COLUMBIA — Dan Chaon began writing “Await Your Reply” with three images: a dried up lake, a severed hand and someone driving away in the middle of the night.
At first, Chaon didn’t realize what kind of story he was writing. “About 120 pages in, I realized that I didn’t know at all what was going to happen,” he said.
As part of this year’s One Read program, Chaon visited Columbia on Friday to talk about his novel and writing techniques, and answer readers’ questions. He spoke to a crowd of about 200 people in Columbia College's Launer Auditorium.
For Chaon, the major themes in “Await Your Reply” emerged gradually.
Some of the novel is set in Nebraska, a place Chaon calls “one of the most ominous landscapes in the country.”
“I was interested in the ways in which certain kinds of American landscapes have this kind of slightly dreamlike and surreal, and maybe ominous, quality," Chaon said. "And that includes the Nebraska landscape where I grew up. There’s this sense of endless sky, endless horizon, endless flatland. I think for some people it just rips the soul out of you.”
Some of the inspiration for “Await Your Reply” came from Chaon’s own experiences.
He recalled visiting a lake in Nebraska that was experiencing a drought. There was a fishing pier and lighthouse, but it “was just sand and scrub and tumbleweed,” Chaon said.
“There were all these icons of my childhood that had vanished," he said. "There was something so apocalyptic about that.”
Even songs Chaon listened to as a teenager, in particular Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," inspired him.
“That idea of going out for a ride and never coming back was attractive to me growing up in a small town in Nebraska,” Chaon said.
Most readers enjoyed Chaon’s book, but a few did take issue with some of his themes and style.
One woman asked why Chaon chose to portray Hayden, a mentally disabled character, as evil. Chaon admitted he may not have dealt with the issue entirely correctly in the novel, but also said he didn’t see Hayden as “necessarily evil.”
Chaon based Hayden’s character off Internet hackers and trolls — people who intentionally seek to disrupt online forums — whom he described as similar to “mean junior high boys.”
“A lot of their behavior isn’t necessarily evil with its intent, but it can lead to sorrow and destruction,” Chaon said. “A lot of these people seem really smart, really thoughtful and really misguided more than they seem like evil criminals.”
Kit Salter, a Columbia resident who attended the talk, didn’t enjoy the book and wondered why it was selected for One Read.
“The first chapter is off-putting. And by the time I was to page 80, I did not find anything to make it worthwhile,” Salter said.
Chaon admitted that his book wasn’t for everybody and welcomed Salter’s opinion.
“I did my best to make the characters likable and interesting to me," Chaon said. "I can’t really control how other people respond to them."
Chaon said he enjoyed participating in the talk, as well as answering the wide range of questions.
“I’m really excited about the idea of the One Read program,” Chaon said. “Books are culturally off to the side. It’s a great way for the community to come together and talk about books.”