Throughout Sleep, Pace discovers various ways to deal with the effects of insomnia – in large part harmfully chemical, offering only fleeting comfort. What research did you make into the experience of insomniacs and the other types of habits sufferers form to cope with the absence of sleep?
My own interest in sleep disorders actually started when I developed one of my own. What David Pace suffers from is essentially an extreme form of the condition I myself was eventually diagnosed with, narcolepsy, which, contrary to common conceptions, is less about excessive sleep than about the breakdown of the normal patterns of sleep that most people take for granted. A lot of my research, then, was first hand, including the sorts of sleep studies Pace goes through and the medications he ends up taking. Along the way I became fascinated with the whole subject of sleep and the role it plays in everything from forming memories and consolidating learning to solving problems and downgrading aggression.
Although in my own case I’ve been able to manage my condition pretty successfully, things don’t turn out quite as well for David Pace.
Sleep chronicles the writer’s block of main character David Pace while working on the follow-up to his successful debut book on the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet, unlike other books on authors struggling with a creative block, Sleep takes Pace to much darker, self-destructive places. How do you cope with writer’s block, and what methods have you found to re-open the creative floodgates? Did you struggle at any time with the completion of Sleep?
I’d say it has been the case with all of my books that I’ve been pretty amazed that I actually finished them. It is probably true, though, that I struggled a bit more with Sleep than with some of the others. In part, no doubt, that was because of my own sleep disorder, though the bigger issue was that the character of David Pace came to me somewhat out of the blue, and I had to dig deep to be able to follow him to the dark places he seemed to want to lead me to.
While I don’t think I have ever really reached a point with any of my own books where I have been as blocked as David Pace becomes, there is always that stage in every book where I get bogged down or begin to lose confidence. The only solution then, in my experience, is to keep at it, and to remember that I’ve been in that place before and have always got through it.
Sleep takes a candid look into the world of academia and a set of twisted faculty relationships among professors at the small university where Pace teaches. Adulterous, back-handed, and emotionally stunted, the actions of Pace and his colleagues suggest a somewhat doubtful view of academic pursuits in the development of well-rounded relationships. Does too much focus on the intellectual side of life affect ones emotional capabilities?
I’m not sure that the world of academia is any more prone to back-handedness or emotional stunting than any other work environment. It may be simply that we expect more of academia exactly because it is supposed to be a place of reason and learning and higher ideals. In the end, though, academics are just the same fallible humans we find everywhere, capable of the same virtue but also of the same pettiness and vice.
Pace’s son discovers a family heirloom pistol, and the writer soon develops a fascination with firearms and violence. Recent history in particular has been punctuated with tragic bursts of civilian bloodshed involving guns. What changes should we make to deal with gun violence and the ease of procuring arms?
I am certainly an advocate of strong gun control, though I think there is at least a grain of truth in the adage that people kill people, not guns. The deeper question, always, is what leads to our violent urges in the first place, and whether we as a society need to do a better job at understanding violence and finding ways to sublimate and channel it. One of the underlying themes of Sleep is precisely that violence has always been with us, and that we ignore at our peril the potential that so many of us have to revert to it.
In its final act, Sleep takes a drastic change in setting to battle-scarred Middle East, Pace’s ultimate descent into the world of violence. As a part of the book’s plot, this change of setting comes as somewhat of a surprise, albeit quite a page-turner. What inspired you to end Pace’s story for your readers there?
Sleep really grew out of its ending. The battle-scarred setting Pace ends up in was the first element of the novel that came to me, and a lot of the writing process was a matter of my figuring out how he got there. Pace tells himself he has come there in the hopes of getting material for his book that might help him get over his writer’s block, but his underlying motivations are much darker. By then he has reached a point where the only time he feels truly awake and alive is when he is in extreme situations. As it happens, he ends up getting more than he bargained for.