In 'The Dreamers,' a Sleeping Sickness Spreads Through Town

Posted by Goodreads on January 1, 2019
When a mysterious disease befalls a small Southern California college town, the residents start to panic. They wonder: How could this happen? But more importantly: Who’s next?

This is the scenario that unfolds in Karen Thompson Walker’s latest novel, The Dreamers. With lyrical prose and unforgettable images, she shows how people react when their lives begin to come undone. As in her bestselling debut novel, The Age of Miracles, Thompson Walker plays with readers' worries and imaginations, weaving a common fear—of a viral epidemic—with the unknowable mystery of dreams.

The novel begins with a college student who falls asleep in her dorm and never wakes up. Soon more of the girls on her floor fall under the spell of the strange sleeping sickness, and panic begins to spread. Through a broad cast of characters, the reader will experience the terror of an epidemic and the unexplainable mysteries, like dreaming, that surround our everyday lives.

Thompson Walker spoke to Goodreads contributor Rebecca Renner about her latest novel. The conversation that appears below has been edited.

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Goodreads: The Dreamers is such a striking novel in many ways. The most striking thing to me is how you write about something scientific—the spread of a disease—but you have imbued it with the mystical quality of fairy tales. What inspired you to tackle a scientific subject in this way?

Karen Thompson Walker: Even though both of my books have high-concept, fantastical elements, I like to try to make them feel as realistic as possible and try to apply the tools of literary realism to these perhaps impossible situations or impossible premises.

Even though this has the sleeping sickness and the dreams, and there is maybe a fairy-tale quality, I still wanted to treat it realistically, as if it’s happening in our world now. In that sense, I tried to make the contagion part as convincing as possible and use a certain amount of science and a certain amount of sleight of hand from leaving out some of the science, too, but hopefully making it still convincing to the reader.

GR: The Age of Miracles deals with a large-scale phenomenon, but The Dreamers focuses on a smaller one. Were there challenges in making that switch?

KTW: In both cases, there’s a kind of big premise, but then it's limited in some way. With The Age of Miracles, even though it affects the entire globe, I told it from the perspective of just this one person. On top of that, she’s looking back on childhood. I find that kind of limiting to be really useful, especially with speculative fiction, because it had a way of closing off questions the reader might otherwise ask, because, in that sense, it was sort of a keyhole perspective. That narrator couldn’t answer everything like a scientist could answer, for example.

In The Dreamers, because of the contagion story that was going to spread from one person to the next, I wanted there to be a bigger cast of characters to go into more people’s consciousnesses. But I still felt this need to set a limit around it just so I could make it feel convincing. In the case of The Dreamers, the limit is a geographic limit. It doesn’t actually spread beyond this isolated town. There’s a containment around it in that way, so I can concentrate instead of having to answer questions about what happens when it spreads across the whole rest of the United States, you know, or the whole world. I was able to focus in closely on the people, and I think in both cases, it makes it feel more intimate and focused on kind of everyday life, and how it does and doesn’t change the face of this kind of peril.

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GR: What elements do you enjoy playing with as a writer?

KTW: That’s a big question. I think, in a way, my real subject is kind of ordinary, the bonds between everyday people and what happens to them under pressure. But to get at those bonds, I like to invent a premise that is outside of our ordinary lives, and so that’s how I arrived at these for both books. In general, I find a lot of richness in the overlap of the ordinary and extraordinary. On the one hand, the parts of everyday real human life that have these extraordinary qualities, like, for example, in this book [it's] sleep and dreaming. Both of those things are things we do every day, and yet they remain fundamentally mysterious or unknowable for us. We don’t know exactly what goes on in our minds while we sleep. We have dreams, but we only vaguely remember them, and we don’t remember them all. There’s just this fundamental mysterious quality to both sleep and dreaming, and even scientists don’t totally have the purpose of sleep and dream or dreaming figured out. So it interests me, that part of real human experience that is kind of unknown or mysterious.

Another example of that which the book is also preoccupied with is the wonder and terror of pregnancy and new parenthood, of having a newborn. That’s another example of these extraordinary periods in ordinary human life. I really like that territory. That’s what leads me to then add one more layer of extraordinary events to an ordinary life. It’s like I’m using what’s already the strange or mysterious in our real life, just kind of as a jumping-off point. Then I add this contagious sleeping sickness as one more element of a strange, mysterious realm that I get to explore, but then again, it’s a way to highlight all the strangeness of our ordinary lives.

GR: You have a pretty popular TED talk about fear and imagination. How do fear and imagination come into play in your writing?

KTW: Yeah, that definitely remains one of my big preoccupations, the connection between those two. Definitely for me, and I think I’m not alone, there’s just this really profound connection between fear and the imagination. Like as a person, I think my active imagination—I don’t know if it makes me more fearful or more prone to worry, but my worries and my fears certainly are acts of the imagination. It’s like I’m equipped to very vividly imagine my worst fears. So that’s what happens to you as a person walking around the world reading the news, maybe especially in this era.

Then as a writer, I’m channeling that same thing in fictional stories. But when I’m writing, I’m in charge; I’m controlling it, which is such a profound and satisfying difference between when I’m writing a story and when I’m just experiencing a worry or a fear. Because in the case of the sleeping sickness, I feel like I’m going down a similar path. If this was real, I would worry who’s going to get it next. Is my child going to get it? Is my family going to get it? And so I’m using that fear but in an imaginative, fictional mode while trying to figure out the story. I’m controlling it, and I feel like, in life, what’s so scary about these things when they happen is that obviously we can’t control them.

GR: Your novel begins with an epigraph from José Saramago’s Blindness: "That night, the blind man dreamt that he was blind." How does Saramago’s influence play out in The Dreamers?

KTW: Blindness is such a huge influence for me. It was for my first book, too, and then this one perhaps even more closely or literally. Ever since I read that book, I had the sense that I would love to someday tell my own contagion story. I think that part of the reason is because both Blindness and contagion stories in general [illustrate] this way of reflecting the bonds between people.

In Blindness, one of the first people to get it is the optometrist who gets it from the patients he’s trying to help. So there’s like something fundamentally social about contagion. The person who lives alone in the cabin in the woods is not going to get whatever plague is spreading through humanity, so contagion stories kind of reflect all the bonds between people.

In writing my own contagion story, I knew that I wanted my own story to be one step removed from previous real pandemics. I didn’t want to write about a terrible strain of the flu or Ebola or other kinds of real epidemics that I definitely learned from and am afraid of at times. But I knew I wanted some kind of sense of, like, remove from those and perhaps a sense of wonder that comes with something a little stranger than the real contagious diseases that you worry about in real life. I got that from Blindness. In the case of Blindness, in the book, it’s a real contagious disease, but it also has so much figurative territory in the idea of people losing their sight. They lose their sight in a literal way, but also it’s just picking up on all these ideas of being blind to other people’s suffering or blind to the truth.

You know, there’s a lot of territory to work with there, and so in a different way, in my book, I hoped that it could be this contagion of sleep. I knew that there would be some kind of interesting territory beyond just the physical symptom of being unable to wake up, but that caries so much metaphorical weight. What does it mean to lose consciousness? What’s happening in our brains when we’re not conscious? There was just all this territory that would take the book beyond just a kind of medical thriller.

GR: What other books have influenced you as a writer?

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KTW: Let’s see. Another really important one to me is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s such a beautiful, devastating example of how a writer can use literary realism, psychological realism, and to tell a character-driven story but marry it to this speculative premise. That’s such a beautiful treatment, the marriage of those two things, which interests me. You know, sometimes I feel in the past, and it may be still lingering, there were ideas about what kind of story could be told in a serious novel or a literary novel. Anything that had any sort of science fiction element was and maybe still is at risk of being not considered serious. Never Let Me Go is such a beautiful example of how such a great serious literary novel can be drawn on these science fiction elements.

The other one that’s been the most influential for me is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Oh, and also Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. That one I feel is a little less direct of an influence, but in terms of the beauty of that book. There’s an understated strangeness to that book, even though it’s so much about real lives, and of course Marilynne Robinson’s language gets into one’s head. So yes, those are probably the books that have been the most influential for me.

GR: I love that one personally. So The Age of Miracles took you four years to write, correct?

KTW: That’s right, yeah.

GR: How long did The Dreamers take?

KTW: It was longer, about maybe five or five-and-a-half years. It feels even longer just because the timing of when I finished editing it and when it made sense for the publication date. But yeah, it definitely took longer, and I was doing a lot of things, especially having two babies. So I’m hoping the next book takes a little less time. But we’ll see.

GR: What’s your writing process like?

KTW: For me, it’s really necessary to write most days or almost every day. I’m actually most productive for the first hour or two. I like to work in the mornings. I have some friends who are writers who might not write for a few months, and then they get a few weeks of open time, and they can just write 100 pages in that time. I feel like I’m very slow, and so the solution to that is to work a little bit each day. My husband’s a writer too, and we have a saying, which is, “Just a little good work each day.” That’s the way that I work, and the other thing that I do is I like to revise as I go, like revise my sentences as I go, so I’m slowly building my story sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. I suppose I’m not someone who just sits down and can write for seven hours and have a pile of pages at the end of the day.

GR: What is the best advice you have ever gotten as a writer?

KTW: One thing that comes to mind is just how important revision is. I think when I was in college, I studied with Mona Simpson and Aimee Bender, but now I’m thinking of Aimee Bender’s advice. I think she said something like, "The difference between a published short story and an unpublished story is 25 drafts." I just remember being really struck by that. Especially as an undergrad, it’s hard to really understand or imagine how much work needs to go into your writing. Then when I was in graduate school, Nathan Englander was one of my teachers, and he had similar advice. Once he said something to a student like, "This is a very promising story. It could be really great, but it could use another 100 hours."

They both had these ways of trying to communicate how much work, how many hours, how many drafts, how much revision every piece of writing needs for it to become a great piece of writing. That really stayed with me, even though it was kind of horrifying to hear at that time. The importance of revision stayed with me.

GR: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

KTW: I spend a lot of time with my young children, so that’s one thing. I have an almost one-year-old and a four-and-a-half-year-old. I love to take them out to do things. Then in general, I obviously love reading. The other thing that I like to do is take walks to explore. Now I live in Portland, Oregon, and I love to take walks around my neighborhood and around my city. I used to live in New York for a long time, and that was my favorite thing to do there, just take a really long walk through the city and just check out everything that’s going on.

GR: Which books have you been recommending to your friends recently?

KTW: I recently read and became obsessed with the memoir Educated by Tara Westover. It’s a really fascinating story and also really beautifully written. That’s the one that I feel like I’ve recommended most often. I also recently read Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, which I read with my graduate students in a seminar. It’s so beautifully written and devastating and just sort of an amazing mix of real characters, but also kind of poetry in every sentence.

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Kathy (new)

Kathy The Age of Miracles is one of my top five favorite books and I was fortunate enough to read an advanced readers copy on Kindle of The Dreamers. Karen Thomas Walker is has quickly become one of my favorite writers.

message 2: by Natalie D (new)

Natalie  D I adore the exploration of our society through the introduction of sci-fi/fantastical elements. Walker used it beautifully AND impactfully in The Age Of Miracles so I'm really excited for this one!

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