I’m welcoming Helen Richardson today as part of the blog tour for her new book, Waking. Helen is discussing the inspiration behind the book – Over to Helen!
Abridged excerpt from ‘Waking’ –
‘Do I know you?’
‘I saw you outside the pub the other day.’
‘I know. I meant from before then.’
‘I moved here recently. Maybe you’ve just seen me around.’
‘Before that.’ He smiled. ‘Before here.’ He swung his hand around through the air, his fingers making circles in the cigarette smoke. Anna met his gaze and they looked at each other without saying anything.
‘I don’t know.’ She swallowed eventually. ‘I think so. Maybe.’
‘I really think I do.’
‘I’m Anna.’ She held out her hand.
‘Jack.’ His skin was soft.
Before I had created Anna or Jack, before I had constructed a narrative, or alighted on a location, I had a single moment circling in my head: a strange, faint, sense of recognition between a man and a woman. This was the seed that would grow to be Waking, a brief second of déjà vu that felt a bit like attraction, and a bit like memory. I saw two people meet. I felt that blink-of-an-eye electric second of connection. But I could also sense that this was more than love at first sight; there was something troubling, damaging behind their familiarity. I wanted to fill in the gaps, to work out what had led them to the starting point I had just imagined for them.
When I had this initial thought, I was in love for the first time, and I was grappling with its unnerving intangibility: How could something unseeable, and ungraspable, exert such a powerful force over me? The early, uncontrollable days of new love are unnerving, exposing. You are suddenly at risk. Although there is much about love that is beautiful, it is not an entirely pleasant sensation at first.
And so this imagined moment, became coloured by many of the questions I was asking myself at the time: Where does this love exist, physically, in space? Is it inside each of us, both of us? Does it hover in the air between us? Is it some wonderful, lofty, shared illusion, or is it a chemical science?
To me, there is a low-level hum of recognition and familiarity to a true love that slots dreamily into place. It is as though this person has already existed inside you somewhere, your connection pre-ordained, written into your bones like the circular life lines inside the grain of a tree trunk. They are somehow a part of your past, at the same time that they are becoming a part of your future. I don’t believe love is predestined, but at times it can feel that way.
Waking circles that imagined moment. It takes the faded tug of romantic recognition, and twists into something darker and more concrete.
With that at its centre, Waking plays out in the landscape of contemporary London by day, and Anna’s dreamworld by night. While nothing within the book is autobiographical, my own sleep patterns, and my growing preoccupation with dreams, definitely influenced how the initial idea unfolded and evolved.
I grew up with insomnia and, thankfully, the ability to function well on very little sleep. I also love the city by night and many of my cultural and social interests – music, events, performances, food and drink – are part of London’s nocturnal, neon-lit personality. At a certain point though, I suddenly found the ability to fall instantly and soundly asleep.
Aged 18, having just moved to London, I was living in university halls on Oxford Street. (Yes, really.) My bedroom window opened out above what is now the big, modern, glass Zara, opposite Selfridges. During winter, the Oxford Street Christmas lights were fixed to the outside of our building. I had no curtains. It was like sleeping inside a gigantic Christmas tree. Somehow, this technicolour, high-volume environment rocked me to sleep like a baby every night, and I’ve slept deeply almost every night since then.
Almost every night.
Once I began working in TV production, I was travelling a lot more, switching time-zones and beds. During these times of upheaval, vivid and lucid dreams, terrifying nightmares, and sleep paralysis, began proliferating the dreamy nightly blackness I had managed to cultivate while at university.
I started to keep a dream diary. I noticed that sleep paralysis would occur almost every time my situation changed – my first night in a new bed, a new country, or an unfamiliar hotel. Today this remains the same – the first night my husband goes away filming, even the first night he comes back. My sleeping form can sense that something around me has shifted, and at some point – sometimes multiple points during the night – I wake up suddenly, urgently, to see a man standing in my bedroom, watching me. I see this very clearly, not as a hazy, half-formed mirage: there is a man standing in the doorway, looking at me. At the same second that I wake up and see him, I become entirely paralysed, unable to move or even breathe. A crushing weight presses down on my chest, and I feel as though I am sinking into my mattress. It is sheer, unbridled panic. It takes a few seconds for reason and consciousness to trickle into my brain. I am able to rationalise that if an intruder were in my room, they wouldn’t just stand motionless in the doorway. Eventually I realise I am dreaming, and I wade my way through the paralysis and manage to gasp some air, to wake myself up.
While keeping that initial dream diary, I noticed other connections and patterns between my daily life and my nightly experiences. The disruption of travelling, in addition to paralysing me, meant that all the dreams I did remember, took place in hotels – strange hallucinatory narratives in lobbies and lifts, breakfast halls and bars, hotel rooms and gyms.
If I was feeling particularly stressed or worried, one of two recurring nightmares usually visited me. In the first, I was unable to see clearly. I would see things at the top of my vision, but there was a line cutting horizontally across the mid-line of my sight that I couldn’t see below. It was a bit like standing in front of a wall and not being able to see over it. It was frustrating and terrifying. I panicked that I was going blind, that I’d never be able to see properly again. The second nightmare is quite common apparently, and involved my teeth crumbling and falling out of my mouth, or becoming so wobbly that they had to be removed. I’d wake up from both these nightmares and feel an intense relief wash through my entire body as I realised none of it was real.
I started doing some research into why we dream, and was surprised to discover a vast array of varied and disparate scientific theories, but no conclusion. We don’t even really know why we sleep; we know what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, and so we can speculate pretty accurately on what its purpose is, but there is a lot of work to be done to map this area of human behaviour and biology more conclusively. Dreams have been intepreted by scientists as an imaginative response to real-world external stimuli (e.g sudden noises, room temperature, things going on around us), as a way of working through problems or worries from our waking life, or the ever-present turnings of memory that become amplified and illuminated as the rest of our thoughts shut down.
The cliffhanger mystery of why we dream hovered behind everything I read on the subject, shimmering in a similar way to that imagined moment of recognition between my two protagonists.
In Waking, I bring together these two elements, explore and play with both questions. Moments from Anna’s past, her childhood and daily life, experiences from her day, and fears for her future, all hover and coalesce within her dreams and nightmares. Her relationships with the people she knows exist and are reimagined as she sleeps. Places she has been are manipulated by night. Memories are revisited with revealing self-edits and transformations. And a nightmare recurrs, insistent, and increasingly sinister.
In Waking, I used the landscape of dreams, to uncover the truth behind that mysterious moment of recognition between two people. I loved exploring these themes, though I admit I am no closer to knowing what my dreams mean, or where love exists.