An Interview with Novelist Roy Freirich
Imagining the End of Sleep
Have you ever worried about being unable to fall asleep?
I have, and the worry itself began to keep me awake, in a kind of meta, vicious cycle.
But, why? What’s so great about sleep?
It’s a question I used to ask, before I knew better.
I’ve led multiple lives as a writer, and each one gave me the same answer. In recording studios mixing songs, or in my office writing sentences of novels and drafts of screenplays, the longer I worked, the better the results. Until… diminishing returns set in, and song mixes were merely different and no better than one another, sentences were overbaked, script scenes over-complicated and finicky — all as the work hours intruded on normal sleep hours. The jury is in: deprivation results in diminished capacity in any area of endeavor. In my case, the stakes are admittedly low—if I write a weak line of song lyric, or a cheesy scene in a movie, we all live to tell. But if I were a surgeon, an airline pilot, a truck driver, a crane operator….?
When did it really hit home for you?
I had a real wake-up about the need for sleep, when I “came to” making a left through a red light across three lanes of oncoming traffic. Those horns were loud. And that was something called a micro-sleep, from missing just three hours of sleep the night before.
I looked into it, and found that neuroscientists, sleep specialists, and psychologists everywhere understand and agree: Deprivation results in measureable body chemistry changes, which in turn degrade our physical and mental capabilities, and eventually our long-term health. The science is complex, but beyond dispute.
There will be impairments to motor control, cognition, memory, judgement, and emotional stability.
But aside from the proven science, what does sleep mean to you personally?
For me, sleep is profoundly about a truly vital, beautiful, longing — for escape.
From three things: effort, consequence, and the past.
Most of us, most of the time, are variously trying, are attempting, something. There’s effort at work, of course, and the ever-present to-do list for home and family, and even effort during time-outs for ourselves, ironically, when we’re following the tricky plot of Westworld, or just trying to fill in that crossword blank, or just trying to relax. Sleep, when we get there, is finally a true respite from trying, which is lovely to contemplate, and even lovelier to experience deeply and often.
The second escape, from consequence, isn’t so bad either. For the one third of our lives we sleep (or should be asleep), we’re not responsible for what happens in the other two thirds. It’s not our fault! How wonderful to say that and have it be true!
But escape from consequence has an even deeper benefit for all of us. It’s escape from the self-editing process. It’s been called RISE, or regression in the service of the ego. In semi-waking states and in dreams, our minds are free to experiment without fear of outcomes. I no longer worry about what will happen to the end of my story if I change this scene, or try this line of lyric instead of the one I’ve settled on. We let the new idea come and don’t sweat the consequences. I don’t see it as “channeling” or anything quite as grand or special, but as just getting out of our own way.
The third escape, and the one that became a central conceit and drove the drama of the novel: escape from the past.
Here’s how: in dreams, we defuse the emotions connected to unresolved experiences in our lives. We’ve all had these moments, from any sort of unfulfilled wishes, desires for a “do-over,” from small regrets to more serious trauma from violence, catastrophe, death. In dreams, we replay versions of these, variously disguised or symbolized, more safely.
How did that become a novel?
As a novelist (and habitual worrier), this brought me a question: What if we couldn’t dream, because we couldn’t sleep? How many nights of without dreaming would it take to for the unconscious to find other ways to surface, even in our waking lives?
The novel and the research behind it suggest that after four or five nights we lose the emotional stability that dreams maintain, and our unique preoccupations, desires, misconceptions, and fears could spiral into obsessions, urges, delusions and paranoia.
So it’s not just about slurred speech and stumbling and impaired judgment, but we’ll each go crazy in our own special way.
How does that novel dramatize that idea?
In my speculative writer’s mind, I wondered, what if were nine or ten nights without sleep, multiplied by the population of an entire town with no way out? If it sounds dire, it is.
It all begins innocently enough, mid-summer at an idyllic tourist destination like Martha’s Vineyard or Fire Island, with locals complaining about tourists, and tourists complaining about locals, and the heat, the bugs, their mattresses, or the neighbors’ music or outdoor lights.
After a few days, there’s a run on bug spray, eyemasks, earplugs, Ambien. The sleep-deprived Chief of Police loses control as tempers flare, bar fights erupt, domestic spats turn into abuse. A lonely teenage girl joins a dangerous contest going viral: who can Tweet every fifteen minutes for the most hours? A few tourists die from (accidental?) sleeping pill overdose, missing persons are reported, boating accidents claim lives, drownings. The desperate, sleepless urgent care doctor starts prescribing a few sleeping pills apiece—but how many does the little mom ‘n’ pop pharmacy have?
Local authorities aren’t immune from impaired judgement and delusions, either, and they cut the island off out of fear the insomnia will spread to the mainland.
Denied the outlet of dreams, the unconscious finds other, primal ways to surface. Violence flares as a mob decides who to blame, and rioting erupts.
Will help arrive before the worst happens?
Desperate for unconsciousness, suicide is finally the only respite for some, as others set the island ablaze, howling in fury and fear.
Anarchy, mayhem, chaos.
The short story? Dreams keep us sane, and sanity keeps the peace.