Dan Chaon sits in the attic room of the house where he has written five of his six books, petting Ray Bradbury. When Chaon brought Ray home six years back, the dog didn’t even know how to play. “Now he’s a little more mischievous,” Chaon says, as Ray curls up on the royal blue sofa. He was about a year old when Chaon got him, and he’d been seriously abused, shot repeatedly in the body and face. Buckshot can still be felt under his loose skin. “A physical emblem of what he’s gone through,” Chaon says, running his hand over the bumps.
Chaon is no stranger to humanity’s darker side. It’s almost as if he writes in blood rather than ink, creating a body of work featuring malicious intent. Ill Will, Chaon’s sixth book, is his most formally audacious novel yet, with three narratives unfolding across 11 sections over three decades. There are half a dozen characters and two unsolved killing sprees. Chaon writes in first-, second-, and third-person, in past and present tense, and represents fractured or unfinished thoughts with gaps designed into the page. There are emojis, text bubbles, and scenes trapped in boxes. The primary narrative follows Dr. Dustin Tillman, whose parents were murdered when he was 13. Dustin blamed the crime on his adopted brother, Rusty, who dabbled in Satanic rituals. Thirty years later, Dustin, now a practicing hypnotherapist in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, learns that Rusty has been exonerated due to DNA evidence and released. The timing couldn’t be worse; Dustin’s wife is dying of cancer and their teenage sons are floundering. Dustin refuses to speak to Rusty, so Rusty reaches out to Dustin’s youngest, Aaron, filling the boy’s already troubled mind with dangerous ideas. When a new patient of Dustin’s convinces the doctor that a series of recent drownings are connected, the novel’s grisly strands weave into an ever-tightening noose.
Chaon often begins a novel wanting to complicate a received idea. With Ill Will he decided to mess with “the role that deceit plays in our identities,” he says. “I have plenty of things in my own life that have led me to be interested in that.” Like some of his characters, Chaon was adopted, a mystery he’s talked a lot about. But Ill Will marks his first dance with the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s. “There was a period when it was blasphemy to question the idea of Satanic ritual abuse. Police departments had their own Satanic task forces. Eventually people were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think there really are Satanists in every town.’ But if you denied it in the early ’90s, people would have been like, ‘Are you insane!? Of course there are!’ ” Chaon lights an American Spirit cigarette with practiced efficiency, sits back. “One of the books that hovers over Ill Will,” he says, “is actually Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
Not surprisingly, Bradbury was the writer Chaon first loved, and when Chaon got to Northwestern University he considered himself a genre guy like his hero. “But I got the genre knocked out of me,” he says, “really hard.” So he dove into Raymond Carver, whose stories, he says, are also full of ghosts. “By the time I left college I was a huge snob, a pronouncer of what was canon and what was not canon.” Chaon adopts an amusingly clipped cadence when saying things like this. “Over the years I realized that not only was that all bullshit, it was also making me super unhappy. It wasn’t until I went back to the things I used to read—the stuff I was sneaking—that things opened up for me.”
Chaon recalls reading the first Harry Potter book to his son. Though he criticized the prose, he kept reading after his son fell asleep. It was eye-opening. “I’d narrowed my taste so much that a glimmer of excitement wasn’t even allowed.” Chaon runs a hand through his long, thick hair. “For a while it was just this anxiety of, ‘Why aren’t I in the New Yorker? Will I ever be reviewed by Michiko?’ ” Chaon laughs, producing a rhythmic wheeze that somehow sounds naughty. “I’ve gotten less worried about what’s literary and what isn’t. Trying to make my two Rays fit together has been one of my projects.”
At midday in northern Ohio, the room where Chaon writes is awash in a harsh wintry light. Some would call it oppressive, but not Chaon. Until recently, he says, this space looked more like a serial killer’s storage unit than a writer’s study, with hundreds of books, dozens of clippings, filing cabinets, and an ancient powder blue rug that came with the house. These days the room is spartan, occupied only by the sofa, a small table supporting some books, and a wooden desk made from barn wood that runs the length of the wall. A custom PC built for gaming and a Mexican sugar skull ashtray are on the desk. The wall Chaon faces when writing is bare but for a print by his longtime friend, Lynda Barry. It’s a page from The Freddy Stories, a collection of her comic strips. The print is an intricately drawn image of a timid dog facing a dark wood. A banner reads “Will you enter?” At bottom, Barry has written, “Dan is not scared!” Though the image came from Barry’s brain, it’s the perfect visual representation of what it’s like to enter one of Chaon’s stories.
Chaon finished Ill Will while on sabbatical from Oberlin, where he has taught since 1998. “I really let myself get into Jeff Lebowski mode,” Chaon says of that year. “There were whole days when I didn’t get out of my bathrobe. I let my hair grow really long. People would see me from the back and call me ‘ma’am.’ I’d turn around and they’d be horrified.”
When Chaon’s not teaching he can be found here, writing from midnight to four a.m., a thin cirrus of cigarette smoke hanging just below the ceiling. When he’s in the home stretch on a book, he writes as much as 12 hours a day, in four-hour shifts, often with a timer set to 15-minute increments. He has an elaborate system of rules and rewards. Before the timer dings there’s no crossing-out allowed, no correcting; too long a pause and Chaon writes “tick tock, tick tock.” After the ding there are cookies, video games, American Spirits. Chaon tried to kick his smoking habit years ago—with the help of a hypnotherapist, an irony that won’t be lost on readers of Ill Will. Chaon went for six weeks before showing up to a locked door and a sympathy wreath. “I went out in the parking lot,” he says, “lit up, and was like, ‘Okay forget it.’ ” Chaon smooths his goatee. “I’ve never been able to be in a true hypnotic state anyway. I’m too anxious. I can’t relax.”
But Chaon has long been fascinated by hypnosis. Though he grew up in an age when most boys dreamed of becoming astronauts, he wanted to be a hypnotist. In a way he is. If hypnosis has been defined as an altered mind state different from ordinary consciousness, then it sounds an awful lot like being plunged into one of Chaon’s gnarly tales. There’s often a point in his stories when the reader’s expectations, even beliefs, are turned upside down, an electrifying aha moment that Chaon is particularly good at engendering, perhaps because our surprises were his surprises first. He never outlines, never plans. He begins each story in pursuit of fragments that he spends years developing into narrative strands. Discovering how they connect is one of his joys.
What got Chaon started on Ill Will was a conversation about drownings near a university that some students had decided were the work of a serial killer. “I’m gonna write a serial killer novel someday!” he remembers thinking. But he couldn’t figure it out, so he set it aside. That was 15 years ago. When he finished Await Your Reply in 2008, he returned to the killer “just to play around,” and wrote 20 pages that revealed to him the story’s “tent poles.”
As a writer Chaon comes back repeatedly to the same themes: adoption, brothers, fires, amputation. Revisiting the familiar “used to be something I was painfully obsessed with,” he says. “It actually prevented me from writing. But a lot of the artists that I love the most, like Hitchcock, Nabokov, and Dickens, basically worked through a few tropes in various permutations. So I guess it’s what I’m stuck with. I’ll do different genres, but they’ll probably all have twins in them.” Chaon laughs and says he’s been rereading Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers again because his next book might be a western.
Chaon also tends to set his stories where he lives, or has lived, though as his readership grows so does his geography. But Cleveland features prominently in Ill Will—especially its seedier, less glamorous sections—and about half the book takes place over five unbearably gray days in January. “I find beauty in the bleak,” he says. “And I’m attracted to ruins, the mystery of things in decline.” He looks at the window in his sloping roof. It’s growing darker, colder, day about to become night. Beside him, Ray Bradbury is dreaming. “People who read my work probably imagine that I’m really sad,” he says, laughing. “I’m not, most of the time. I have my ups and downs, but I feel like I have a very enjoyable relationship with the world.”
Mike Harvkey is the author of In the Course of Human Events (Soft Skull, 2014).