A thriller hinges on anxiety, on a loud whisper that haunts the protagonist. In Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, Jason Dessen’s whisper comes from an armed man in a mask, a man who makes Jason question his place in the world.
Before this moment, Jason’s life is perfect: he has a house in a historic Chicago neighborhood, a career as a college professor, a loving wife and son. But what if that life is just a figment of his imagination?
In Dark Matter, Crouch investigates the possibility of alternate realities, and many of the novel’s complex questions don’t have simple answers. I recently spoke with Crouch—whose Wayward Pines trilogy was adapted into the TV series of the same name at Fox—about the unknown, Chicago, and the real, often terrifying world around it. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Nora Grubb: Why set the book in Chicago? What made the city conducive to the multiple realities your protagonist faces?
Blake Crouch: I was in Chicago two years ago meeting Marcus Sakey, who lives in Roscoe Village. We always get together when we’re each about to start a new book. We got together for three or four days, to drink and brainstorm and shoot the shit. One of the ideas I pitched to him was this book in a very different iteration, and he really spoke to it. Over a period of three or four days, we saw the shape of this book come out of the fog. We had one really long brainstorm one afternoon at Longman & Eagle (in Logan Square). That’s where I finally realized I was going to write this book.
And I set it in Chicago partly out of sentimentality but also because of the landmarks of Chicago, the skyline, the lake . . . there’s just something about it that spoke to me. Those North Side neighborhoods carried the vibe of what I thought the story was. My affinity for Chicago pulled me through the writing of the book.
Nora Grubb: “This is not my world,” Jason says upon discovering that his new, inter-dimensional life does not resemble the one he left behind. Without revealing too much, what kind of world are the characters of Dark Matter living in?
Blake Crouch: I think the characters of Dark Matter are living in a variety of worlds. Some of them are vastly different than the Chicago that we know in the early pages of the book, and some are incredibly close to that world, but only off by a few, small degrees. But I think being off by a few, small degrees in some cases is worse than being off by miles because it’s almost your world but only a handful of details are wrong. That is something that would scare me.
Nora Grubb: Which is more of an arduous process: writing a novel or writing a script? What makes them different?
Blake Crouch: Whenever I’m writing one I wish I were writing the other. Which one is harder? The novel is hard because it’s the first expression of the idea. You’re trying to understand what the story is and there’s a lot of rewriting. At the script stage, it’s hard because you’re distilling everything you did in the novel, having to make even more difficult choices of development. What is this movie? What is this episode of television? You have to be so streamlined and so conservative in which scenes stay and which scenes go. I love both of the forms a lot. I know I like writing novels more—there’s something very satisfying about putting it down on paper.
Editor’s note: Dark Matter is in development at Sony Pictures, with Crouch writing the screenplay.
Nora Grubb: Jason’s character is “obsessed with the path not taken.” What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
Blake Crouch: I think I would be working in the field that the protagonist of this book works in, which is theoretical physics. I would have had to take way more science or math classes [laughs]… I have a strong interest in emerging technology, the field of science that relates to our day-to-day world or the way we perceive technology.
Grubb: Dark Matter takes its title from the matter in our universe that is largely unaccounted for or hasn’t been able to be directly observed by scientists. What do you believe to be concrete or finite? What do you know for sure?
Blake Crouch: There’s a line in the book, Jason says something like, “We live in a world that’s way more mysterious and strange than we can possibly imagine.” And I do believe that. I don’t know what necessarily all of the mysteries are but I know that there’s a lot under the surface that we’re not aware of, that we don’t see.
Nora Grubb: At many moments in the novel, Jason considers the “young, new genius.” The literary world especially is preoccupied with young, talented writers. Would you say society, too, has a preoccupation with this archetype as well? In other words, does youth deserve the hype?
Blake Crouch: Sometimes I think it does. It’s not necessarily youth; it’s more the new thing, the voice that we haven’t heard. It’s someone coming in blazing with a new perspective, a new story. Especially with debuts, any type of art that’s “the first.” There’s this new-artist swagger—they don’t really know anything about failure or success.
I sold my very first novel in the early 2000s for six thousand dollars. And it was not a success. But I’m really glad my first book was not a success. I think it would be really difficult to come up with a new idea if all you know is success. Having crawled my way up to this point, I may be a little scrappy, which I think is a good thing.
FICTION – SUSPENSE & THRILLER, SCIENCE FICTION
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Published July 26, 2016