Dan Chaon is the author of three short story collections. His short fiction has received multiple awards including publication in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize stories.
Chaon’s first novel Await Your Reply was a national bestseller, and his second novel Among the Missing was a finalist for the National Book award. In his new novel, Ill Will, Chaon explores mystery, death, grief, and the personal narratives we cling to. Dan came by by KUT’s studios in Austin to talk to Owen about themes,
Dan came by by KUT’s studios in Austin to talk to Owen about themes, craft and shining a light into the dark corners of the human mind.
As Owen points out, many novels are called “haunting” but Ill Will can’t be fully described without using the word. Chaon tells the story of two crimes: the death of protagonist Dustin Tillman’s parents when he was a child and the current mysterious deaths of several college students around town. Dustin’s adopted brother Rusty was convicted of their parent’s murder, but new evidence has overturned this conviction, and Dustin must reassess his history with his brother as he also investigates the local deaths for a connection he is sure must exist. Ill Will is unsettling, unconventional, and unapologetically full of dark humor.
Talking about the genesis of this nuanced novel, Chaon recalls hearing a story about several college kids drowning in the river of a college campus and the surrounding urban legends that there must be some sort of connection between them. This idea becomes a central theme in this book: the oh-so-very-human determination to create meaning even or maybe especially in the face of tragedy. When our ideas of our story are challenged or contradicted, things can unravel quickly.
To explore these ideas Dan says he makes sure he has a touchstone to each character, and that this is especially important in a novel like Ill Will where there are so many voices and sometimes contradictions to articulate. “You hear authors say ‘the character took on a life of their own’ and it sounds silly but there’s truth to it”. Getting into the mental place to do that, he explained, is more like the imaginative play of childhood or musicians jamming together.
Dan also discusses what it was like to explore things that, while not completely biographical, had deep roots in his own life. His own experiences as a widower and as a parent to teenage boys both play a role in Ill Will. Just like with horror films, Dan and Owen discuss the power of shining a light into the dark corners of our minds and the relief and empathy that comes from imagining the worst that can happen:
“If I’m not shedding a few tears over something by the time I’m finished, I haven’t done my job”.
-by Felix Morgan