Dan Chaon Isn’t Shy about His Obsessions
The author of the new literary thriller ‘Ill Will’ talks about self-deception, self-discipline and a plot fifteen years in the making
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Dan Chaon knows to trust what pops into his mind. His latest book, Ill Will, is a thriller about self-deception and what happens when memories fail us. The novel follows a middle aged psychologist who, as a child, accused his adopted brother of causing the deaths of his parents, aunt and uncle. The two are now adults, and the brother has been exonerated of the crime. It’s a story that first came to Chaon over a decade ago, but he trusted himself enough not to write it — yet. Years later, characters, plot, and setting eventually fell into place, and Chaon knew the thriller was finally ready to be written.
In addition to his writing, Chaon teaches creative writing at Oberlin College. I reached him by phone the day Ill Will was published. We talked about why the mind fascinates him, how teaching has helped him creatively, why he might want to write a western, and more.
Adam Vitcavage: Congratulations on the publication of Ill Will. It’s out for the world to read. How are you feeling?
Dan Chaon: Kind of nervous. It’s always weird watching the reviews come in.
Vitcavage: Still weird even after three books and a few short story collections?
Chaon: Yeah. There’s always the fear that it’s going to be a disaster. This is a weird book, so who knows?
Vitcavage: Well, you’ve published a lot and people clearly like what you produce. How do you keep plot ideas fresh so that they’re exciting to you, but will still be enjoyed by your established readership?
Chaon: I guess I don’t really think about them. I don’t know who they are. I know there are people out there who like my works. If they do like them, they’re going to like Ill Will because it’s trying to do something different instead of repeating what I’ve already done.
Vitcavage: When you’re coming up with idea for a short story of a novel, are you always looking for ideas to be vastly different than your last idea or are you just writing whatever comes natural? Is it a conscious effort?
Chaon: As much as I’m conscious of anything. I’m writing whatever I want to spend a lot of time with. There has to be some spark that makes you want to go back to it over and over. It might be because you like the mood. It could be like an album that you like the tone of, and you can’t stop listening to it. Or there could be a question in it that you keep wanting to dig. You may not even know what the question is.
That’s usually what it is for me. That’s maybe why I decide to go into something because I don’t know what the answer is. It’s more fun to write about something where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
Vitcavage: What was it about Ill Will that kept drawing you back to it while you were writing it?
Chaon: I think it’s the stuff about memory and about self-deception. Particularly this notion of what we know and what we don’t know about ourselves. That’s something I’ve been circling around for awhile. It’s something I’m super curious about. There are things that come out of you, and you don’t really know where they come from.
Vitcavage: I find the idea of hidden memory interesting — where you remember something that happened to you, or maybe you don’t. Or maybe it didn’t happen to you and you suppressed it out of your memory.
Vitcavage: Is that similar to the idea of deceit within yourself?
Chaon: I do think that that’s part of it. I’m also thinking about the idea of self-knowledge. Like having an idea of yourself that isn’t accurate, but you’ve closed off other kinds of knowledge to maintain that identity.
For instance there are plenty of assholes who don’t seem to know they’re assholes. The only way they’re not going to know that is if they’re closed off to certain types of knowledge.
Vitcavage: Some people have this asshole persona because they think it’s humorous. But when does the persona become the actual person? You’re lying to yourself on some level, but you might not even be aware of it.
Chaon: Right. I think that’s deeply built into the concept of repressed memory. The concept of the debunked idea of recovered memory syndrome. I do think there are plenty of people that form their lives around not trying to think too hard about disturbing thoughts.
Vitcavage: This book could be called ‘disturbing’ in certain places. It’s a physiological thriller, which pushes people to places they might not be comfortable with. You originally came up with the idea fifteen years ago, right?
Chaon: Yeah. My brother-in-law was a student at one of the University of Wisconsin satellite schools, where there was a drowning on campus. All of the kids had the idea that because there was a drowning on another campus, there was a serial killer. I thought it was a really interesting idea and I wrote it down, but I never really knew what to do with it. Eventually, it started to click in with this other stuff I was writing about.
Vitcavage: When did it click?
Chaon: Pretty recently. I started this book maybe three or four years ago. That’s when things started to churn around in a way that it felt like this was going to be a novel. It was just pieces, before.
Vitcavage: So these pieces came together naturally? You weren’t trying to shoehorn them together.
Chaon: No. I don’t think so. I always wanted to write a serial killer novel. This one doesn’t exactly end up as a serial killer novel, but it has the trappings of it.
Vitcavage: There’s this idea that genre books can’t be “literary.” Maybe that’s not even true anymore.
Chaon: I don’t think it’s so true anymore. I think some people are kind of snobby about it.
Vitcavage: Even my note for our chat read “mysteries are no longer confined to just a genre anymore.” I don’t think it’s true. I think a lot of things can be high brow or literary. Whatever you want to label it.
Chaon: I think high fantasy and really hardcore SF are still ghettoized pretty hard. I can’t really imagine Jonathan Franzen doing a Game of Thrones-type of thing. Although that would be awesome and hilarious. I think otherwise, Colson Whitehead did zombies, right?
Vitcavage: Even Underground Railroad is speculative in a way. I guess I was leaning toward trying to find out if you ever worry about being “too genre” — or is that even a thing?
Chaon: I think about genre, because genre gives you a container, it gives you a shape for something. Shape isn’t the first thing that comes to me. I tend to write in little pieces. Having a container is really useful.
I’m interested in genre as a given form. It’s like a sonnet, but you can do whatever you want in this form. I’d actually really like to try out a bunch of different genres before my life is over. Maybe try a western. Maybe try a spy thriller. Just because I like reading those things, so why shouldn’t I try to write one?
“I’m interested in genre as a given form. It’s like a sonnet, but you can do whatever you want in this form.”
Vitcavage: Do you have ideas you want for these genre stories?
Chaon :I have an idea for a western that I’m very interested in writing. It’s kind of based in the part of Nebraska that I grew up in. I’ve always been really interested in the fates of orphans, adopted children, and foster children. The fates of those kids in that particular period were interesting and fucked up.
Vitcavage: So thematically it will still fit into what you’ve written about.
Chaon: Yeah, into the stuff that obsesses me. The things that grab my brain.
Vitcavage: Some things I found interesting about this book — and I think a lot of people are gravitating toward this — are the multiple stylistic choices you made. Whether it’s text messages embedded into the story, or side-by-side columns of text, or the use of first-, second- and third-person narration. Were these things you’ve always wanted to try?
Chaon: I mean, it is something I wanted to try. Part of it stemmed out of an exercise that I gave my students. They were restricted to writing in small boxes. Each scene needed to fit into a box that fit onto a sixth of a page. That was done to teach them to be concise and teach them what a scene was. Then all of the stuff that came out of that exercise was cool, and it all had this sort of flowing poetic quality. I thought, “Wow, I want to try that.”
I also found a lot of what Jennifer Egan was doing in A Visit from the Goon Squad was inspiring. It helped me create the mood I wanted for Ill Will. It wasn’t done deliberately, as in — “I think I will do experiments with text in this novel.”
Vitcavage: Within the creative writing classes that you teach, is that the sort of projects you’re throwing at your students?
Chaon: I tend to be pretty exercise-based. Mostly because I think the one thing kids need more than anything is to learn how to generate work. At that age you don’t need a lot of heavy workshop criticism. I think it’s very damaging to young writers. They get these voices in their heads that they’re never able to get ride of. I try to teach them how to work past a block or methods to generate new work or how to experiment or play around with something. Even how to get to that fictional place that is sometimes hard to get to. I feel like I’m doing them more of a service if I do that than if I give them three pages of critical notes on a short story that they wrote in a week.
Vitcavage: Are these exercises things that you do yourself?
Chaon: A lot of them are. I’ve been working a lot with the cartoonist Lynda Barry. We run a workshop together on occasion, and the two of us have been working on this book of exercises that works both with writing fiction and writing comics. It’s been a really big inspiration for me, learning her techniques and sharing different ideas for exercises.
The two of us are doing a workshop at Clarion [Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at University of California — San Diego] this summer which is going to be really interesting. Then we’re doing another one at the Omega Institute in Upstate New York. Those are two very different climates, so it will be interesting.
Vitcavage: What are other excises you do yourself or give to your students?
Chaon: I have one exercise that breaks apart some of the elements of what I think go into writing a story. It breaks it up into little sections. You write one section that’s setting or one section where a conflict arises. Doing it in little pieces helps students think about what the elements of fiction are.
I have a similar one that’s just a character building exercise. I use it in conjunction with that Michael Ondaatje story “7 or 8 Things I Know About Her.” It starts with a general imitation of the Ondaatje story then works its way toward something a little further away from what he’s doing.
Vitcavage: What do you look for in eighteen or nineteen year olds’ writing?
Chaon: You look for some kind of sensitivity of language. Then for some kind of insight into their characters. I think there is a quality of observation where you notice if a student is looking at people and paying attention. They’re paying attention to their surroundings in a way that seems writerly or interesting to me.
I’m not necessarily looking for polish. It’s more that I’m looking for that observational spark that goes beyond what most people generally see. People generally see things in categories or easily digestible pieces. You’re looking for some kind of disturbance or a skewed point of view, in a sense.
Vitcavage: What’s something you wish younger writers would avoid?
Chaon: I hate to be prescriptive in that sort of way, but I think there’s an urge for students to try to shy away from things that are actually obsessing them. This is a weird thing that I’ve been noticing a lot. A kid will have this really intense stuff to write about, but instead they think they need to write a story that’s more of a George Saunders story, because that’s what everyone likes right now. But, no! Write stuff you do really well.
Students are afraid to get into a rut. You won’t get into a rut unless you’re writing the same stuff thirty years from now. Then try to change it up. Right now, you better mine this material. There’s this fear of repeating themselves or this need to show they have this broad range. The truth is that a lot of writers need to really go down and intensely write one thing for a while. It’s the stuff that is going to bring out all of the subconscious heat that you have but you don’t know what will come out of it.
I don’t want to hear Tom Waits do a hip-hop song, you know?
Vitcavage: That actually makes a lot of sense when you say it like that. Going back to Ill Will, where did the multiple perspectives come from?
Chaon: I was trying to find an organic way to portray the disassociation that I wanted to write about. This seemed like a natural way to do it that would teach the readers how to read it without being too overt about it.
Vitcavage: And I know you’ve talked about my next question a lot, but it’s something that fascinates me. You write for a set time with a timer then reward yourself in a way? How did you come across this method?
Chaon: It started with just realizing I had a limited amount of time to work. Most writers have another job and personal lives. You can’t spend the whole day just futzing around. I also realized that if given my druthers, I’ll spend an hour surfing the internet, writing a sentence, looking out at the wind, then writing a sentence. It’s sort of self-sabotaging in a way that I can’t stop. Having some kind of discipline has helped me.
Knowing some of my own bad habits helps. Like lingering over a sentence and trying to edit it into something beautiful before I know what the story is about. Or deciding I need to research some tiny element before I know what the story is about. Like would they have had this kind of car during this time period? Then I’m on the internet trying to figure it out instead of just writing the story and figuring out the shit about the car later.
It was all of those bad habits that I was trying to break. The idea is that writing for a set period of time without stopping is when you’re really going to open up and discover stuff you wouldn’t be able to get to without forcing yourself. I really believe in the power of free writing as a way to open yourself up.
Vitcavage: I always find the different answers to habits amazing. Another thing I always need to know is what’s next for an author. I know you recently said you were working on adapting Ill Will for a television spec pilot?
Chaon: When I sent the book to my film agent, it was her idea that I should do this. I’ve done a TV pilot a couple times before and I did the film script for Await Your Reply. I mean, none of this saw the light of day. I’m working on this pilot to see whether I could do it or not. It’s going along okay.
Vitcavage: What do you find different when writing scripts compared to your prose?
Chaon: The biggest trick is to find some scenic corollary for the interior stuff. Since I write a lot of interior, and a lot of what happens takes place inside my characters’ heads, there’s a challenge of finding something that’s filmic that is scene- or image-based that can match that. It’s a useful and fun project to try to do, even if you’re not writing a script: to ask yourself is there some way I can show this in scene rather than in my character’s head.
Vitcavage: Are you strictly just focusing on this spec script or is that western happening?
Chaon: That might be happening. I started to mess around in that world. There’s a possibility that there is another thing that may be about fake news and espionage. I’m just worried that it might be too topical right now. I feel like it’s going to be so crazy, but then I read the news and realize it’s not that crazy, man. It’s not that crazy.