Includes an exclusive conversation between Dan Chaon and Lynda Barry
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 Reviews • Publishers 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.
“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
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Copyright © 2018 Dan Chaon.
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Reading Group 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.
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.
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?
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.
LB: That’s just what Aqil says when he does it, right? He says now he knows it’s real.
1. Who killed Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle? What is the most plausible answer? What is the most emotionally true answer?
2. What is the purpose of the typographic eccentricities in the book—the gaps, the columns, the missing punctuation, etc.? How did you go about maneuvering through these elements?
3. Which of the characters has the greatest self-awareness? Who is most trustworthy? Which of these traits makes a character more likeable?
4. At one point, Jill tells Dustin, “Poor people pass down damage the way rich people pass down an inheritance.” To what extent does social class play a role in this novel? Do you think what Jill says is true?
5. The term “motivation” is often used as a way to frame characters in a novel. What motivates these characters? What does the concept of “motive” mean?
6. Dennis assumes that Dustin has committed suicide at the end. Do you think so? Is Dustin, as Wave tells Aaron, “the bad guy” of the story?
7. The book’s epigraph is from the French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine: “We often meet our destiny on the road we take to avoid it.” Could the characters in this book have avoided their destinies, or were they doomed from the outset? If you compare Dustin, Rusty, and Aaron, who had the best chance to avoid his fate? Could any of them have escaped?
8. One of the mantras Dustin tells his patients is: “Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird.” What does he mean? When is a dead bird not just a dead bird?
9. When Rusty is in prison, a psychologist tells him that he has a virus. “And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Do you think this is true? If so, what kind of “virus” is it, exactly?
10. Why do you think Aqil does what he does? Is he a predator? An opportunist? Does he target Dustin from the start, or is it an idea that comes to him gradually as he gets to know Dustin? If Aqil is evil, what is the nature of his evil?