In his critically acclaimed and audaciously titled 2008 novel All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, Tod Wodicka delved into the world of a modern man obsessed with the Middle Ages. But the Berlin-based American novelist is also well-versed on the subject of sleep – specifically, sleep disorders. As a sufferer of sleep paralysis since his early teens, Wodicka made the strange nocturnal phenomenon (not to mention psychedelic drugs, gay fathers and cult indie rockers) the focus of his next novel, The Household Spirit, due for release on Random House in 2012.
Why write about sleep disorders?
Most things don’t scare me. Horror movies or novels never scare me, so I wanted to write about what actually terrifies me. Emily, the main character of my book, suffers from an extreme form of sleep paralysis, which is something I suffer from and have suffered from really intensely in the past. I like to think of the book as existential horror comedy. There’s a lot of humor – I like to think it’s quite funny – but at the center, it has real horror. And the horror is in a sense about existence itself.
Could you tell us a little more about sleep paralysis?
Usually it starts with a tearing or buzzing. Like something is being torn inside your head. Then you wake up, but you can’t move your body. It’s the scariest thing you can imagine: the idea of being totally conscious in your own body while your body is totally dead. Then there’s something either pushing in on your chest or trying to strangle you, or sometimes sitting in the bed next to you. I can even feel the bed sinking. Because you’re just as awake as we are now. It really feels as if there’s an evil presence in the room with you. It might only last a minute or two but it feels like it’s going on forever. Sometimes it feels like being buried alive inside your own body. Or as if you’re in a coma.
So, what happens to Emily?
In her attempt to find some help, she encounters this family, two gay men and their semi-failed indie rocker son. But one of the fathers also suffers from sleep paralysis, and they decide to try all these experiments with psychotropic drugs. It gets very crazy in places. I had a gay father growing up, and I based the character very loosely on him.
Is writing a semi-autobiographic novel some kind of therapy?
I don’t like the term therapy very much. Of course one of the reasons that I loved researching this book is that I’m writing about something that I desperately want to know more about. Writing the book is almost an excuse to do the research. In a sense it’s for my own benefit when I spend two years researching shamanism. But writing is therapy only in the sense that if I weren’t writing, I would probably be fucking insane.
Don’t writers need to be a little crazy?
I really dislike the romanticism surrounding mental illness and artists. For the most part, writing is like building a table. It’s a craft. You spend hours and hours on three paragraphs. The romantic writers think they’re Kerouac, that they can just sit down and write. It worked for him, but that’s a rare occurrence.
So what makes you write – this book for example?
You can’t just write a novel because you want to. It has to be something that eats you alive and the only way of stopping this is by writing. I guess that’s the romantic part about it. The Household Spirit was the book that I had to write. I wanted some rock ‘n’ roll and some sex. A lot of sex. Emily has got this voracious sexuality. She sleeps with pretty much everyone.
Where does all the sex come from?
It can’t come from anywhere else than your cock. But I think it was also a reaction to my first book about a 64-year-old medieval re-enactor. It was a first-person narrative and so I was in this person’s head for years, writing about the medieval world from the point of view of this crazy old man. He was a straightjacket that I wore for a long time…
Has Berlin influenced your way of writing?
Berlin is like bathwater, so comfortable and amazing, but as far as writing is concerned, I’m completely uninspired. My son was born in a German town called Kleve. It was hell on earth. A bunch of old people zombie-walking on the main street with bakery after bakery after bakery that all served the exact same things. I hated it, but that’s a place I would be inspired to write about. When I write about upstate New York in my novels, it’s not because I like it that much – it just inspires me.
But it’s not like you’re having writer’s block living here?
No. It was hard for me at first when I threw myself into social life. That Berlin part of life is not very helpful as a writer. Writing needs solitude – intensely. And you can find that in Berlin as well.
And what does Tod have to say about SLEEP itself? He takes our SLEEP SURVEY.
What keeps you awake at night?
There are three things: one is general fear of existence, when I wake up in the middle of the night without knowing who I am or my whole environment for maybe 10-20 seconds. Another thing is my son coming into bed and waking me up. The last thing is my snoring, which wakes up my fiancé and gets her angry so that she kicks me.
Do you have any bedtime rituals?
I guess sex, reading and alcohol are the best bedtime rituals. I don’t need anything necessarily though.
What are your sleeping patterns?
My biggest pattern is that I’m not a morning person. Usually for the first hour every morning until I’ve had my coffee and cigarette and come alive again, I’m a vicious creature.
What or who do you like to sleep with?
I’ll probably have to sleep with a sleeping mask soon, because the person I like to sleep with has to wear earplugs or go to another room.
What’s your best nightmare or worst dream?
A recurring one is that I’ve killed someone – the worst is when I killed my son or someone who’s really close to me. Then I wake up and have this feeling I’ve done something terrifying. I’ve also had dreams where I’m being raped by clowns as well, but these aren’t as bad. You begin to enjoy being raped by a clown after a while. After the second or third dream you go, “Here comes the clown!”
What’s your favorite sleeping position?
I like to lie on my side in a prenatal position like a little ball. I usually have a hand dangling off the bed. It used to scare me because I used to think that a goblin would come and pull my hand down, but I’m not worried about goblins anymore. Rapist clowns are far more terrifying.