WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Dan! I’m so excited to get to pick your brain about your wonderful writing and specifically your recent novel Ill Will, which has come recommended to me by virtually everyone. The first thing I want to know—the first thing I want to know from most writers who craft excellent novels—is where did this idea come from? How did it come to be, and where did it originate?
Dan Chaon: I usually say that it started with a story my brother-in-law told me about a series of drowning deaths that occurred when he was in college. He and his friends believed they were the work of a serial killer, and I was fascinated by the story, but also fascinated by the idea that I was watching an urban legend developing in its infancy.
This is more or less true…but I don’t know whether it answers your second question: “How did it come to be…” which is much more about “germination,” rather than “origination.” There is a seed, I guess, but to me what’s more important is the way the seed sends out root systems and develops, which is in some ways beyond the writer’s control because there are so many variables. The original “idea” isn’t as important, ultimately, as where it takes you. How it transforms.
A novel about a serial killer drowning college bros would be different depending on who wrote it: imagine ILL WILL by Ottessa Moshfegh, or ILL WILL by Victor LaValle, or ILL WILL by Alice Munro. Or imagine ILL WILL by Dan Chaon at age 30. They all have the same core idea, but they’re all completely different books.
So the concept of the “originating idea” feels like a kind of red herring, in a way. I have a lot of canned, glib answers to this, because it’s a question one gets asked a lot. But there’s a mysterious aspect to it, too, something unanswerable. The “idea” somehow begins to communicate something to you that’s deeply personal—somehow this very abstract concept sent out tendrils that caught me at the right time, and autobiographical stuff—like being a new widower, like trying to be a single parent to teenaged sons, like growing up in 80’s redneck Nebraska—all that material got pulled in and intertwined with this urban legend my brother-in-law told me about.
MT: A lot of people have viewed this as a horror novel, or at least, when I’ve asked to be “scared by a book,” a lot of people have suggested Ill Willto me. Did you intend when initially writing this book for it to scare so many people, or at the very least creep them out?
DC: Yes! I definitely knew early on that I wanted ILL WILL to be a horror novel. Before it had a title, I called it “The Peter Straub Novel,” and Straub’s classic works were definitely a deep influence.
But I have a complicated relationship with horror. I was a very scaredy kid—terribly afraid of the dark, hard time going to sleep, etc. I was almost ridiculously easy to terrify, and I once buried a comic book in the back yard because it frightened me so much. I wish I had burned it.
At the same time, my mother really loved horror. My mother was a difficult person who suffered from serious mental illness, and a lot of my memories of being close to her have to do with cuddling together and watching scary movies on TV. So at the same time that I knew I was going to have nightmares, at the same time I was too afraid to look at the screen, I was also experiencing warmth and friendliness from my mom, who didn’t give out such things often.
I suppose I have a confusion between being loved and being frightened—and that might be the core of ILL WILL right there, ha ha.
MT: How do you approach crossing genres the way you do? There seems to be so many elements from so many genres in Ill Willand they’re all executed so well. What’s your secret—if there is a secret?
DC: I don’t think there’s a secret. I have just tried to write toward the authors that I’ve loved and who have moved me—I want to evoke both Ray Bradbury and Ray Carver, Shirley Jackson and Ann Beatty. All fiction is fan fiction, in a way—you fall in love with books when you’re a kid, and then you try to sing to those books so that they can hear you.
MT: Was it challenging writing from so many different perspectives and adapting to so many different voices and, in turn, views of the world the novel occupies? How did you accomplish this, and is there a trick to make this feat any easier?
DC: Writing from a perspective outside of your own is one of the most rewarding aspects of fiction, in my opinion. But it’s also dangerous, because it reveals your prejudices and blind spots and challenges your powers of empathy--which, of course, we’d all like to think are limitless. But they’re not. We can only go so far outside of ourselves.
One trick to writing someone very different from yourself is to give them some trait that you are familiar and sympathetic with, some kind of foothold that allows you to get into their mindset. If you’re writing about a type of person you hate, give them your most personal, embarrassing secret, and that often makes it harder to jump to easy judgement.
I personally also count on having early readers who can give me feedback. I write from the point of view of women quite a lot, for example, but I rely on getting responses and suggestions from women in my life, like my sister and my female friends. Because, never having been a woman, there are just some things I can’t know or understand.
MT: What is one of the major things—ideas, thoughts, etc—that you want readers to take away from books like Ill Will? How would you like to change the world, or, at the very least, a single person’s view of the world?
DC: I don’t really think a lot about changing the world—or changing another person, or inserting thoughts and ideas into my writing that will be influential or whatever. I know it happens—I know that books have deeply influenced me, and my view of the world--but when I’m writing, I don’t feel like I have a lot of control over what the “message” is.
For me, I think the main effect is the process of going deep into a world that delights or disturbs you but which you also recognize. It connects with you in a way that feels like a memory. There’s a quote from Joyce Carol Oates that I love—she wrote it in a review of Ann Tyler’s novel The Amateur Marriage—and I think it perfectly explains what I want to do to my readers: “When the realistic novel works its magic, you won’t simply have read about the experiences of fictitious characters, you will have seemed to have lived them; your knowledge of their lives transcends their own, for they can only live in chronological time. The experience of reading such fiction when it’s carefully composed can be breathtaking, like being given the magical power of reliving passages of our own lives, indecipherable at the time of being lived.”
MT: The novel carries this idea of whether or not a series of deaths is perceived correctly as being committed by a serial killer or coincidence, etc. Where did this idea come from? Are there any true crime books or real life cases that inspired this part of the novel?
DC: As I mentioned above, I was influenced by the urban legend of the “Smiley Face Killer,” which my brother-in-law told me about. But I was also influenced by many cases of “Satanic Panic” which happened during the eighties and nineties. Rusty’s case draws some of its details from the West Memphis Three trials, which are detailed in the wonderful documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills; Paradise Lost 2: Revelations; and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. I should also mention that one of my favorite short stories of all time is also based on this case: Cary Halliday’s “Merry-Go-Sorry.” I still talk to that story almost every day, lines from it randomly pop out in my head.
MT: Who are your favorite authors working today? Who are your favorite horror authors, your favorite crime writers? Which books would you say have had the most significant impact on you as a writer?
DC: I’m not sure how comprehensive you want me to be—I can be a compulsive list maker—but I’ve been thinking a lot about Denis Johnson lately. He was very important to me when I was a young writer, and then I sort of lost track of him, and then this year I read his posthumously published short-story collection, Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and I was just blown away. It’s so commonplace to use the word “breathtaking,” but it describes an actual rare and physical occurance—you’re so stunned that you can’t breathe—and that was what happened to me when I read the last lines of the Denis Johnson story called “Triumph Over the Grave.” I couldn’t take a breath but my chest felt like it was still expanding and weightless.
We get that kind of magnificent experience only a few times in our reading life, I think.
Other recent stuff: Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel,Sabrina; Ari Aster’s film, Heredity;Abbey Mei Otis’ collection of stories, Alien Love Disaster; Nico Walker’s novel, Cherry; Lucy Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead,A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass; Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly?; Lana Wachowski’s insane and moving finale of the Sense8 series on Netflix—God!! There is so much good stuff out there now, in all genres!
MT: Did you ever find yourself bleeding into the pages? Was there ever a moment you felt too close to a character—whether you identified with him or her, or you were just completely in their headspace? How do you feel when this happens, if this happens to you?
DC: That headspace is the most important thing to me. The moment when a character in a novel syncs with your own life in an unexpected way, when a fictional insight suddenly makes a link and you see something about your past experience that you’d never seen before—that’s the reason I write. I don’t write autobiographically at all, but at the same time my novels and stories are always deeply personal. In the process of living another fictional life, we get glimpses of our own that we couldn’t have seen before. That insight can be enlightening, but also sometimes shocking and troubling, as well.
MT: How long did it take for you to get started as a novelist? How many novels did you write before finally getting one published? What advice would you give to aspiring novelists today, those hoping to have the amount of success you’ve had?
DC: I think I’ve always been a novelist. My earliest memories are of telling stories to myself—making dioramas with plastic army men and dinosaurs, building cities out of blocks, pretending I was looking for a werewolf in the garage. Nearly every kid I knew did the same thing, but the only difference is that I didn’t stop or lose interest in the make-believe world. My imaginative life was—and remains—a big part of my daily experience. And that’s the thing that really matters to me.
The success part is a different story, and I feel less qualified to speak of it. I’ve just been lucky. Somehow, I’ve managed to find people who like my work, but I don’t feel like I’m particularly special or talented. I know plenty of people who are equally good at what I do, but who didn’t get the same breaks I got. I also know people who have done a lot better than me, who I don’t think they’re as good.
I don’t know. What amount of success is enough? To publish a book? To get good reviews? To have a bestseller? To win a prize? To have your books taught in colleges? To have your work made into a movie? To become an eternal household name, like Shakespeare?
The truth is, you have absolutely no control over that stuff. You can only keep plowing forward, and focus on the pleasure of trying to make something that pleases you. Maybe it will please someone else. Maybe not.
Of course, this is hard advice to take, and I have wasted more than my share of hours worrying about success, parsing rejections, nursing grudges, etc. I wish I’d spent all that time writing.
MT: Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music? What other sort of art and media has informed or influenced your views and practices in writing?
DC: Yes! I make playlists that become the soundtrack to the piece that I’m working on, and these playlists are important ways for me to discover mood and character and scene.
I’ve been reading this book by Robert Evans called A Brief History of Vice, and in one chapter he talks about how ancient our relationship with music is. Many anthropologists believe that the discovery of music is older than the discovery of fire. Even Neanderthals are believed, by some, to have been able to sing.
Did you know that music produces dopamine in our brain? Sometimes as much a hit of cocaine! So it’s a kind of drug, and I use it to get into a kind of trance state that allows you to imagine fictional worlds and characters vividly. Anyone who wants to know what was on my mind as I wrote the last two chapters of ILL WILL should just watch this video.
I’ve posted some of my playlists to my tumblrpage, and also a couple on Large-Hearted Boy.
MT: How many drafts did you go through writing Ill Will? How many drafts do you usually write of a novel on average?
DC: The question of “drafts” is hard to quantify for me, since I revise constantly as I’m working.
Usually I write a chapter or section in longhand first, then transfer it to the computer—changing stuff as I do so—and then I print it out and re-write it in longhand again, back and forth. And then, since I don’t work from an outline, things will change as I go along, and I’ll have to go back and rewrite sections again. So I don’t know how many actual “drafts” of ILL WILL I wrote. Maybe dozens?
But I don’t want it to sound like rewriting is a drag. I actually love it—it’s the most fun part of writing for me, that process of transforming a scene or a description or deepening a character. The hard part, for me, is forcing myself to write the original words and sentences and paragraphs!
MT: What book is next for you? Do you have a work in progress? What can fans expect to read or see in the future from the great Dan Chaon?
DC: I have a contract for two new novels, but I’m not ready to really talk about them yet!
MT: Dan, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. At Writers Tell All, we really loved Ill Willand are excited to see where your career takes you. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, questions, comments, or the like. I’m so thankful to have had the chance to correspond with you.
DC: Thanks, Matthew! I appreciate your thoughtful questions, and I’m thankful that Writers Tell All is connecting readers to books and authors they might not have heard of!