Posts Tagged Dan Chaon


Reasonably settled in Cleveland, Ohio, psychologist Dustin Tillman learns that his adopted brother, Rusty, will imminently be released from prison. DNA evidence cleared Rusty, who received a life sentence for the murder of Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle. While mentally preparing himself for Rusty’s release, a patient draws Dustin into a potential serial murder case involving the drowning of drunk area college students. Dustin becomes progressively focused on this case as memories churn from that evening he violently lost his parents. What does Dustin remember and how accurate are his memories? How did this sensational murder and trial in the 1980s affect Dustin and his surviving family members? Ill Will is a riveting, contemplative thriller about memory and deception. Past and present collide in a dark, disturbing and creepy manner.

Dan Chaon is the author of Stay Awake, Await Your Reply, You Remind Me of Me, Fitting Ends and Among the Missing.  He teaches creative writing at Oberlin College.

We recently spoke by phone about Ill Will.

dan chaon

Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Dan Chaon: There was an urban legend in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My brother-in-law went to school at the University of Wisconsin and he told me the there were all of these mysterious drownings of these drunken bros and the college kids all thought it was a serial killer. I thought it was cool. I put it on the back burner. It was the early 2000s that I heard that story. It got tangled up in this other story I was writing—this  brother that gets out of prison. Then I thought: ‘can I have two murders in the same book or not/’ and they start to knit together after a while.

Amy Steele: You write from different points of view. Is that difficult and why did you decide to write in that way?

Dan Chaon: I have always liked novels that do that. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories or Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. It’s a really good technique and for someone who came to the novel having started out as a story writer, that makes sense to me because it helps me to compartmentalize. Thematically because this book is so much about deception and multi-bookends of the same story, it made sense that we saw the story from different eyes.

Amy Steele: You went from writing short stories to writing novels and you also teach writing. How did that influence you? It’s a long novel but a page-turner. I read it quickly and I read it on the Kindle which I don’t like that much.

Dan Chaon: And it looked okay on the Kindle with the weird things. The typographical things. Random House put a front note on the Kindle edition so people know the Kindle isn’t glitching.

Amy Steele: I still don’t understand the columns. I don’t understand why you did that.

Dan Chaon: I wanted to create this effect where multiple things were happening at once. I liked that idea of having almost a split-screen thing. The sophomore in college in me was really thrilled by it. I thought it looked cool. It has parallels across and down. I feel good about it. I know some readers will be like: ‘Hmm. Pretentious. Weird.” But I don’t care.

Amy Steele: It provides more information. You have the text messages and all this other stuff.

Dan Chaon: That felt organic. It’s part of our daily life. Sometimes you shouldn’t do things that are too contemporary and date the book and make it less universal. It’s true to some extent that texting maybe in five years won’t be a thing or people won’t use Facebook as much any more. If you leave it out you’re leaving out a big chunk of what it’s like to be alive today.

Amy Steele: You have to stay true to the time period and be representing whatever time it is.

Dan Chaon: I also feel like there’s something about that mode of communication that fits with the elliptical quality of the book. It feels like it fits with the mood of the book. All those ghostly floating balloons on the page.

Amy Steele: It’s really dark. How did you get to that point? [note: asks the woman who is extremely dark in mood and interests]. I feel like your other work wasn’t as dark.

Dan Chaon: Oh really. You think this is the darkest?

Amy Steele: It’s pretty dark. Have you read David Vann?  I really like David Vann. Very dark.

Dan Chaon: David Vann’s dark feels heavier and more serious in some ways. There’s an element here that’s a little more playful. I think Aaron is often funny and Rusty’s funny. There’s still a more playful quality to this than any of my other novels. It’s both darker and a little more comic in some weird way.

Amy Steele: How do you keep track of different characters and flipping back and forth with the time? Did you know how it would end up?

Dan Chaon: There were definitely surprises along the way. I did a timeline for when everybody was born and different stuff happened because it’s covering 30 years. I knew I wanted to have multiple points of view so I blocked it out so each character would have their own section. And then I started to write the different sections and see how they rubbed up against each other. The second section with Dustin as a kid was the first section I wrote. Aaron came late in a weird way and I wasn’t expecting him to be such a huge part of the story until I feel in love with his voice.

I also felt really compelled to write about heroin addiction. It’s really been a scourge here. My students have friends that are overdosing and it seems like it suddenly has become this middle-class thing and it wasn’t when I was growing up it– like Kurt Cobain but not college kids. Something about Aaron’s voice and the way he was dealing with grief was really compelling to me. In the end I ended up giving him half the book when I was originally just planning on him having one section.

Amy Steele: You came up with the idea and dropped the characters into the situation.

Dan Chaon: The premise or idea is there and then the characters grow up around that. The twins–Kate and Wave–there’s a lot of various places that they come from and to some extent my family makes fun of me because there are avatars or parallels. I am a widower. I was raising two teenage boys. My sister said, “You just did this weird thing where you killed your whole family and turned yourself into this creepy sucker.” And I said, “Yeah that’s how fiction works.”

Amy Steele: You based a lot of this on people you know?

Dan Chaon: I wouldn’t say it’s based on their personalities. If you’ve been to my house, Dustin clearly lives in my house. Aaron clearly lives in my younger son’s bedroom. Dustin is not me and Aaron and Dennis aren’t my sons in terms of personality. Kate is definitely not my sister in terms of personality. There’s an element of me and my family in this even though the whole thing is fictional. You always have to have a touchstone of some sort.

Amy Steele: What did you like best about writing this novel?

Dan Chaon: I always wanted to write a straight up crime novel. I read a lot of serial killer books when I was in college. It was during that time that every other book was a serial killer book. I thought I really want to do this. It was fun to take that form and mess around with it and play in that playground. That was exciting and fun for me.

ill will

Ill Will by Dan Chaon. Ballantine Books | March 2017| 480 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 9780345476043

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Entertainment Realm’s 20 Picks for Best Fiction [1-10]

Making lists of my favorite books, music, films proves challenging every year. Thus I’m making a list of 20. To put it in perspective, I’ve read 90 books at this writing. I have a few in progress. Here are the one’s that I keep thinking about and recommending to others [If I reviewed it, I linked to the review]:

people of forever

1.The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu [Hogarth]


2. The Collective by Don Lee [W.W.Norton]

age of desire

3. The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields [Pamela Dorman]

this is how you lose her

4. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz [Riverhead]


5. Dirt by David Vann [Harper]

the last nude

6. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery [Riverhead]

fault in our stars

7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [Dutton]

too bright to hear too loud

8. Too Bright to Hear Too Loud To See by Juliann Garey [Soho]


9. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus [Knopf]

stay awake

10. Stay Awake: stories by Dan Chaon [Ballantine/Random House]

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BOOKS: Best of 2012 So Far

[these are listed in the order that I’ve read them]

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery [Riverhead, 2012]

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margo Livesey [HarperCollins, 2012]

Stay Awake: stories by Dan Chaon [Ballantine/Random House, 2012]

Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood by Charlotte Silver [2012]

Make It Stay by Joan Frank [Permanent Press, 2012]

Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous [Europa, April 2012]

The Lion is In by Delia Ephron [March 2012]

Guts by Kristen Johnston [March 2012]

Threats by Amelia Gray [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012]

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [Dutton, 2012]

Dirt by David Vann [Harper, April 2012]

I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern [IT Books, 2012]

Lizz Free or Die by Lizz Winstead [Riverhead Books, 2012]

MISS FULLER by April Bernard [SteerForth Press, 2012]

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian [Doubleday, 2012]

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus [Knopf, 2012]

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz [Riverhead, 2012]

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields [Pamela Dorman, 2012]

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The stories in Stay Awake are riveting, twisted, macabre, complex and darkly humorous. Previous works by Cleveland-based author Dan Chaon include the novels You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. He teaches writing at Oberlin.

Amy Steele: You started out writing short stories and have also written two novels.

Dan Chaon: It’s what you start out with in college. I was even writing stories when I was a kid. I was reading Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson and those old anthologies/ thrillers that were supposed to be edited by Alfred Hitchcock. Stories to Read with the Lights On and things like that.

Amy Steele: What appeals to you about writing short stories?

Dan Chaon: I’m someone who has a lot of ideas. A lot of the ideas aren’t particularly novel-like or something I want to spend an entire 200 or 300 pages exploring. The story gives you this opportunity to play around with a particular idea and get in and get out and I like that.

Amy Steele: What are the challenges in writing a short story?

Dan Chaon: There’s the challenge in compressing some information and figuring out what belongs in the story and what doesn’t . The other issue is how to get a resonance and make a reader care about a character and make them feel something about the character’s state by the end of the story.

author Dan Chaon

Amy Steele: What are the elements of a good short story?

Dan Chaon: I don’t know if you can describe it exactly. I think stories vary so widely. There are great short stories that have a traditional three-act structure and there are great short stores that are just monologues and there are great short stories that are mostly concerned with language. The fact that the form is so flexible is one of the things that makes it so wonderful.

The only thing you can say about what makes a short story great is that it gives you that friction at the end where the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Amy Steele: What is the market like for short story vs. novel?

Dan Chaon: What market are we talking about? The market for individual short stories?

Amy Steele: Everyone thinks they can and will write a novel but then some will write a short story.

Dan Chaon: I don’t think there’s the market for short stories that there was during the golden age of magazines. When you had The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Saturday Evening Post. That’s pretty much gone. There’s still a huge number of small literary magazines. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that’s going on online. Publishers are resistant to short story collections a little bit because they don’t sell as well.

But they still continue to publish quite a few of them so I don’t think it’s impossible. If you’re betting the odds, you’re probably better off writing a novel first. There’s always that story of someone who publishes a short story collection right out of grad school and then works 15 years writing a novel that ends up being a big flop.

Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing about the darker side of people?

Dan Chaon: I’ve always been attracted to the morbid and the scary and to mystery. I’ve been a lover of ghost stories for a long time. I think one of the things this collection reflects is trauma and how people deal with loss. So I think those two things are complementary. Ghosts and horror stories and trauma and loss.

Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.
–“The Bees”

Amy Steele: How did you come up with the idea for “The Bees”—kind of a paranormal, creepy story?

Dan Chaon: It started about a child with night terrors. And I was thinking a lot about how people change over time or don’t change. I just had this idea about a dead-beat Dad returning after a long time lapsed and having been a changed person. And how and whether that would be forgivable. I’d heard an anecdote about this from a friend. The long absent parent and whether they could be forgiven was on my mind and that’s where the story began to emerge from. I had been asked to write a story for an issue of McSweeney’s that had a supernatural element to it. It all came together in a way that I thought was pleasing.

Amy Steele: Why did you want to write a story—”Stay Awake”—about a baby with craniopagus parasiticus? What kind of research did you do?

Dan Chaon: I think the core of the story was seeing something on a talk show. I want to say it was Oprah but I don’t remember for sure. Some parents who had a child with this condition. Then I found myself googling some info about that really strange condition and becoming really fascinated by it.

Amy Steele: Do you write story ideas down all the time?

Dan Chaon: Yeah. And I do read a lot of the weirder news stories. The stuff at the bottom of the page that’s more pulpy. I find I get a lot of inspiration out of that.

Amy Steele: “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow”—about teenagers whose baby dies shortly after birth—and “Take This, Brother, May It Serve You Well” deal with topics most people want to avoid and with truly unlikable people. What do you enjoy about those stories?

Dan Chaon: In terms of unlikable people, I find them more interesting in some ways. I like people who have the capacity to misbehave and do wrong things because that seems to have more dramatic potential for me. As a reader and as a writer. It’s one of the places that I’m interested in looking at. People who have done something that they regret in one way or another. At least that guy in that one story had a lot of things to regret and that made him a lot of fun to write about. Also he was pretty funny in a lot of ways because he was so angry and jerk-ish.

There is a stage you reach, Deagle thinks, a time somewhere in early middle age, when your past ceases to be about yourself. Your connection to your former life is like a dream or delirium, and that person you were once is merely a fond acquaintance, or a beloved character from a storybook. This is how memory becomes nostalgia.
–”Take This, Brother, May It Serve You Well”

Amy Steele: How do you decide whether to tell a story in first-person or third-person?

Dan Chaon: A lot of times it just seems to emerge from the situation. With that voice, that was the driving force behind the story in some ways. That kind of constantly riffing, smart-alec-y voice. I didn’t even know where it was going at first. It was just riffing on all these observations.

It was probably one of those dutiful married person fucks that happened right before they went to sleep or right after they woke in the morning . . .
–“Long Delayed, Always Expected”

Amy Steele: How does writing influence your teaching at Oberlin and how does teaching influence your writing?

Dan Chaon: You get to spend time with people who are interested in the same subjects as you are—exploring language and the process of creating stories. In some ways you’re dealing with the same problems whether you’ve written five books or whether you’re just starting out. What kinds of language are evocative and what kinds aren’t. How do you create a feasible character. All that continues to be a challenge. To be able to talk about it with my students helps me as a writer. I think being a teacher helps me to think about these issues in dynamic ways.

Amy Steele: How does living in Cleveland/ the Midwest affect your writing? Have you always lived in the Midwest?

Dan Chaon: Yes, I’ve always lived in the Midwest. I grew up in Nebraska then I moved to Chicago for college. I went to grad school at Syracuse. So that was my one foray outside the Midwest although Syracuse still feels pretty isolated. Now I’m back in Cleveland. I guess there’s a particular feel of the landscapes in the Midwest that have a particular power that I’m drawn to.

Amy Steele: What about people supposedly being so polite and nice in the Midwest?

Dan Chaon: One of the reasons I may be interested in people’s secrets and the unexplored aspects of people’s identities is that I’ve grown up among that politeness. You don’t really say what you think a lot of the time.

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purchase at Amazon: Stay Awake: Stories

for more info: Dan Chaon website

Dan will appear at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, February 8.

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