These days, Bonnie Saks is lucky to gets four consecutive hours of shut-eye, what with her bed-wetting young son, her unfinished doctoral thesis, her meager teaching salary, and the fact that she’s pregnant by a lover about as reliable as her ex-husband.
Meanwhile, Ian Ogelvie, an ambitious young research scientist, is setting up a study of a promising new sleep aid. Their chance encounter forms the backdrop for this richly exuberant portrait of contemporary America, encompassing everything from the slippery evasions of love to the intricate network that binds together the pharmaceutical industry, managed care, and a shadow population of lost, sleepless souls. At once entertaining and philosophic, Inspired Sleep heralds a major voice in American fiction.
About Robert Cohen
Robert Cohen is the author of three novels, The Organ Builder, The Here and Now, and Inspired Sleep. His work has been awarded a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers Award, The Ribalow Prize, and a Pushcart Prize,… More about Robert Cohen
Q: How did you come to write INSPIRED SLEEP? Was there a specific event that motivated you to write a book involving sleep disorders?
A: At the beginning, I wasn’t particularly interested in sleep disorders per se; what I was after was some way of addressing the whole “smart drug” phenomenon—that is, if there are ways of stimulating the receptors to function at an enhanced level with a minimum of side effects, and thereby actually change the contours of what we like to call “personality,” what are the implications of doing that? I was especially intrigued by the appeal it might have for people like me, garden-variety melancholy types, who have long become accustomed to viewing the world through dusky glasses, and who are forever wondering how and if they shouldn’t, at some point, just lighten up.
So it was only after a great deal of research, and some stumbling around in Bonnie’s inner fog (I had recently written a short story about her, which evolved into the first chapter of the novel), that I hit upon the idea of her particular affliction of insomnia, and of an experimental drug, not at all far-fetched, that would promise good dreams and restful nights. I didn’t have insomnia at the time (though I often do now), but practically everyone else I know did, and does, and so as I began to interview friends on the subject of their sleepless nights, the wide applications of such a drug began to suggest themselves to me. And the book took off from there.
Q: Have you received any reaction from the medical community in response to the sometimes questionable ethics involved in the study at the hospital?
A: I vetted the novel with several friends in the mental health field, who corrected a few minor things but okayed the big ones. As for the ethics of the study, no, I haven’t heard any protests or objections from the medical people, though there was one reviewer who found the procedural corner-cutting I describe highly unlikely. I wish it were. I have a file two inches thick, ripped from newspapers and magazines, that tracks just a fraction of the ethical lapses in medical research that came to light during the three years it took me to write the book, when I was reading the science and business pages closely, and the investigations that ensued—in several cases, the stock market was involved—and so I feel like I’m on solid if depressing ground in that area.
I’m also told that the book was a subject for discussion at a recent conference of the American Medical Writers Association, but as I wasn’t privy to that discussion it’s difficult to know what points were made. Just having it chosen, though, suggests that there’s enough that’s plausible in the novel to merit at least a little attention out there in the great nonfictional world.
Q: What research did you do for this novel?
A: My research for the novel included about three dozen books on sleep, on drugs, and on the science of brain receptors, as well as the thick above-mentioned file of articles ripped from newspapers and magazines on everything from Expectancy Theory to Thoreau. It’s my normal pattern to do way too much research for a novel and then promptly, as soon as the book is done, forget everything I read. I believe this is not unusual.
Q: What are your thoughts on medical studies that involve unapproved or experimental drugs? And how important are these studies to advances in medicine?
A: I tried to maintain a certain neutrality on the moral issues inherent in scientific experimentation. Like most literary people, going back to Mary Shelley, I have a reflexive fear of technology running amok in the dark of night, and all us poor humans getting squashed underfoot. But I hope I’ve presented some of the fizz of research, too: the excitement, the idealism, the late-night inspirations. People have been advancing their knowledge in “unapproved” ways since Eve reached for that fruit. There’s creation and destruction, inextricably mixed together. It goes beyond questions of should or shouldn’t; it’s simply human nature.
Q: In this book you write from two distinct points of view: a middle-aged mother who is a teacher and a young male researcher. How do you find and develop such different voices? Are they based on people you know?
A: Both Bonnie and Ian are, I’m half-sorry to say, aspects of myself—of two parallel tendencies of mine, as they developed at two different life stages—as well as pastiches made up of countless small observations of people I have known. In any case, they weren’t difficult to gain access to, once I figured out how they spoke. It’s a third person book but I wanted the voice to be close to each of their consciousnesses, to be inflected by their rhythms of thought, their respective longings and doubts. For what it’s worth, seeing the world from Bonnie’s point of view was a particular pleasure for me, and in its way, an education. She influenced the way I listen to people, for better and for worse.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a book of stories coming out this year, and am just beginning to think about a new novel, but there’s not enough there to talk or even dream about yet.