapple with these contradictions than write a book about it?
TM: Full disclosure: I have never seen a single episode of Law & Order: SVU. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into your story “Especially Heinous,” which creates a fictional episode listing for the show’s entire run. I found it absolutely fascinating. What was the inception of that novella, and why did you choose such an unusual structure?
CMM: I often tell people that its root was years before, when I’d spent a severe bout of swine flu in front of a Law & Order: SVU marathon, and drifted in and out of feverish consciousness in front of my computer. Whether or not that’s the actual place where it began, during my second year at grad school, I had the idea of writing a story using a television show as its anchor. I initially toyed with idea of taking existing episode capsules from IMDB and simply altering them toward fantasy, but I realized pretty quickly that this format was far too limiting. I did, however, notice that Law & Order: SVU only had single-word titles, which seemed to be as good a jumping-off place as any. The story came together pretty quickly after that—the titles provided a kind of mental springboard, and I bounced between plotlines and pulled everything together. Up until that time it was the longest singular project I’d ever written. (I should add that I intend the story to be readable to folks who haven’t seen Law & Order: SVU; but if you have, there might be some small Easter Eggs you can enjoy.)
I think the structure works for this story for a few reasons. First, we’re very accustomed to marathoning TV nowadays, what with Netflix and other online streaming services, and so in some ways this is like a Netflix marathon from hell. The format also allows the pleasure of cutting one-off “episodes” with continuing storylines, which taps into the reason people enjoy shows with formulas like Law & Order to begin with. This structure doesn’t work for everyone—I received the meanest workshop letter in my entire MFA from a student who very much disliked every element of this story, and derisively referred to it as “fanfiction”—but obviously some folks respond to it very strongly. I don’t mind writing aesthetically divisive work; on the contrary, it’s a real pleasure.
TM: In “The Resident,” you toy with the trope of the misunderstood madwoman forced together with other, “saner” folks (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House came to mind), but in this case you redeem her from that relegation to insanity. That story seemed to come from a very personal place?
CMM: When I workshopped a very early version of this story, a reader said, reluctantly, “I tire of ‘madwoman in the attic’ stories.” I felt bowled over by this note, because I, too, dislike sexist tropes about mad women, particularly mad lesbians, and here I’d created a story that centered around them. So I asked her, “What happens if you want to write a first-person story about a woman with mental illness? What do you do then?” She just shrugged.
So I had this massive, sprawling story that felt important to me but ran up against this trope, and I didn’t know what to do about it. As someone who has mental illness—acute, debilitating anxiety—I’ve always been very interested in trying to snatch back narratives that have seemingly been taken away from me. So I decided during my many rewrites—and there were many!—to try and address this idea more forcefully. I reasoned, as long as the story took on these tropes, and she had agency and intelligence and context, she could be as mad as she needed to be. (I should add that I don’t begrudge the note that led me down this path—it was, in fact, critical to the story’s development.)
It also helped that I did a ton of editing for this story under my editor Ethan Nosowsky’s guidance. Many of the other stories in the collection were functionally finished by the time Graywolf bought the collection—they’d been published elsewhere, and had already received thorough edits—but “The Resident” had never seen anything except that very early workshop. Ethan gently told me he thought this story would need the most work out of the entire book, and he was right—we went back and forth on it for ages. There was even a period of time I didn’t think it would appear in the collection at all. Ethan is brilliant, and also not prescriptive—he simply looked at each draft and suggested to me where he thought my subconscious was leading me. And then one day, it all snapped into place.
TM: What’s next for you after the release of Her Body and Other Parties?
CMM: I recently sold a memoir to Graywolf—House in Indiana—which will be coming out in 2019, so next year I’ll be revising that. I’m also at work at a ton of other projects—a new story collection, an essay collection, and a few different novels, though whether or not those take is yet to be determined.
My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I’m not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous — or to appear to be so callous — as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively.
When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones — perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did.
Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis — a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo.
I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness:
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty.
I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes.
After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s great California book on the “vexed issue” of “a birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.)
Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it’s because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day’s commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter — in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children.
Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I’ve fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn’t want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it’s part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen — its cover an homage to another dead child — aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding.
I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single…story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation:
When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject — one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality — and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible.
I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns — my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea — with the solidarity Jain describes. I don’t understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself — they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it’s not super-hopeful, but what a line.)
I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski — “Erinna from Telos.” (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business.
Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things. The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes. This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby. I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer.
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Dan Chaon’s most recent novel, Await Your Reply, is a masterful tale of identity and how it’s made, stolen, and remade. The book, with its three interlocking stories, and locales as disparate as Las Vegas, Nebraska, and the Arctic, is intensely readable, but as Janet Maslin of The New York Times points out, “…the real pleasure in reading Mr. Chaon is less in finding out where he’s headed than in savoring what he accomplishes along the way.” Chaon is also the author of the novel, You Remind Me of Me, and two short story collections, Fitting Ends, and Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He was my creative writing teacher at Oberlin College, where he is the Irvin E. Houck Associate Professor of the Humanities.
The Millions: What really struck me about this book was how realistic and specific your characters felt, even as some of them dissolved and became nothing more than a name, a wardrobe, a series of gestures and ways of speaking. At the same time, though, other characters remained real—and, this isn’t exactly the right word—pure. How did you go about creating the different characters for this novel? How important was it that they all be believable, and what does that mean for this kind of book?
Dan Chaon: The book was written in little pieces, almost like a series of short-short stories in the beginning. When I started, I didn’t know anything but little glimmers—scenes—that eventually began to fit together. In general I don’t plan out my characters in advance. Mostly, I begin with images, moments—a severed hand in an ice bucket, a lighthouse on the prairie, a guy driving down the Dempster Highway toward the Arctic Ocean. Once I had the moment in my head, I began to circle out and try to understand the people who were involved. So I suspect that my experience of writing the book, and the discoveries that I made as I went along, are not so different from the readers’ experience. The characters all started out as “real” to me—I was getting to know them as I went along, the same way you get to know friends over time–and I was as shocked as anyone when some of them turned out to be fakes. You say that some of the characters “remained real—and this isn’t exactly the right word—pure,” –but I actually think this is exactly the right coinage. Pure. I really like that word. That’s one of the issues that I was thinking of when I was writing. What is a “real” self? What is a “pure” representation of character? Is it just a consistent set of behaviors? Is there something truly essential that makes you, you? I don’t think I came up with an answer, but it was fun to think about.
TM: In your acknowledgments, you write that Await Your Reply pays homage to various writers you’ve loved, from Ray Bradbury to Shirley Jackson to Peter Straub, among others. What was the extent of your “gestures and winks” toward their work? Is this your own playful, literary version of identity theft?
DC: One of my early jobs when I was first out of undergrad was as a DJ. This was back in the late eighties, when the concepts of the “mash-up” and sampling were still in their infancy. But there was something about that concept that I really, really liked—the way the songs seemed to be having a conversation with one another, and by being combined actually transformed into something new. I’d like to think that there’s some of that going on here, too. Many of the “samples” are tucked into the imagery, like Easter eggs: for example, readers of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym will recognize those birds that are circling Miles in the Arctic, with their cry of “tekeli-li!”; people who have seen Takashi Miike’s movie, The Audition, will recognize that horrific piano wire in Chapter 2; people who have read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House will notice echoes of poor Eleanor Vance’s final thoughts… and—well, let’s just say that there are a few dozen of these throughout the book, which some people might enjoy finding themselves. But my intent wasn’t merely to create a bunch of cute in-jokes, either. To a larger extent, I was using these little touchstones to draw forth a particular texture and mood. For me, it was almost an invocation, a séance. That Ouija Board is in Jay’s house for a reason!
As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read. Occasionally, an interviewer will ask: “Who are you writing for? Who is your audience?” And in many ways the answer is that I’m writing for those authors I’ve loved, and the books I’ve loved. If you’re an avid reader, and a book gets under your skin, it can affect you as intensely as a real human relationship, it lingers with you for your whole life, and there is always this desire to re-experience that amazing sense of connection you get from “your books.” I understand completely why people want to write fan fiction. To me, I guess, all fiction is fan fiction at a certain level, just as it always has an element of identity theft.
TM: Do you see your novel as a kind of Nabokovian puzzle, to be unwrapped and unlocked by discerning readers of the future? How far does the rabbit hole go?
DC: As much as I’m flattered by the term “Nabokovian,” I’m not sure that I’m capable of that level of gamesmanship. I’m sure that a literary critic could footnote the hell out of the book, but I suspect that a great number of the references she’d find here would be unintentional, or accidental, or drawn unconsciously from the cultural ether. A couple of years ago, I wrote the Afterward for the Signet Classic edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and one of the things that struck me, re-reading that novel for the first time in many years, was how much of my recollection of the book was simply wrong. Major scenes that I remembered vividly simply weren’t there in the text. In fact, as it turned out, my memory of Dr. Jekyll had been so radically infected by the enormous number of other representations that were floating around in the culture—movies and comics and parodies and so forth—that it was difficult to read the “real” version without filling in aspects from the version I’d imagined, the version that I’d pieced together out of a vast array of cultural detritus. None of which had existed when the actual book was written. I hope that something similar may happen to readers of Await Your Reply, and that in this way the “rabbit hole” goes on into Fibonacci-like infinity. I set out to draw on some of the archetypal plots that I had always found most compelling—the Bluebeard story, the evil twin story, the mythology of shapeshifters, legends of ghosts and haunted places and fruitless quests into the wastelands—all of which, of course, were viral memes for centuries before the internet existed. I suspect that the reader will be reminded of a whole set of references and touchstones as they read—but that their footnotes would be idiosyncratic, a kind of private, Kinbote-like appendix for each individual reader.
TM: This novel is ingeniously structured, with three narratives that eventually overlap and lock together. Part of the fun of reading it is figuring that puzzle out. How did you put together this little narrative machine? None of it feels accidental—but can that be?
DC: When I started out, I didn’t have any idea how the three threads were connected. I just knew that they were—somehow. The first hundred pages of the book took me about two years to write. I revised and revised, and fiddled around with the personalities of the characters, and added and deleted subplots and minor characters—basically trying to frame out the farmland that I was going to be working with, cutting brush and taking rocks out of the soil and so forth. The second hundred pages took about nine months. This was when I began to use cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, leaving each thread with an unanswered question that I had to figure out, and that pushed things forward for me more quickly. At this point, I was showing the book chapter by chapter to my editor, Anika Streitfeld, and to my wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz. They would each give me a little feedback and I’d float various plot concepts—which Anika or Sheila or both of them would frequently, kindly, shoot down, or talk me through. The last hundred pages was written in a little less than two months, but it really wasn’t until the final few chapters that I truly had everything figured out. The last bit of plot clicked into place the way a difficult math problem sometimes does. Bing! Suddenly it seems so obvious! And I remember e-mailing Anika at about four in the morning. “Does this sound crazy???” I had to go back and do some adjustment and revision—but it was actually quite surprising to me to discover how much of the plot was already there, embedded in the narrative without my noticing. It didn’t actually require a lot of rewriting. My wife Sheila died of cancer not long after I’d finished the final revisions, and it’s both difficult and comforting now to look at this book, since there is so much of her in it, chapter by chapter: her advice and thoughts and spirit. She wrote in pencil on the last page of the last chapter: “You did it, honey!” But really we did it together.
TM: As Await Your Reply progresses, it hearkens more and more to an old-fashioned thriller or horror tale, with its level of suspense, its secrets and plot revelations, and its pervading sense of unease. This, for me, felt simultaneously like a departure and continuation from your earlier work, if that makes any sense. What say you?
DC: I’ve been deeply influenced by two strains of North American fiction: first, by the realistic regionalism of writers like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Sherwood Anderson, and so forth; and secondly, by writers of dark fantasy like Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Ray Bradbury, etc. I’ve tended to be categorized more with the former group, the regional realists, but I think that you could make a good case to classify my work with the latter as well. My short story collection, Among the Missing, was strongly influenced by the tradition of ghostly and supernatural tales, and my first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was drawing very heavily from tales of psychological suspense and Kafkaesque otherworldliness—not intended to be straightforward melodrama, though I think it was often taken as such. I learned a lot about novel-writing from You Remind Me of Me—the effects that I wanted, and those that I didn’t—and I deliberately wanted to go back to the multiple narrative, round-robin style of storytelling, and see if I could build on what I had figured out. Around the time I was finishing You Remind Me of Me, I also happened to write a story for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon. Chabon’s project was to combine so-called literary writing with pulp and genre storytelling elements, and I was very much inspired by what he had to say. I felt like the story I wrote, “The Bees,” was a breakthrough for me, and I learned a lot from writers like Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Arthur Phillips, Kevin Brockmeier—and many others—who were doing interesting work with genre-bending. I have to say, though, that perhaps the biggest cultural influences on the novel were my teenaged sons, Philip and Paul, and the books and movies and TV shows that they loved and which permeated our household—Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy of books, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the TV show “Lost,” the films Fight Club and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all the various good, smart stuff which one or both of my kids were obsessed with…
TM: In a 2004 interview with Poets and Writers Magazine, you remarked: “I’ve written stories since I was a little kid. To me there’s something compelling about being a different person for a little while and trying out a different kind of life.” I couldn’t help but read Await Your Reply as partly a meditation on fiction writing and reading. In the book, when Ryan muses that identities are like shells that “you stepped into and that began to solidify over time… They began to take on a life of their own, developed substance,” I thought of my own creative process of inhabiting characters. And Ryan’s sadness after retiring an identity articulated so well that peculiar grief of finishing a manuscript, or a beloved book. Were these nods to the writing and reading life intentional? Furthermore, do you think fiction writing is somewhat criminal—is it a weird invasion of privacy, this theft and composite of various real lives? Do readers understand best the lure of identity theft, the chance to live another’s life for a while? And, when you spend a large part of your time making up stories and reading made up stories, where does real life begin and end? What makes some human beings real, and some fictional?
DC: Gee, Edan. You articulate things so well here that I barely have to answer! Yes to all of these. I think that as a teacher of creative writing, it’s inevitable that you think a lot about the creative process, and that you spend a lot of time trying to articulate how it works and why it is important, especially in a world that students face in which this kind of thinking isn’t taken seriously, when it’s seen as frivolous—or worse. One of the things that I talk about frequently with my students is the act of empathy—the act of trying to imagine yourself in the position of someone else—and the way this can be scary, and transgressive, and even dangerous. One of my assignments in my fiction class is to ask students to write from the point of view of someone radically different from themselves—to speak in the voice of a different gender or ethnicity or class, to try to think as far outside themselves as they can go, to try to inhabit that person—and for many of my students this feels perilous, even morally problematic.
I remember one time we had a discussion in class about a sensational news story. An insane woman had kidnapped a pregnant mother, and had killed the mother and performed a c-section and claimed the baby as her own. A truly horrifying tale. And we had been talking about it in class, and I asked: which character would you choose if you were writing a story? The pregnant mother or the insane woman who took the baby? At that point, a young woman spoke up, a sophomore. “My God!” she said. “The ghost of that dead woman is probably spitting on us as we sit here talking about this!” I think that was you, Edan, who was so appalled. I remember that it gave me pause: At what point does imagining, does the attempt to inhabit, become wrong? At what point does it become morally repugnant? I still think: never. But I understand that it’s fraught, that it’s compromised, that it’s suspect. That it’s an invasion that borders on—or crosses over into—the criminal. During the writing of this book, I followed the exploits of a number of trolls who used invented personas to invade and then (often hilariously) disrupt various solemn internet message boards. I read about a depressed teen who was goaded into suicide by a cruel classmate’s mother who was pretending to be the poor girl’s “boyfriend” on MySpace. I myself set up a dummy email address and briefly tried out various fake personas to see what would happen.
Where does real life begin and end? What makes some human beings real, and some fictional? I don’t know the answer. For better or worse, the answers to these questions seem to be changing all the time, and maybe there is no true answer.
TM: There’s an incredibly eerie and memorable second-person chapter at the end of Part One, where the narrator describes “your” identity being stolen, which, “Isn’t necessarily you, of course…you are aware of your life as a continuous thread, a dependable unfolding story of yourself that you are telling yourself.” This chapter has the great power of planting paranoia in the reader’s mind, and forces her to question her own identity and notions of self. As I kept reading, though, I found myself feeling paranoid about everything in the book—pretty soon I couldn’t trust anyone! Um, Dan? How in the hell did you do this?
DC: This chapter emerged from a late night free-write, which wasn’t originally intended to be anything but a journal entry. I was at a point when I needed to try to explain to myself what the book was about, and this was one of the few chapters (the final chapter, Chapter 26, is the other) which came out in one draft, with very little revision. It felt like an inner voice that was speaking to me—a very eerie feeling for me as well.
TM: About the aforementioned chapter: why the second person? It’s interesting, because while it’s about identity theft, it’s not taking away my identity, but, rather, giving me a different one. In the text, I’m pulling off a snowy interstate—“And you wipe off the snow in your hair”—when in fact this reader lives in Los Angeles! What went into this particular narrative choice?
DC: The narrative movement of this chapter was weird for me. Originally, the narrator felt like me, Dan Chaon, the author—but then it moved into a more chilly and abstract omniscience, as if a little spark of myself had disconnected and was free-floating through the world, out-of-the-body travel, and then I found myself hovering over a stranger and entering into his consciousness. Becoming part of the scene, and taking on his life story and personality. I realize now that I was trying to model the process of transference—to describe in shorthand the way imaginative empathy works. “You” are not in Los Angeles any longer. You have become that melancholy middle-aged guy pumping gas in upstate New York.
There is a poem by my friend Liz Rosenberg called “The Accident,” which I think about a lot. In the poem, a woman who is driving down the interstate observes the death of a motorcyclist from a distance, and there is an incredibly beautiful use of second person that I have always admired. “You are still you, but changing fast,” says the narrator of Liz Rosenberg’s poem, and she is both talking to the dying motorcycle guy and to herself.
TM: Has teaching at Oberlin influenced you as a writer? How do you manage to give students a sense of artistic freedom, while also offering them straightforward advice on technique and form?
DC: I love teaching, and I particularly like that moment when a student begins to discover the subject matter and voice that makes them unique. That’s a real high for me and it’s what keeps me coming back, semester after semester. It’s such a pleasure to be around people who care passionately about books and writing and who have singular perspectives about the world, which is what I find almost across the board with Oberlin students. I do find that I learn a lot from students, too. The thing about teaching fiction is that there isn’t one answer to a problem—there’s no rulebook or easy fix. I learn a lot about my own process from helping students find solutions to the various issues that emerge when you’re working through a draft. Not to get all new-agey, but there’s a lot of good energy that comes out of it.
TM: Have you noticed any popular themes or concepts in this current era of undergraduate writers?
DC: I notice a lot more post-apocalyptic scenarios these days, and I’m aware that as a generation this new group is pretty scared and pessimistic about the future they’re being left with. In general, there’s less interest in straightforward realism than there used to be. It remains very difficult to get anyone under 21 interested in Alice Munro or William Trevor, but I guess that’s as it should be. It’s hard, at my students’ age, to be sympathetic with the very middle-aged concerns of those two greats. All in good time, right?
TM: Because this is a book site, and because I know for a fact that you are a voracious, insane reader, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?
DC: Lies Will Take You Somewhere, by my wife, Sheila Schwartz—and not just because we were married, either. I learned nearly everything I know about writing from her, and it’s a flat-out brilliant book: dark, funny, and strange in all the right ways.