Karen Russell on storytelling as dream transfusion, the impossibility of giving gifts, and her insomnia-inducing new novella, Sleep Donation.
Karen Russell is a MacArthur Fellow, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and the best-selling author of Swamplandia! and two short story collections, Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her newest book, a digital-only novella called Sleep Donation, is set to be released on March 25 as the first publication from Atavist Books.
In Sleep Donation, America is suffering from an epidemic of insomnia, and at its center is Trish Edgewater, a grieving recruiter working for the Sleep Corps — an organization that solicits uninterrupted sleep from healthy dreamers, for donation to suffering insomniacs. Enter “Baby A,” the first universal sleep donor, and the corresponding “Donor Y,” a mysterious and ultimately catastrophic donor. As our only treatment gives birth to a new nightmare contagion and a corresponding epidemic of fear and paranoia, Russell’s characters are caught in a fever dream of fear, manipulation, solicitation, loneliness, and grief. As the crisis grows and the nightmare spreads, Russell’s characters must decide for themselves the answer to the question: How do we care for one another when the need is bottomless? And, what truly stands in our way when translating intention into action? The book is as implicating as it is fun and curious, as manic as it is controlled and powerful.
The following conversation took place over the phone one morning, sleepy-eyed and coffee in hand.
I would like to start with a terrible cocktail-party question, and ask you to describe the book. I read it and I loved it, but I’d like to hear a little bit of the language you would use to describe it.
Karen Russell: I will try, but I want to warn you that I suck at these. My learning curve is a straight line. It’s so embarrassing. I still can’t describe Swamplandia!; I think I tried 800 times, and every time it just sounds insane and false, and sort of panicky — the way I sound when they ask me if I packed my own bags at airport security. It really is the conversation killer at the cocktail party. People will say, “What are you working on?” And I’m like, “Oh, well…” and everyone is like, “Where’s the bar? That book of yours sounds doomed.”
But, to answer your question, The New Yorker asked a bunch of writers to come up with an imaginary invention, and one of mine that did not make the cut was the idea that there should be a “Sleep Van” equipped with some kind of technology that would be analogous to blood donation, but which allowed you to donate dreams to an insomniac.
I’m pretty sure that this invention was born of necessity, because I was very tired at that time. I have a hard time sleeping. So, I just think it made sense that pure baby sleep sounded really appealing at that moment. And then I thought it would just be this vignette, this 3,000-word riff on that idea of dream donation between bodies. This was a particularly fun technology to imagine, because that’s what reading has always felt like to me — like receiving a dream donation, a transfusion of the author’s dream into my body. And as a writer, you are composing a dream for a reader’s brain. Which can feel like scoring music for a concert hall and orchestra so absolutely private that at best you might get echoes back, but never more than that. Each reader’s brain has its own acoustics. So the experience of making these words into worlds in your head can feel as exciting and as unspeakably private, at some level, as any dream.
We’re also living in this age now where everything feels so porous, and I feel like we’re just completely dilated at all moments to receive images and ideas, all these tides of information ceaselessly crashing over us because we’re all connected in this new way. I alternate between finding this accelerated connectivity, and the undulant electric sea of so many minds, both stimulating and exhausting. I think all this must have been percolating in me when I started Sleep Donation.
So this novella started out as — I thought it was going to be a kind of Twilight Zone riff on this idea of, what if there’s a technology that lets you transfuse sleep into a body. Then somehow it sort of became this runaway story, and completely exceeded my own ambitions for it. Suddenly more and more people are losing the ability to sleep entirely and then dying as a result of that, and this woman, Trish Edgewater, accidentally discovers this tiny creature, this baby, whose sleep is of an unprecedented purity.
Although I never wanted this story to feel like a one-to-one allegory for blood or organ donation, I did think about how monstrously arbitrary it can feel when you or a loved one falls ill, and how sorrowful when a body cannot receive and assimilate medicine or a transfusion here in our real world — when an immunologic response prevents a body from receiving the help it needs. In the imaginary world of Sleep Donation, transfusion becomes Trish’s lens for reading many kinds of human exchanges.
For me, the secret heart of this story ended up being about different states of vigilance and unconsciousness. I thought of this story as really occupying some twilight station between sleep and wakefulness, and ultimately, what felt really interesting to me was the question: What is the context in which a gift can be made? What’s the difference between something given freely vs. something extorted? How do our intentions change the valence of these exchanges between giver and receiver?
In a way I wasn’t expecting, it became about supplication and coercion, and the difficulty of staying awake to your own motives. The difficulty of really waking up to the contents of your own mind, and how much of that is occluded from our view at all times.
If Sleep Donation is a horror story, part of the horror for me came from considering how in the dark we often are when it comes to the contents of our own minds. Our mystification is always evolving, or so it seems to me; each new discovery we make up here generates new questions, a new species of ignorance. So that even if you’re making what feels like an honest attempt to orient yourself toward the good, there’s no optician that can correct for certain blind spots.
You spoke briefly about the problems/sorrows around organ or blood donation, and I noticed, throughout the book, all kinds of transfusions taking place. You use that language a lot. Characters give each other “faith-transfusions,” and sex is described with the language of transfusion. But there’s always slippage, or some kind of mutation, and the transfusion is never quite what the person intends. It’s always a little more complicated. It’s never a clean transfusion.
KR: No, it’s never a clean transfusion. That’s exactly right.
There’s an image I felt was emblematic of my experience as a reader. The narrator describes an old man who has given his body to sleep donations. He’s comatose or something, and from here on out he’s donating dreams. The narrator’s admiring him and thinking about what a good thing he’s doing, but also it’s this horrific image to her: this guy plugged into the chair with the cables coming out of the back of his head, just being fed on for forever. It’s the dual nature of that kind of thing. There’s no satisfying way out of this situation they’re in.
KR: I think about how murky some of those questions then become, right? About volition. I think it’s true with both of those images: “Baby A,” the little baby the narrator discovers, and this sort of comatose man. Did you read Gulliver’s Travels? You know where sort of this dreamer is wired down by all these Lilliputians? I think the sleeping body, just the animal of the sleeping body — nothing is more vulnerable or moving or scary to me, in a way. We don’t have the greatest track record of respecting the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves, or defend themselves from a sort of blind rapacity, an institutional rapacity that in this case, all the more troublingly for Trish, is not connected to markets but to genuine human need.
We don’t have the greatest track record, as animals on this planet, of acknowledging and respecting nature’s limits. Of bodies of water. Of actual human bodies. Of our ecosystems. I think there is real horror there for me, in that image of an unconscious body getting pumped for sleep. You don’t have to look far today to find evidence of what a poor job we’ve done of regulating our appetites on this planet. Trish’s queasy mix of admiration and fear felt close to my own feelings, imagining a gift that vast, and an absentee donor. I think especially in a context where the need is bottomless, it’s difficult for me to believe that the Slumber Corps, an institution comprised of human animals, would be able to respect this donor’s human limits, and resist the temptation to drain the oasis that this man represents.
I’m interested in this question of the need or the desire to regulate appetites in the face of bottomless need, and our inability to respect the body’s limits.
KR: You know, to that point, I was reading a little bit about the way that we’ve shifted from privileging equilibrium to “growth.” And how our current economic system depends on the unchecked pursuit of growth, and is founded on this delusion of an infinite horizon, when in fact we live in a finite world.
And even when we’re able to identify this, it doesn’t really…slow us down.
KR: I think that’s the other horror story in this! Oh my god, yes! I think many of the characters in this novella get lost in that gulf between awareness and action. Or as the terrific writer Jim Shepard puts it, “between who we believe ourselves to be, and how we behave.” Somehow the translation of intention into action goes profoundly awry. I have seen in my own life how that translation can go very, very badly, and you sort of see it get botched in this novella.
Yeah, and that’s when we dig in.
KR: Yeah, then we dig in. I think that’s the other challenge, right? To stay awake, aware; but also to try to find the leverage to get out of a situation of your own creation, when that’s required. That’s a hard mental muscle — I think it can be far easier to soldier on ahead than to acknowledge failure, turn around.
Largely, in the novella, you’re dealing with these ideas as questions, describing a complicated situation with no easy out and no one, really, to blame. But there’s one part early on in the book, where the character speculates the potential causes of the insomnia plague, and she talks about people being sort of maxed out on glowing screens and ceaseless information, and here I am reading your e-book — like, I can only get it as an eBook — and I thought, Ohhhhhh….this is so implicating. You’re implicating me.
KR: I hope that’s how it works! I had a wonderful, wonderful time working with Frances Coady and the team at Atavist Books to turn what amounted to a sketch of this story into what I really hope feels like an immersive world — and maybe one that offers another layer to the reading experience. A feeling, as you say, of personal implication in this story.
And I do think there is something kind of perverse and apt about an e-book being the transmission system for the novella, because so much of the book foregrounds a concern with the state in which we’re living right now, how porous everything feels. There’s this nightmare infecting people, that because of the amplifying potential of Gould’s technology, essentially goes viral, right? So I thought, yes, for this particular story I want to tell, the e-medium serves as the absolute right portal into this world. I am really curious to see what that experience is like for readers. It’s so recent that we read books in a digital medium. It’s so completely recent. I was honored to be the Atavist Book’s launch, because I have tremendous faith that Frances Coady is going to champion literature into this new millennium; she has a vision for ways that digital can support print and vice versa that I found tremendously heartening.
It’s funny that you mention that section, where the narrator reports on all the speculation surrounding the cause of the new insomnia. In fact that ominous screed is embedded in the narrator’s critique of the “doom-mongers” — who she calls the “cable news fear lords.” I hope this novella does not read like an anti-technology manifesto; it was never intended as such. I think technology is neutral — it’s up to us to decide how we are going to use it. We get to sit in the driver’s seat and assume that responsibility, right? Historically, we have so many examples of ways in which we have grotesquely misused technology, where technology is alienating and dehumanizing, as well as examples where technological innovation is put to glorious and empowering and miraculous use.
I think some of the panic expressed by characters in the book stems from a sensation of “the Bends” — a rapid ascent, without any plateau to process how speedily the old diurnal rhythms are changing. So that passage speaks, I guess, to the vertigo that comes from the gulf between the old perennials of our architecture, the natural limits of our body, and this new bombardment of data and information and story.
But I don’t think — let’s hope — that anything like an insomnia epidemic is going to occur in our world anytime soon.
Is that me?
KR: That’s me, I bet. Because I’m — speaking of technology, 99% of people have this phone, but I can’t get it to fit my face. I don’t know, I’m doing something wrong. Like, when I smile my cheek hits the phone.
Well, I’m glad to hear you’re smiling. But, reading that line I mentioned, while it very much felt like the character’s speculation, it did pull me in in a very direct way as a reader. Whereas, before I read that line I was reading about some imagined world, elsewhere, I hit that line and I was like, oh, this is pointing at me, and saying come down this path with me, you. Reader in your chair.
KR: I’m glad for that. That kind of Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole feeling, right? I still really love that sensation of implication, that neck-tickling you get when suddenly it’s foregrounded that this is a book addressed to you as a reader. I love that sensation myself as a reader, so.
I think it’s something else to think that this protagonist might actually, really, in addition to everything else, have her own vested interest in giving you the story of her dead sister, like a very direct transmission of that kind. So I thought a little bit about what that relationship is, between speaker and audience. It’s interesting to me. I was reading an interview with Jayne Anne Phillips about her recent novel and she was talking about the Schrodinger’s state, the strange way where the characters in the novel only exist for as long as they exist for readers. Their existence is contingent on a reader’s imagination and interest. It’s like writing music scores for somebody else’s brain. It exists if you’re making it with your own private symphony as a reader. She had a wonderful thought that, to the extent that these characters engage a reader’s sympathy, the dead are still living. Or something like that.
I think that the emotional part of the story for me that had the most resonance was just thinking about how this narrator is sort of caught in her own, if not insomnia, certainly a sympathetic condition. She’s just sort of traumatically looping through grief. So the question is: How would you reset your own cycle? Because of the epidemic, people are trying to get their sleep-wake cycle ordered again, they’re trying to return to the linear clock where they move from a day to a night to a day, so they’re not just caught in some endless limbo. I think the narrator’s on a parallel track there, trying to figure out, how do I order myself in relation to this history, so I can have a future?
Trish’s grief was very much the center of the book for me. The point around which everything gravitated. Telling her sister’s story convinces people to donate sleep, so it’s how Trish is spreading a cure, which is also spreading this new nightmare contagion. She’s keeping some part of her sister alive through telling this story, but it’s also tying and retying her sister to her, and keeping the loss at the forefront of her life. It’s how she’s relating to the world.
Something that struck me about this novella is that the narrator is still very much grieving, and it’s that ability to communicate her grief to someone else that causes them to donate sleep, to battle the very epidemic that killed her sister. This ties back into the notion of transfusion we were talking about earlier, and the thin line between receiving a gift and exploitation. She’s not lying to or manipulating anyone. Or, if she is, its success is determined by how well she actually believes and feels what she is saying. She’s just feeling in front of them, and that gets them.
KR: I wanted to reflect on the ways that we ask and receive, and how complicated it all is. And, what is story? If story is a kind of persuasive tool, what is it seeking to do? I started, or this character certainly starts, to feel this deep ambivalence about the way she’s using the story.
We live in an age where you see this idea playing out in a thousand different arenas — certainly politically, but also personally, between individuals. The idea that, what you’re appealing to might not be the best or most generous part of somebody, and the appeal might in fact be something that operates by guilting or shaming them, by implanting a conscience so that you can control this person. Again, I think it’s really difficult to stay awake to your own motives and to try to be vigilant about your own intentions. It’s a tricky thing.
I started writing this story and I thought it was just going to be some wacked-out, funhouse, Midsummer Night’s Dream in the ‘burbs story — I hope it’s still fun, I pray that it’s still fun — but a lot was revealed to me too, and one of those things was just how exhausted I personally feel by this fear bath that we’ve all been subjected to. The way that our fear is continually activated by certain sectors of the media. Terror as a coercive tool — I guess I must feel deeply uneasy about that, the way certain rhetoric seems to be directed at the worst parts of us.
Do you have any kind of method for controlling your attention? Actively meting it out, or determining how and where you direct it?
KR: I would never put myself forward as any kind of model for filtering or responsibly meting out attention. I’m pretty spazzy, and easily overwhelmed. And then I get nervous about making these general statements — I don’t want to suggest at all that this novella is anything but first and foremost a story about these idiosyncratic, specific people responding to a crisis in a fictional universe. There’s a Marianne Moore quote I love: “A poem is an imaginary garden with real toads in it.” Here I think the “real toads” are the questions we’ve been discussing, but I don’t think this novella offers any answers. Just questions. And I would never have thought of this project as being in any way didactic. I don’t have any kind of platform. I was only ever thinking, what would these particular personalities do in this kind of a situation? That’s how I’ve always approached fiction, you know?
I wish I did have better advice, because it’s a real challenge to respond attentively to the constant media frenzy to which we’re subjected — to respond sanely and compassionately when our own security feels threatened. I think that is a real challenge for these characters in Sleep Donation, certainly. There’s this parallel panic contagion that occurs in the book. There’s a real nightmare contagion, and there’s this sort of shadowy second contagion whereby everybody is suddenly afraid to sleep, afraid to dream, afraid of one another, and I guess that’s something to try to stay alert to, you know? To not just sink into the unconsciousness of that deep fear, but to try to keep your head above the water.
I feel like the position is both “Stay awake” but also “You have every right and reason to be afraid.” Your characters’ fears and the fears of their world aren’t undermined at any point. It’s why our 24-hour news cycle is so incredibly effective as a manipulative tool, and as an entertainment source, and as an actual news source, at times: There is always something to report, there’s always some kind of tragedy, there’s always this horrible stuff going on, and while we may alter our language depending on our motive, the majority of what’s being reported is very real.
KR: Absolutely. I got an email recently with such a perfect quote to that point: “We have a media that have financial incentives to inflame and distort issues rather than to educate.” Yet that doesn’t make the catastrophes and tragedies being reported any less real; I just think that sometimes the media’s framing terrifies us and makes us less equipped to respond with equilibrium and sanity and compassion. I love what you said earlier too about being selective and being aware when it comes to where you fix your attention. I think that’s wise advice.
One book that I loved, and that I’m sure influences this novella in a sly way, was A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. She does close readings of catastrophes, like 9/11, the San Francisco fire, Katrina — and one of the things she was responding to that really hit home with me was just the way that the media coverage of some of these disasters leaves out a huge part of the story and portrays people’s responses as just malevolent, unpredictable, and terrifying. There’s looting and crime, and it presents this Hobbesian vision of reality where there’s just a thin membrane between civilization, and total chaos and privation. And she reveals how that simply exaggerates and distorts. These are concrete cases where fear is activated to keep us glued to the screen.
But she was citing all kinds of evidence from various natural disasters of humans being incredibly good to one another and organizing locally. When the people she interviews recall the blackout or Katrina, no one would ever say that was the best time of their life, but there’s some species of nostalgia for the suspension of ordinary laws and hierarchy that permitted tremendous outpourings of good, goodwill, and health. And I’d agree that suffering can sometimes open you up to a kind of radical empathy or compassion. That really can happen. Solnit asks what I thought was a really great question, which was: How do we design policy so that on any given Monday or Tuesday we can experience that closeness and purpose?
Yeah. Wow. How, and can we?
KR: I think people are sometimes drawn to dystopian tales because it’s against that backdrop of epidemic or catastrophe that you do see certain parts of our nature in pretty stark outline. It’s interesting to see what a person becomes under duress, do they cling on to their integrity or do they become monsters? We’re all interested in that.