Dan Chaon On Grief, Memory And 'Ill Will'

May 25, 2017

Credit Ulf Anderson

Dan Chaon's new novel, Ill Will, Chaon explores mystery, death, grief and the personal narratives to which we cling. In this episode of The Write Up, Chaon and host Owen Egerton discuss about the act of writing and its thereapeutic ability to shine a light into the darker corners of mind.

As Egerton points out, “haunting” can be a hackneyed word to describe fiction, but Ill Will can’t be comprehensively described without using the derided descriptor. The novel tells the story of how two crimes impact the life of protagonist Dustin Tillman, examining the familial impact of the deaths of his parents, while also following him as he investigates the deaths of several college students. Ill Will is unsettling, unconventional and unapologetically full of dark humor.


Chaon says hearing a story about several college kids drowning in the river was the impetus for the novel. In the wake of the drowning, he says there were urban legends and suggestions that the deaths were connected. That concept became a central theme in this book: that, when our concepts of story are challenged or contradicted, things unravel quickly.

While not completely biographical, the novel has roots in his own life. With Egerton, Chaon discusses his own experiences as both a widower and a parent to teenage boys played a role in his writing of Ill Will. He likens the practice to a horror film and says that, while mining personal tragedy and imagining the worst possible scenarios may be painful, the finished product can often bring relief and empathy

"If I'm not shedding a few tears over something by the time I'm finished, I haven't done my job."