Chloe Benjamin’s debut novel, “The Anatomy of Dreams,” is an atmospheric exploration of the world we experience when we fall asleep. She dives in to the complex dynamics at play in relationships both within ourselves and with each other, and generally tells a taut thriller set (mostly) right here in Madison.
Benjamin joined readers for a live chat on Oct. 7, and what follows are some highlights from that talk about the State Journal Book Club’s latest selection.
Q: Where did the idea for the story come from?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, and I remembered once hearing of a film in which a woman lives two lives. When she goes to sleep, she wakes up in the other one, and vice versa; she doesn’t know which one is real. That was really fascinating (and somewhat terrifying) to me, and it made me think about how real our dreams really are.
Q: Have you studied psychology?
A: I did study psychology in college, and loved it, but hadn’t since. So when I started the book, I did a lot of research to make sure that I knew what I was talking about and that the ideas felt credible. The research that Gabe, Sylvie and Keller do — using lucid dreaming to treat those with sleep disorders — is invented, but it’s based in existing research.
Q: How did you learn about lucid dreaming?
A: I’m not sure when I first heard of it, but it’s clearly something that stuck with me. Lucid dreaming is what happens when you’re aware that you’re dreaming while in the midst of a dream. The concept goes back to the 1800s, but it’s only recently been explored in academia, in large part through the contributions of a researcher named Stephen LaBerge who founded something called the Lucidity Institute at Stanford (I believe it’s now independent). I liked having the freedom to explore a relatively new field.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you in your research?
A: I was constantly surprised by how strange and fascinating the human brain is. When I first started the book, I thought of making the research more speculative and pushing the novel toward dystopian or science fiction. But as I continued to research, I realized that there wasn’t a need for me to push those boundaries. The brain is surreal enough, and what it does during sleep is endlessly mysterious and remarkable. To speak more specifically, I was really struck by the real-life cases of people committing crimes in their sleep that they didn’t remember at all upon waking.
Q: Your characters explore parasomnias, or sleep disturbances. Have you had personal experience with that?
A: Nothing as extreme as an actual parasomnia or sleep disorder. I do, however, do strange things in my sleep sometimes — I occasionally talk and often crack my knuckles, to the chagrin of my husband, who always wakes up. My mom once found me sitting up in bed with both hands in the air. But I’ve never sleepwalked or experienced REM Behavior Disorder, luckily.
Q: One of your characters, Sylvie, processes her dreams artistically. Can you talk about that?
A: This is actually a funny story. Sylvie loves to paint, but that wasn’t in early drafts of the novel. Before we sent the book out to editors, my agent told me that she just felt Sylvie needed a hobby. I think her exact words were, “Sylvie is pathetic!” I spent about an hour feeling bruised on behalf of poor pathetic Sylvie, and then I thought about what I could do to make her feel more well-rounded and human. What would she love? What might her outlet be? Sylvie is a very practical person on the surface, but she has many layers beneath that, and painting seemed like an apt way to express them.
Q: Was it hard to find a publisher?
A: Before I wrote “Anatomy,” I had written a different book that my agent sent out to publishers, but we couldn’t sell it. That was really painful, but it helped me to learn what separates a manuscript from a successful book, so I was able to write “Anatomy” with a greater awareness of the publishing industry and how it works. I wouldn’t say it was hard to find a publisher, but we did hear from several different editors who liked the book but weren’t sure how to market it before the editor I wound up with read the book and made an offer. Some publishers weren’t sure how to place it given the fact that it straddles literary and commercial fiction, but my editor saw that as a strength, as I hoped a publishing house would.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
A: You have, have, have to be able to push past the rejection. There is simply no other option. Even the most successful authors have rejection stories you wouldn’t believe. Wasn’t “Harry Potter” turned down by a crazy number of publishers? Writing and reading are both so subjective, and pairing a book with a publishing house is like matchmaking: you just have to find the one house that falls in love with it. And in connection with that I would say it’s important that you, as the writer, adore your book. You might hate it sometimes, but you have to love it even more, because no one will work harder to support it or care more than you. Excitement is contagious, and so is passion. You have to have a lot passion and a lot of internal drive, because no one is going to tell you to sit down each day and write — it has to come from you.
Q: Have you had any interest from Hollywood?
A: We have! I have a fantastic film agent who’s been sharing the material with directors and producers. We’re in talks with a writer/director who is interested in optioning, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Q: Have you thought about who might make a good Gabe, Sylvie or Keller?
A: You bet I have thought about casting. Keller has always been Ben Kingsley for me, and Gabe is Emile Hirsch. Thom could be Ryan Gosling, and I picture Janna as a young Uma Thurman. Sylvie I haven’t been able to pin down as easily — perhaps someone like Rooney Mara or Mia Wasikowska. (But brunette!)
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m working on a new book. It’s coming along much more slowly than “Anatomy,” but I’m excited about it — it explores vaudeville, immortality, the military, ballet, and a range of other topics that I’m somehow aiming to pull together.
Q: What’s your writing ritual like?
A: I write best in the morning, usually from about 9 to 12 or 1. I work from Monday to Thursday for DAIS, an incredible organization here in town that serves victims of domestic violence, so I tend to write from Friday to Sunday. If I’m really good, I’ll get up early before work and write during the week as well, but that can be challenging. This is all probably a big part of why this novel is coming along more slowly than the first, but I feel lucky to have a very fulfilling job alongside my writing career.