Karen Russell Donates Her Sleep

sleepdonation“The French really know how to legitimize an endeavor.”

Amidst a busy semester teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop, literary wunderkind Karen Russell takes some time to talk to me about her new novella, Sleep Donation, out now from Atavist Books.

VS: Having been a fan of yours, then student, now friend, I felt like I was pretty up-to-date on your ouvre. Id read your novel, both story collections, and last I heard you were at work on another novel about, I dont know, something Western and Dust-Bowly. And then, like a bolt from the fucking blue, I randomly come across an announcement that youve got a novella coming out three months later. An e-novella. So, two questions: 1) Why didnt anyone (you) tell me? and 2) What was the genesis of this relationship between you and Atavist Books?

KR: Ah, Vince, it’s so great of you to do this interview. Thank you. I like your description of our evolution–for me it was instructor, fan, friend. I can’t wait to embarrass, er, interview you like this when your book comes out.

I also thank you for your use of the word “ouvre,” which sounds so much better than “grab-bag” or “yard sale of the imagination.” Somebody asked me about my “metier” the other day and I felt similarly. The French really know how to legitimize an endeavor.

Atavist Books wanted to announce their first list in October, so for a while I was keeping pretty quiet about it. And then because it was an active project, I guess I felt wary of the jinx. Even now that the ebook is finished and available and I can’t mess with it any longer (thank God), and the site is up and running, I still don’t quite believe my good fortune to have it out in the world. Originally, you know, I was convinced Sleep Donation would be impossible to place. I’d thought it was going to be a 3,000 word vignette, a sort of Twilight Zone riff, and then Trish and the Harkonnens showed up. I decided to follow the patterns and the characters, and let the thing evolve to what felt to me like its natural length. My first draft was over 20,000 words; and yet I felt that it should be even longer. The world of this story felt very large to me, even though the cast is small: Trish, the ghost of Dori, the Harkonnens, and her surrogate family at the Slumber Corps. And yet I was certain that this was not meant to be a full-fledged novel. What I’ve always loved about novellas is the way that you can read them in a single sitting—they feel like dreams to me, an extended journey through an immersive, imaginary world that owes its impact to both the roominess (relative to a short story) and the compactness (relative to an 800-page novel) of the form. Or maybe you could make the case that a novella could work like a Florida thundershower–for a violent, exhilarating interval, it completely eclipses the world, then releases you. And you see things freshly, for at least a little while, because everything’s got that rain-wet gleam to it. Actually, I think for me that’s my best hope for how a story might work, too. But now I’m just rambling.

This is all to say that I was very lucky, because in the beginning my gloomy hope for Sleep Donation was that maybe my agent would see a way to take a pool skimmer to the document and excerpt a several-thousand word section, in order to place it with a magazine. But then my agent suggested showing it to Frances Coady, whose new imprint Atavist Books was looking for novella-length fiction. Frances Coady was a brilliant editor and she helped me to get this story to the ending that felt right to me, and to bring some of the preoccupations and questions provoked by this sleep crisis into keener focus. I was thrilled that we were going to be able to publish it at length; I don’t always have this conviction about my writing, but with “Sleep Donation,” I really did feel like that first draft generated its own terms and questions and shape.

I met with Frances, and I got really excited about the idea of doing this as a digital-only project. I love print, and I badly hope that I am able to publish a second novel as a print book, but the digital medium felt exactly right to me for this particular story, which is about a new technology that allows for the pathogenic transmission of nightmares. And so much of the plot of the story hubs around globalization and the porousness of every kind of modern membrane, between minds and bodies and continents. It’s funny, because on the one hand I am amazed at the velocity with which an image or an idea or a story can travel the world today, in our age of accelerated connectivity; and at the same time I feel like humans have always had a very low immunity to one another’s dreams and nightmares, that for as long as we’ve been dependent on one another, and waking and sleeping together, we must have been susceptible to various kinds of dream contagion.

As I worked toward the final draft, I kept in mind the way readers would be accessing the story. One of the very fun things about publishing with Atavist Books was that suddenly there was this whole team of folks with whom I got to work to build out the world of Sleep Donation. Secretly, not so secretly, I have always envied artists and athletes who get to work together as a team. Writing is such a solitary endeavor. Vince, lets face it, I’m never going to answer those Craigslist ads for a backup drummer, I’m never even going to join an adult dodgeball team. This writing thing is all I got! So I really loved getting to collaborate with other minds to build out the world of the story. I think my new ambition in life is to imagine something else that Chip Kidd will interpret visually. A friend was teasing me, saying that Chip’s thought bubble must have read: “Cool 31,000 word novella, bro. Here is a twelve-second animation that PERFECTLY CAPTURES WHAT YOU WERE GOING FOR.” Thank you, Chip! I love his interactive cover so much. Chip Kidd, Kevin Trong, and Derrick Schultz also designed a terrific mock-Slumber Corps website for which I wrote the content, and a lullaby-sinister “Slumber Corps” trailer. And it’s my hope that perhaps all this will encourage an additional level of implication and complicity in the reader who comes to the world of this novella through this particular portal.

You know one last thing I will say is that maybe we need to consider a new word for fiction that lives in that strange limbo between a full-fledged novel and a short story. Doesn’t “novella” maybe conjure a very specific image, of a slender tome by Willa Cather? With like a dusky rose spine? Is that just me? My friend Kate suggested “E-Vella,” although maybe that makes it sound too much like a Disney witch. Recently I got George Saunders to agree that “novella,” spoken with a certain nasally intonation, can sound awfully patronizing; like “Novelita!”, he said. Also, confusingly, when you say “novella” in Miami, people just assume you mean the Spanish word for “novel.”

VS: Did you have a pre-existing preoccupation with sleep and insomnia that led to you coming up with the premise for the novella? 

KR: When I was a kid I remember staying up all night to read, and then looking like a hollow-eyed zombie the next morning in grade six, just slurring my way through Math. That was my version of elective insomnia–staying up all night to read. There is a terribly exciting awareness, even that young, that yours is the only mind awake in a house. Sometimes I read horror, or unsettling science fiction, and then I really couldn’t sleep, even when I was ready to do so. I had what I guess you would call an overactive imagination, and when I read, say, Stephen King, I would not be able to shut my brain down. My poor brother and sister, who shared a room with me for awhile, were then subjected to hourly wake-ups: “Hey, sister, just wanted to make sure you’ve still got your same face, see you again for our five a.m. check-in.” It sounds ridiculous, given how young I was then, but I don’t think I’m being dishonest about how elevated I sometimes felt in those extreme vigil states, waiting for dawn. (And then what an anticlimax, to eat Kix cereal and put on a red hairband and go to school).

At this point I guess it’s a long-standing preoccupation–in my first story collection, St. Lucy’s, there is a story about a sleepaway camp to rehabilitate disordered dreamers. Another triangle story, like “Sleep Donation,” which has got Trish and the Harkonnens, and Trish and the Storches, her two surrogate families. In the “St. Lucy’s” story, there is a girl, Emma, who in the grand tradition of destabilizing women shows up to mess with these dudes, Oglivy and Eli. Oglivy and Eli share the same sleep disorder. They are “prophets of the past” in their sleep, they have identical dreams; as Oglivy’s sleep patterns begin to normalize, Eli fears the loss of the friendship, and also resents the burden of having to see these things alone. So the possibility of that sort of interfused subjectivity–two bodies sharing one nightmare–has been scary and attractive to me for awhile now, probably for as long as I’ve been reading books.

Which reminds me: you can’t write about insomnia or nightmares without sending a four a.m. thank you card to Stephen King, can you? His work has meant so much to me, and I think he is the cartographer of those shadow lands between sleeping and waking.

My brother Kent Russell has an incredible piece about his own night terrors forthcoming in Tin House. He’s the member of our family with a legitimate sleeping disorder; and I’m sure at least some of Sleep Donation is informed by my proximity to my brother’s nightmares. When I was younger I always marveled at the opaque eggs of my siblings’ sleeping faces on their pillows—what were they seeing at night? To see a face you love spasming in the throes of a bad dream has got to be a universally upsetting experience—the bystander’s nightmare.In my experience the scariest dreams are usually untranslatable, disintegrating even as you recollect them upon waking.

VS: What about the idea of a sleep epidemic seemed fruitful and interesting to you, and how did you come to finding Trish and positioning her in the middle of that story? Its such an interesting choice to have her be our guide into this world, in that she herself feels somewhat safe from it, albeit in a self-deluding way. She is comforted by her bosses discussing the world in peril; finds the most unlikely sense of security there, though shes just as vulnerable as anyone else. And its that questioning of to what degree are we willing to be vulnerable that is so thoughtfully explored and realized in the novella, and in most of your work.

KS: I think Trish positioned herself there, to be honest; I was surprised to meet her, and Dori; and she was my guide, too, to the world of this story, during the early drafting when every paragraph was a revelation. I wrote that opening scene in the Mobi-van, and somehow that felt right to me, that somehow in the universe of this story a technology as refined and futuristic as “sleep donation” might exist, but the folks soliciting gifts of sleep and dreams would still be working out of a shitbox trailer, still wearing headsets ala 1980s PBS telethons. Trish was such an interesting character to me, sometimes maddening, probably because I myself could relate to her unwillingness to let go of certain attachments and convictions, even as they get world-eroded during this sleep crisis. I really cared about her, she felt very real to me, I’m not sure how I could bear to spend so much time trying to translate a character I didn’t care about–her questions came to feel like the drivers of the story, and I think that the idea of a nightmare epidemic pressurized certain deep ambivalences about her use of Dori’s story and her work with the Corps that already existed inside of her. I’ve written other profoundly unreliable first-person narrators–Ava in Swamplandia, and many of the child and adolescent narrators in both story collections. Ava is decades younger than Trish, but I think in her own kid-register, she’s really struggling to see clearly, to make sense of her role in a family tragedy and her obligations, to solve certain insoluble questions with a myth that turns out to expose her to great danger. So I’m really drawn to characters who cling to certain notions about reality, whose ability to see clearly is inhibited by some deep need or deficit.

VS: What consistently astonishes me about your workand its something I think youve done so expertly in Sleep Donationis that your stories never buckle under the weight of their often mammoth, knotty conceits. You seem to have such a firm understanding of the world youre inhabiting, as well as a keen ability to write not all you know about the world, but only and all thats necessary. What is that filtering process like, in world-building, and how do you architecture your stories in such a way that the emotional narrative of your characters does not become buried in plot? [Pun unintentional, but now intended.]

KS: Oh gosh, you are so kind, Vince–thank you for that generous reading, but I’m definitely still learning, when it comes to world-building. I think that as a young writer, I gravitated towards wilder conceits because as a reader I loved the world of fairytale and fable and myth and also science-fiction, humor writing, all of which often take a weird or absurd premise and treat it as straightforward “reality.” Authors like Kevin Brockmeier and Italo Calvino and Kelly Link and George Saunders were some of the writers who moved me to emulation. Then, too, I like a strange or funny premise because it automatically imposes certain boundaries on the story (“what if the daughters of werewolves were reeducated by nuns?”, “what if a bunch of weird-ass sleep-disordered children were all bunked together?”). A strange constraint can paradoxically free you up as a writer, I think. It can function as a corral for the imagination.

Here, the twilight world of Sleep Donation also came to feel almost like a character to me, some long yawn between sleeping and waking. To filter is difficult! I appreciate the compliment, but I really feel like adjusting the filter, as you write forward, can be the trickiest part of any new project—to get what I heard Denis Johnson call “the distance from the canvas.” Here, in this novella, it was a great help to me to be zippered into the first-person narrator; her consciousness was a natural filter, and the way she telescopes onto the Harkonnens or the faces in Ward Seven, say, felt to me like what this particular personality would fearfully focus on or take special note of during these scenes.

I think I try my best to balance my pleasure in creating and describing the world with permitting these characters to take on dimensions. I really try to treat their emotions and their concerns very seriously, no matter how strange the environment in which they find themselves. And to ask myself, what would this specific personality do in this set of circumstances? Given what I know about people generally, and about this person specifically, how would she respond to this scenario? And even that makes it sound more conscious and deliberate than it often feels sentence to sentence, letting a character surprise you.

Also, can “Pun Unintentional, But Now Intended” be the title of the neuro-thriller we author? I am always embarrassed by my reflexive punning, sometimes I swear it feels as involuntary as sneezing—you can’t stop the pun in progress. Even as a kid, I knew to be horrified by the names on the boats docked in the marina: “Aquaholic,” somebody chose that. Right now I’m living in Iowa city, where there is a chain of gas stations called the Kum and Go. Is that a pun, Vince? Can puns get you pregnant?

You know something, if “Pun Unintentional, But Now Intended” doesn’t fly with people, we could also try co-authoring an anthology called “Mammoth Conceits.” It can be exclusively stories about mammoths: mammoths who go to Miami for laser hair removal; mammoths who use their ankle wool to start an Etsy business; you can do the “mammoths at summer camp” story. We can contact Italo Calvino’s estate and try to lease those wooly mammoths that show up in “Daughters of the Moon.” Have you read that? You would love it. Nobody is quite expecting a mammoth to appear at that juncture, but then it’s a very welcome and grand apparition.

VS: Last question. How do you sleep at night? [Do read that as an accusation.] What is your best tip to beat insomnia that is approved by the FDA? 

KS: Well, I used to think that I was a real problem sleeper. I’d pound a Venti coffee or get on the hamster wheel of midnight anxiety then complain about my “insomnia.” But after talking to veteran sufferers sufferers of insomnia, and reading up on the subject, I now realize that I am REM-affluent, and have no business complaining about sleep deprivation. I do have bizarre sleeping patterns; I fall asleep easily, but then wake up several times each night, and am bright-eyed and chipper at four a.m., then often exhausted when true dawn finally rolls around.You know what sometimes works for me? Changing the venue. Just going on a sleep vacation inside your own apartment. Bed’s not working? What about that IKEA chair, which you assembled three years ago while hungover, where nobody with nerve-endings in her lower back would ever expect to fall asleep? What about the rug? When I was a kid and I wanted to read without keeping everybody up, I read in the dry bathtub and sometimes fell asleep there. Change the venue. It takes the pressure off.


Karen Russell‘s debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her short story collections include St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. The recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” her most recent book, Sleep Donation, was published by Atavist Books in March of 2014.

Vincent Scarpa is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas Austin. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including Brevity, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and more. He tweets @vincentscarpa.

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