Monday, July 16, 2012

Science-Fiction Author MARK BRAND Talks About Life After Sleep




The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography is an organization founded by Jason Pettus, a Chicago writer and photographer. The organization started as a small online publishing venture but now publishes several original titles a year in print and electronic form. The really cool thing about CCLaP is that all of their books are handmade and bound by the staff. 

Mark is a sci-fi writer based in Chicago. Besides being a really cool dude, he is also a really good writer. CCLaP usually doesn't do sci-fi novels, but "Life After Sleep" is a book that would be enjoyable by even non-sci-fi buffs (and sympathetic parents of small children). The future Mark creates is interesting and definitely foreseeable. 


Talk about the story behind the Life After Sleep. What made you write this novel?

At the time the idea came to me, I was working in the medical field and my son (now five and a half) had just been born. There was a stretch were I was sleeping only maybe two or three hours per night for several straight months, and this rapidly started to wear me out in predictable ways. I found myself at work with no memory of having eaten breakfast or driven there, I'd sleep hard during my lunch breaks, waking up and not knowing where I was for a moment or two, and between patients my eyes would droop and close for the involuntary "micro-sleeps" characteristic of long-term sleep deprivation. Somewhere in there, with the warped sense of humor that I developed about it, I wrote a short story about a doctor who suddenly couldn't sleep and started hallucinating while he was in surgery or doing his rounds. This then became the "Dr. Frost" sections of Life After Sleep, which I built around that same central concept.                                                                                                                            
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Also by by Mark            

Red Ivy Afternoon
What is something you hope the reader will take away from it?

When I was writing the other three main characters and plot lines of the book (Max, Jeremy and Lila), I knew along the way that I wanted their stories to be almost completely separate and the places where they overlap largely tangential. There are a few obvious connecting moments, and several subtler ones where minor secondary characters or friends jump between storylines, but each of the four main characters share the same essential motivation: they desperately want someone to understand them and it feels to them like no one does or even really cares. Ironically, just on the very fringes of each of their particular lives, exist the other characters, wanting the same thing. They're not really alone, in other words, and the fifth character, the one who lightly connects them all, Dr. Suri, speaks to this throughout the book in ways that seem effective to the reader, but maybe not so much to each individual character. The main four are trapped in the narrower perspectives of their own lives, and if there's a "point" to the novel or a theme I hope the reader will take away from it, or even just a good reason that the story needed to be told the way it was, it's that.

       Also by Mark

Damnation of Memory


What is your next writing project?

Well, I'm working on several things at the moment, all of which are in the beginning stages and any of which may eventually emerge as the "next" thing, but one is a novel and the other two are book-length collaborations with authors I respect and admire enormously. I won't go into specifics about the collaborations because it's trickier to talk about things I'm not the sole creative owner of, but the novel I'm working on is a sci-fi satire about social media and interacting with extended family over long distances.


Excerpt of Life After Sleep

 
It is the day after tomorrow, and a device has been invented that immediately induces REM sleep, otherwise known as "Sleep" with a capital S. Society has been transformed. The average person now only needs two hours of rest a night. The work day is officially sixteen hours long. Americans party at clubs until daybreak, then log into virtual worlds and party in a reunified Korea all morning too. And within this busier, noisier, more global society, we watch the intertwining fates of four people as they struggle with issues regarding Sleep: new parents who for postnatal reasons aren't allowed to use their special Beds; an Iraq vet and PTSD victim who is haunted by the non-ending nightmares that Sleep produces; a harried, arrogant doctor whose Bed has stopped working, driving him to the brink of madness; and a band promoter with an illegal Bed that let's her Sleep for hours on end, then stay up for four straight days and nights.
 
Max

Max used his beard stubble to scratch the itchy patch on his right wrist. Beard stubble was great for scratching. 

“You’re going to have to wash the sheets again,” Jessica called to him from the living room. She was propped up on the couch with pillows behind her back and against her side between her ribs and the left side arm of the sofa. She had a third pillow wrapped around her waist that was shaped like a puffy donut, covered in an absorbent terrycloth zipcover. Reclining comfortably on the Saturn-like ring around her belly was Daniel. The little guy nursed like a machine, and squalled like a miniature fire-alarm when the breast wasn’t forthcoming quickly enough. 

“Didn’t we just…” 

“I know, but they’re so gross with us in them all the time.” 

Me, you mean. You hate seeing my hairs in the sheets. This hadn’t been much of a problem before, but now with them in bed six or eight hours a day, things had taken a turn. He looked down at his arms and chest, which had been covered in thick, curly hair since he was twelve, and frowned at himself. 

“You get your fuzz all over them,” she mumbled, apparently not caring if he heard her or not. Fuzz was the word she used to describe his chronically flaky scalp, hair, sock fuzz, scent, basically any physical indicator of his presence. For the thousandth time in the last thirteen days, he felt that disconcerting sense of purpose-vertigo. The push-pull of necessary and unwelcome. Evidently there was no reason to be polite to him anymore, even though Jess could barely move more than twenty steps without his help. 

He sighed and closed his eyes for something longer than a blink. Keep your mouth shut. She’s just as tired as you are

But not really. In fact, for every hour that he slept, she slept two, and for every minute she spent doing something, he spent ten. And that ‘something’ that she did manage to do was almost exclusively generating and coordinating all of the tasks that fell instantly to Max by default. 

Max closed his mouth, stifled the comeback he felt begging to form there, and ducked back into the bathroom. He turned on the shower. He had one more day of vacation time left for the calendar year, and it was the twenty-third of January. Jessica got another ten weeks. He needed a haircut, and there was no time. Maybe he could skip a lunch break if he got caught up enough at work to be able to spare one. There was a cheapo hair salon next to his office with posters from the early ’90s in the windows. 

For today there were groceries to buy, carpets to vacuum, dishes and breast-pump components to wash, and laundry to run. The laundry was never-ending. On a good day, they could burn through two changes of clothing each for themselves, two or three for Daniel, half a dozen hand-towel-sized burp cloths, and fifteen or twenty cloth rags made from Max’s old college t-shirts. On a bad day, they could easily use every dry towel-like piece of cloth in their house. Daniel had been a good eater thus far, but one morning he had expelled a gout of milk-barf that was so voluminous that it shocked them both. It might almost have been funny if not for the fact that most of their laundry was already in the hamper and they had to use their bath towels to clean it up. Milk barf, interestingly, did not just wash out of terrycloth in a simple wash cycle. After two or three wash and rinse cycles it got close, but Max found himself sniffing to check for any leftover cheese. 

Max prided himself on having a strong stomach for such things, but two hours of laundry each and every day bookended by an entire sink full of dishes in both the morning and evening felt almost Sisyphus-like. He brushed his hand once more over the prickly stubble on the angle of his jaw and peeked out the bathroom door to where they sat in the hard-angled rays of the rising sun. The two of them were beautiful there, on the couch, and making eyes at each other the way all the books suggested was good for Daniel’s intellect. 

Max, on the other hand, preferred not to meet even his own eyes in the mirror. If he admitted to himself that those were his eyes, he thought he might break the illusion and just collapse to the floor until all the lost hours of sleep, the restless nights and endless early morning hours full of three times as many chores, caught up to him at once. 

Both the baby and Jessica’s C-section scar would be two weeks old tomorrow, and both needed constant accommodation. How this translated into Max’s body hair being the main problem of focus he wasn’t sure. He was fairly certain that the white elephant in the room was the reality-altering little proto-human that he and Jessica had managed to bring into the world; but he learned quickly, as all fathers do, that no matter how hard life’s accelerator is stamped on by the stork’s webbed foot, no one wants to hear dad complain.

*
It was a bad day. His eyes kept crossing on their own and there was nothing he could do to keep them open but jam his thumbs into the puffy flesh beneath them and rub, rub, rub. 

“I already looked in the registry. It’s fine,” Austin said to him. Austin was a junior tech who’d just graduated from a strong program at a big state school in the Midwest. He was twenty-three or four at most, and his clothes looked like they might still have the tags attached, tucked beneath the collar and waistband. He was wearing a designer sweater over a sharply striped button-down and tie. 

Max owned a single sweater that still fit him. It hung so limply from the hangers in his closet that he had to fold it and put it in a drawer alongside an extra pile of undershirts and the workout shorts he hadn’t worn in months. He typically rocked a generic Oxford, washed four or five dozen times to a nice used-to-be-white color. He had already exhausted his rotation of good ties this month, and was starting to work his way through the hanger in the back of his closet full of novelty ties, with patterns made from geometric sailboats or tiny logos for teams he didn’t care about. 

“It’s the registry,” Max said, without looking. In point of fact, he wasn’t a hundred percent certain it was the registry; it was just a guess. In the moment it was just the first thing that happened to come out of his mouth. The glow of the monitors made him squint. 

“I’m feeling like the operating system might be getting unstable.” 

“Austin,” Max said, softly. 

“It’s so hard to tell with all the different version numbers on these m…” 

Austin.” 

The kid stopped talking, and cocked his head. Max using his name in this tone clearly didn’t fit into Austin’s conceptual framework of an office as a place to freely share ideas and explore one’s talent in a sensitive and judgment-free environment. He looked more puzzled than irritated. Two workstations over, another tech named Benjamin who wasn’t as green as Austin and had designs on management turned to see what the fuss was about. Max lowered his voice. He hated Benjamin.

“It’s the registry,” Max repeated. 

“Fine,” Austin said, backing away and putting both hands up defensively. “I’m hearing you that you think it’s the registry.” 

Max gritted his teeth and his hand crept involuntarily toward the bridge of his nose. Ed was walking back from the bathroom and had stopped to watch the exchange. He tried to follow the younger man’s logic to figure out where Austin had it wrong, but that sweater was starting to make his skull ache between his eyes. 

“Watch,” Max said, finally, lurching forward and taking hold of the mouse. He rolled his chair over to the adjacent cubicle and didn’t even acknowledge Austin’s awkward scurry to get out of the way. He pulled up the registry and flipped through the half-dozen usual suspects. On the third entry, amazingly, he found it. It really had only been a guess. “There,” Max indicated, with the pointer. 

“It’s fine. I already checked it,” Austin whined. Max scrolled to the right column. 

“Tell me what you see?” Austin looked at him blankly. Ed as well. “The date. The date is wrong.” Over the frown of confusion forming on Austin’s face, he saw Ed turn and walk away. 

“I don’t appreciate your attitude, man,” Austin said, in a low voice that wouldn’t carry over the walls of the padded cubicles. 

“Learn how to do your job, then,” Max said while staring directly at him, not letting him squirm away. In a world where steady eye contact is considered aggression, the tired, leaden-eyed man is king. 

He rolled back to his own desk, rubbing at his eyes. He tried to work some more but the effort had cost him. The screen in front of him kept doubling, and he felt like if he looked over his shoulder he might catch the other techs staring at his back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the pulsing red caller ID of his desk phone flash. He always silenced all of his phones these days, so there was no actual sound, but someone was calling. It was Jessica. He watched it ring, and again. And again, and done. As he knew it would, his smartphone vibrated in his pocket. He touched the silence button after the first ring and sent it straight to voicemail. 

He got up and went to the men’s bathroom down the hall. It had stalls that locked and there was an unwritten rule that only one guy could take a shit at a time in there. He went into the stall, dropped his pants, and sat on the toilet with his fingers pressing up into his eye sockets. He figured no one would question a twenty-minute shit, so he set his phone’s timer for eighteen minutes and leaned up against the cool metal divider of the stall. 
Within seconds he was asleep.

*
“Well, I can write you a script for some caffeine tabs, but they’re not the answer long-term. You’ll need to get back into a Bed as soon as you can.” 

“Tell me about it.” 

“You really can’t get away? Even just for a couple of hours? It’d be better than what you’re getting now, probably.” 

“I still have to help her get her shirt on because she can’t raise her arms over her head yet.” 

Dr. Suri winced. “What does she do as far as rest?” 

“She sleeps when the baby sleeps. She can’t use a Bed because she can’t leave the house yet and he needs to be fed every two hours. Once she gets both sides done, it’s more like every hour and a half. She can sleep for half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes at the most.” 

“I’m sorry it has to be that way.” 

Suri was a nice guy, a real human being. He wasn’t the type of doctor that talked down to his patients or made Max feel like he was being overly scrutinized in the office. Which was no small trick, since scrutiny was the man’s business. Max thought if they didn’t know each other this way they might have otherwise been friends. 

“I’ll take that script if you can. I think anything will help at this point.” 

“It’s going to mess up your adrenal glands after a while, so you’re going to need a way to get this sorted out within the next four weeks on the outside. Much more than that and you’re not going to be able to function. What are your hours at work like?” 

“I do eight to eight Monday, Wednesday and Friday and seven to nine Tuesday and Thursday because of our staff meetings.” 

“Any chance you can reduce your hours?” 

Max stared at him blankly and gave him a disapproving sneer. Suri nodded and reached into his lab coat for the script pad.
This is an idea I think we can all imagine. Think of all we could get done if we didn't sleep a third of our lives away. Then think about all the consequences that saves us from! 
Go on a Sleepless journey and get Life After Sleep for a donation to  
Chicago Center for Literature and Photography:

Mark R. Brand is a Chicago-based science-fiction author and the online short fiction editor of Silverthought Press. He is the author of three novels, The Damnation of Memory (2011), Life After Sleep (2011), and Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), and he is the editor of the collection Thank You Death Robot (2009), named a Chicago Author favorite by the Chicago Tribune and recipient of the Silver medal 2009 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in the category of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is the producer and host of Breakfast With the Author and lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.
 Thanks, Mark, for stopping by. It's great to know something good can come out of a little sleeplessness!

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