Please welcome Chloe Benjamin to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Anatomy of Dreams was published on September 16th by Atria Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Chloe: I'm one of those annoying people who's been writing as long as she (I) can remember. As for why, hmm--I think I've always had an overactive imagination and a ferocious appetite for knowledge, as well as more curiosity than is probably healthy, and in combination they've led me to reading and writing.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Chloe: Is it embarrassing that I had to google "What is a pantser"? I'd say I'm a combination of both. I always have some idea of where the story is going; I tend to know the beginning and have a hazy idea of the end, as well as some twists and turns along the way. But I'm also a believer in the notion that writing a novel is like driving through a dark tunnel at night--you can only see as far as the headlights will show you, but you can make the whole trip that way. For me, plotting a book out entirely ahead of time would reduce the possibility of discovery and surprise, which are (for me, at least) the chief delights of writing a first draft.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Chloe: Oh, there are so many things. I find revision really grueling. As I mentioned above, I really love the process of writing early drafts: there is so much to be uncovered, so much room to invent and play. Revisions are about taking that pulpy mass of invention and turning it into something with shape and cohesion--in other words, narrative and structural integrity. That process is absolutely necessary but it's simply less fun and less intuitive for me.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Chloe: I tend to fall for authors who explore human relationships with insight and style. That's a really big umbrella, and I suppose it could cover all authors ever, but I'm thinking of people like Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore. I also love authors who push the limits of speculative or genre fiction, like Kazuo Ishiguro, Tana French, Judy Budnitz, Lev Grossman, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders and Philip Pullman.
TQ: Describe The Anatomy of Dreams in 140 characters or less.
Chloe: Couple pursues experimental dream research beneath a charismatic but ethically-questionable professor; trouble ensues.
TQ: Tell us something about The Anatomy of Dreams that is not in the book description.
Chloe: The book actually doesn't veer into sci-fi or even speculative fiction--it stays firmly in the realm of what's possible within our world, though I do think it nudges those boundaries.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Anatomy of Dreams? What is lucid dreaming?
Chloe: I've always had very vivid dreams, and I find dreams in general so fascinating--they're such evidence of the human brain's tendency toward narrative. And because we have little control over that narrative--it's so subconscious--dreams can be very revealing.
Lucid dreaming is the act of knowing that you're dreaming while in the midst of a dream. The researchers in the novel think this presents an opportunity for patients with sleep disorders to regain some control: they reason that if disordered dreamers can become aware of their dreams while inside them, they'll be able to intervene in their own behavior and better process their subconscious fears and urges.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Anatomy of Dreams?
Chloe: I did a few different layers of research. I wanted to be grounded in the history of dream theory, so I read Freud and Jung, whose ideas still influence the way we think about sleep and the subconscious. Then I read the work of current dream researchers, both those who work on sleep disorders and those who work on lucid dreaming--people like Rosalind Cartwright and Stephen Laberge. Finally, I researched the nuts and bolts of sleep studies: how to operate polysomnography equipment, for instance, as well as academic papers that explore methodology for lucidity studies.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Chloe: What an interesting question! I'm going to be a cheater and say that Sylvie was both the easiest and the hardest to write: the easiest because her voice came to me immediately, and the hardest because it took a lot of finessing and revision to make sure that she didn't come off as too much of a wet blanket. That was a big part of what I hoped to convey with her character--that even someone who seems utterly practical and conventional can have many layers of weirdness--but in early drafts she was, in my agent's words, somewhat pathetic. In later drafts, I tried to bring out her voice and give her more agency.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Anatomy of Dreams.
Chloe: Another great question! It's so easy, as an author, to focus on self-criticism and forget to highlight the things you're proud of. I've always liked these lines:
"I’d heard about the power of striped bass, how they grew as heavy as sixty pounds; mature, they had few enemies. But the one in Keller’s hands was docile, resigned. Its eyes--even larger than a human’s, the black irises pits in pools of yellow--stared out at the room with what seemed like attention, as if Keller were offering not death but a privilege. Here, he seemed to say, was life on land."
TQ: What's next?
Chloe: In addition to promotion for ANATOMY and a few short writing projects, I'm working on my next novel. I'm superstitious about sharing plot info, but I will say that I'm researching divination, vaudeville and sex work in 1980s San Francisco. My Google searches are getting pretty sketchy!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Chloe: Thank you!
The Anatomy of Dreams
Atria Books, September 16, 2014
Trade Paperback and eBook, 320 pages
Long-listed for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize
“A sly, promising and ambitious debut.” —Publishers Weekly
“Chloe Benjamin is a great new talent.” —Lorrie Moore, author of Bark: Stories
It’s 1998, and Sylvie Patterson, a bookish student at a Northern California boarding school, falls in love with a spirited, elusive classmate named Gabe. Their headmaster, Dr. Adrian Keller, is a charismatic medical researcher who has staked his career on the therapeutic potential of lucid dreaming: By teaching his patients to become conscious during sleep, he helps them to relieve stress and heal from trauma. Over the next six years, Sylvie and Gabe become consumed by Keller’s work, following him from the redwood forests of Eureka, California, to the enchanting New England coast.
But when an opportunity brings the trio to the Midwest, Sylvie and Gabe stumble into a tangled relationship with their mysterious neighbors—and Sylvie begins to doubt the ethics of Keller’s research, recognizing the harm that can be wrought under the guise of progress. As she navigates the hazy, permeable boundaries between what is real and what isn’t, who can be trusted and who cannot, Sylvie also faces surprising developments in herself: an unexpected infatuation, growing paranoia, and a new sense of rebellion.
In stirring, elegant prose, Benjamin’s tale exposes the slippery nature of trust—and the immense power of our dreams.
Chloe Benjamin is a graduate of Vassar College and The University of Wisconsin-Madison MFA program. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Pank, Whiskey Island, and The Washington Independent Review of Books. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.