With his fourth novel and sixth book, Sleepwalk, Dan Chaon wants to show he can be lighter of heart and not just depressive. Chaon’s work is notably dark (and acclaimed—his books regularly appear on best books lists and have been nominated for many prizes, including the National Book Award). His previous novel, the chilling and bestselling Ill Will, had, he says, “death, and a lot of grief and self-deception, which is why, for Sleepwalk, I wrote about a mercenary who engages in human trafficking!”
With Sleepwalk, Chaon says he was inspired by his biological father, whom he met when he was 30. (Chaon is now 56.) “I was thinking about his voice,” he says. “He was a real character with a distinct way of talking. He had a Big Lebowski accent with some corn pone added, a weird mix that I’d never heard before. We had a complicated relationship, but he was significant in my life.”
In Sleepwalk, Will Bear, the middle-aged protagonist, is living under the radar, microdosing LSD dissolved in vodka as he drives around the country with Flip, a 60-pound pit bull mix, in The Guiding Star, his custom-built motor home. Bear does all sorts of sketchy jobs for a nefarious organization, keeps a bucket of burner phones in the front seat, and operates under several aliases.
Will Bear is classic Chaon: “I have to keep myself clean—that’s one of my main selling points,” he says in the novel. “I don’t officially exist. I don’t have an address or a social security number or a credit rating, I’ve never had an email, or a Facebook page, or a Wi-Fi connected phone. I’m a blank Scrabble piece, and that’s not easy to find these days.”
But Bear also has real empathy. In one particularly sticky situation, Bear “shoots the big one in the forehead and he drops like a horse,” Chaon writes. “The one with the flashlight draws his gun and I shoot him in the arm and then in the eye and he falls too. It saddens me immediately. I wish I could have worked it out differently.”
Everything’s copacetic in Bear’s world, until he relents and finally picks up one of his ringing phones to hear the voice of a young woman claiming he could be her biological father from a long-ago sperm bank donation. The plot gets complicated from there.
“I got into this book and fell in love with the situation and an alternative America that’s not so different from America today,” Chaon says. “Also, Sleepwalk is a driving novel, and I drive a lot. I was constantly looking for details on the road. So there’s personal experience in the book and stuff from the news. I had a dystopian idea in the beginning, and in the end the dystopia caught up with me.”
Chaon grew up in a Nebraska town of 30. “There wasn’t a lot to do,” he says. “I started sending out stories when I was 14. I wrote a lot of letters. I had so much time.” He even wrote a symphony and sent it to the New York Philharmonic.
The letters, it turned out, were a path to his future. One story went to Reginald Gibbons at Northwestern University’s TriQuarterly magazine. Gibbons didn’t want the story, but he suggested Chaon apply to Northwestern (which he did), and they began a correspondence.
Chaon’s other pen pal was Ray Bradbury. They wrote all through Chaon’s high school days. “I actually met him years later at the L.A. Festival of the Book,” he says. “He was the one who encouraged me to send my stories out.”
Chaon’s agent, Renee Zuckerbrot at Massie & McQuilkin, had long admired his work, and when she met him at a festival in Paris he mentioned he might be looking for new representation. She signed him in 2016. “Dan has this universe and keeps adding to it,” she says. “He’s grounded; he always delivers, always meets his deadlines. I wish I could clone him.”
In March 2017 she saw a few paragraphs of Sleepwalk, and at the end of that month she sent out one page of the book with a 25-page submission letter about Chaon, with descriptions of each of his books. “It was a calculated risk,” she says, but it resulted in a two-day “spirited auction” with six bidders.
Ballantine, Chaon’s longtime publisher, participated, but the two-book deal for North American rights and audio went to Holt for what Zuckerbrot says was a very high six figures.
Holt editor Caroline Zancan says, “I’ve been pinching myself at my good fortune.” She became Chaon’s editor in September 2020 (Michael Signorelli was the acquiring editor). “I was there when the auction happened,” she recalls. “Everyone in-house said, ‘Yes, we have to have it.’ ”
Zancan says that Chaon hadn’t finished Sleepwalk when she took it over. “It’s a literary book, but it’s also a page-turner, and I was tearing through it. When I got him on the phone, all I wanted to know was, how does it end? I had to wait four months.” She adds, “Everything we love about Dan’s writing is there, but the book is funny. He’s confronting the evils of our time, but there’s a joy and a lightness. He doesn’t bog you down with them.”
An editor’s job is twofold, Zancan believes: the inward work is to make the book as good as it can be, and the outward work is to get it into as many hands as possible to make it a success. “I’ve been overjoyed at the response,” she says. “His fans are everywhere. I’m getting blurbs right after I ask for them, which isn’t always the case.”
The take on Chaon is that his warmth and accessibility come through in his writing. As Zuckerbrot says, “He’s the real deal.” Not so far off from Will Bear—minus the murder and mayhem.
This post was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.