Karen Russell’s new novella Sleep Donation, about a not-too-distant-future America in the throes of an insomnia epidemic and besieged by a nightmare contagion, is published by new digital publishing venture Atavist Books, which launches with the title. That means Russell’s story about accidentally uploaded nightmares will be uploaded on purpose.
The irony isn’t lost on her: “Considering that the story itself is preoccupied with the cascading corruption caused by a nightmare that ‘goes viral,’ I think that in a perverse and wonderful way the digital medium felt like an opportunity to me, the right means of transmission for this particular story,” Russell, who was named one of the MacArthur Foundation’s 2013 Fellows, says.
The novella was borne, in part, out of Russell’s own bout with insomnia. “It was last year; I’d been having a really hard time sleeping myself in these strange hotels,” she says. “I was sort of red-eyed and underwater a lot of the time because I was really pretty sleep-deprived and that was something at the back of my mind.”
Also in the back of her mind was a pile of B-sides from a New Yorker assignment about imaginary inventions, one of which had left a clear image of a setting lingering in Russell’s brain—often the way her stories start, she explains. “I just got this image of a sort of ominous white van in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, where I had been living at the time, with a full moon and some kind of dream donation in progress,” Russell says. “What if there was a world where you could donate sleep to an insomniac?”
She thought the story would be brief—a “3,000 or 4,000-word Twilight Zone riff on sleep donation”—but the story quickly took on a life of its own. “This length is a joy to write at,” Russell says. “It’s in that kind of limbo territory between a story and a novel. I didn’t think that it should be some 300-page novel; it didn’t seem to have that kind of DNA inside it to me.”
Sleep Donation, told with Russell’s characteristic deftness of language and eerie knack for metaphor, tells the story of a young woman, Trish Edgewater, who lives in an America where a crisis has left hundreds of thousands of people unable to sleep. Trish works for the Slumber Corps, who recruit volunteers to donate sleep to those whose insomnia might otherwise prove fatal. The crisis is far-reaching, and as the stakes rise for Trish, so too do the consequences.
Russell says the story is “kind of a lovely analogue” for our distracted, 24-hour-news-cycle lives. “This is a story about nightmare contagion, where the action is driven by the vertiginous speeds at which our days and our nights our changing,” Russell explains. “In an explicit way, the characters in Sleep Donation meditate on how the old diurnal rhythms have been altered by the cyber-light of the Internet, its anonymity and its reach, and on the porousness of our world today.”
Despite the novella’s material, Russell admits to being “kind of a luddite.” But that doesn’t mean she hesitated much about publishing digitally—or thinks anyone should. “I love books as an object; I love print,” Russell says. “But I sort of came around to the idea that digital and print doesn’t have to be a rivalry—it’s a binary that’s really false.”
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and content editor living in Austin. Her stories have been published in Parcel, Human Parts and Twelve Stories and are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review.