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Interview: Debut novelist Chloe Krug Benjamin on lucid dreaming and NOT writing a love story

Chloe Krug Benjamin, The Anatomy of Dreams
Chloe Krug Benjamin, The Anatomy of Dreams

Stellar debut novels have taken over the 2014 book scene—and one of those is Benjamin's The Anatomy of Dreams. Let's just call it a mystery wrapped in a psychological thriller with the structure of a coming-of-age story and just a hint of the fantastic...in other words, a little something for everyone. Chloe Benjamin shows great skill in crafting her narrative about two high school sweethearts, Gabe and Sylvie, who become involved in questionably ethical research on dreaming. From California to Madison, WI, the story follows these characters and the tense progression of their relationship, and brings up substantial questions about the line between reality and consciousness.

The Wisconsin-dwelling author will be in town this week; you can catch her and her novel at Late Library Library's Battle of the Books on Thur Sept 18 and at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sun Sept 21. In the meantime, read on to hear the author's perspective on dreaming as story-telling and how the hell a young author gets a first novel published.

What was the first spark for the novel?

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams—they seem like such intriguing evidence of the brain’s obsession with narrative as a form of sense-making. But because dreaming is an unconscious process, we have little control over the stories we tell, so they can be fraught with anxiety, vulnerability and exposure. In all, it felt like rich territory in which to explore issues of trust, characterization and identity. How do we reconcile our conscious and unconscious lives? And how do we define and understand ourselves when they conflict?

Do you have a background in psychology or the study of dreams? You write about them very naturally; I know very little about either, but you convinced me!

I’m glad to hear that, because I don’t have a background in those areas, save for a few psychology classes in college! Conceptualizing the research that Gabe and Sylvie pursue was the most difficult part of the writing process. It went through many permutations, some of which flirted with speculative fiction or sci-fi much more than the final product. I did invent the idea of using lucid dreaming to treat sleep disorders, but I was influenced by many real-life researchers—from forefathers like Freud and Jung to Stephen Laberge and Rosalind Cartwright, who explore lucid dreaming and parasomnias. I also did a lot of nitty-gritty research: Things like how lucidity is assessed during sleep studies and how to operate polysomnography equipment.

Impressive! So, in the beginning, the reader thinks The Anatomy of Dreams is going to be more of a first-time love story, which might have turned somewhat sappy and trite as the story progressed. But as we read on, the relationship between Sylvie and Gabe becomes somewhat secondary to Sylvie’s internal struggles and to her doubts about their research. Can you talk a little bit about finding this balance?

I like this question because to me, Anatomy is more about the relationship Sylvie has with herself than the relationship she has with Gabe. I was very interested in exploring the promises and perils of knowledge: How well should we know ourselves? How well should we know our partners? I wanted Sylvie’s voice to be straightforward, not flashy or overly stylized, so that it could act as a lid that the narrative pulls off, revealing layers of strangeness and conflict. One of the most difficult things for Sylvie to come to terms with is that her self-concept isn’t consistent or standardized or even reliable. Identity is as absurd and contradictory, I think—and certainly as mutable—as the human brain. I wanted the arc of the novel to chart the slow erosion and restructuring of her sense of self.

You also chose to tell the story nonlinearly, breaking it up into three different time periods that you jump between, which heightens the book’s near-thriller levels of tension. How that did structure come about? 

I think readers either love or hate nonlinear storytelling, and it’s true that it can be more difficult, both to write and to read. But I felt like I could only tell this story nonlinearly. When I started, I knew there would be a storyline that takes place at [the boarding school] and another that takes place in Madison, but they have such bearing on each other and interact so closely that it felt necessary to tell them concurrently. And then, of course, I added a third storyline, just to make things even trickier! I do like the way that the jumps in time and the lingering mystery mirror the surrealism of a dream, but to be honest, I’m not sure that occurred to me during the writing process—I tend to make choices intuitively and understand them in hindsight.

Were there other books you thought about or returned to a lot while writing your own? When Sylvie was still at the boarding school, I got little flashes of The Secret History, this aura of mystery within a school setting.

Yes, yes! There were so many books and authors I had in mind while writing. I do love The Secret History, but the book that was most influential was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which also explores science and ethics within a boarding school setting. I was also inspired by the combination of mundanity and absurdity in Haruki Murakami’s work, as well as Alice Munro’s brilliant exploration of human relationships.  

This being your first novel (congratulations!), can you tell me about the process of getting it published?

I love talking about this process, because so often it feels shrouded in mystery. Anatomy is actually the second novel I’ve written, though the first to be published; I started it around the same time that my first book was submitted to publishers, all of whom respectfully rejected it. I learned a great deal from that experience and plunged into Anatomy with a better understanding of what makes a book successful—and a renewed sense of determination. I finished the first draft in about a year and a half, then spent another six months editing it with the help of my wonderful agent, Margaret Riley King at WME. Having been through the submission process once before, I was a nervous wreck when Margaret sent it out to publishers, and a very happy nervous wreck when it sold to my editor, the whip-smart Daniella Wexler at Atria (Simon & Schuster). This process has been particularly special because Margaret, Daniella and I are all relatively young women in the early stages of our careers. This book is our baby, and I know its publication means as much to them as it does to me. Having them on my team has made me feel even more passionate about the importance of female mentorship in the publishing industry.

Are there any recent or upcoming books you’re particularly excited about?

So many! My fiancé jokes that I only read books published after 1995 because I’m so busy trying to keep up with contemporary releases that I never have time to read anything else. I adore the sound of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and I can’t wait to read Tana French’s latest, The Secret Place. Because my life is rather hectic right now, I’m also enjoying short stories—I always return to Lorrie Moore, George Saunders and Alice Munro. Finally, I loved Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth, and I’m excited for her novel, Find Me, to be published in 2015. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new novel. It’s about vaudeville, sex work, magic and immortality, and right now it is being very ornery. When I get annoyed with it, I work on side projects—currently, a couple of short stories and an article—but I can never stay away for long.

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