In the year 1999, Dan Chaon became my creative writing teacher. He was very young, and had just one book so far, a story collection called Fitting Ends, published by Northwestern University Press. I was basically a freckled zygote in red clogs who had no clue how to write a scene, much less a series of them. Dan showed me what was what, and he also said, Hey, read some Joy Williams, read some Lorrie Moore, do you know who Alice Munro is? Dan read everything, it seemed, and I was inspired to follow his example. In the years since, he has gone on to publish a second story collection, Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and two novels, including Await Your Reply, and then a third collection called Stay Awake. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can say, without reservation, that he is one of my favorite writers, living or dead, right up there with Edith Wharton and Margaret Atwood. His work is ambitious and weird. His characters are complicated and usually damaged, they make the wrong choices, they feel real. His prose is musical, and his imagery is at once startling and accurate. He writes stories that are compelling: stuff happens!
Ill Will is about a man named Dustin whose boyhood testimony sent his adopted brother, Rusty, to prison for killing their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, 30 years later, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin is forced to face the past he’s so diligently pushed out of his mind. But since this is a Dan Chaon book, there are other, equally striking and dark narrative threads. Dustin’s wife is dying. One of his sons is losing control of his life. One of his therapy clients is obsessed with a string of drowning deaths, and he draws Dustin into his amateur investigation. This is a novel about grief, about being unable to accept reality, and about the myriad ways we trick ourselves about our selves.
Dan was nice enough to answer some questions I had about the book via email. He said the first one felt like “a trap.” Read at your own peril.
The Millions: I was reading your book on Election Day and during the aftermath, too, when I have honestly never been more terrified for the future…and I wrote a post-apocalyptic novel for god’s sake! The night of November 8th, I actually willed myself away from the TV and the Internet and went to read in my bedroom, trying to calm myself. It worked, for a while, because your novel is wonderfully immersive — as a reader you want to know what exactly happened to Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle, and you’re so deeply inside the characters’ consciousnesses that it’s impossible to think of any world but theirs. Can you talk about creating an immersive experience on the page?
Dan Chaon: Edan, this is one of those lead-ins that feels like a trap. Like, you ask me: “What makes you so immersive?” And I’m like, “Uh…you tell me?” Cuz I don’t know. I know that there’s definitely some people who are disappointed and bored by the crap I write, and then there are people who like it, but I don’t have any control over it at all.
All I can say is that I personally fell into this story and that it managed to colonize my imagination for many years.
As a teenager in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the serial killer novels that were popular then, and I’ve always been a fan of the thriller genre, so as a writer I wanted to try my hand at it. At the same time, Ill Will is a deeply personal project, and I found that having the framework of the genre allowed me to write about grief and loss and self-deception more directly and honestly than I would have if I’d been writing a more autobiographical book. For some reason, the two things hooked together, and I had a “fantasy world” that was powered by my real emotion, which I think is the exact vehicle that you need when you’re writing fiction.
In terms of an “immersive experience,” readers’ mileage may vary. I was trying to find a balance between writing a straight-up Silence of the Lambs style procedural, and something more personal and idiosyncratic. I hope that there is enough here to satisfy readers of both genres.
TM: I wonder if you feel if your writing has changed, or will change, in this Trump era. Do you have a different job, as a writer of fictive worlds, than you did before he took power?
DC: This is such a hard question to answer. I’m writing this on Feb. 8, 2017, and it’s only a few weeks into Trump’s presidency, so I have no idea where we’ll be when this interview is published. I have never experienced this degree of destabilization before — I don’t have any idea what shape the world will be in when my book comes out next month. We might be at war. There might be riots. I’m guessing, though, that everything won’t be fine. Hi, people of the future! From Dan, in February 2017! YOLO!
But to answer your question from my current innocent position, I don’t know. I think we create fiction from the sewage that we are swimming in, and that whatever the world feels like at the moment will always infuse the fiction that we’re writing, like a tea bag in hot water.
I wouldn’t have anticipated that the concerns of this book—self-deception, fake news, manipulation, denial—would be so pertinent when the book came out. There may be a slight case of prescience in it, but I wouldn’t call it luck.
TM: This world you immerse your readers in is also a bleak one: four people were brutally killed decades earlier; Dustin’s wife is dying of cancer; Dustin’s son Aaron is addicted to heroin and floating through his grief; Cleveland is in post-industrial rot. But it’s also funny. I laughed out loud quite a few times, especially during Aaron’s millennial narration. Stuff like: “I never understood why people from the 1980s thought there’d be flying cars. It just seemed really dangerous and impractical to me, but they all talked about it, so it must have been a thing. Meanwhile, my dream for the future was that it wouldn’t involve mass extinction and large-scale water shortages and cannibalism.” Your work has always had this strain of twisted amusement, but it feels amped up here. Was this deliberate?
DC: I’m always cautious about the word “deliberate,” because so much of the tone of a piece feels outside of my conscious control. I actually found myself kind of unnerved that, for some reason, large stretches of the bleak and horrible landscape of Ill Will were hilarious to me. Maybe some degree of levity was necessary for me, as a writer, in order to get through some of the darkest parts of the book. Looking back, I can see that the Aaron and Rusty sections of the book were definitely inspired by the rhythms of stand-up comics, and the mordant tone of certain writers I find funny — like George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte — was also an influence.
TM: I’ve never read such a poignant and visceral depiction of grief before — you show how it dislocates and obliterates us, and you often do that formally, by stopping a sentence midway, for instance, or including many spaces between sentences. A couple of times, you place scenes in columns, so that they appear side-by-side, occurring separately but simultaneously. This formal play surprised and exhilarated me, and it was effective: it truly felt like lived experience to me, and how our brains process trauma. Did you feel like the novel, as it’s traditionally written, simply couldn’t express what you needed to express? Where in the writing did this experimentation occur, and can you talk about the various approaches and why you took these leaps?
DC: I have a classroom exercise for my creative writing students called the “Box Exercise.” I have students create a table with three columns and two rows, exactly the size of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. The assignment is that each of the six boxes contains a scene of a story. I wanted to force them to be concise, and to think about the way scenes work together like building blocks. It’s useful for the students to be able to see all the scenes together at once.
I was inspired to create the exercise by a couple of things. Firstly, I spent a little time working in a writer’s room for a (failed) TV show, and the process of “breaking story” was fascinating to me, the way we put each individual scene on an index card and pinned it to a bulletin board, so that the story was represented not just in words, but graphically, visually. I was also inspired by a chapter of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which is rendered as a powerpoint presentation.
In any case, I loved the results I got from the students when they did this exercise. By forcing them to work in these very tight, elliptical spaces, the exercise seemed to give them a creative jolt, and I was so taken with it that I started using the exercise myself, during free-writes. Eventually, it became so deeply embedded into the texture of the book that I kept the weird formatting.
My editor was a little doubtful about it at first — and it was an incredible pain in the ass during the typesetting process — but I’m really happy that we were able to retain it, because I do think it conveys something that couldn’t be expressed in a different way.
TM: There were so many memorable names in the novel, like Dustin’s cousin named Waverna, who is called Wave when she’s younger, and Dustin’s son’s friend, nicknamed Rabbit, and my favorite: Xzavious Reinbolt, who also goes by…Amy. These names were endlessly delightful to me, and also realistic (I mean, my own name is crazy, right?) Can you talk about naming these characters and how they contribute to the overall tone of the book?
DC: I steal names from my students, as you know — there is a character named Eden in one of the stories in my collection Stay Awake, for example. I also steal from friends and acquaintances, and from my children’s friends, and from random websites. Dusty and Rusty were two kids I knew in grade school, and Rabbit owned a bar that my parents liked to go to. The last name Tillman was taken from the musician Joshua Tillman, who sings under the name Father John Misty. I stumbled across the name Xzavious Reinbolt when I was doing a Google image search for arrest mugshots.
Names are weirdly important to me. I want them to be realistic in a way — to evoke a certain social class and region and time period and mood — but I also need them to have a music to them, to evoke something that has the quality of a dream or a fable, hopefully without being too cartoonish or distracting.
I don’t know if it’s superstition or magic or what, but for me a name somehow breathes life into a puppet, gives shape to an abstraction. The characters often refuse to perform unless they have been properly christened.
TM: You were raised in Nebraska and live in Cleveland now, and these are the landscapes in your work. I’m pretty sure I’m one of those latte-drinking, kale-eating coastal elites, and while reading your novel I was reminded that there aren’t that many contemporary literary novels set in the places you write about. Or I’m not reading them. There’s also a lot of class stuff. There’s a great moment when Dustin recalls his wife saying that he wasn’t merely unlucky, as he believes, just raised poor — she says that bad stuff happens to poor people. What’s the role of place in your fiction? And how present is class for you, as you’re thinking about a character and their sense of themselves in the world?
DC: I like kale too, Edan! Especially baby kale, in a smoothie with mango and bananas! But it tastes different in Cleveland than it does in San Francisco.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that social class is actually my big subject. It’s often a dirty word in political discussions, and easy to dismiss when compared to its companion, race. Generally, race is something that can’t be escaped or hidden; class, on the other hand, is a marker that’s far more nebulous, and part of the American delusion, for both the left and the right, is that it can be left behind, slipped out of like a suit of clothes.
This is true to some extent, I think. I’m a good example. I was raised in a working class family, and many of my relatives existed below the poverty line — rural poor, trailer park poor. My mother’s parents lived in a house without an indoor toilet. They had an outhouse.
But I am very distant from that world now. I went to college at Northwestern, and the majority of my adult life has been spent in one form or another of middle-class or upper-middle-class life. I’m a college professor, and I earn a good living from my writing as well. I’m a plump, privileged white liberal, and I don’t think you’d be able to tell that I’ve ever been any different.
But I feel different. I feel like an imposter a lot of the time.
Class means many different things beyond income. It’s an attitude, too: there are people who are “classy,” there’s a way of moving through the world with confidence, an unknowing entitlement. There are people who come from “good families,” whatever their finances say. Class is an invisible tattoo that marks your spirit, and I thought it would eventually go away, but now that I’m in my 50s I’m starting to think it won’t.
Dustin’s right: it’s about luck. People who are born comfortable are lucky, but they don’t know it. I have lived among them for more than half my life, and my observation is that there is always a part of them that feels like they deserved it. They don’t even realize how deeply the idea of “meritocracy” is built into their worldview. Even if they would never admit it, they secretly feel that they earned their advantages somehow: poor people were not as smart, not as sensible, not as well-bred. If they just tried a little harder.
Well. I did try harder. I threw away everyone I grew up with, gladly. I left for college and never went back, and I pretended to be my own creation, no nature or nurture either, just a self-invented person. See? I’m just like you, readers of The Millions. My life is so different from some of my cousins’ lives that we may as well live in different universes, but I achieved that by chopping off big parts of myself.
I think those severed limbs are the ghosts that haunt my writing. They come in the form of Rusty, the enraged, dangerous foster kid who is smarter than you, but who was doomed the minute he got dumped out of the womb; they come in the form of Aaron, who has everything he needs for a good, happy life, but runs toward the arms of disaster as if it’s his only true love. They are parts of myself that I have murdered, but they won’t stay buried. They come in the form of Dustin, a man so split from his past life that he can’t even remember it. Whole lives are dedicated to not thinking about something.
TM: I usually ask writers in these Millions interviews what the last great book they read was, but since I know you consume not just books passionately, but also music, television, and movies, can you share with us what art and pop culture, of any kind, you’ve been enjoying lately?
I loved the movie Moonlight, and am looking forward to seeing Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele.
I am still faithful to the television show The Walking Dead, even though it is often disappointing. I also watch Vikings and the Netflix show Sens8, and yes, Westworld.
My favorite podcast of last year was called “In the Dark,” produced by APM Reports.
As far as video games go, I played Dark Souls III for a while in 2016, but now I am back on Skyrim again.