Roy Freirich leads multiple lives as a writer. He adapted his novel Winged Creatures for the film Fragments, and has written screenplays for Fox Searchlight, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, and Sony. His lyrics have been sung by legends Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and Patti Labelle, among many others. He lives with his wife, ever-patient editor and frequent cowriter, Debrah, in Malibu, California. Visit him online at www.royfreirich.com.
A gripping psychological thriller from the author of Winged Creatures. August, Carratuck Island, New York: a silent child is found abandoned on the beach clutching a handheld video game, and residents and tourists alike find themselves stricken by relentless insomnia. Denied the outlet of dreams—fears, guilt, and primal urges find other ways to surface. A teenage girl competes in an online game: who can stay awake longest? The bleary police chief struggles to keep order. The local doctor battles the ghosts of his past to find the cause and a cure for the epidemic, and face down the violent mob that blames the child. Cut off from the mainland, the island plunges into chaos, murder, and suicide.
I’d like to start by saying how much I enjoyed reading your compelling, multi-layered and thought-provoking story, Roy. As it’s one which takes the reader in so many unexpected directions, I want to avoid introducing any spoilers so I’ll try to ensure that my questions about the book’s genesis and development will avoid that particular pitfall!
The first question which springs to mind is what was your inspiration for writing a story about the effects on the residents of a small, island community when they endured day after day, night after night of relentless, unexplained insomnia?
There were several inspirations, really. First among them — my experiences with sleep deprivation, and my research into the deficits that accrue with lost sleep. At the same time, as I considered ideas for a next project and saw what’s out there, I was noticing a surfeit of zombies as a subject everywhere in film and television and fiction and feeling a bit weary of them. Just when you think they’re finally dead, they come back to life! But it got me thinking about mass, mindless behaviour (as a metaphor for us all, I’m afraid) which became a fairly large dot to connect to my own issues with sleeplessness. From there, I found a story with an architecture similar to my first novel Winged Creatures, where a shared experience (surviving a mass shooting) provides dramatic unity, but each character is affected quite differently. The common experience here, of course, is sleep deprivation.
Before you started writing the novel did you have well-formed ideas about your characters and plotline, or were there any moments when you found yourself surprised by the directions they, and it, took as your story-telling progressed?
I always begin with a shapeless document that is part outline, part journal, part pasted paragraphs of research, screenplay, and part paragraphs of prose that present themselves. It’s pure indulgence, no idea is too utterly unworkable to be written down. When I had eighty pages or so, a broad story presented itself, one that seemed it might work from several points of view. Eventually, these first ideas about characters and plotline felt developed enough to begin the actual writing, but first ideas are the first casualties of writing. Dead ends, weak motivations, clichés appear. From there, it was and is always lots of problem solving, but not without some moments of surprise at where the solutions lead.
You describe in graphic and convincing detail the impaired judgement, unpredictable and violent behaviour and the paranoia which can be a consequence of prolonged lack of sleep. Was there any specific reason which made you want to explore this phenomenon?
After just a few hours of missed sleep the night before, I found myself making a left turn through a red light across three lanes of oncoming traffic, suffering from what’s called a “micro-sleep.” I’ve missed entire nights, of course, as have most of us, and felt depressed, anxious, and irritable the next day, and less than entirely capable of decisions.
As I researched the effects of deprivation, I found that over four or five sleepless nights we lose the emotional stability that dreams maintain, and our unique preoccupations, desires, misconceptions, and fears could spiral into obsessions, urges, delusions and paranoia. Multiply it by nine or ten nights, by the population of New England island cut off from the world, and it all suggested plenty of drama and conflict.
Central to the story is the auto-suggestive nature of mass hysteria and as I was reading I was reminded of other literary examples of this, for instance in accounts of the Salem Witch Trials and in novels such as Lord of the Flies and Mist Over Pendle. Do such stories hold a particular fascination for you?
I’m unfamiliar with Mist over Pendle, but Lord of the Flies—yes! I’m fascinated by the ways in which memes spread, in how ideas become viral, possibly on an unconscious level. How different is that than mass psychogenic phenomena?
In your novel, when people were unable to find any rational explanation for what was happening to them they began to link the start of the epidemic with the discovery of a traumatised, speechless young boy found abandoned on the beach. Was the subject of scapegoating something you especially wanted to explore?
Yes. Scapegoating seems to be a favourite mass behaviour throughout history. And it feels especially relevant now, in this era of blaming (immigrants, political correctness, etc.) for the challenges to the hegemony of white males.
Through the characters of Sam (the local doctor) and the abandoned boy you explore, with psychological credibility, how traumatic experiences can affect behaviour and decision-making and some of the ways in which resolutions can be found. Can you share what influenced your decision to add this thread to your story-telling?
For me, trauma psychology is a language and a lens for exploring character motivations. As a writer I’m always interested in the ways in which unconscious motivations drive a character. What do they need that they may not be aware of? We all re-enact unresolved experiences and certainly trauma in safer disguises, in dreams and in life, compulsively and unconsciously. Is it likely that thieves have been victims of thievery and are re-enacting the experience with themselves in control? Is someone who is always late unconsciously asserting autonomy? Have road-ragers been subjected to verbal or other abuse in their own lives?
In the opening page of the story you refer to people using Kindles and tablets, a young boy playing on a hand-held GameBox, and teenagers thumbing their cell phones and texting each other from just yards away. Also, central to the plotline is a teenage girl who, along with her friends, is obsessed with competing in a dangerous social media contest for who can stay awake longest. Do you have concerns about with the amount of time people spend interacting with their screens rather than with each other and with the power of social media to influence behaviour?
Certainly, yes, and the novel suggests that social media can contribute to the spread of mass behaviour. Going “viral” is a goal, of course.
Although there are many ways in which your story is very dark and bleak, there are also moments of humour and optimism. How important was it for you to offer a positive, hopeful resolution?
I wanted the story to be true, in the sense of dramatizing the monster and the hero each of are capable of becoming.
I found Deprivation to be a very “visual” story and can imagine it translating well to the big screen. Is this a vision you have for the book? If it is, and knowing that you have experience in writing screenplays, how involved would you like to be in the adaptation?
Yes! The film and TV rights are available at the moment.
I was lucky enough to adapt my first novel and have the script attract actors like Forest Whitaker, Guy Pearce, Kate Beckinsale, Dakota Fanning, Josh Hutcherson, Walt Goggins. I do have a screenplay adaptation for Deprivation, that can absolutely be a pilot for a series. All that said, I’m not unwilling to step aside and let a better screenwriter take over.
I’d love to ask you many specific questions about your interesting characters and your impressive psychological underpinning of the story but fear that these would introduce those dreaded spoilers for anyone who has yet to have the pleasure of reading it. Instead, I’d now like to ask you a few more general questions, ones which will give your readers insight into some of the factors which have influenced your writing.
At what stage in your life did you decide to become a writer and is there a particular author or work of fiction you feel has influenced your aspirations as an author?
I knew from my last grade school years that I wanted to write and began with journaling and the usual adolescent poems of pretentious self-pity. I made the turn from poetry into fiction just during and after attending graduate school. It’s difficult to credit my aspirations to just one author or work, but as a college student I was just floored by William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness.
Does your writing-day follow a set routine and do you have a favourite place in which to write?
I wake around 3:00 am and go back to sleep and repeat at around 6:00 am for between one and half to four hours, wake again and furiously caffeinate (not a member of the kombucha community), skip the newspaper, and write between five sentences and five pages. If I write five pages, maybe three live to tell, and those undergo plenty of revision.
I write from a sofa with a wireless keyboard, with my computer displayed yards away on a flat screen TV. It’s quite comfortable, and my ideas look big and bright up there, so it feels encouraging.
On those days when the words just won’t flow, do you have any techniques for overcoming the block?
Words always flow, often less than fortunately. I allow myself a stream-of-consciousness and write anything for my initial part/journal, part/research free-form document. I’ve written things like “my ear itches” rather than edit myself at that stage. Less than scintillating stuff.
Were you a keen reader as a child and if so, which books/authors do you recall enjoying?
Kate Seredy’s The White Stag was one of the first books I recall. Jack London’s Call of the Wild stunned me.
What are you reading at the moment, and do you have any favourite authors/books you’d like to recommend to your readers?
Lately, I’ve been reading Rene Denfeld, Keith Rosson, , Gabino Iglesias, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Gary Shteyngart, Seb Doubinsky, Tom Lutz, Chrissy Van Meter. I’m all over the map; I’ve been curious about authors picking lanes and identifying themselves as authors in very specific genres, and I need to know more about that. For readers who love wrought, exquisite prose: Keith Rosson, Helen McDonald. For erudite suspense and international adventure: David Angsten.
If you were forced to be marooned on a desert island what music would you like to listen to, which books would you take and what “luxury item” would make the experience more bearable?
Music: Concierto de Aranjuez, Radiohead, Childish Gambino, Billie Eilish, Moses Sumney.
Books: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Toni Morrison’s Jazz.
Luxury item: sleeping aids, as below.
My apologies for bombarding you with such a long list of questions Roy and thank you for your patience in answering them. However, I do have a final one … do you ever have trouble sleeping and if you do, what steps do you take to combat your insomnia?
Brown noise. Eye mask. Valerian. Zolpidem. Tuck sheets in more tightly, loosen them. Flip pillow. Set room temperature lower, then warmer. Remember to set a reminder for myself to remember something I’ve forgotten. Flip pillow. Repeat.
Roy Freirich | March 3, 2020 | Meerkat Press
Paperback | 978-1946154217