beauty to launch
An Interview with Dan chaon
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Dan Chaon is the author of the "scariest novel of 2017," Ill Will. His catalog includes the National Book Award finalist Among the Missing, Await Your Reply, Stay Awake, and others. The recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Chaon has also been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction and the Shirley Jackson Award. He currently serves as the Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College. Follow him on Twitter @Danchaon, and visit his website at danchaon.com.
TMR: What role did literature play in your childhood?
DC: I didn't grow up in a particularly bookish family. Neither of my parents finished high school, and there weren't any big readers in my family, so I'm not really sure where it came from. I was just drawn to books and storytelling. Maybe it started with storytelling, because even if they weren't necessarily readers of literature, there were people that liked to tell stories in my family. When I was about five, I got a cassette recorder, and I would walk around and perform stories and record them onto a cassette. I had this urge, in any case.
I was very attached to the books that I did have. Once I was able to start going to the library and things, I really became a big reader. Somewhat to my family's chagrin—it wasn't something that they found an appealing characteristic. People thought that it was anti-social and weird, just because there really weren't many people that did a lot of reading.
I had to go places where people wouldn't see me. My mother would often think that if you read too much, it would hurt your eyesight. It really felt like I was doing something kind of illicit a lot of the time.
TMR: The Washington Post calls Ill Will "the scariest novel" of 2017. Why is horror writing appealing to you?
DC: I don't think there's any real explanation that can pinpoint some particular thing. It's something that I know I've been drawn to since I was little, that I found some comfort in, in some weird way. Maybe it's because, as somebody who was a scaredy kid, and also living in a place and a situation where there was a lot of things to be scared about, horror became a way to control those feelings and work through them.
In some ways, I feel like if you are seeing it in this story form, in this structured way, then there's some sense of it having meaning. You're able to walk through it or play it out, and maybe that's psychologically really comforting for some people.
TMR: Do you have a process that helps you get into the right mindset for a story?
DC: I'm drawn to image, and to images of things that have a gothic quality to them. Maybe it's finding the beauty in the image first and then using that as a launch pad. But with character, the thing that's always been most fascinating is trying to figure out a way to understand people who do really screwed-up things and trying to understand the nature of why people are—I'm tip-toeing around the word evil because I don't really believe in it—but what creates this malevolence that we see so much in the world. To me, the process of trying to understand that is not just upsetting. It's also freeing in a certain way. Going deep into it is something that I feel like is helpful to me somehow. I don't find it toxic.
TMR: You explore unreliable narrators and antiheroes in Ill Will, and in modern media this type of character is becoming more prevalent. Do you find that this trend has value?
DC: I have a complicated relationship with that. As an example, with Breaking Bad, there was a point where, as the Walter White character became increasingly violent and sociopathic, people started to think of him as a heroic badass. I found that problematic, but at the same time you can't just tell people how to respond to something. But that's definitely not what I want, I don't want to glorify these characters. I don't want people to go out and think Gene from "The Bees" rocks, but I want people to feel some pity, some moral horror at a behavior that they recognize in themselves, as opposed to celebrating it or feeling like it's earned.
You have to write within your limits of your ability to understand.
There are certain levels of behavior that I don't feel like I'm qualified to write about—Hitler would be one, even Trump would be one. I don't think I could ever understand someone like that. You have to write within your limits of your ability to understand.
TMR: What was the most difficult part of writing Ill Will?
DC: I was trying to ride a line between presenting people in a way that felt like I was exposing them without condemning them or flattening them into pure villainy. I think that was true as I got further into the main character of Dustin—there was a lot of temptation to beat him up because he was so clueless and such a bad father. That was a struggle for me. The same was true for the antagonist of the book, Rusty. The thing that surprised me was how when I finally did get to his perspective, I found that I had developed some compassion for him and ended up feeling very sorry and weirdly close to him. Those were things that were definitely on my mind and were struggles as a writer.
It's so hard in the first draft to even know what you want or what the book is going to be. Exploration is important because if you think you know too much about a book, if you've got it all figured out, I think it's too locked down. You're not going to learn anything.
TMR: You spent seventeen years sitting on the idea, right?
DC: I hate to say seventeen years, but yeah. The original idea occurred in the early 2000s. I hate that, that's so long.
TMR: What was that growing process like? How did you know when you were ready to write Ill Will?
DC: It started with this story that my brother-in-law told me about these drowning deaths that were happening in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and it was this idea about this serial killer that was preying on drunk college bros, and I thought that was an interesting twist on things. I was also really interested in the way that urban legends and conspiracy theories grab hold of us in American life, in the way that they play this role like adult fairy tales in the way that they express our fears and desires.
I had that and I didn't really know what to do with it. I kept trying to set it with a college professor as the main character, and I hate books with college professors as the main character, and also being one, I knew I couldn't do that. I kept scoping around for the right entryway.
Then I had this other idea that was about a foster brother getting out of prison, and I started to write that. For some reason the two things melded together in my head, and that was when the book started to roll along and when I began to see those two things play off of one another: One man killing in the present, and one killing in the past.
it's hard to say why something happens that makes an idea start rolling again.
The thing for most of those seventeen years was just sitting there, and it's hard to say why something happens that makes an idea start rolling again. I think some things just sit in the drawer forever and they're never going to come to life. You have those stories that seem like a good idea, and they die around page three, and you keep trying to resuscitate them, and they're just never going to come to life. And other ones, suddenly you've almost forgotten about them and you're going through your stuff and you glance at it and you know exactly what to do with it. Who knows why that happens? I guess if I knew, I'd be writing three novels a year like Joyce Carol Oates, but I don't. It just seems random. Why does one thing turn out to be a story you can write in a week and another that takes a year and a half of constant revision and agony?
TMR: Ill Will is about a lot of things, but much of how it's described is about American dread. When speaking with American Short Fiction, you state, "I think we are in a condition now where our dread is fully managed by the machine," discussing how our fears are sold to us in the same way that everything else is, like advertising. Can you talk about that, particularly your experience with American dread and your attempts to circumvent it?
DC: I was thinking about the way in which constantly-manipulated news and history are sold to me. I consume news online. I have a particular profile that delivers news to me through Twitter, Facebook, and my Google news feed, which I'm constantly tweaking so that it's giving me the news that I want. At the same time, whatever things most upset me, it's going to give me those things.
You can feel your way back through the paths of outrage, but it's this constantly renewing thing. The Las Vegas shooting, when was that? September? It feels like 20 years ago and nobody talks about it. How did we get to this point where these incredibly terrible things are happening and yet we have an attention span of less than a week for any of them? It's this crazy thing about American life that I've been trying to figure out.
I don't think it's just the way that we live now or the technology of today. I feel like it's always been this way: I was writing about the Satanic Panic of the 80s, and people thought that was real. Then at a certain point it wasn't real anymore, and then at another point, it wasn't a thing that people knew about anymore. It was this ghost of hysteria that rose up and dissipated.
It's like American history is a series of mass hysteria events. I think it is built into the way that we became who we are, that the entire westward expansion and imperialist development of the country required a certain series of myths and fantasies that had very little to do with what was really going on. A lot of it has to do with creating a sense of hysteria and a sense of the "bad guys" out there, and it was all fake news. The entire history of the United States is about people being manipulated by fake news.
You feel like suddenly it's worse, but you look back and it's not worse—it's just that by the time we've gotten past one really bad thing, we've forgotten about it, or decided it didn't really happen, or we're morally superior now. We're really not. We're the same crazy country.
American history is a series of mass hysteria events.
People genuinely believe in this stuff and there's genuine urgency and hysteria and fear. It's a country that's very vulnerable to fear.
TMR: As a creative writing professor, what are some of the most important lessons that you impart upon your students?
DC: I worry about students that can't write without a deadline. I really encourage them to try to find some way to create a discipline for themselves or to create some sort of framework. I write for twenty minutes a day and really stick with it. I think without discipline, once you're outside the program, life intervenes and it's going be very hard to finish a book. It's easy to not make time, but once you get out of the habit it's hard to find a way to get writing back in your life. I have a friend that told me that for every day you take off from working on a novel, it takes a day to get back into it. If I take off three days, it takes me three days to get back into it. I think that's true, especially when you're in the main body of a novel. I don't think it's as true if you're at the beginning of something and a lot of the work is happening in your head, but once you're actually telling the story, you have to stick with it or else you could lose it pretty easily.
It's different for every person, but for me, having some practice, some sense that I have to sit down daily—even if I don't feel like it, even if it feels dead, just doing it has been important to me as a writer.
TMR: How has teaching influenced your writing life?
DC: Being in a classroom where you're around people that care about the same things you do— that want to know how to write a sentence that makes people visualize something, or how to create a character that's memorable—when you're talking about these problems, you're always talking about your own writing as well as the students' writing.
When you're working on a novel with a student, for example, there's something that feels very similar to the process of working through a novel of your own. As you're working with somebody, you're learning and you're processing things about your own work, and you're learning so much about the world from their writing. Reading their work and knowing their characters helped me to bring my own characters.