Ill Will: A Novel by Dan ChaonIll Will: A Novel by Dan Chaon

Ill Will: A Novel

byDan Chaon

Hardcover | March 7, 2017

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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Two sensational unsolved crimes—one in the past, another in the present—are linked by one man’s memory and self-deception in this chilling novel of literary suspense from National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
The Wall Street Journal • NPR • The New York Times • Los Angeles Times The Washington Post Kirkus ReviewsPublishers Weekly

“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” This is one of the little mantras Dustin Tillman likes to share with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?

A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.

Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient's suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.

From one of today’s most renowned practitioners of literary suspense, Ill Will is an intimate thriller about the failures of memory and the perils of self-deception. In Dan Chaon’s nimble, chilling prose, the past looms over the present, turning each into a haunted place.

Praise for Ill Will

“In his haunting, strikingly original new novel, [Dan] Chaon takes formidable risks, dismantling his timeline like a film editor.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“The scariest novel of the year . . . ingenious . . . Chaon’s novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock.”The Washington Post
Dan Chaon is the acclaimed author of Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; You Remind Me of Me, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications; Await Your Reply, which was a New York Times Notable Book a...
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Title:Ill Will: A NovelFormat:HardcoverProduct dimensions:496 pages, 9.56 × 6.35 × 1.43 inShipping dimensions:9.56 × 6.35 × 1.43 inPublished:March 7, 2017Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345476042

ISBN - 13:9780345476043

Reviews

Rated 3 out of 5 by from Left me wanting more... I was so excited to read this book but sadly I was a little disappointed! I found it slow at times. Although, I did enjoy when different characters became the narrator and the two separate mysteries in the story but I found the ending a little disappointing.
Date published: 2019-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great literary thriller I absolutely loved this novel. The feeling of unease that I experienced as a reader was just incredible. There are a lot of pieces in the plot, and some of the non-serial-killier pieces are more interesting than the murder mystery but overall this was just a great read and I would highly recommend.
Date published: 2017-08-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Unsettling and Well-written * I DNF this book but I sttill think this is a very impressive book, just the going back and forth in the pass without having any context which character the reader is reading from was annoying and frustrating and really had no point to the book.I just lost interst. Does that make it a bad book - certainly NOT. * WHAT I LIKE : - The writing is refreshing and intresting. It was unsettling and truly thrilling. I liked the idea of having more than one person for every year yet some of it was out of context and did not need to be in it. The son for one, I did not care about his character. He bored me so much. He pity EVERYTHING. He had no substance to his character development. I was really keen on the relationship between Dustin and Rusty. I thought it was between two brothers however character has some interaction - either having sex, a client or part of the family. - The murders of one case from years before to later was the reason why I picked up the book. I was really looking forward how the murders relare to this strange, too-closed family. -Rusty character is intriguing. He very aloof and sometimes, odd person. He just a ordinary brother and the next is he drawing devil stars in the ground. I would have enjoyed to get to know his character if I finished the book. - That this is book is a mad house. I felt I was being pulled everywhere and could not put a hand on the brakes. I really suggest to picked it up.
Date published: 2017-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All is Not What it Seems This book is completely my wheelhouse – incredibly dark, twisted, pure literary goodness. I was on edge the entire time, but not because of the action – this book is not fast paced but rather a calculated unraveling of the pieces of a puzzle. I felt uneasy while reading it, and the discomfort made me squirm. I’m honestly in awe of Dan Chaon and what has accomplished with this story. When Dustin Tillman was a child, his parents, aunt, and uncle were killed. His foster brother, Rusty, was arrested for the crime, Dustin’s testimony and the Satanic Panic of the 80’s playing major contributing factors in his conviction. Years later, Rusty is released from prison, exonerated by new DNA evidence. Meanwhile, young men are turning up drowned in rivers across the country. Dustin, a psychologist and widow with two sons of his own, is treating a new patient who believes he has insights into the drowned men, and all is not what it seems. Initially this plot and Chaon’s direction seen straight forward – a sinister novel about murder, revenge, and hysteria. There is so much more here though, and I soon began to question Dustin and his memories. As we learn about his past, more questions arise than are answered. The ending of this book will drive some readers mad, but I actually found it perfect. You are not going to get a perfectly wrapped up story, and questions are left unanswered. This book was a hell of a ride, and I loved it so much I have already stated reading Stay Awake, a book of Chaon’s short stories.
Date published: 2017-05-28

Read from the Book

1Sometime in the first days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river. Facedown, bumping lightly against the muddy bed below the flowing water, the body was probably carried for several miles—frowning with gentle surprise, arms held a little away from his sides, legs stiff. The underwater plants ran their fronds along the feathered headdress the boy was wearing, across the boy’s forehead and war-paint stripes and lips, down across the fringed buckskin shirt and wolf-tooth necklace, across loincloth and deerskin leggings, tracing the feet in their moccasins. The fish and other scavengers were mostly asleep during this period. The body bumped against rocks and branches, scraped along gravel, but it was mostly preserved. In April, when the two freshman college girls saw the boy’s face under the thin layer of ice among the reeds and cattails at the edge of the old skating pond, they at first imagined the corpse was a discarded mannequin or a plastic Halloween mask. They were collecting pond-water specimens for their biology course, and both of them were feeling scientific rather than superstitious, and one of the girls reached down and touched the face’s cheek with the eraser tip of her pencil.During this same period of months, November through April, Dustin Tillman had been drifting along his own trajectory. He was forty-one years old, married with two teenage sons, a psychologist with a small practice and formerly, he sometimes told people, some occasional forays into forensics. His life, he thought, was a collection of the usual stuff: driving to and from work, listening to the radio, checking and answering his steadily accumulating email, shopping at the supermarket, and watching select highly regarded shows on television and reading a few books that had been well reviewed and helping the boys with their homework, details that were—he was increasingly aware—units of measurement by which he was parceling out his life.When his cousin Kate called him, later that week after the body was found, he was already feeling a lot of vague anxiety. He was having a hard time about his upcoming birthday, which, he realized, seemed like a very bourgeois and mundane thing to worry about. He had recently quit smoking, so there was that, too. Without nicotine, his brain seemed murky with circling, unfocused dread, and the world itself appeared somehow more unfriendly—emanating, he couldn’t help but think, a soft glow of ill will.2A few days after the body was discovered, Dustin picked up the phone and it was his cousin Kate calling from Los Angeles.“Listen,” she said. “I have some very weird news.”Dustin said: “Kate?” They spoke regularly enough, once every few months or so, but it was usually on birthdays or holidays or around the edges of holidays.“It’s about Russell,” she said.“Russell, my brother Russell?” He was sitting at the desk in his office, his “study,” as he liked to call it, on the third floor of the house, and he stopped typing on the computer and glanced over at his ashtray, which was now full of little sugar-free hard candies, lozenges wrapped in cellophane. “Don’t tell me,” Dustin said. “He’s escaped.”“Just listen,” Kate said.Dustin hadn’t spoken to Russell, his adopted older brother, since Russell had been sent to prison. He had not written to him or even kept tabs on him, really, and the thoughts that he had of him were of the most cursory sort. For example, he’d see a movie or a TV show that took place in a prison and he’d think: I wonder what Russell is doing right now? He had a general idea of what prison would be like. This included things like homosexual rape and “shanks” carved out of toothbrushes or spoons. Sometimes he would picture men in the prison library, studying legal books, or in cafeterias, eating the terrible casseroles, or lying moodily, fully dressed, on metal bunk beds, glaring at the ceiling.Various images of this sort had come to Dustin over the years.But mostly he’d imagine Russell as he had been when they were growing up together—Russell, six years his elder, who had shot him once with a BB gun in the back while he was running away, Russell, listening to death-metal music and carving a pentagram into his forearm with the sharp end of a drafting compass, Russell, who had used improvised kung fu moves to destroy a magnificent snowman that Dustin had built, Russell, who was delighted by Dustin’s fear of the dark and would wait until Dustin was comfortably alone in a room and then sneak by and turn off the light and pull the door closed and Dustin, trapped in darkness, would let out a scream.3On the night that their parents were going to be murdered, Dustin Tillman and his cousins Kate and Wave were sitting at the kitchen table in the camper, which was parked for the moment in the driveway of Dustin’s family’s house in western Nebraska. It was the beginning of June, 1983.Their two families were planning to leave the next morning to go on vacation together.They would travel through Wyoming and up to Yellowstone, and they would stay at various campgrounds along the way.But that night, the camper was like their own little private apartment that they were living in. The three of them were playing cards. A transistor radio emitted songs from a distant Denver rock-and-roll station. A heavy beetle-bodied June bug beat its wings and ticked thickly against the light fixture on the ceiling.The girls were only seventeen, but they were splitting a light beer, which they had taken from the refrigerator in the camper. They had poured it—half and half—into two glass tumblers. The night was warm, and the girls were wearing their bikini tops and cutoff shorts. They had used a curling iron to make flips in their shoulder-length blond hair, but the flips had grown a little limp.  They were twins, not identical but almost. Dustin was thirteen, and he sat there, his cards fanned out, and the girls said:“Dust-Tin! It’s your turn!”And Kate reached down and without thinking scratched a bug bite on her bare ankle and Dustin was looking surreptitiously, the way her fingernail made a white mark on the reddish tanned skin,  the fingernail which had some polish on it that was flaking off.4In retrospect, Dustin couldn’t remember much that was significant about that particular morning when they discovered the body. The day was clear and cold and sunny, and he woke up and felt fairly happy—happy in that bland, daily way that doesn’t even recognize itself as happiness, waking into a day that shouldn’t expect anything more than a series of rote actions: showering and pouring coffee into a cup and dressing and turning a key in the ignition and driving down streets that are so familiar that you don’t even recall making certain turns and stops; though the mind must have consciously carried out the procedure of braking at the corner and rolling the steering wheel beneath your palms and making a left onto the highway, there is no memory at all of these actions.You were not even present, were you?In retrospect: another day, late in the morning, early in the century. Another long Midwestern interstate corridor in Ohio. This particular road connected a whole series of fertile little towns to the cities, though lately what was once farmland was being developed, and rows of identical houses rose out of the muddy fields instead of crops. The backyards of these new communities were punctuated with aboveground pools and swing sets, and many featured little gray manmade ponds, which at this moment in spring looked like parking lots made of water instead of asphalt. Once they were landscaped, maybe they would look more appealing.There was a lot of roadkill these days, as well. The highways now cut the countryside into narrow parcels, and the displaced woodland animals were often caught moving from one section to the next—raccoons, opossums, deer, foxes, their bodies tossed onto the berm in the positions of restless sleepers, mouths open, eyes closed, almost peaceful-looking.People, too, seemed to meet their end more frequently on the roads, and Dustin had noticed the way that mourners seemed more and more to erect small roadside shrines to those who perished in accidents, crosses fashioned out of picket wood, often surrounded by a pile of brightly colored objects: usually plastic flowers—pink roses, yellow daffodils, white lilies—but sometimes green Christmas wreaths or plastic holly or ribbons; very frequently clusters of stuffed animals, bunnies and teddy bears and duckies; and sometimes items of clothing such as shirts or baseball caps, which gave the crosses a certain scarecrow-like quality. There was probably a good essay in this, Dustin thought.Coming up to the exit, he saw the flashing of the police cars gathered together, their blue and red lights dappling in the mild spring rain. Some orange road cones had been set out, and a policeman in a reflector-striped raincoat stood there waving the cars past with a plastic Day-Glo baton.Dustin slowed and turned down the radio and steered into the detour around the roadblock that the policeman indicated with an elegant sweep of his wand. There was a clutch of cops gathered at the edge of the bridge, grim and damp from drizzle and drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, and Dustin observed them with interest. He enjoyed watching police-procedural dramas on television, and he had loved it, back in the day, when he would sometimes be called to testify as a court-approved expert. Remembering this gave him a wistful twinge.He guessed that whatever was going on must be fairly serious.5There was a famous photo of Dustin and Kate and Wave—the picture that had been in the newspapers, which had been nominated for the Pulitzer; it didn’t win but it was recognizable. A remarkable and memorable crime photo.Here were the children—the beautiful blond twins, and the skinny freckled boy between them—and the police are leading them, hurrying them from the house. In the photo, Wave is weeping openly, her mouth contorted, screaming maybe, and Kate is looking off to the side, fearfully, as if someone is going to attack her, and Dustin is staring straight ahead and you can see that there is blood on the front of his shirt, a Jackson Pollock of blood, and he is stricken, glazed with camera-flash light, stumbling away from the crime scene, and there behind the children and the police is the body of Dustin’s mom, Colleen—you can see her corpse, perfectly framed in the background, her limbs thrown out in a posture that is clearly one of death, violent death, and a broad stain of blood beneath her.& the imprint of her blood on Dustin’s T-shirt where he had held her, his mom, for a moment when he found her body on the front stoop beneath the porch light.The other bodies—not in the photograph—are Dustin’s father, Dave, who is in the living room with a gunshot wound to his chest, and his aunt Vicki, who is dead beneath the kitchen table, where she tried to hide from the gunman, and his uncle Lucky by the sink, the corpse slumped against the bottom cabinets, his head thrown back, arms open as if falling backward. Shot in the mouth.These bodies weren’t the kind that you could show in the newspaper, but the picture of the three children was just enough to convey a vivid sense of massacre—6By the time Dustin reached his office, the news of the discovery had already begun to circulate. Most people assumed—correctly, as it would later turn out—that the body was that of Peter Allingham, a college sophomore and lacrosse player who had gone missing in the wee hours of November 1, after an evening of barhopping and Halloween parties, dressed in a cartoonish, racially insensitive Native American costume: feathers, buckskin, et cetera. Seen by large numbers of people and then gone—very improbably vanishing, people said, on his way to the bathroom at the Daily Tavern, and he never came back to join his friends.Aqil Ozorowski was sitting in the waiting room of Dustin’s office, wearing earbud headphones and gazing at his smartphone, texting vigorously. His dark, shaggy hair hung down like blinders on either side of his eyes, and Dustin stood there in the doorway with his briefcase, waiting to be noticed. He felt a bit nonplussed. They didn’t have an appointment, but Aqil had the habit of simply appearing.He was an odd case. He had ostensibly come to Dustin for smoking cessation hypnotherapy, but his susceptibility to hypnosis was very low. Instead, their sessions had devolved into loose, vaguely intimate discussions, with no clear goal in mind. They’d talk about some conspiracy theory that Aqil had read about on the Internet, or they’d talk about Aqil’s insomnia or about his resentful feelings toward the pop star Kanye West—but after the first few appointments they had all but ceased to mention smoking. “I just don’t think I’m ready yet,” Aqil said. “But I do think you’re helping me, Doctor. You’re a good listener.”Actually, Dustin wasn’t sure that was true. In fact, he had learned very little about Aqil in the months that they’d been meeting. Aqil was about thirty years old, Dustin guessed, and based on his name Dustin thought he might be biracial, but he wasn’t sure. Aqil had dark, deer-like brown eyes, and his long straight hair was either black or a dark auburn, depending on the light. His complexion could indicate any number of races. He gave no indication of his family background, even when Dustin asked direct questions. “Honestly,” Aqil said, “I’m not really interested in that stuff. These shrinks always want you to tell stories about your childhood and your past, like that’s supposed to explain something. I don’t really do that.”The one thing that Dustin did know was that Aqil had been a policeman and that he was now on medical leave from the Cleveland Police Department, though that situation, too, had never been clearly explained.  Some kind of psychological difficulty, Dustin assumed. PTSD?Paranoia? There were no medical records that Dustin had been able to access, and even when he’d undertaken a surreptitious Google search it had yielded few results. Aqil was listed as a graduate of the Cleveland Police Academy. There was a grainy photo of him on his high school football team, where he’d been a running back. He had a defunct LinkedIn page. Whatever he’d done to get himself on psychological leave from the police department, it hadn’t made the news.Still, there was apparently something he needed. He glanced up at last and gave Dustin a grin. He politely pulled the plastic cowrie shell of earbud from his ear, as if Dustin’s waiting room were his own private space and he was surprised to be interrupted.“Hey,” he said.“Hey,” Dustin said. “I didn’t realize we had an . . .” and Aqil blinked a couple of times.“Did you hear the news about the dead kid?” Aqil said. Dustin turned on the light and set his briefcase on a chair and Aqil stood up and stretched.“. . . appointment?” Dustin said.“Do you want to hear my theory?” Aqil said.

Bookclub Guide

  A Reader’s Guide A CONVERSATION BETWEEN LYNDA BARRY AND DAN CHAON Lynda Barry is a cartoonist and writer, currently an associate professor in interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin–­Madison. Her many books include The Freddie Stories, Cruddy, What It Is, and Syllabus. Chaon and Barry sat down for a conversation at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in San Diego, where they were teaching a class together. Lynda Barry: Can you talk about how this book showed up? Dan Chaon: I can talk about it, but I think that’s one of those questions where writers are most inclined to lie. They really don’t know, but they always want to have an origin story. LB: But I’m interested in the images that started to accumulate—­can you tell me about the first images that you saw in your mind’s eye? DC: The drowned boy in the opening paragraph was with me for a long time. It came from a story my brother-­in-­law told me about these tragedies that were happening on the campus where he was going to school back in the early 2000s. Guys would go out to a bar and they would disappear and then the next day or sometimes quite a while later their bodies would be discovered in a river. There was a particular story that he told me about a kid disappearing on Halloween, dressed as a Native American brave. That image stuck with me: this blond white kid dressed in this garb, in this costume, floating in a river in October-­November, in Wisconsin. I didn’t really know what it meant, except I’d known for a long time I wanted to write a novel with a serial killer in it. There were also a lot of images that were just from driving around Cleveland. I was obsessing over the decorations people put up around the sites of car accidents. Seeing these various little shrines that get erected. In Ohio and the Midwest, they can be very elaborate, and there’s something that strikes me as ritualistic and almost pagan about them. Often—because they are made with stuff that isn’t meant to be outside, like stuffed animals and ribbons, pieces of clothing, poster board—they have a very short life span before they start to look terribly weathered and ruined. That idea of ruin. It’s something I come back to a lot. I’m drawn to ruins and I’m fascinated by them; I don’t really know why. LB: So who shows up first? The drowned boy shows up, but which of the main characters first shows up? DC: Dustin. For sure. He and his patient Aqil were the first people in the book. That opening section was written maybe ten years ago. But I kept running into the problem of how to write an “investigation” of a “mystery.” I had this psychologist and his patient and they were discussing this case, and I had the list of victims and the possible clues, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I just thought, I’m not really that excited about doing a procedural. And then this other thing came to me. It was originally written as a separate piece—­the stuff about the brother getting out of prison and the family murder. So these were two versions of Dustin. The family murder stuff, all those characters came together separately. The cousin calling him—­she was originally a sister—­the cousin calling him and telling him the story, the two sons, the wife who was a lawyer, the decision not to tell anybody about what had happened. All of that was part of this other book that I was also working on and that one felt more alive to me for a long time. But there was also something missing. And it wasn’t until the two things started to converge and I began to see the Dustin character and the psychologist character coming together into one person that the book started to feel like it was moving on its own. LB: Talk about that. DC: Well, it’s this shift—­it’s hard to talk about without sounding mystical or crazy but it’s probably the same for people in mathematics or people who are thinking about a problem—­the problem seems like it’s frozen, like there’s no momentum. Then suddenly you add a piece and everything starts to flow together and move and become alive. LB: When the thing starts to move, it’s almost in the way a dream starts to move. DC: Right. But it’s not like the dream comes unbidden. There is some kind of conjuring that happens. This dreaming-­awake thing. You have to sort of call out for something, but you’re not exactly sure what you’re calling for. LB: My understanding is that you were surprised as you wrote this. You didn’t have it all mapped out. DC: I really like that method. Some people need to have an outline. I don’t. I want to be surprised along with the characters, and I want the characters to develop organically, without any expectation of what they’ll do or how things will turn out. So I’m relying heavily on the subconscious, or the dream-­state, or whatever you want to call it. At the same time, I had a structure from early on. I knew that I wanted the book to have multiple sections from each of the character’s main point of view and that each section would comment on or call out to the other sections. And I knew I had these two mysteries that needed to be solved in some way, so that gave me a framework as well. LB: There’s the mystery, there is the serial-­killer thing you said you wanted to do, and there is another something, too—­the horror and the supernatural stuff. DC: I think that was the thing that made the book really come alive for me. When I recognized that the book was haunted, that the mood palette was dread and horror in various forms, then I could go forward. I knew what kind of music was playing. I realized that it was connected to the feelings I had in the years following my wife’s death: that sense of being in a dream or nightmare, that sense of the world as hostile and unknowable. I knew that I needed to plunge into that state of mind and let it pull me along and see where it took me. As a writer, I do that a lot—­I grab the thing that’s the most emotionally raw—­because it feels like it’s a way to tame it somehow or take care of it. Take care of it is the best term. Because it’s never tamed. LB: Maybe learn to travel together. DC: Yeah. LB: Because it’s your equal. It’s as big as you are. DC: Or bigger. That was the feeling that I had with the mood of this book, this ill will, that it was bigger than me and it could easily swallow me. And I guess that’s where all the drowning comes from.LB: I’m thinking of Aqil. You say that he and Dustin show up together. I wonder how much you knew about him. DC: Nothing to start out. In the original version Dustin was a psychology professor and Aqil was his student. And Aqil was this fictional version of a kid I really liked working with back in the early 2000s. He was one of those students I talked to a lot; he came to my office and just hung out, so it was easy to plug him in as a placeholder. And then over time he slowly vanished and Aqil became someone else. LB: Talk about that thing you said, you just “plugged him in . . .” DC: When I’m creating characters, you know—­you start with this sort of empty doll that you’re playing with and for me it’s often useful to give the role of this character to someone that you know. It’s something I do in the early stages of writing. Like, this character of the cousin will be played by my sister Sheri, and it helps me bring them to life. But by the end there is not much connection between the real person and the character. I just need to get that heartbeat or that living core to bring the puppet to life. For people who do acting, that’s probably a familiar method, to start with someone that you know or some emotion that you know and extrapolate from that. LB: For some reason, I want to talk to you about your college experience. Because you’re writing about young men. You went to Northwestern. Did you picture that at all? DC: No. I was trying to place it in Ohio. But I think you are right to sort of call out my own college experience just because I was in a fraternity and I did do a lot of partying, so I’m familiar with that kind of young male stupidity. I was definitely aware that there was often something about the deaths of these young men that was treated unsympathetically. I’d read these news articles about these kids who drowned, and in the comments section there was always this kind of malevolent hilarity and delight that seemed to fit with that sense of ill will. There’s a line that comes up in the book that is a direct quote from the comments section of one of the news articles: “If there’s a serial killer, the serial killer’s name is Darwin.” There’s something people find funny about “stupid deaths.” We find them cartoonish, slapstick. But the humor requires a certain reduction of a person—­an obituary is a kind of thumbnail or caricature that allows us to pass moral judgment: A good life. A bad life. A tragic death. A deserved death. Maybe the stories we tell about ourselves—­and even our memories—­are similar. There’s this thought that Wave has that is a good summary of the book, in a way: “Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination—­that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole. . . . ​Was it possible that we would never really know? What if we were not, actually, the curators of our own lives?” And yet there’s a kind of eager glee in the way we like to put things together into neat categories. That’s one of the things that I find most striking about the way we consume news stories, especially “human interest” or “crime” stories. You read the comments on those kinds of stories, and you can feel the deep pleasure we take in nailing someone into a box. LB: I think of Aqil reading those comments. How giddy it would make him. You know? DC: I do. LB: It’s easy for me to imagine him at large in the world. DC: Especially now. LB: When I’m reading a really good book, and it’s really strong, it does flavor everything I’m looking at, like you said, like a soundtrack. When the book you’re writing is really happening for you, what does the world look like to you? DC: Once you are really going, that music is always playing. You’re going to listen to this song over and over and over like you did when you were fifteen! (laughs) LB: You played it until it was gray. DC: Right. It was a presence all the time. One of the interesting things about writing a novel is it’s this huge black hole that sucks everything into it. Every time I was driving there would be a little detail that would get tucked in there, any anecdote someone told me, anything that I thought was funny, everything got pulled in and transformed by the music of the book into a totem of ill will. Like, for example, there really was a kid skateboarding outside of my house. It was on a nice summer night and it was a kind of charming thing, hearing the sound of that skateboard, seeing a kid enjoying his vacation. And then suddenly the skateboarder turned up in January in Cleveland, skateboarding outside of Dustin’s house, and suddenly it’s super sinister and unnerving. LB: That’s one of the things I like very much. The supernatural or the horror aspect of the book—­for the reader, it’s a choice. You can see the book as being that way or not. The book reads just fine either way. Do you remember where you got jammed when you were writing? DC: I got jammed after writing the first section. Figuring out the time line and how to move forward. For some reason—­I guess because it seemed logical—­I believed that the next section should be Dustin and Aqil investigating these drowning deaths. It wasn’t until I decided to switch to Aaron’s perspective and Aaron’s voice that things started moving again. I needed to jump past the point where Dustin and Aqil were beginning their investigating and look at it from an outside perspective rather than from inside Dustin’s head. That was the defibrillator the book required. And in the end, for me, Aaron became the heart and soul of the book. I never would have guessed that at first. LB: I guess that’s how I do it, too. Building sections of the book and putting them next to each other to see if this natural knitting, like bones knitting, to see if that starts to happen.DC: The stuff you do with collage was very much an inspiration—­like the stuff in What It Is, for example. LB: How so? DC: As we’ve been hanging out together and teaching together I’ve been thinking a lot about how collage works and how important it is to my thinking about fiction. The way it can unlock certain kinds of problems because it’s based on association, rather than linear logic. So you lay something next to something else and it has sort of a vibration. LB: It reacts. It has magnetic pull. Pull or push or nothing. It reminds me of how the tarot works.DC: Also the idea of comics—­I was trying to get at some of the things comics can do. I think some of the collage-­y aspects and even some of the weird typographical stuff in Ill Will is influenced by wanting to steal some of the narrative tricks of comics. By laying one panel next to the other and there’s that gap that the reader has to leap over to get to the next panel and I thought of that. I was really after the things that that gap can do. LB: And you know what’s really badass about that gap? In the moment it takes your eye to move from one panel to the next, there’s already an assessment of how much time has passed between the first panel and the next one. Like if Charlie Brown is just lifting his hand in the next panel you know it’s just a fraction of a second that has passed. If he’s already in the distance you know it’s more. Or if in the next panel he’s old. So what’s amazing about the gap is the automatic calibration of time lapsed as you cross it. I love the many spaces between the frames in Ill Will. DC: It also depends on the reader. Some readers really like that and some don’t. But I really like it. LB: I like it because it made me feel like I was going a little crazy. Like I could hear all of it at once. You know when it breaks down into those smaller and smaller streams? DC: That was one of my favorite aspects of the book. LB: Did you get excited when you were writing that part? DC: Oh, man. I was so excited. It was that feeling of where you just have butterflies in your stomach? And it’s like you can feel these pieces kind of coming together, sort of floating and moving in three dimension, side by side, and that feeling—­it was like going on a roller coaster for me. LB: It’s interesting because it is a physical sensation. And how wild it is that just writing these sentences can create that in somebody. DC: Also the moment you somersault over one of the gaps and you’re in a different part of the story and something just completely surprises you. I couldn’t believe when I got to the Rusty section, and landed in Rusty’s voice, and it just kind of jumped into me, I couldn’t believe how much he was alive—­I could have written from that guy’s perspective for a whole book. I was so taken with him. And I didn’t expect that. Through most of the book he’s a really bad guy and I wasn’t very attached to him. And then suddenly I was and that was so strange. LB: It’s when he comes into the present tense. The now. So much of what we know about him—­I mean some of it we witness directly but it’s mostly what people say. DC: Right! LB: And then there’s that part about the arson—­ DC: (laughs) Well, I didn’t say he was an angel. I just said I like him. LB: People talk about setting like it’s something you decide on before you start putting things together. I mean you go and pick it out. Like, “This book shall be set in England in the eighteenth century.” DC: I think for me what comes first is that music we were talking about. And for me there are certain landscapes that have that kind of music. I’m talking about the music of ruin. The music of gray and melancholy. Certainly Nebraska in the 1970s, which I know very well because I grew up there, and Cleveland, the place I live, they felt like they were in tune with that music in a nice way for me. LB: Sometimes you’d go out scouting, wouldn’t you? DC: Yeah. I went scouting for that section that takes place in Painesville and I went there and I walked the banks of the Grand River and followed the paths that Aqil and Dustin did. The House of Wills was already on my mind because I pass by it on my way to work. It’s just this old abandoned funeral home on East Fifty-­fifth in Cleveland that I became really fascinated by and invented a crazy backstory for it. LB: East Fifty-­fifth is a street of ruin. DC: There is this other building on that street that has a sign out front that says fresh start and it’s like this cement-­block building and all the windows are broken out. (laughs) And there are also these old and beautiful churches and mansions from the late nineteenth century that are still standing on that block alongside the strip malls and the DMV. That little stretch on Fifty-­fifth between Carnegie and Woodland, there’s a lot going on there. LB: What else gave you butterflies?DC: Aaron. Aaron and Rabbit. And Rabbit’s mother. That completely came out of nowhere. When that scene between Aaron and Rabbit’s mother happened, that was when I knew that the book was its own thing and I wasn’t driving the bus anymore. You asked about being stuck, but there is also this point where you realize that the book is so not stuck, that there is no way to stop it. One time my wife and I were walking on the beach and some guy came spinning by in a little dune buggy and we stepped aside and we were like “What the hell?” and as he passed us he turned and yelled, “I can’t stop!” and he just kept racing down the beach. I never did find out what happened to him. (laughs) That was what happened to the book. LB: And I don’t know what that is, but for me it’s the reason to write. DC: Yes. It’s the only reason. LB: You know what it’s like? It’s like when the ocean lifts you. You’re standing in the ocean and you don’t think much is going on and then it lifts you off your feet and puts you back down. DC: I think there are equivalencies in all the arts. There is that kind of lifting that comes from singing or playing, or the lifting that comes from drawing or the lifting that comes from dancing and from acting. I feel like I’ve been really drawn to acting as a metaphor. There’s that moment when you’re not pretending to be them, you are them. LB: You have to be them. I know that when I’m drawing a person in any kind of distress my body and my face have to go into it, I have to feel it and make that face. DC: Like a grimace. LB: Yeah. I also have to do the pre-­grimace. DC: I want to try that. LB: I find most questions you find in interviews with authors tiresome. Like “What are you working on next?” I don’t think answering that is going to give me a lot of information about you or this book. So what do you think people could talk about in these author interviews? DC: To me the most interesting is usually about the things that you discovered, what you had questions about and what you were left with. This is a book with a lot of questions for the reader to—­(breaks off laughing) LB: What was a question you had at the beginning of the book that you didn’t have at the end? DC: (long pause) Whether Dustin would survive. (another long pause) The questions that I was circling were interesting to me because there was no answer and so the book allowed me to kind of run a ring around those things and to look at them from a bunch of different angles and to drop closer and then draw farther away from them. And those things include: what memory is, whether we can ever ­really see ourselves the way that we exist in the world, and the nature of deception and self-­deception. Those were ideas I was ­ really interested in and I think the book does an entire tour of them, but they aren’t something with an answer, right? It’s like you’re touring Ohio and someone says “So what’s the answer?” There is no answer. But you learned a lot about Ohio. LB: The story seems like a very long, slow suicide. DC: Yeah. Maybe. We were talking about Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays a while back, and that’s there a bit in Dustin. There is also Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is a long, slow suicide in some ways. The character of Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House definitely is in there. Dustin is very much a Shirley Jackson character. LB: Did you miss the book when you were done? DC: No. LB: Did it just sail off? Like, no goodbye party, just gone? DC: There were some characters I would have liked to have spent a little more time with. Rusty comes to mind. Wave to some extent. Xavious Reinbolt. I would love to know what he’s up to right now. Although I kind of know. (laughs) LB: Can you describe your writing area? That’s something I’m always interested in. DC: I live in Cleveland Heights on a curvy street lined with three-­story houses from the early 1900s. I have a study on the third floor and at a certain point in the book I stopped cleaning. There was a really nasty shag carpet, and piles of books and papers and it became increasingly like a hermit hoarder’s hideaway place. And then when the book finished, I hired someone to come strip it down and now it’s extremely Spartan. Or pretty Spartan. That was when I knew the book was really over. LB: All the smoke from all the cigarettes you smoked while you were writing that particular book got peeled off. DC: Rolled up. Taken away. The end of a book is not like a funeral. It’s like your kid graduating from high school. It’s a beginning of something that you’re not going to be part of that much anymore, but it’s not like the book died. I think there are times when a book dies but this wasn’t one of them. It just graduated. LB: I haven’t had a lot of experience writing novels, but with the two that I did write, I was really surprised by the complete vanishing of the characters once I had figured out the last sentence. I mean, I had to go back and edit but it was gone. It was gone at the speed of something falling from a building or shooting into space and I never saw the characters again. Not in that way. It’s not that it’s sad necessarily. It just shocked me. It shocked me so much I tried to write another book so I could see them again. DC: I actually do it with pieces of language or with images, so that an image from the last book is usually moved into the next book. Like Await Your Reply and Stay Awake both have the same quote from Thomas Carlisle. LB: I got to see you read from this book, and I was struck by how many characters there really were and how you had a voice for all of them. DC: I guess we’re going back to that thing about discovery. In some ways, I was really exploring and thinking about this idea that we contain multitudes. We have an executive function who thinks they’re in the cockpit, but who is really in charge? I think there are multiple voices because there are multiple spirits talking at once in this book. And they may be all contained within the same person but they are not all necessarily aware of one another. Or they are all acting independently. Like, for example, you’re aware of the spirit—­that part of your mind—­that can’t stop playing that damn song in your head. You don’t want that song to be playing but some part of you has control of the record player. LB: Somebody’s insisting. (pause) You know there is a way that people talk about books, where they talk about symbols, like, say there’s an owl with a broken wing and someone says, oh, that’s a symbol for not being able to get an erection. (laughs) I always hated thinking of books that way. DC: Yeah. I hate that, too. LB: But I can tell you that this book calls to mind so many images from early Christianity when the devil was a lot more hairy and around. Dustin goes to him willingly in this weird way. But it’s not that this is a symbol for the devil. It’s that the devil is a symbol for this. DC: I know nothing about early Christianity. LB: It’s not early Christianity. So many religions are about this. Shakespeare is about this. The character of Iago. The more I think about Aqil in this book—­and I’ve read it three or four times, four times when I put it all together—the more I think about him, the more formidable he becomes. DC: I certainly didn’t know that he had that kind of power until I got to the end. Not until the moment when he kisses Dustin’s hand. And that was when he really just lifted his head and winked at me for a minute. LB: Because it was real. DC: Yeah. LB: That’s just what Aqil says when he does it, right? He says now he knows it’s real.US

Editorial Reviews

“In his haunting, strikingly original new novel, [Dan] Chaon takes formidable risks, dismantling his timeline like a film editor and building the narrative with short, urgent chapters told from a few key perspectives. . . . As the story spins toward its inexorable conclusion, only the reader ascertains what is happening—a sinking realization that rattles the psyche and interferes with sleep. I read the concluding sections with increasing horror; the ending, twisting in the author’s assured hands like a Rubik’s Cube, is at once predictable and harrowing. Somehow, it resolved nothing and left me shaken. I believed this could happen—I believed all of it—and the only thing more terrifying than that is the possibility of another Dan Chaon novel. I will be nervously looking forward to it.”—The New York Times Book Review   “The scariest novel of the year . . . ingenious . . . By now we should all be on guard against Dan Chaon, but there’s just no effective defense against this cunning writer. The author of three novels and three collections of short stories, he draws on our sympathies even while pricking our anxieties. Before beginning his exceptionally unnerving new book, go ahead and lock the door, but it won’t help. You’ll still be stuck inside yourself, which for Chaon is the most precarious place to be. . . . There’s something irresistibly creepy about this story, which stems from the thrill of venturing into illicit places of the mind. . . . Chaon’s novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. By the time we realize what’s happening, we’ve gone too far to turn back. We can only inch forward into the darkness, bracing for what might come next.”—The Washington Post   “Powerful . . . Chaon is one of America’s best and most dependable writers, and in the end, Ill Will is a ruthlessly ‘realistic’ piece of fiction about the unrealistic beliefs people entertain about their world.”—Los Angeles Times   “Spanning more than thirty years, this intriguing novel about a tightly wired criminal psychologist with a murky past has the tension of a thriller plus the emotional release of justice finally served.”—O: The Oprah Magazine   “Powerfully unsettling . . . A ranking master among neo-pulp stylists, Chaon adds to the book’s disorienting effects by playing with the physical text. Some chapters take the form of parallel columns, two or three to a page. White spaces and uneven alignments push words, sentences—and thoughts—apart. . . . While such touches underscore the author’s playful approach, the writerly stagecraft keeps the reader off guard and sometimes on edge, in a kind of altered cognitive state. There’s a lot going on under the surface of Ill Will—more than one reading will reveal. Going back and reading this oddly compelling book again will only provide more pleasure.”—Chicago Tribune   “Terrifically eerie . . . The thriller transcends its genre to become a fascinating study in generational trauma. . . . Too few writers prize atmosphere as much as narrative tautness. With Ill Will, Chaon succeeds at delivering both.”—The Dallas Morning News“Outstanding . . . Following writers like Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson, Dan Chaon writes in the spooky tradition of suburban gothic. . . . An unreliable narrator can often feel like a cheap trick in the novelist’s playbook, but Mr. Chaon employs it masterfully, integrating unreliability into the book’s very typography. . . . Mr. Chaon’s writing is cool and precise, but his story is thrillingly unstable. It also boasts, at the end, a traditional horror-novel payoff I didn’t see coming—Stephen King couldn’t have done it better.”—The Wall Street Journal “One of the best thrillers I’ve encountered in a very, very long time, Dan Chaon’s latest novel will chill you to the bone and keep you guessing at every turn.”—Newsweek “If you’re up for being caught in a seamy heartland underbelly of fear, superstition, and paranoia, with side excursions through urban legend and recovered-memory hysteria, Ill Will is your book. . . . Chaon’s powers of description are impressive. . . . His knack for leaving sentences tellingly unfinished and thoughts menacingly incomplete . . . is perfect.”—The Boston Globe “Reading a truly terrifying novel can make you feel like you’re drowning: As much as you may want to surface and catch your breath, the plot holds you in its grip. . . . As Chaon moves nimbly between viewpoints, calling memories and relationships into question, a powerful undercurrent of dread begins to form beneath the story, slowly but inexorably pulling you under.”—Entertainment Weekly “Imagine the shower scene in Psycho, extended across eleven sections and three decades, with multiple unsolved mysteries. That’s the level of intensity Chaon achieves in this dark, provocative thriller.”—BBC “Chaon faithfully carries out his responsibility to keep the mystery plots . . . simmering in a pressure cooker of suspense and emotion. While doing so, he manages to summon the atmospheres of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.”—Shelf Awareness “In Chaon’s capable hands, [Ill Will] is a brilliant depiction of mental illness. Not a pretty picture, but masterfully painted.”—BookPage “Intensely readable . . . In this creepy yet fascinating work, with a bleak Ohio wintery landscape as backdrop, Chaon creates a world of tragedy, disease, and drug abuse right out of today’s news and makes it real while keeping readers guessing on many levels.”—Library Journal (starred review) “Chaon has created another of those twilight realms of which he is an indisputable master. The book’s characters plumb the depths of deception and surpass all established measures of instability and dysfunction. . . . If the definition of eeriness is indeed ‘strange, suspicious, and unnatural,’ the definers of the genre (Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, etc.) have a worthy heir in Dan Chaon.”—Booklist“Exceptional and emotionally wrenching . . . With impressive skill, across multiple narratives that twine, fracture, and reset, Chaon expertly realizes his singular vision of American dread.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)“A dark genre-bending thriller . . . Chaon has mastered multiple psychologically complex and often fearsome characters. A shadowy narrative that’s carried well by the author's command and insight.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “Dan Chaon’s new novel is subtly, steadily unnerving—like a scalpel slipping under your skin and prying it, ever so slowly, from the muscle beneath. Ill Will is a dark Möbius strip of a thriller that will leave you questioning what’s perceived and what’s imagined, and whether the reverberations of tragedy ever truly come to an end.”—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You “Ill Will not only confirms Chaon as among our country’s finest writers but makes clear that he is one of our bravest and most inventive. He embraces risks that would have most novelists turning pale and making the sign of the cross. It’s stunning. Read it right now.”—Peter Straub, author of The Throat “Dan Chaon’s darkly stunning Ill Will ensnares you from its very first pages. It’s both a bone-chilling literary thriller and a complicated tale of family secrets and the strange and dangerous paths grief and guilt can take us on—and it is not to be missed.”—Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me “‘I believe in bad places,’ one narrator of Ill Will confesses, and he’s right.  Dan Chaon’s damaged characters stalk the elusive truth and what may be a serial killer through a nightmarish Cleveland populated by drug addicts and sexual predators. Intimate and unsparing, this is one of the creepiest books I've ever read.”—Stewart O’Nan, author of Songs for the Missing “Ill Will is a literary masterwork, and that rare, true psychological thriller that comes along once in a decade. This novel may be the most honest exploration of deceit ever written.”—Alissa Nutting, author of Tampa“This novel is brilliant, beautiful, and terrifying. Dan Chaon has written a tender, masterful family story and injected it with a cardiac arrest of a plot. Ill Will keeps you up late into the night, swelling your heart and turning your blood to ice.”—Lily King, New York Times bestselling author of Euphoria