Dan Chaon Wants to Remind Us That We’re Not Getting Any Younger
The author of “Sleepwalk” on penning the ultimate road trip novel depicting a multifaceted and fractured America
Acclaimed writer Dan Chaon has a new novel, Sleepwalk, published last week by Henry Holt and Co. A few years ago, Chaon stopped commuting to teach—from his home on a tree lined street in Cleveland Heights, one of the city’s eastern ring suburbs to Oberlin College, a storied institution in Northern Ohio carrying an uneasy relationship with the semi-rural communities that surround it. But he took up a road trip in his writing.
Sleepwalk is a literary picaresque full of dark wit and quirky observations set in an alternate America. Mixed in with the purely imagined are characters, technologies, and events that are real, and taken together, demonstrate just how close we are to things getting really weird.
The protagonist, Will Bear, is a middle-aged mercenary more or less content to live in the shadows, on the road, completing a variety of odd jobs, mostly criminal and often violent, for a Company that he tries not to think too hard about. But when someone claiming to be his daughter from a long ago—misguided— sperm donation, tracks him down despite his usual tricks of evasion, he is forced to confront questions of identity, parenthood, and belonging.
On a cold, clear day in what Clevelanders refer to as early spring, but is, in actuality, the third stage of winter, we spoke over tea at my home in Shaker Heights , another ring suburb. The conversation was fun and rich—punctuated frequently by Dan’s airy staccato laugh, a motorcycle engine failing to turnover and mine, instantaneously intense, like pouring out a bowl of marbles.
Lynda Montgomery: Which came first—the protagonist’s many names or the bucket full of unexpectedly ringing burner phones that spook him in Chapter One?
Dan Chaon: Both at the same time. The burner phones were all calling different aliases. Then, I came up with a long list of aliases. That was really fun—all variations on Will Bear.
LM: A lot of puns arise and it looks terrific on the page. The Barely Blur, or Will Bear, covers many miles from where we meet him in Utah to where the novel ends in Alaska. Have you been to many of these places?
DC: One of the Easter eggs that I wanted to have in the book is to mention all fifty states. And it does, I double checked. In my adult life, I’ve traveled a lot by car. I wanted to have these different locales to give a sense of an alternate version of America. Some of the description I did from memory and for some, Google Maps, or YouTube or whatever. It was fun to go on Street View and drive the route to see what the nine-eyed Google car discovered. Some really amazing things became a part of the novel—the burning wind turbine in Texas and the amusement park GATORS AND FRIENDS in Caddo Parish, Louisiana were both internet discoveries.
LM: I appreciated the verisimilitude of scenes set in Mississippi and Alabama, because I know those places well. You conveyed a specific quirkiness with such authority that it enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the scenes set in places unfamiliar to me. Creepy Kentucky was also a favorite.
DC: I’ve spent time in the Daniel Boone National Forest. And that’s a fun place to write about because it is spooky, right?
LM: Definitely. You wrote this novel during a particularly interesting time, starting after the election of 45 and finishing during the first global pandemic in a century. Taking aside the very real possibility that we are indeed near the end, how did you write about the United States in a near possible future? Did current events cause any trouble as you drafted the novel?
DC: I made a deliberate decision to play fast and loose with contemporary detail. Things were moving so fast and changing so much that I didn’t feel like I had a real grip on what America would be like when the book was published. I decided to simply create a version and play it out.
Things that I thought were so funny that turned out not to be—like people wearing masks all over the place. There’s a scene where Will’s driven through downtown Chicago and these businessmen are all wearing gas masks. And I wrote about riots and protests right before the protests of summer 2020. And I was like, I’d have to be careful not to predict anything too dire. Things came true as I was writing, and I was very disappointed in them coming true.
LM: Sadly, I guess that that’s where we are now. Did that experience inform what you work on now?
DC: Absolutely. I’m doing a historical novel set in 1915, and I’m so thankful to not have to worry. 1915 is far enough away that I can play with what level of historical detail I want.
LM: The protagonist uses some unique diction. Did that come early in your writing process?
DC: I draw on the voice of my biological father, whom I met when I was about thirty. We had a complicated relationship, but we were close. He grew up in Iowa and had a countrified quality to some things that he’d say like, I reckon, but then he moved to LA. I wanted to play with that mix of 60s LA stoner and country boy—the voice of the novel is more stylized than the way my dad talked, but it definitely gets at some of his weirdness.
LM: Ideas about identity, parenthood, and what constitutes parenthood are themes in Sleepwalk, and, often, in your work more broadly.
DC: As somebody who was adopted, and, fairly late in my infancy, it’s always been on my mind and has had a significant impact on my writing. I’m interested in the nature/nurture dichotomy and what happens to children. Also the idea that children are blank slates, and they’ll soak up whatever you give them. I don’t think that’s true, but it’s built into the way that we think about unwanted children. Though the philosophies behind adoption and foster care have changed over the years, they have continued to be problematic by defining children as possessions that can be traded.
LM: For me, some of the most compelling parts of the novel are when the protagonist imagines his alternative life as a nurturing father. Not only does he father Cammie, the problematic, possible-daughter character, but he does a lot of parenting throughout the novel. He wants to be a good parent, and he sometimes kind of is, but mostly isn’t.
DC: Yeah. He’s also someone who was like, colossally poorly parented himself. That feeds into his desire and his aversion to being a dad.
LM: Let’s talk about process. You, often co-teaching with Lynda Barry, train writers to allow their subconscious to bring forward images in writing. Many of the exercises involve the constraint of chance, pulling a word at random from a bag full of words written on slips of paper, writing in reaction to visual images, using a semi-random title as a starting point. Do you do any of these exercises or variations as you’re starting work or revising a piece?
DC: Pretty much all the way through the draft I’ll do a subconscious free write. Sometimes that will start with drawing a picture. Or sometimes I’ll give myself a title. All the chapters in Sleepwalk have titles. I had a whole drawer full of titles—sometimes it was just because of the title that the chapter got written. The strange one in Daniel Boone National Forest [titled “RIP in Peace”] is one of those.
LM: Where do expectations come in during the course of a project?
DC: Sometimes you’re competing with yourself in some ways, or you’re challenging yourself. And there were particular things that I wanted to do because they would be fun. One was to write a novel in first person present tense. I liked the voice that I had come up with, and that was a challenge that seemed fun. And I set out to write something that was lighter and funnier than Ill Will. Even people who were extremely complimentary would mention just how dark and depressing that novel was. With Sleepwalk it’s not obviously completely funny. There’s darkness in this too. There’s scary stuff and triggering stuff, but I feel like it is funnier.
LM: What parts of a novel project do you find the most challenging and does that vary from project to project?
DC: No, it’s always the same. The end. I find that when I start novels I have an idea of who the characters are and of what the plot is. Or, I have a general idea of what the last chapter’s going to be, but no idea how to get there. The mechanics of the third act are hard for me and, to some extent, you can see that in all of the novels, because there’s a creaking and shuttering as they try to get over that third act hump.
LM: I think you’re being a little hard on yourself.
DC: Well, I can see it. If you can’t, then hurray. But, the actual mechanics, the pacing, can be hard. Because people want it to go fast, and in order for it to go fast, you need all the dominoes set up. I very rarely do. A lot of times you can see me in the background scampering around.
LM: How about at the sentence level? Do those intuitive techniques work syntactically also?
DC: Yeah. Often, it’s the sound of language or the music of language that will come first for me. When I’m doing free writes, the language play sometimes takes over in a way that other aspects, like describing an action or a scene, come less natural to me. I can describe a static scene fine. And I love, like, language and dialogue, but when it comes to like, somebody is in a gunfight in a gas station, with two other people and a dog—that’s fucking hard. That took forever.
LM: Did you draw some of that action?
DC: I had to draw a map of the actual gas station, and lines where people were walking and running. But in the previous chapter I had a wonderful time describing everything that was on the shelves in this gas station. Most of it had to be cut—it was almost a delaying tactic—because I knew there had to be this action scene. Before the action scene, the Barely Blur is walking through the aisles describing every single piece of candy. I tell myself Look, you can do it, but you know you’re gonna have to cut.
LM: I want to talk music. For a bunch of years, you’ve made an annual song list. [e.g. Dan Chaon’s 200 Songs of 2021 ]
DC: Twenty-two years.
LM: I use your lists along with tips from my children to keep my life filled with new and interesting music. Tell us more about your exploration and curation of great music. You were a DJ?
DC: I was a DJ in college and for a couple years afterwards. However, back when my kids were little, during the 90s, I lost track of contemporary music. It made me feel really bad, because music was such an important part of my creative process. Around ‘98 or ‘99 I started scouring. I’d go on the internet, find stuff, go to the library, find stuff, and start making these mixes and lists. It’s a meditative process for me—looking for music, finding music, making a playlist. During that front of the mind process, I’m doing a rote activity, while the back of my mind, or the subconscious, is doing a lot of work. I’ll find the song and I’ll be like, Oh, that plugs into the emotion that I need right here. The playlists for one reason or another will reflect whatever I’m working on at the time—the mood and even some of the language.
LM: Does this hold for your recent lists and Sleepwalk?
DC: Some songs, yes, they’re absolutely in the book. And then, there are certain kinds of songs that, while not necessarily contemporary, are touchstones for the novel. Like the song “Sleepwalk.” And Will has an attachment to 60s music and to 60s girl groups in particular, because his mom claimed that she was in a girl group. The song “He’s so fine” has echoes in the novel.
LM: Are there other forms of art that align with your creative process?
DC: Photography. I look at a lot of images.
LM: Since your last novel, Ill Will, you retired from Oberlin College to write full time. Aside from the stuff you probably don’t miss—the commute, administrative nonsense, office politics—Are there things that you do miss?
[DC] I love working with students and working with people that age. To some extent the relationship between Will and his possible-daughter Cammie comes out of that. She’s definitely got elements of past students.
LM: Did your work as a creative writing professor contribute to your own art making? Or would you say that your teaching is simply another way that you’re creative?
DC: What I was doing in the classroom was what I was doing as a writer. I mean, a lot of the exercises and the things that I would work on with students were the same things I was working on as an artist myself. They were interdependent.
LM: Time for the lightning round. What music, movies, shows, literature should fans of Dan Chaon seek out?
DC: I love the new Beach House album that just came out in February. My favorite movie of 2021 was Nightmare Alley. I also really loved the movie CODA. I feel like there are echoes of both with my work. And a documentary about skateboarding directed by Bing Liu, Minding the Gap (2018.) I loved that movie so much that I gave it a small cameo in Sleepwalk. Three skateboarders who show up [in South Carolina] are a tribute to Bing Liu.
LM: Would you rather shovel your driveway or pull weeds?
DC: Pull weeds.
LM: If forced to attend one, would it be a Browns game with some serious tailgaters or a black tie gala with a bunch of bankers?
DC: I’d go with the tailgate but I wouldn’t go see the game.
LM: No, you have to go.
DC: Well, hopefully I’ll be really drunk.
LM: Biggest mixed misconception about Cleveland?
DC: I don’t think people realize how comfortable it is to live here. I feel like I’m not missing anything. For a lot of people, there’s something kind of ooky about it right? I mean, the weather’s okay. But everything else is kind of cool.
LM: Best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten or given?
DC: The best advice that I got and the best advice that I give is that you need to be a reader before you’re a writer. And that in your audience are those writers who made you want to read in the first place. Those people are your family.
LM: Best or worst life advice you’ve gotten or given?
DC: I don’t know if I’ve ever had any life advice to give to anybody. But my dad used to say something I thought it was really stupid at the time, but now I think it’s profound. He used to say, “You never get any younger.” I used to think, of course, but then you get to a point you’re like Oh, my God. That’s not possible