Dan Chaon’s new book, Ill Will, feels like crash landing in a darker version of your own backyard. That is if you, like the Oberlin College creative writing professor and National Book Award nominee, live on Cleveland’s East Side. The 24-hour CVS at Lee and Cedar roads, Parnell’s Pub, the House of Wills, downtown Painesville — they’re all vividly painted and creepy as hell.
“I’m not going to get a plaque from the chamber of commerce,” says Chaon.
The thriller oozes with the sense there’s something sinister behind those familiar locales. Chaon likes Cleveland, even when he’s drawing on dark spots.
“I love the ruined areas,” he says. “Other people want to gentrify and clean up, but I kind of really like that vacant lot and that ancient, crumbling mansion.”
Chaon fills that scenery with vaguely familiar characters made scarier by the feeling they could be your little-known neighbors from three houses down. Much of the book centers around a widowed psychotherapist named Dustin Tillman who is raising his two sons after losing his wife to cancer.
It feels real because Chaon drew the premise from his own life. Chaon’s wife, Cleveland State University creative writing professor Sheila Schwartz, died from ovarian cancer complications in 2008. Chaon raised their two sons, now in their 20s. Ill Will is the first full-length novel Chaon worked on after her death.
“Sheila’s death was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me, in some ways. I did want to find a way to write about grief,” says Chaon. “Giving that to Dustin and [Dustin’s son] Aaron, it was a way to explore what grief was like without being directly autobiographical.”
But the setup is where the parallel ends. Dustin copes with the childhood killing of his parents, and aunt and uncle, by his Satan-worshipping adopted brother Rusty. When Rusty is released from prison, Dustin spirals out of control and becomes increasingly involved with a patient, Aqil.
Written in Chaon’s attic study, the 458-page yarn steps slowly away from the known, layer by narrative layer.
“I don’t write many personal essays. It always feels somewhat uncomfortable and like I’m making myself into a character anyway,” says Chaon. “So, if I’m going to lie, I might as well lie a lot.”