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There's No Rest For Anyone In 'The Dreamers'

In a quiet college town — the fictional town of Santa Lora, in southern California — one by one, students fall victim to a bizarre contagious disease. They fall into a deep sleep, and don't wake up. In fact, some will never wake up. And the disease spreads throughout the town, quickly and indiscriminately.

That's the dystopian premise of Karen Thompson Walker's new novel, The Dreamers. "I've always been interested in sleep," she says. "I'm interested in the parts of human experience where the ordinary overlaps with the extraordinary, and so sleep is one of those things that is just so profoundly familiar, obviously, to all of us ... but we don't really know what goes on in our brains while we're asleep."

Interview Highlights

On the strangeness of the dreams the sickness causes

It was fascinating to explore ... the kind of strangeness of sleep and dreaming, and the mystery of human consciousness — but then also to bring in this time element, and this possibility of, what if the strangeness of these dreams are that it's granting some access to a kind of different way of experiencing time? And so there is an idea in physics, that past, present and future, that those are human constructs. And I'm interested in that idea of how humans perceive reality is not necessarily accurate to the way the universe actually functions.

On the other contagion in the novel — conspiracy theories

Even though the book has this kind of other worldly type of sickness at its center, I really wanted it to feel realistic, and as if it was taking place more or less in contemporary America. And so part of that was trying to learn from, you know, I'm learning all the time, about American society and human nature by the things that are unfolding in the news. And so it just seemed like an element of realism, that if a new sickness like this appeared in an American city, inevitably, just as we've seen with all kinds of other disasters, there would be some faction of people who wouldn't believe it. If they aren't there, they wouldn't believe it, and they would be looking for the conspiracy theory angle.

In a way a conspiracy theory is comforting, because it's more comforting to think that it's all an evil plot by one person, or a group of people, because then in theory it is something less chaotic about it — even though it's scary, the real kind of unsettling thing, which I think is truer, is kind of just the chaos of a human life.

On writing California-centric apocalypses

... my sort of main interest and real subject is ordinary people, and looking at the ways that ordinary people, either they do or don't change when faced with these extreme situations.

I don't know if I can even articulate exactly why my imagination is so fired by these disaster situations. I mean I think growing up in California ... there is something about that kind of familiarity with the feeling of a looming disaster is is a part of a California childhood, which it was of mine. So I think that's part of it, and then I think also just writing about a disaster like this ... my sort of main interest and real subject is ordinary people, and looking at the ways that ordinary people, either they do or don't change when faced with these extreme situations. So in a way, this sleeping sickness is a way of highlighting and exploring all the facets of human nature, and what would happen to them in such an extraordinary and uncertain situation.

This interview was produced and for radio by Hiba Ahmad and Denise Couture. It adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.