Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Dan Chaon talks about his brilliantly unsettling new novel ILL WILL, his green chile stew recipe, and why the election is nudging him to write
Oh yes, you read Dan Chaon and you think your skin is being flayed off and you are so unsettled you have to make sure the front door is locked, but you cannot stop reading or admiring the diamonds of his prose. But maybe you didn't also know that Dan Chaon is also hilarious funny, with a warped sense of humor and a heart so generous, you sort of wish he could be knighted.
Dan Chaon is the acclaimed author of Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and You Remind Me of Me, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. Chaon’s fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and he was the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Chaon lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and teaches at Oberlin College, where he is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing.
I'm completely jazzed to have Dan here. He's one of my favorite writers--and people--on the planet. Thank you so much, Dan. Now to make your chili recipe!
I always think there is a reason for writing a novel at the time that the author writes it. What was going on in your mind or haunting you before you started?
The most obvious thing was the death of my wife in 2008. I went a little crazy for a few years afterward, and I was trying to raise two teenaged boys as an insane widower, and when I started my new novel, I thought to myself, I AM NOT going to write about any of this crap. I'm going to write a book about serial killers and satanic ritual abuse and it's going to be creepy and weird and it will take me out of my own life and my own head.
Then I began to realize that the main character was a widower with two teenaged sons, and I was like, N-no! No! NOOO!
But it was too late! Picture me at my sister's house over Christmas, having a discussion about it. My sister said, "Why did you make me into a lying ho-bag?" and my oldest son said, "You made me into a doomed asshole!" And my youngest son said, "At least you guys didn't get murdered." My brother-in-law shrugged. "I think there should have been more about the drownings I told you about!"
"It's fiction!" I said. "That's how it works. There's a little kernel you take from your own life, and the rest is invented."
"I will say this," my sister said. "I was impressed by your self-awareness! You were really brave in the way you portrayed Dustin so honestly."
"I'm not anything like Dustin!" I said curtly. And everyone laughed.
Ill Will is so fabulously unsettling, so beautifully dark, that I am wondering--was there any moment during the writing where you felt, what am I doing? I can’t go there (and then you went there, anyway?) Did you ever feel physically distressed? (All of these, by the way, are compliments of the highest order.)
There were. We're probably thinking about the same thing--the thing at the end with the tank, right? But it would be a spoiler to talk about. But, yes, when I got to that part I was like, I can't believe I'm doing this, nonononono
That's one thing that has always interested me about the fiction-writing process--it's so beyond the control of your conscious mind. We know we have two brains--a left and a right--but I'm never so aware of it as when the left brain is working and the right brain knows nothing about it.
I didn't even know that X was the killer! But when I go back and re-read, it's clear that a part of me must have known.
How was writing Ill Will different than writing your other books?
It was the first book that I wrote without my wife, Sheila, as the first reader. It was also, coincidentally, the first book that I let my sons read as I writing it, the first book I wrote while they were adults. So much is different because of where you are in time. This is definitely a book written by a fifty-year-old man, which I couldn't've written when I was in my twenties.
Perhaps also related to turning 50: It's the first book where I felt mostly free of anxiety about what people would think. I felt freer to experiment with language and form, and I felt freer to do crazy stuff with plot that my more conservative younger self probably would have talked me out of.
Picture me: toothless oldster cackling wildly as the speedometer pushes past 100 mph. I swing my hat in a loop above my head. Wooo-hooooooo.
Ill Will takes up familiar Dan Chaon themes--adoption and what it can do to you, family and bottomless grief--but it adds serial killings--but all of these are all multi-layered themes, and have much deeper meanings than mere surface. Are you aware of these deeper meanings when you write, or do they startle and unnerve you when you have finished a few drafts?
Most of the time I don't know what the deeper meanings even are until someone points them out.
There's a lot in fiction writing that's invisible to the conscious mind, and to me the most important thing is being able to trust in images and scenes. I still don't know why one of my characters hallucinates a tiny man dancing in his underwear, or why the same character seems to appear, unaged, during three different time periods, or what the string of emojis means.
I like that there are things that I myself can't explain about my books, that the world of the novel somehow exists outside of "me"-- in some other realm.
The publisher’s letter in the arc calls your novel crime fiction--but I don’t think it really is. Do you? I believe it’s deeply literary, brilliantly genre-bending, and unlike anything else anyone else is writing. Yes, there are crimes in it--but it’s really more about the stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves from coming against the truth of our lives, in a way. Can you talk about this? How do you categorize your own work?
I really do feel like I'm always on the borderlands, and that's the way I like it. I'm definitely in the "literary" tribe--I'm a National Book Award nominee, I've been in Best American Short Stories, I got a thingee from the American Academy of Arts and Letters--but at the same time, I've never worn that label comfortably.
In the past few years, I've made inroads into being accepted by the fantasy/horror community--I've been in a couple of straight-up horror anthologies, and I'm teaching this year at the Clarion SF/Fantasy Workshop. I'm proud of that, and I'd be very glad to be considered a Crime writer, or a Thriller writer, too. My plotting isn't quite good enough or direct enough to place me firmly in that category, but I definitely feel a kinship with those writers who are considered Mystery, Horror, Fantasy, Crime, Thriller, etc. Many of the writers I most admire are those who are stubbornly stuck in-between: Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, Peter Straub, Kelly Link, etc. Those are my people.
I used to feel a little bitter that The New Yorker wouldn't publish me. Now I feel like they probably did me a favor.
You’re critically-acclaimed-highly respected-famous, but you don’t seem to own that label. In fact, you are down-to-earth-regular-guy, hilarious, smart-generous--and you seem to take nothing for granted and to be incredibly grateful. How do you manage this?
Oh, Caroline! Thank you! Picture me delivering a curtsey.
I am grateful. In a lot of ways, I'm one of the luckiest people I've ever known. I grew up relatively poor, in a rural Midwestern American trailer-park sort of way, but now I'm a fairly
well-to-do college professor/writer dude with a house and sense of security that many people would kill for. I have nothing to complain about.
Yet I often don't feel like the guy you describe. There's a part of me that's full of squirming black eels--not nice, not funny, not generous, not optimistic. That cold, angry shadow person who had a large hand in writing this poisonous book.
Is there anything that you wouldn’t want to write?
I almost hate to say this, because it sounds obnoxious, but I wouldn't want to write something that made people forget their troubles. I don't think I'd enjoy writing light entertainment that cheered and amused folks. I wouldn't want to write commercials for anything. That seems kind of stingy and mean, I guess.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
This is February 2017, and we're only three weeks into the new presidential administration. The news has sort of taken over my life and brain, and I've got to figure out a way to get out of the circular maze it puts me in. I'm obsessing about finding some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. I think maybe the only way to get out of it is to write, but I haven't started yet.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
My recipe for Green Chile Stew!
1 lb of chorizo sausage, browned.
1 lb. of pork chop, cut into cubes and browned in the chorizo grease.
3 large potatoes, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
3 tomatillos, diced.
2 poblano peppers, chopped
2 anaheim peppers, chopped
1 (or more) jalepeno pepper, chopped
1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped garlic
1 12 oz jar of Goya brand Recaito
3 tbs. cumin
6-7 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
Combine all ingredients and bring stock to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for
1 hour, until potatoes are soft.