A few years ago, I heard the editor Gary Fisketjon describe his aesthetic. What he liked, he said, was fiction that was not boring and not dumb. That's what I like best, too—stories that combine the excitement and tension of genre fiction with the depth and thoughtfulness of lit fic—which is why I couldn't wait to get my hands on Dan Chaon's latest novel, Ill Will. Right now, no one is better at crossing the wires of lit and genre than Chaon. Ill Will manages to be thought provoking and poignant while hurtling along like a thriller. As a reader, you're torn between lingering on an image or a heartbreaking line and turning the page as quickly as you can to find out what's going to happen next.
In addition to Ill Will, Chaon is the author of four other books, including the national bestseller Await Your Reply. His fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthologies, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He lives in Ohio, teaches at Oberlin College, and was kind enough to answer my questions over email in March 2017.
In the acknowledgments, you mention that Luke Lieffring told you a story that became the core of the novel. Can you share that story, or would it be too much of a spoiler?
No, it’s not a spoiler, since it’s on the first page. Anyway, my brother-in-law was a student at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse in the early 2000’s, and there was a spate of accidental drowning deaths of young men—drunk college guys would leave a bar and end up dead in the river. The police said they were mishaps, but a lot of students thought there were too many mysterious, unexplained elements, and there were rumors that a serial killer was on the loose. It became a minor urban legend of the period, and something about it stuck with me. The first paragraph of the book was from an early attempt to write about it, though by the time the novel was finished the factual touchstone was only an echo.
The other day, I heard Emily St. John Mandel say that she figured out how to structure Station Eleven by studying your previous novel, Await Your Reply. And, to my mind, your new novel is even more structurally daring and technically accomplished. So I was amazed to learn that you used to struggle with plot and structure (In an old interview with The Believer, you mentioned that the big transition between your first two books "was that [you] were more conscious of wanting to do a little more with plot and structure."). How did you go about working on this stuff?
It’s funny, because I love plot, and I love books with strong, propelling narratives. I read a lot of thrillers, horror and fantasy novels growing up, and that’s still my go-to when I’m looking for pleasure reading.
But for a while, whenever I’d try to write plot myself, I’d be overcome with shame. A voice in my head would say, “How corny!” “How melodramatic!” “How cliché! I’ve seen that one a million times!” and I’d bully myself out of doing something adventurous with the narrative.
When I was working on my first novel, the early drafts would couch all the dramatic material in flashback and summary. I’d have my character staring poetically at, like, a tree or something, and then he’d remember something that had a lot of plot in it, and then he’d go back to describing the beautiful haunting tree.
Dan Smetanka, my editor for You Remind Me of Me, got frustrated with this technique pretty quickly. The main character of that novel had these facial scars that he’d gotten as a child when he was attacked by a dog, and in early drafts, the dog attack was only referred to, never shown. And Dan gave me the most sensible advice: “We need to see that in scene,” he said.
Duh. It’s the most basic advice, but for some reason I had forgotten it. But actually forcing myself to write that dog attack in real time was a game-changer for me.
As far as structure goes, I’ve always been interested in the way fragments of narrative can play off one another. All of my novels have been puzzles—games—that I’ve created for myself. I don’t work from an outline, but instead work with jigsaw pieces. I have these three or four scenes, and I believe they are connected. The first draft is always a process of figuring out how they go together.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to trust the unconscious mind more and more. Of course I know how stories work: I’ve been consuming stories since I was pre-verbal! The plot is somewhere, I just have to be patient and it will find me.
Still, working this way you encounter some dark times, where you’re pacing around with your hands clenched on your forehead, muttering, “I am fucked. I am so, so fucked!” So far, it has all worked out in the end.
You've talked about how serial television like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, and books like The Hours and Hopscotch have influenced the structure of your previous novels. Same influences with this book, or did you look to different models?
I’m still a big consumer of serial television, and among the shows that I paid attention to during the writing of this novel, a few made particularly strong impressions. The first season of HBO’s The Leftovers was striking because of the way it used single-character, stand-alone episodes, even though it was an ensemble drama—I loved the way it played with perspective and point of view. I thought Netflix’s Sens8 was fantastic—unbelievably dense and narratively daring. And yeah, Game of Thrones, whatever else you might say about it, is just a juggernaut in terms of plot and structure. There’s so much that can be learned from careful observation of that show.
At the same time, some of the structural devices in Ill Will are more influenced by comics and poetry. I have been spending a lot of time with comics and graphic novels—I have a course in Graphic Narrative at Oberlin, and I frequently co-teach with the cartoonist Lynda Barry—and one of the things I wanted to steal was the way that panels worked as narrative markers, and particularly the way that the gaps/spaces between panels contain all this unspoken information. There’s a peculiar kind of leap we take when we put three or four pictures together and turn it into a story, and I liked that effect. I tried to do a version of “panels” on some of the pages, where I broke the text up into boxes that ran parallel to one another. I’m not sure it works, completely, but it was fun for me to try out, and I felt like it fit with the theme of dissociation in the book.
How did you put all the pieces of the book together? Storyboard, spreadsheet, mind palace . . .?
I guess all of the above, at one point or another. The spreadsheet is my first method—I randomly decide that the book is going to be a certain number of parts, and each part will be from a different POV. I like the process of blocking out fields that need to be hoed, even if I don’t know what I’m going to plant in them.
Then comes Mind Palace—I get to know the territory of the novel, the tent-poles that hold it up, the borders of the world I’m creating, so that it becomes more and more a “real” place in my head, and I use mnemonic devices like songs to allow me to travel there more quickly. Once you’ve written enough—once you’ve spent enough time in the world—it becomes easier and easier to access the characters. For me, the Mind Palace part is where you discover the story—or it discovers you, whichever you prefer.
Finally, once all the pieces are on the table, I begin to organize them, and then Storyboard is a more useful model. I often draw out individual scenes frame by frame, as a comic, or I try to picture a scene as it would play out in a movie. I tend to write more heavily interior than I should, and so it’s always helpful to try to actually film the scenes in my head.
Short chapters, non-chronological structure, multiple narrators—could readers' brains have handled this kind of book twenty years ago? If not, is it a matter of changing taste, or has TV and the internet and contemporary fiction changed us neurologically?
I’d like to say that it has—for better and worse. We are more prepared to juggle multiple story lines, and to tolerate smash cuts and hard edits, and to understand certain kinds of montage effects and jumps.
As a result, we’re less tolerant of slowness. It used to be traditional for stories to start out with long descriptions of setting, or a scene that showed the character in an ordinary circumstance.
The way you play around with punctuation and spacing in this book reminds me of poetry. Is that where it's coming from, or is there a different source?
Yeah, you’re right. I’ve always been kind of jealous of the tricks that poetry does with line breaks and enjambment, and I tried to play around a little with spacing and the field of the page while I was writing. I was interested in getting a particular rhythm to the prose, something that would convey a sense of an altered state. I’m not sure this experiment works at all but I wanted to at least give it a try!
Speaking of the fragmented narrative and the instances of non-traditional syntax—do you worry about accessibility? Or is this book just, like, not for everyone?
I wasn’t worried about it until I started getting all those one and two star Amazon reviews, ha ha. So—well, I guess this book isn’t for everyone. I can’t say that I don’t want everyone to like me, because I do, I really do, but at the same time I realize that my books are a certain flavor. Like, for example, butterscotch. I know some people really love it, but even if you gave me the finest butterscotch ever made, I would still think it was nasty. It’s the same way with books. I’ve gotten great reviews for this book—the best of my career—but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to dig what I’m doing. It makes me sad when people say mean things, but I’ve been on the internet long enough to accept it as a fact of life.
You've quoted Kafka as saying "we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” This reminds me of an article by Hania Yanagihara, in which she asks the question, "Don't we read fiction to be upset?" But it occurs to me that your project might not be so much about upsetting or stabbing the reader (Jesus, Kafka. Take it easy.) as it is about unsettling the reader.
This might be the most presumptuous thing I've ever said, telling you what your project is. Want to set me straight?
Well, stabbing takes many forms.
I often think about Virginia Woolf’s essay “Moments of Being,” in which she says that “a great part of every day is not lived consciously,” and that we move as though “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool.”
If you live to be 80, you’ll have had 700,800 hours on earth. How many will you remember?
I think fiction takes that question seriously. How many of the hours that you have lived actually matter? A lot of times we live in a state of sleepwalking. We glance at the news, we register the horrors, and then we move on because we must. We are in a loop, and fiction is the blow to the head that breaks us out of it, momentarily.
What does it mean to be alive, awake? It’s painful, confusing, depressing, ecstatic, dark, joyful, scary, uncomfortable, yes. But it’s also so rare and so precious. My God! How many of your 700,000 hours will you remember?
The purpose of art is to heighten and extend those hours. If it feels like a stab or a blow, maybe you’ve been sleeping too deeply.