Longing to get on with his life, Miles Cheshire nevertheless can’t stop searching for his troubled twin brother, Hayden, who has been missing for ten years. Hayden has covered his tracks skillfully, moving stealthily from place to place, managing along the way to hold down various jobs and seem, to the people he meets, entirely normal. But some version of the truth is always concealed.
A few days after graduating from high school, Lucy Lattimore sneaks away from the small town of Pompey, Ohio, with her charismatic former history teacher. They arrive in Nebraska, in the middle of nowhere, at a long-deserted motel next to a dried-up reservoir, to figure out the next move on their path to a new life. But soon Lucy begins to feel quietly uneasy.
My whole life is a lie, thinks Ryan Schuyler, who has recently learned some shocking news. In response, he walks off the Northwestern University campus, hops on a bus, and breaks loose from his existence, which suddenly seems abstract and tenuous. Presumed dead, Ryan decides to remake himself--through unconventional and precarious means.
Await Your Reply is a literary masterwork with the momentum of a thriller, an unforgettable novel in which pasts are invented and reinvented and the future is both seductively uncharted and perilously unmoored.
People sometimes ask me, "What was your inspiration for this book?" Which is a harder question to answer than you would think.
I always wish that a novel would just pop into my head, fully formed, laid out like a blueprint of a house, and all I had to do was follow the instruction manual. But it never seems to work out this way. Instead, it feels as if you got dropped off in some wilderness area with the vague knowledge of what a house looks like, and so you began to gather materials... rocks and acorns and pieces of wood and so forth. Will it all hold together? Keep your fingers crossed.
In the case of Await Your Reply, the building materials came from random and unpredictable places. I gathered inspiration from songs; from weird, sketchy images that I’d write down in a notebook. ("Possible plot: severed hand in ice cooler?"); from spam e-mails (one of which gave the book its title); from odd news items I came across (the drying-up of a lake in Nebraska where I spent many childhood vacations.)
And of course I got inspiration from books. Maybe more than from anything else, this book can trace its roots back to my childhood, to the stories and novels that I loved when I was a child. I grew up in a very tiny town in Western Nebraska, one of those villages of the great plains that grew up alongside the Union Pacific railroad line, with a tower of a grain elevator at the center and a little smatter of houses around it. Population, approximately 50. I was the only kid my age in town, and so I spent a lot of time by myself, "sitting around with my nose in a book," as my grandmother said.
My grandmother imagined that a healthy childhood involved a lot of running around coltishly and hearty eating and cheerful chore-doing. Maybe hunting rabbits in my spare time or building a treehouse.
Instead, I skulked about. I found a shady corner out by the lilac bushes, or in one of the abandoned sheds on our neighbor’s property, or in the high weeds and hills that lay out beyond town, and I stuck my nose in one unsavory book after another.
My grandmother wasn’t completely opposed to reading, but when she looked at the titles and covers of the books I liked, she frowned. Here was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, about a lonely girl whose entire family was murdered; here was The Other by Thomas Tryon, about a boy and his evil twin. Here were stories by H.P. Lovecraft and Daphne Du Maurier, and anthologies that were ostensibly edited by Alfred Hitchcock: Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful. Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery. Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories to Read with the Lights On. I can’t say why, exactly, I was drawn to such creepy, sinister stories, but I do remember how much I loved the sense of dread and anticipation they evoked, the way I myself longed for the urgency of hidden secrets, how much I liked the idea that the ordinary world was not really ordinary once you peeked below the surface.
As I got older, I read such books less and less. In college, I developed a taste for the short fiction of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff and Alice Munro, and I gravitated toward the novels of Nabokov and Henry James and Julio Cortazar.
Still, I found myself turning back to those childhood favorites in recent years--not least because I had kids of my own, boys who were going through the same intense love of the creepy and sinister and fantastic. But I also felt as if I was reconnecting with old friends. 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 those authors you loved in the past.
Thinking back, I can see how Await Your Reply really started back in childhood--with that longing for mystery and suspense and secrets and surprises. In many ways, this novel is a love letter to those books that I couldn’t get enough of as a kid, and maybe a love letter to the kid that I once was. Here’s the book that I was vaguely dreaming about, though it’s also maybe a warning. Be careful what you wish for.--Don Chaon
(Photo © Philip Chaon)