There's No Rest For Anyone In 'The Dreamers'

Jan 19, 2019

In a quiet college town — the fictional town of Santa Lora, in southern California — one by one, students fall victim to a bizarre contagious disease. They fall into a deep sleep, and don't wake up. In fact, some will never wake up. And the disease spreads throughout the town, quickly and indiscriminately.

That's the dystopian premise of Karen Thompson Walker's new novel, The Dreamers. "I've always been interested in sleep," she says. "I'm interested in the parts of human experience where the ordinary overlaps with the extraordinary, and so sleep is one of those things that is just so profoundly familiar, obviously, to all of us ... but we don't really know what goes on in our brains while we're asleep."


Interview Highlights

On the strangeness of the dreams the sickness causes

It was fascinating to explore ... the kind of strangeness of sleep and dreaming, and the mystery of human consciousness — but then also to bring in this time element, and this possibility of, what if the strangeness of these dreams are that it's granting some access to a kind of different way of experiencing time? And so there is an idea in physics, that past, present and future, that those are human constructs. And I'm interested in that idea of how humans perceive reality is not necessarily accurate to the way the universe actually functions.

On the other contagion in the novel — conspiracy theories

Even though the book has this kind of other worldly type of sickness at its center, I really wanted it to feel realistic, and as if it was taking place more or less in contemporary America. And so part of that was trying to learn from, you know, I'm learning all the time, about American society and human nature by the things that are unfolding in the news. And so it just seemed like an element of realism, that if a new sickness like this appeared in an American city, inevitably, just as we've seen with all kinds of other disasters, there would be some faction of people who wouldn't believe it. If they aren't there, they wouldn't believe it, and they would be looking for the conspiracy theory angle.

In a way a conspiracy theory is comforting, because it's more comforting to think that it's all an evil plot by one person, or a group of people, because then in theory it is something less chaotic about it — even though it's scary, the real kind of unsettling thing, which I think is truer, is kind of just the chaos of a human life.

On writing California-centric apocalypses

... my sort of main interest and real subject is ordinary people, and looking at the ways that ordinary people, either they do or don't change when faced with these extreme situations. - Karen Thompson Walker

I don't know if I can even articulate exactly why my imagination is so fired by these disaster situations. I mean I think growing up in California ... there is something about that kind of familiarity with the feeling of a looming disaster is is a part of a California childhood, which it was of mine. So I think that's part of it, and then I think also just writing about a disaster like this ... my sort of main interest and real subject is ordinary people, and looking at the ways that ordinary people, either they do or don't change when faced with these extreme situations. So in a way, this sleeping sickness is a way of highlighting and exploring all the facets of human nature, and what would happen to them in such an extraordinary and uncertain situation.

This interview was produced and for radio by Hiba Ahmad and Denise Couture. It adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In a quiet college town, the fictional town of Santa Lora in Southern California, one by one, students fall victim to a bizarre contagious disease. They fall into a deep sleep and don't wake up. In fact, some will never wake up. And the disease spreads throughout the town quickly and indiscriminately. That's the dystopian premise of the new novel called "The Dreamers" by Karen Thompson Walker, who joins me from KPBS in San Diego. Karen, welcome to the program.

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: Thank you so much for having me.

BLOCK: What got you thinking about this in the first place, this idea of a sleeping sickness?

WALKER: You know, I mean, I've always been interested in sleep. I think I'm interested in the parts of human experience where the ordinary overlaps with the extraordinary. And so I feel like sleep is one of those things that is just so profoundly familiar, obviously, to all of us. You know, we spend six or eight hours unconscious every day.

BLOCK: If we're lucky, yeah (laughter).

WALKER: Yeah, right. But we don't really know what goes on in our brains while we're asleep and in our minds. And so it was sort of exciting fictional territory to imagine this strange sickness that causes - where the only symptom is this kind of seemingly endless sleep and these strange dreams.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about the dream life because part of what distinguishes this sickness is that the brains of these victims of the disease are shown to be really, really busy - more activity than had ever been recorded in humans. And in some cases, as we learn later on, they're actually dreaming the future - dreaming about things that will happen. You allude to this notion that that state of being able to exist in parallel dimensions - present, past, future - is something that's been talked about in physics and in philosophy, in classics.

WALKER: Yeah. It was fascinating to explore, you know, for this book the kind of strangeness of sleep and dreaming and the mystery of human consciousness but then also to bring in this time element and this possibility of, what if the strangeness of these dreams are that it's granting some access to a kind of different way of experiencing time? And yeah, there is an idea in physics that past, present and future - that those are human constructs. And I'm interested in that idea of how humans perceive reality is not necessarily accurate to the way the universe actually functions.

BLOCK: I'm thinking, Karen, that as you've been immersed in this world, this fictional world of sleeping and dreaming, that you're probably a whole lot more aware of your own dream life and what those dreams mean.

WALKER: Yeah. I think that's true. You know, I didn't actually come into this with a plan to be writing about dreams, but it did make me more interested in my dreams. And, you know, I have two young daughters. And I'm fascinated by my 4-year-old's dreams as she reports them. And I remember her when she was maybe about 2, she didn't even know what to call them. But she called me in and she was, you know, terrified and said, like, Mama, when I close my eyes, I see something scary. And I feel like there was just something so primal about that description of a dream, even though she didn't even know really what that meant.

BLOCK: Yeah. What did you tell her?

WALKER: I mean, I tried to explain the concept of dreams.

BLOCK: It's hard to do, yeah.

WALKER: Yes. Because, you know, in a way, I'm telling her it's not real, but it is a part of real human experience. So even though the facts of the dream, you know, if you have a dream that you lose a loved one, that's not real. But in a way, in a strange way, your mind and sort of your body has experienced the emotions of what that would be like.

BLOCK: One of the components of the novel is that as the disease is spreading, there's also a different kind of contagion going on at the same time, and that is the spread of conspiracy theories about just what's happening in Santa Lora, that maybe this is a plot by Big Pharma to set a germ loose in this community. Or maybe these are crisis actors faking the whole thing. How conscious were you of trying to tie this fictional world into some of the things that we'd see in real life around real-life disasters?

WALKER: Yeah. I mean, it just seemed like an element of realism that if a new sickness like this appeared in an American city, inevitably, just as we've seen with all kinds of other disasters, there would be some faction of people who wouldn't believe it. And they would be looking for the conspiracy theory angle.

BLOCK: Yeah. There must be some explanation that's even more sinister than the disease itself.

WALKER: Right. In a way, a conspiracy theory is comforting because it's more comforting to think that it's all an evil plot by one person or a group of people because then, in theory, there's something less chaotic about it. Even though it's scary, it's - the real kind of unsettling thing is just the chaos of human life.

BLOCK: Karen, I'm thinking back to the last time that you and I talked. It was about your your first novel, "The Age Of Miracles," also set in California and also about a calamity but a different kind. In that novel, the rotation of the Earth has slowed, so days are lasting as long as weeks. And horrible things happen - the oceans shift, and communities wash away. There is something about you and the apocalypse in California, I think, that is a running theme through your fiction. What's going on there?

WALKER: You know, in some ways, I can't articulate exactly why my imagination is so fired by these disaster situations. I mean, I think growing up in California, I think it does - and both books are set in California too - you know, there is something about the kind of familiarity with the feeling of a looming disaster is a part of a California childhood, which it was of mine. So I think that's part of it. And then I think also just writing about a disaster like this, it's also just a way of looking at my sort of main interest in real subject is ordinary people. So in a way, this sleeping sickness is a way of highlighting and exploring all the just facets of human nature and what would happen to them in such an extraordinary and uncertain situation.

BLOCK: That's Karen Thompson Walker. Her novel is "The Dreamers." Karen, thanks so much for talking with us.

WALKER: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.