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Monday, October 5, 2020 | Interview


Karen Russell is a stellar fantasy writer. Though anchored in the real world, her stories have darkly magic settings, like a sinister silk-making factory or a lodge for liquor-drinking ghosts. Her characters, often lonely outsiders, are as memorable as her places. Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” was featured in the annual anthology Best American Short Stories, and her novel Swamplandia! was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. But don’t let the critical approval fool you. Her fiction is wild, funny, and subversively disturbing.

SLEEP DONATION (Vintage Contemporaries), newly released in paperback after previously being available only in e-book, is no exception. In an eerie parallel to current events, this dystopic novella posits a national epidemic that threatens our country’s stability. In this case, the epidemic is chronic sleep deprivation, which can lead to a grisly death. Trish, our heroine, works to enlist healthy sleepers to donate their sleep to save the insomniacs. The crisis gets even more dire when a nightmare-infected sleep donation enters the equation. We’re thrilled to talk by email with Karen Russell about the novella, as well as about her other work and the current strange state of the world.

SLEEP DONATION is powered by Trish’s love for her sister Dori, an early casualty of terminal sleep deprivation. Dori’s death scene is grimly heartbreaking, partly because she lived life so fully. Was that scene emotionally challenging to write?

Yes, it was. I’ve never experienced a loss like Trish’s, mercifully – the loss of a sibling. But watching a loved one suffer and die is a nightmare that almost everyone has lived through. With the exception of very young children, we’ve all lost someone. And there is something that feels especially unjust and devastating about losing a person who is brimming with life to a debilitating illness. To this day, I feel total disbelief that certain people who have died are no longer on the planet – their life force seemed indestructible. Loving someone means opening yourself up to the pain of their loss. It sounds so obvious, even cliché, stated that directly. But that’s why I need stories – to help me to move through truths that would be otherwise unbearable. It’s only inside a story that I can “feel through form,” as Jeanette Winterson says, and access certain emotions and memories and forebodings that would overwhelm me in “real” life.

You wrote SLEEP DONATION years ago but it feels like it was written last week. It’s about a national health epidemic, which the public at first thinks is overblown, but which some pundits think may ultimately doom the country. At the time you conceived the novella, did you have any real-world inspirations or was the scenario purely imaginative?

I read quite a bit about the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America, and I also did a deep dive on Fatal Familial Insomnia – a rare genetic disorder that inspired the “nightmare-prions” in SLEEP DONATION. I am sure that the insomnia plague in One Hundred Years of Solitude must have been percolating in my own subconscious, along with Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. But what I remember about my original draft was the feeling of getting hauled into deeper waters by a powerful fish – the sensation that I’d hooked, or been hooked, by something larger than I’d anticipated. I really committed to the premise, as goofy as it sounds – what if sleep could be stored and transfused between bodies? What if certain recurring nightmares were contagious? Then I drew on my own experiences as an American in 2013 – and so this near-future tale was inspired by a broken, for-profit healthcare system, the viral spread of malignant rumors and misinformation, our extreme dependence on Big Tech, the way our wired, 24/7 economy is disturbing the rhythms of the planet and transforming human bodies into parts and labor.

“I love Ale + Ale’s rendering of this new technology, in the illustrated paperback edition of SLEEP DONATION – a sort of retro-futuristic helmet, wired by tentacles to bleating machinery.”   Karen Russell

How much research did you do for SLEEP DONATION? The science behind terminal sleep deprivation, as well as around the process of sleep donations, seems pretty legit.

Well, the premise of this story asks the reader to accept that in this America, it’s possible to transfuse sleep between bodies – a big ask, I realize. To store sleep and to test it for contagious nightmares, not unlike the way that blood is banked and tested. I love Ale + Ale’s rendering of this new technology, in the illustrated paperback edition – a sort of retro-futuristic helmet, wired by tentacles to bleating machinery. A Twilight Zone innovation – something you might see in a dream of your own.

But other parts of the story are grounded in real science. Sleep remains a fundamental mystery of biology. So there’s lots of room to lose oneself in research, and lots of room also to riff and imagine. The idea of a perplexing new sleep disorder – a terminal insomnia, caused by a dysfunction in hypocretin/orexin signaling – started to feel frighteningly plausible to me, when you consider how our wired world, our insomniac economy, the 24/7 news and work and consumption cycle, and the manmade disaster of climate change in the Anthropocene must be affecting our bodies. I used to belong to a group called Neuwrite, which pairs writers and neuroscientists, and some friends from that group read an early draft of SLEEP DONATION; we had a fun night talking about prion-based diseases and the hypothalamus’ role in regulating sleep and wakefulness cycles. The orexin/hypocretin neuropeptides promote wakefulness; in SLEEP DONATION, something has knocked certain individual’s neurochemistry off kilter, flooding them with high levels of orexin, provoking a terminal insomnia. This mysterious condition begins to affect larger and larger swaths of the population. Nobody is sure why some people are becoming insomniacs and not others (a terrible mystery that has new resonance for me in the era of Covid-19). Nobody knows why millions of Americans lose the ability to sleep, virtually overnight, although some speculate it might have something to do with the glowing eyeballs of our tiny devices, the disruptions to our body’s circadian rhythms and the seasonal rhythms of the planet.

You’re on record as being a huge Stephen King fan from an early age. What did it feel like when King chose your breakthrough story, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” for the Best American Short Stories anthology he edited?

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how happy that made me – I know that all my best dreams and nightmares can be traced back to Stephen King. Speaking of sleep and dreams, I hope that Doctor Sleep and Sleeping Beauties, the novel he co-authored with his wonderful son, Owen King, wind up shelved together in one of those pleasantly dilapidated, wind-curated libraries you find in the lobby of Florida motels. I just finished If It Bleeds and I think it’s amazing that Stephen King still has me reading way past my bedtime. And sleeping with the lights on. America’s electricity use must jump every time he puts a book out.

Your novel Swamplandia! follows the separate and often fantastical adventures of thirteen-year-old Ava and her seventeen-year-old brother Kiwi. At one point, however, any sense of fantasy or adventure falls away and Ava faces danger of a very traumatic and realistic nature. Do you ever worry about getting too intense for younger readers? Has your approach or perspective changed at all since you’ve had your own children?

Thank you for this question. Swamplandia!‘s structure angered a lot of readers, and I can appreciate why – I wrote a book where the rug gets pulled out from the child protagonist, and the reader, at the same painful moment. Of all the scenes I’ve ever written, the moment when Ava’s sense of fantasy falls away, as you say, was the most difficult for me. I was a very young thirteen myself, incredibly gullible and naive, and I think that age is one of suspension between the world of childhood and the world of adulthood – you can swim amphibiously between them. So it’s possible to live so much in your head, in a private enchantment (in a state of disassociation, too, from some painful realities – kids are great at mixing their own medicine). The moment you’re referencing is one in which this kid gets violently evicted from the fantasy world that’s been protecting her since her mother’s death. It’s also one of the earliest scenes I wrote for that novel, and I think of the rest of the book as built around that moment. I would not recommend Swamplandia! for very young readers. If you’re 12 or 13, which is Ava’s age in this novel, I don’t think you should be reading this book. That said, I read Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when I was Mick’s age, and I still remember how amazed I was to discover someone my age whose interior experience was taken so seriously by the author, on equal footing with the adult characters. So I don’t want to underestimate young readers. I would just caution parents that this book is written for “mature audiences,” as they say, and that I’d personally wait until later in life to share it with my own children. My son is three and a half, and my daughter just turned one, so I’m relieved that I’ll have some time to figure out how and when to present my fiction to them!

And I wish I had a better answer to your second question – I think I’m still discovering myself how my approach to writing is changing, now that I’m on this side of the parent/child equation.

In “The Prospectors,” from Orange World, your most recent collection, two young women fall in love with liquor-drinking ghosts in a snowbound setting. Like so much of your work, it’s rich in voice and language while also being highly cinematic. At some point, your work is bound to be adapted to film or TV. Is your preference to be closely involved with adaptations or more hands-off?

Oh, I’m so glad that you enjoyed “The Prospectors,” because that’s a favorite of mine from the new collection, too. It’s been optioned by the incredible Geneva Wasserman at Conde Naste Entertainment, and I hope to share some exciting news soon! In the past, whenever something has been optioned, I’ve been pretty hands-off, but in the case of “The Prospectors” I’m really looking forward to being more closely involved with the adaptation. That story and the friendship at its center means a great deal to me and I would so love to see it become a film. Maybe they’ll let me have a cameo as a dancing ghost.

“American’s great talent, I think, is to generate desires that would never have occurred, natively, to a body like mine, and to make those desires so painfully real that money becomes a fiction, an imaginary means to some concrete end.” Excerpt from SLEEP DONATION 

These are divisive times. Readers looking for themes of social injustice and gender inequality will see them in your work, whereas those who aren’t looking might not. Do you find that your writing gets more political in times of increased unrest?

I think my writing has always been political, although I agree with you about the potency of the perceiver – fiction is profoundly collaborative and I have no control over what a reader might take away from a story. Swamplandia! is concerned with the overlapping crises of environmental degradation and economic disaster, a tourism-based economy that sells a fantasy to visitors and residents alike, the racist myths papering over Florida’s history of violence against its indigenous people. SLEEP DONATION is overtly critical of the rapacity of our economic system, our lack of respect for nature’s limits, our broken, for-profit health care system and the accelerating inequality that means millions of Americans do not even have a bed to dream in. Its premise may sound goofy, but I think it’s a funhouse mirror refraction of the world we live in, one where it’s not hard to imagine that sleep itself could become a commodity, a world where even birthrights like clean air and the sight of trees and a home in which to dream are so unequally distributed. So this is a long-winded way of saying that it’s hard for me to gauge whether the fiction I’ve written in the past half decade is “more” political, exactly, but perhaps it’s more overtly so – and I’ve definitely been writing more nonfiction that explicitly engages with politics in recent years, as the existential threats to our planet and democracy have ramped up exponentially. SLEEP DONATION was first published as an e-book in 2014 and I feel like this distillation of the dark magic of a market economy feels just as true to me in 2020, as my Apple products eavesdrop on my conversations and bombard me with ads: “American’s great talent, I think, is to generate desires that would never have occurred, natively, to a body like mine, and to make those desires so painfully real that money becomes a fiction, an imaginary means to some concrete end.”

Keep up with Karen Russell via her website and Facebook.

“SLEEP DONATION’s premise may sound goofy, but I think it’s a funhouse mirror refraction of the world we live in, one where it’s not hard to imagine that sleep itself could become a commodity.” Karen Russell