In Conversation: Dan Chaon on His New Novel, Cleveland, and What's Next for the Acclaimed Author

click to enlarge In Conversation: Dan Chaon on His New Novel, Cleveland, and What's Next for the Acclaimed Author
Photo by Ulf Anderson
Dan Chaon is the acclaimed author of Among the Missing, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001, You Remind Me of Me, named one of the best books of 2004 by numerous publications, and Stay Awake, a collection of short stories that was a finalist for the Story Prize.

His third novel, Ill Will (March 7, Ballantine), has been touted as one of 2017's most anticipated books by Vulture and Publisher's Weekly.

We recently sat down with Chaon, who's lived in Cleveland Heights since 1990 and teaches creative writing at Oberlin, to talk about the novel, genres, his process, Cleveland, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

On Ill Will being set in Cleveland:

“I don’t know whether I’d definitely call it realism. This novel is more like noir; I was looking at particular aspects of Cleveland that would give it that feel. House of Wills, Painesville Beach in winter have a nice mood to them. Since a huge portion of the book takes parts in December and January in Cleveland, there’s a kind of steely grayness and austerity about Cleveland that feels like it’s perfect for the mood of this book.”

On literary/realist fiction vs. genre fiction:

“I started out in the far end of the literary camp as a short story writer. The longer I’ve been writing, the more interested I get in genre. It’s the stuff that I read. I just want to kind of play in those playgrounds because otherwise it gets boring. After this, I want to do a western and a spy thriller. Just as a way to kind of try out different worlds. For me, writing a novel is always about world building. You get to do only one type of thing in realism and other genres you can take a real place like Cleveland and mess around with it in a way that I find really fun and really sparks my imagination.”

On his writing process:

“I knew that I wanted to do a straight up, old-fashioned serial killer novel. I didn’t know what the exact plot was, but I knew the serial killer part. By the time it was done, it turned out to sort of be a serial killer novel, but not quite, but that’s where it started. I didn’t know the plot, which is good because you come to the surprises and twists much like a reader does, but it could also be really dangerous towards the middle when I don’t really know what I’m gonna do or how I'm gonna do it.”

On starting with an image in mind:

“I knew I wanted to start with the image of the kid in the river, which came from a story my sister had told me. She had gone to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and there had been this drowning death that a lot of kids thought was suspicious, which is something that always stuck with me and I thought was a good image to start with.”

On the psychological aspect of serial killer novels:

“I think that’s the thing that we’re most curious about and also most afraid of. How do you move in the world if you don’t have a grip on your own mind. And the idea of losing that, I think is particularly scary. The classic American experience, the line, I never would've believed that this person did or was blah blah blah. I never would've guessed this person would be the serial killer! This idea that there are people amongst us that just have these crazy secrets.”

On characters who are dealing with heroin addiction:

“(The opiate epidemic) has been so weird to me because I always associated heroin with the really down and out, or musicians or whatever, and then my students at Oberlin started having friends that died of heroin overdoses, and it was like ‘wow, what’s going on’ and you start seeing these billboards that are all over the place. I’ve never done heroin so I had to do my research, and I found myself on a lot of weird message boards. The relationship between Aaron and Rabbit and sort of exploring that young 20-something kind of feckless dudes was pretty interesting to me.”

On publishing:

“I send in the final draft about a year before it’s finally published. It’s always nerve-wracking. Things have been unfolding in a really positive way. I don’t want to jinx myself but I’m excited, it’s gotten good pre-pub reviews, there’s stuff happening with it. So I’m cautiously knocking on wood that things are gonna go well with it. I’m Going on a 10-city book tour around the country. Locally, I’m reading at Brews and Prose on the launch date (March 7th.) And also locally, I’m doing three library readings in Coventry, Rocky River and Mentor. No one wants to drive across town in the middle of winter.”

On Cleveland’s literary community:

“The literary community is always in a state of flux, with new people coming and going. Cleveland State has always been a nice anchor for that community. There are always new things giving people places to go. The Old Lit was one, Brews and Prose, other things that are going on that bring people together. The lack of brick and mortar bookstores has been a radical change in the last few years. The way, as an author, that you promote books is so different. Down to the question of what goes on a cover. Nowadays, the first time people see a book cover is on a thumbnail so it’s not something you're going to pick up and look at. So the designers are designing for these little stamp sized images. And a lot of the promotion has moved to social media. I love bookstores and miss having a big Joseph Beth or whatever to stroll around in.”

Why is Cleveland Heights such a literary community?

“Writers tend to be liberal and it’s a super liberal place. It’s diverse and has a lot of artists that live here. It’s also got really inexpensive, nice houses if you're starting a family, that’s why we were attracted here all those years ago, and that’s still the case. There’s still stuff happening here. I know there’s a lot more going down in Ohio City and Tremont and these sort of up and coming places. But there's still enough going on here and if you’re a writer, you don’t need to go out that much.”

On novels vs. short stories and his future:

“I’m still going back and forth between the two (short stories and novels). In terms of the publishing industry, they’re just so much more happy when you’re writing a novel. I really probably need to write two novels before I do another short story collection, just in order to make the publisher happy. I’ll do a short story here and there, mostly by request these days. Someone will ask me to write a story for an anthology or whatever. I recently did a story for a vampire anthology so that was fun.”

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