Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers Is 2019's First Must-Read Novel

In Depth

A mysterious sleeping illness breaks out in the fictional town of Santa Lora, California, in Karen Thompson Walker’s alternately terrifying and moving new novel, The Dreamers. It spreads slowly, barely detectable at first, until the situation becomes a catastrophe that starts looking like the end of days.

If the premise of a small rift causing devastating consequences sounds familiar, it’s because Walker’s 2012 debut novel, The Age of Miracles, in which more minutes mysteriously start being tacked onto every day, is similar in theme, explore the dire effects on nature’s balance. The slow-spreading catastrophe is Walker’s wheelhouse, and while her fantastical scenarios could broadly qualify as sci-fi, as Walker explained to Jezebel earlier this week via phone: “I’m interested in the premise, because I’m interested in what it would mean for exploring human experience, whereas I think a different kind of science fiction novel would be more interested in the science of the premise.”

The Dreamers is overflowing with humanity. Told from the points of view of several characters (as opposed to the sole, adolescent narrator of Miracles), Thompson uses her omniscience for a good cause, with careful explanations (and re-explanations) of her characters’ behavior and motivations and a narrative that cascades into deeply philosophical territory. What is the nature of sleep? Who is to say that a dream is less important than what is considered reality? Does love need to be informed by objective truth in order to be real? Is the value of human life fixed, or does it vary from person to person? What is time, anyway?

Her prose never stops probing, even on a syntactic level—“as if” is her preferred metaphor construction (“… All of it seems suffused with meaning, as if the whole night has been transformed already into memory”), as it appears over 180 times in the book. That’s no coincidence. “That construction dovetails with a larger interest I have in speculation—that’s my whole thing, speculating,” she told Jezebel.

For about an hour, we discussed her novel, the inherent goodness of humanity in times of crisis, the realism of narrative ambiguity, and much more. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: What accounts for the seven-year gap between your first and second books?

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: I’m a slow writer, I guess, is the answer. My first book took me about three-and-a-half or four years to write. This took around five. Mostly I’m just slow, but I also had two babies during that time, so that slowed me down further. I’m hoping that my next one is more like three or four years. But I can’t imagine being one of those writers who writes a book in a year. I can only get a few words down on paper every day. I spend a lot of time staring at the screen and rewriting sentences.

Did your having children influence the large role childbirth has in The Dreamers?

Yes, definitely. I’m always learning from my own life. One of the big things that was happening to me that was a change from previously was just becoming a parent, the kind of amazing strangeness of pregnancy and of becoming a parent and so I inevitably added it to the book.

The Dreamers is ultimately quite philosophical about things like the importance of dreaming, how things people share can affect us on such individual levels, and the concept of time. Do you have the big ideas and then craft a narrative to illustrate them, or do you write the narrative and encounter the big ideas as you go?

I definitely start with the narrative. That’s one of the things I like about writing fiction, especially fiction that has some kind of fantastical premise. I set something in motion in the narrative level—in this case, this contagious sleeping sickness—and I don’t know at the start all of the places it’s going to take me, but along the way, I enjoy as a writer and as a reader, sort of going in that philosophical direction. I don’t think about it at the beginning, but once I have people who are locked in sleep, then I have all this interesting research that I have to do about what sleep is and how people thought of sleep and dreaming thousands of years ago versus how they think of it now. Both the philosophy and science behind what it means that we spend some parts of our lives in this strangely altered state every day.

There’s an irony in the disasters depicted in both of your books in that they represent a certain wish fulfillment. People say, “There aren’t enough hours in the day,” and you wrote a book about the horrors that would occur from our days extending by eventually hours. People say, “If I could only get some sleep,” and you imagine a sickness in which people only get sleep.

I didn’t set out thinking of it that way, but I do think it’s interesting that I wrote The Age of Miracles at a time when I felt like I didn’t have enough time. I didn’t have enough time to write because I was working full-time. It was hard to figure out when to get my writing time in. And now I wrote a book about sleeping during a time in my life that, because I have children, I’m definitely never getting enough sleep. It’s not conscious, but inevitably those things come in somehow.

In both books, but in this one, in particular, there’s something eerie or creepy about something benign turning out to be so dangerous. Sleep, or a slight extension in the day. There’s a feeling of something starting in a small way but becoming so extreme. I’m interested in writing about these kinds of disasters that can creep in. That interests me more than a meteor striking the earth. I like a quiet opening.

I think this speaks to a point made in both of your books: The future is fiction. It’s a hypothesis until it actually happens. So that’s to say that our visions of apocalypse are just visions; the end could come in a way we’re not expecting at all. Your books envision two such scenarios.

It’s not that I was trying to write an allegory for climate change, but as an example of the thing that threatens us most, even though we see it coming, it’s so gradual. It’s a disaster happening in plain sight, but it’s so slow that it’s sneaking in a way. We talk about it but I think we have trouble grasping how serious it is because it’s happening so gradually over years. There’s something similar as a corollary. Maybe some of the most dangerous disasters are the kind that are the least striking at the beginning.

Both novels bespeak a pre-apocalypse tension. I wonder how much time you spend thinking about the end of the world, and whether that has been informed by having children.

I think there’s something just kind of fascinating and worrisome about all humanity being at risk. It’s always captured my imagination in a dark way. It’s interesting to wonder how it’s been affected by having children. It feels like there’s a heightened worry. The parent-child relationship is just so intense and it’s this little microcosm. Children inevitably represent the future so the idea that the future is at risk, there’s some kind of parallel between the future being at risk and your own child’s future being at risk. There’s something there that maybe underscores a previous interest in apocalyptic themes.

It’s interesting that your books have so much in common. Is the slow disaster scenario your permanent track, or are you just going from your gut with what feels right?

I think [the latter is] probably the answer. There’s also a thing that happens for me, where you start to get to the end of one book and you’re still kind of interested in some of the things that you came across. When I was writing The Age of Miracles, I got really interested in sleep then because I was interested in our circadian rhythms would be affected by the change of the 24-hour day. And also, how our sense of time would be changed. I finished that book, but there were still ideas that I had that I ended up pursuing in a different way. Now I’m starting a new book that doesn’t have the apocalyptic part but it does have something strange that has to do with… I don’t know how much I want to say. But anyway, it’s again jumping from similar things that I became interested in writing The Dreamers. I think it makes sense that there ends up being a link, but I’m not always going to write apocalyptic things.

Your novels could be broadly categorized as sci-fi, but their focus on language also gives them a strong literary flavor. Did you have a previous interest in sci-fi?

I don’t really come out of the sci-fi world in terms of reading, which is a very elaborate world. I read more straight literary fiction, but then I love to watch any kind of movie or television show that has a sci-fi premise. I guess I think of my books as trying to use all the tools of literary realism—what I love as a reader—but with these science-fiction premises. Some marriage between those two things. The books that would have influenced me the most in that sense would be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, José Saramago’s Blindness, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

I’ve gotten into conversations with real fans of science fiction. I’m interested in the premise because I’m interested in what it would mean for exploring human experience, whereas I think a different kind of science fiction novel would be more interested in the science of the premise. I think hardcore science fiction fans want more than I am interested in giving in terms of the science.

I think hardcore science fiction fans want more than I am interested in giving in terms of the science.

Your use of ambiguity reminds me of The Leftovers, a show (and preceding book) that was all about coming to terms with what is inherently impossible to understand.

When it comes to ambiguity, one reason I like to leave it that way is that just feels like realism to me. We all live with so much uncertainty. There’s so much we can’t know, even with our own lives—how something would have turned out if you made a different choice. That’s just built into our experience of reality.

When you’re crafting a story and dealing with this principle, how can you be sure that you’re satisfying the reader while remaining ambiguous?

I don’t know if you can be sure!

But how do you strike the balance in construction?

I don’t know, that’s the trick of trying to write the book. I want the characters to feel real and believable. I want to capture their experience of the situation in a really clear way. That’s where my attention is in terms of making it feel satisfying or finished. It evens the field, because the characters don’t understand what happened to them, and that’s part of the experience. It feels natural to maintain that feeling of the inexplicable.

Your characters are generally kind or at least righteous. I wonder if that’s a way of making your books about disasters, that in other hands could be 400 pages of misery, more accessible. Or are you just optimistic?

Sometimes I think in the apocalyptic genre, the way people act is unrecognizable to me as a human. The degree of bad behavior that happens feels unrealistic to me. Of course, there are some bad people but I just feel like most people, even if they’re not great, they don’t really want to do the wrong thing, in general. That’s my experience of humanity. That’s my gut sense, and then I read this book, A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. It’s about how people act in disasters, and how people often are their best selves in their times of catastrophe. Not everyone, but there’s a common experience. When I read that book, that rang true to me. That’s why I write those characters. I hope they’re flawed in some ways. It’s not like they’re perfect. But they’re just trying to get by. There are only two characters that are really heroic [in The Dreamers]. I was just trying to write ordinary people that aren’t trying to harm other people, I guess.

Sometimes I think in the apocalyptic genre, the way people act is unrecognizable to me as a human. The degree of bad behavior that happens feels unrealistic to me.

I think we saw that in 2018. With those fires in California, it’s not like we saw tons of stories of looting or cutting each other off to try to escape. Those aren’t the stories that I heard. I think it makes sense that people rise to the occasion. Most humans, not all, I think our flaws are not cruelty as often as pettiness or passive aggressiveness.

I can’t remember which book I put this in, but when I see how when there’s an ambulance going by, and everyone pulls over, obviously you’re supposed to do that, it’s the law, but I also think that we all agree, “Okay, this is something more important that’s happening.” It’s a small, ordinary thing but it always kind of gets me. Like, here we are, strangers, we’re never even going to know where the ambulance is going, but we all agree to let it go by to rescue someone. Maybe I am an optimist!

I think you are. Things that happen in this book this book reminds me of the separation of families at the border that happened last year. I assume, though, you were done writing when that became a full-on crisis and a topic of wide media coverage.

It was too late, but that is exactly the type of story that [I use to learn] what can happen, and how people respond to these kinds of news stories. I don’t know if I have that much to say about it, but those scenes were so terrible in a way that some version of those scenes probably would have made it into my book, just inevitably.

What in your heart of hearts do you believe is the nature of time? As someone thinks about this so much, are you content with letting that mystery be or do you have greater ideas about how this all works?

I am just fascinated by the topic and I love to read about astrophysicists’ explanation of time, or physicists in general. It might be the case that I’m content to let that mystery be, but I’m really interested in the fact that the human experience of time doesn’t match up with what a physicist’s understanding of time in the universe is. The past, present, and future might just be a construct of human experience and perception. I just like to play with that idea.

Something else that freaks me out is that the end of the world as we know it could actually, according to scientists, coincide with when I would be expected to die of natural causes under normal circumstances. How is this not a constructed plot? Does every human’s solipsistic reality contain such an arc where the end of the world dovetails with the end of their individual world?

I think that gets at why there’s something inherently intriguing about apocalypse scenarios. Everyone’s life is going to end, so in a way, the world is going to end for each individual person. There’s a metaphorical parallel between apocalypse scenarios and just anyone’s life.=

Is this speculation you do cathartic? Is it therapeutic to do what you do, thinking about the topics of your books, even if they bring to you dark places?

Yes, I think for sure. Fear and anxiety come easily to me, I’d say, just in life. I’m a worrier by nature and always have been. But writing fiction and writing these dark stories is a way of harnessing…it’s not exactly my fear. I don’t have a fear there’s going to be a sleeping sickness, but it’s harnessing that fearful energy. That type of imaginative energy, but for fiction. It’s a way of making it kind of orderly, as opposed to the whole thing about real uncertainty is not being able to control it. Writing fiction is a weird way of feeling like I do control reality because I do in my stories.

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