Sleeping Ugly, Author's Commentary
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
If you've only read the preview and are thinking about getting the book DO NOT READ THIS!!! It is filled with spoilers. If you've finished the book and are interested in the Author's perspective, this article is for you; please read on.
The Author’s Take: (all the things—MAJOR SPOILERS, craft wonkery, narrative theory, you name it!)
I’m going to start somewhere totally not Sleeping Ugly and work my way back around. I have this memory of Daniel Day-Lewis accepting the Oscar for best actor for his terrifying performance in There Will Be Blood, and I don’t think there’s a finer illustration of what people think of when they call someone a “method” actor. In his speech you see the real Daniel: humble, soft-spoken, filled with genuine gratitude that almost seems over the top in an industry filled with vanity, superficiality, hubris, and egos too fully-blown to be believed.
You can watch it here: (and if you don’t want to waste a minute of your life watching Helen Mirren reading a list of abstract nouns, I suggest you to skip to 1:15)
During his speech, you'll notice he even thanks Mrs. Daniel Plainview (the fictional character’s hypothetical wife—for those of you who haven’t seen the film [why have you not seen this film!?!]). It’s a nod to his real-life wife for putting up with “the method,” wherein the actor, during the period of filming, “becomes” the character by adopting the psyche, mannerisms, idiolect, etc. of the character, theoretically refusing to break character until the whole project is completed. And seriously, Rebecca Miller must be one hell of a patient woman to put up with Daniel Plainview for much more than a fraction of a summer’s afternoon, my God.
You can watch him in his ungodly glory here:
Such a terrifying portrait of profound, seething psychopathy I don’t think has ever been set to film, not Hannibal Lecter, not Tony Montana, not Bale’s Joker, not even Anton Chigurh. Plainview’s psychopathy seems so real and real-world it’s hard to fathom it came from the same person who so graciously thanks his wife for putting up with him and his “method.”
I say all this to say, I can totally relate.
Well, um, hang on. Not with the whole, “I have a competition in me; I’ve built up my hatreds over the years, little by little. I drink your milkshake!”—skull crushing, bowling-pin-wielding psychopathy. No, no, no. Not that, e-hem. I’m talking about the method thing. I do that when I write a novel—researching to the point of near-absurdity, and then going all the way past the point of actual absurdity, living with that character in a way that most normal, well-adjusted people might find troubling enough to recommend a good therapist. But it’s all for the art of it, right? Nothing to see here, folks.
I’ve only ever come across one other writer who talks about embodying characters in this way and it’s probably not an accident that she writes incredibly vivid characters and storyworlds that might just take a reader slightly deeper than they’re comfortable going. And I don’t mean that I became Riley in the way actors become their characters, because that would be as ridiculous as Daniel Day-Lewis walking around Manhattan with his bowling pin trying to hail a cab circa 2007. “You think this is your taxi, friend? I say otherwise.” I didn’t insist on my friends calling me Riley or walk around talking to an imaginary grizzly bear. But I did, to the extent that it was possible immerse myself in her perspective. I also spent months and months trying to induce lucid dreams, and I recorded as many of the vivid non-lucid dreams as I could the minute I woke up. I lived with Riley as my constant companion, envisioning the way she might react to things going on around me and constantly replaying the events that did go on in the novel. And I have to say, it may sound weird to most people or perhaps a little overcooked, but when Daniel Day-Lewis thanks Mrs. Plainview, I totally get it. I do. I understand. Because I lived with Riley, and seriously when I go back and read this book, I miss her. There, I said it. Not weird at all, people. As I said, move along. Nothing to see here.
I loved writing this book. If no one ever buys it or reads it, I still wouldn’t regret a minute I spent working on this story. So it’s probably no surprise that I really loved the main character who came out of the project. How did it all start? Well, I came across KLS at some point, reading a newspaper article, or something like that. The thing about KLS, despite its rarity, is that it’s so bizarre, and so closely tied to folk tales whose roots burrow deep into our culture, that it’s interesting enough to be newsworthy.
As I thought about the idea for the book and began to look into the disease, it almost seemed that everyone who suffered from KLS had at least one newspaper article written about them. I mean, it’s fascinating, right? So, despite the fact that it’s entirely common for a patient to go years before they’re properly diagnosed, there’s actually a fair amount of information out there once they know what they’re dealing with. In fact, in the case of my research, a lot of that information came from the patients themselves. I discovered quite a few patients blogging about KLS and putting up videos on everything from medication to symptoms to their stories living with the disease. In the internet era, with people being so much better able to find each other and communicate over large distances, I’d be surprised if many of the KLS patients and families in North America didn’t regularly communicate with their counterparts. It didn’t take me that long to find them.
That gave me pause, and certainly gave me a few things to consider ethically as I worked on the project. It’s easy as you’re writing a completely fictional story to forget that you’re writing about a topic that affects real people. I definitely spent some time considering how a KLS patient might read this book. I wanted it to be real enough that they’d find a lot of it familiar, but there’s no doubt that Riley’s case needed to be atypical (remembering dreams and lucid dreaming, for instance) and extremely severe (it’s rare for KLS episodes to last multiple months). Most patients report remembering nothing; for them, an episode is just a blank, lost period of their life. Some patients, though, have a milder form that allows them to be medicated to a point of limited functionality. Some do go to school during episodes when they’re lucid enough; and most, from what I’ve read, have episodes that last for a few weeks; though, many do report that their longest episodes stretch into the month+ range. These real patients and their conditions were a concern to me, because I think a lot about how we tend to objectify the people we’ve read about and never met—(see “The Masturbating Banker,” both the story and commentary). The last thing I’d want is for a story like this to gain traction and get out into the world and have it be an annoyance or a burden for a KLS patient already dealing with quite enough already. Ultimately, though, I’m a writer, and I had to write the story, and it had to be Riley’s story and not theirs. The best I could do is write Riley lovingly and with respect for the difficulties any neurological disorder places on a patient and their family.
So I kept thinking about the story and researching, and thinking and researching. What intrigued me more than anything was how insidious this disease can be. On the surface it seems rather harmless, you go to sleep for a long time and you don’t wake up. Great. A lot of teenagers would sign up for a two-month hibernation, no? Maybe so. But who would sign up for thirty of them in a ten-year stretch? That’s the problem. And it occurred to me that what’s particularly insidious about this disease is that it strikes during the formative years of a patient’s life—when they’re supposed to be growing into the person they’ll be as an adult. In a complex culture like ours, you can’t just take two months off three times a year and progress. You can’t learn calculus, much less algebra, if you’re asleep for a third of the class. You miss the milestones. You sleep through graduation, and your friends go off to college, leaving you behind in your bed. That was what I wanted to explore with Riley—how do you cope when your trajectory is interrupted so dramatically? And from the writer’s standpoint, how do you portray it?
You write about her dreams, right, Rowe?
Now, there are plenty of books out there on how to write fiction, and in most of those books there are pieces of advice on how not to write books. I even read an entire book once on how not to write a book: www.hownottowriteanovel.com ; and in it there were pieces of advice garnered from editors of fiction at publishing houses who had years of experience screening and rejecting most fiction. A few useful points from which include: don’t introduce the entire cast of characters before stumbling upon the plot; don’t make the plot about something nobody cares about; and, nobody cares about your cat, lady ☹. Another important piece of advice in no uncertain terms: do not write dreams.
So it would seem like a really dumb idea for a person who’d read that book to write a novel filled with dreams, no? That was a big part of the challenge. But the important thing to understand about a piece of advice like “do not write dreams” is not that you shouldn’t do it, but why you shouldn’t do it. And it’s fairly simple. The underlying concern is that dreams are not inherently meaningful for the character, and therefore not suspenseful for the reader. If the reader understands that the character is asleep in her bed and not in danger, then they have no reason to fear for her. This leaves the reader with no feeling of suspense and no nagging question that needs to be answered. The other problem with writing dreams is that writers often use them as a means to inject symbolism into the story—a kind of deus ex machina of meaning instead of writing a story whose meaning is inherent within it. That’s also a bad move, I think.
Where I think Riley’s story gets away with it on both fronts is that it’s clear there’s something important going on in her dreams. Though her dreams are necessarily disjointed and vague at times, there’s enough consistency with recurring characters and progression of a timeline that actions seem to have consequences, and her dreamworld suffering often parallels her real-world suffering (the bedsore, the pneumonia, the broken foot, etc.). I also tried to make the places where the dreams are necessarily disjointed short enough that they don’t push the reader out of the story. So if I’ve done my job correctly, it’s clear to the reader that there’s danger for Riley in her dreamworld and that something important is going on behind it—right on the next page. And instead of Barron and Brickley being strictly symbolic, they’re more manifestations of Riley’s psyche that she fleshes out in order to build a framework around which to grow. That’s ultimately what the story is about—how does a kid who misses the end of her childhood manage to turn herself into a fully-functional adult?
There are countless rules of writing that are good rules in the vast majority of cases, but it’s really important to understand the reason the rules exist. Another excellent example of this is a passage in Stephen Pinker’s style guide on why the passive voice exists and when we shouldn’t, but more importantly, when we should use it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV5J6BfToSw (A useful lecture and book). “Don’t use the passive voice” is so common an edict from English teachers and writing coaches that it almost could be tattooed on their foreheads, both to save them some precious time and to identify them to the larger populace so they can be easily and smartly avoided 😊
Anyway, don’t write dreams (most of the time). And don’t follow all the rules all the time. What fun is that?
Now speaking of symbolism…I actually had thought to do that—to write a little bit about the obvious connections to the fairy tale and Lewis Carroll, and how those elements helped to shape this story. But I think that’s obvious. The one thing I will say is that Disney really warped the modern conception of the source myth. There are quite a few versions of the story, which seem to date back to perhaps the 1300’s; but who really knows how deep into our collective psyche a story like this goes? In Jungian terms, it’s surely about parents being overprotective of their children—especially daughters.
If you’ve never read the original myth, the most famous one is by Charles Perrault, and it is dark. People did not mess around in those folk tales, and I don’t think they worried all that much about scaring their kids at night. Kids were right to be scared back then: life was tough. And so the stories encoded a lot of that toughness and much subject matter we might squirm about reading to our children these days. We probably overthink that. Anyway, if you find yourself enjoying any of Perrault’s tales, I highly recommend Calvino’s Italian folk tales as well. It is translated in English, and in addition to containing a comprehensive collection of all the Italian folk tales, you get Italo Calvino as your guide, which is never a bad thing. In the end, I think I echoed quite a lot of the darkness from the original myth in Sleeping Ugly, both because it’s more potent (by which I mean suspense-laden), and because it echoes the seriousness of Riley’s condition in the real world. She needed that darkness to get tough, and she needed to get tough to survive.
Lastly, I had almost forgotten about the Dickinson epigraphs. I was driving in North Idaho recently, and there’s a bumper sticker up there that a few people have with the outline of the state of Idaho and the word “Home” written inside it. And that tickled some neurons somewhere deeply-embedded in my memory, and I found myself going, “Something, something, home. What the hell is that? It’s so familiar. Five syllables. — — — — — home.” And then it popped back in there: Incarceration -- Home. I read almost all of Dickinson’s poems and about a book’s-worth of her letters a few months before I started writing Sleeping Ugly. The story was almost completely solidified by that point already. Riley was already an artist, and I knew I wanted her to use her creative energy as a means to build herself into someone formidable, but I found that as I read Emily Dickinson’s poetry and learned about her life that I was meeting someone very much like Riley. Only with Dickinson, her solitude was very much a part of her personality rather than a medical condition. Yet she combated what seemed to be a fierce introversion with her incredible creative force. Her life was simultaneously so sad and lonely, yet generative of some of the most insanely beautiful writing ever put to paper—papers, which she’d willed to be burned upon her death, btw! Thank God her family thought better of it. But I found these absolute gems of poems regarding sleep, the brain, the sanctuary of her bedroom. It was all too perfect. I mean—Emily Dickinson, of course, perfect. The poems I included just paralleled Riley’s life far too beautifully to omit. Incarceration -- Home? ---Jesus. Come on, lady.
I love how they echo the story, and perhaps the way I felt about Emily Dickinson helped me to build such a strong connection with Riley—as though she were a real person—because Emily was. And what a person! If only some of that gets across to the reader with Riley, I’ve accomplished something worth reading. Here’s hoping…