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June 13, 2022

Dan Chaon's Playlist for His Novel "Sleepwalk"

Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Dan Chaon's new novel Sleepwalk is enchanting dystopian noir, impossible to put down.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"This strange and compelling plot features Chaon’s signature imaginative flair and brilliant pacing to create an ominous tension infused with sly wit . . . A consummate storyteller, Chaon imbues the darkly comic with colossal heart."

In his own words, here is Dan Chaon's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Sleepwalk:


Almost all my stories and novels have started with music. Usually it’s an image evoked by lyrics and melody, sometimes a scene plays out in my mind as in a music video and the song imbues the briefly glimpsed characters with depth and feeling, and I want to follow them further. The tunes become part of the fabric of the tale, really deeply intertwined, so much that sometimes it’s hard to extract the book I wrote from its soundtrack.

All of which is to say, Sleepwalk, my novel, was the offspring of “Sleepwalk,” the 1959 song by Santo and Johnny. One day I was driving on the interstate, listening to a dire audiobook about climate change, and I then I turned the channel to a satellite network that was playing Santo and Johnny. I heard those introductory chords: Da da da DAAA--and felt my shoulder muscles relax. The song places you in a kind of anesthetized wandering, and I let it wash over me. “It’ll all be fine,” I thought. “Scientists will figure it out before it gets too bad.” It was sort of like that meme with the cartoon dog drinking coffee in a burning building. This is fine, I thought.


This was a few years after Frank Ocean’s Blonde had been a hit, but I still listened to it regularly. It was the song “Nights” that gave me the first glimmer of the mood of that interstate driving character, and it was the melancholy, yearning evocation of daily working life that introduced me to my main character, Billy—a 50-year-old redshirt mercenary, doing shady jobs for a shadowy corporation. The song gave me his numb “everyday shit/everynight shit” and it opened up an empathetic passageway into his repressed sorrow. A bad guy who didn’t really want to be a bad guy.
Even now, the opening chimes of “Nights” feel like a call to enter into Billy’s consciousness. It became one of those self-hypnosis triggers, a little Pavlovian bell. “Did you call me from a séance?”


Teenage Fanclub’s 1991 song “Guiding Star” gave me the name for the name for my character’s home—a tricked out RV—but it also gave me more information about the way my character was feeling as he drove around the country:

When everything you own is lost
And every friendship has its cost
Your rolling stone has gathered moss…

Dang! I thought. I’ll bet this guy is microdosing, just to cope.


I was trying to figure out the voice of the novel. Billy’s voice. I knew it was a voice like my father, my biological father, Huck Mount, who I hadn’t known when I was growing up, who I only first met when I was in my twenties. He was a charming, infuriating, inscrutable person, and I found a touch of him in Kurt Vile.

Kurt Vile isn’t from the Midwest, which surprises me. He’s from the suburbs of Philadelphia, but his voice, like my father’s, is difficult to place—there’s a hint of California drifter, a suggestion of redneck stoner, a slight echo of his fellow Philly compatriot, Mac Miller—that suburban white boy hip-hop voice, mush-mouthed with vague sorrow.

But in any case, Kurt Vile helped me find a rhythm and diction for Billy, a springboard.


I don’t feel like I exactly choose the songs that become part of a novel’s soundtrack—it’s more like the songs choose me and begin to accumulate around the book through some kind of mysterious magnetic attraction. At first I did not know why so much 1950s and '60s female pop kept appearing in my playlists. It wasn’t something I usually listened to, and yet I wrote a whole paragraph about the 1963 single “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March—

I find a recording of Little Peggy March and I play “I Will Follow” on repeat. It’s a creepy song, full of shrill, uninvited longing, but also sad, and dreadfully urgent. How rare it is to be wanted in such a way as Little Peggy March dedicates herself to her beloved! I drive along at speed limit, listening grimly.

Yet it continued to proliferate¬¬¬—there were references to Skeeter Davis and The Chiffons and The Dixie Cups and The Chordettes, and I learned that Billy’s mother had been part of a girl group in the 1960s, “and at one point, she said, they’d had a meeting with the famous impresario Phil Spector, that in the end he decided not to help them.

‘It could have been different,’ she’d tell me. ‘In another life.’”

I had learned from David Lynch that there was a sinister glint to these old ballads from the fifties and sixties, the innocent harmonies taking on an ominous neon glow. I learned from the Fallout games that 1960’s-style optimism made a nice contrast to the apocalyptic.

For a while I was riding along on the dark, dreamy noir of Chromatics and The Raveonettes, Diiv’s “Like Before You Were Born,” Annabel Allum’s haunting “When the Wind Stopped,” and “Surrender,” by Suicide, which was the song that showed me how to make Billy turn the corner and fall in love.

I listened over and over to Nina Simone’s “For All We Know.” Simone’s voice always helps me when I am trying to reach for a difficult, complex emotion. She pierces through me and carries my spirit out of my body in a way that almost feels like astral projection.

I hold out my hand
And my heart will be in it.

That was the moment the emotion of the novel truly clicked for me. I felt Billy hold out his tired, bloody heart and I saw him changing—not so much an epiphany as a gap in the curtain than let in a sliver of light.

Dan Chaon is the author of several previous books, including Ill Will, a national bestseller, named one of the ten best books of 2017 by Publishers Weekly. Other works include the short story collection Stay Awake (2012), a finalist for the Story Prize; the national bestseller Await Your Reply; and Among the Missing, a finalist for the National Book Award. Chaon's fiction has appeared in the Best American Short Stories, the Pushcart Prize Anthologies, and the O. Henry Collection. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction and the Shirley Jackson Award, and he was the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Chaon lives in Cleveland.

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