From the Editors A Conversation with Marina Benjamin, Author of Insomnia
“I wanted the book to celebrate what it means to live your life fully and startlingly awake.”
Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia is out today from Catapult. To celebrate, we spoke to the author about her research process, inspiration, and the malleability of form. You can get the book here .
Catapult: What inspired Insomnia ?
Marina Benjamin: I was going through a particularly rough patch with not sleeping, and it was messing with my head. Menopause was an underlying culprit, but then on top of that, family problems kept detonating like landmines and blasting the surface calm. I felt as though suddenly life had become unwieldy, as if I were living it askew, day and night turned upside down, sense and nonsense intermingling. Plus there was a frisson of anxiety running through it all. I wanted to write a book that stayed— really stayed —with this unstable state, with difficulty and uncertainty and ambiguity. It seemed a worthy intellectual challenge: How do you situate an autobiographical narrative without swerving an inch from those unstable parameters? And is it possible, amid all that instability, to remain a trustworthy narrator?
Throughout the book, you weave together different strands of psychology, history, philosophy, and literature. Each allusion feels like the kind of surprise that could emerge from a dream, like something a “turbocharged” mind might alight on in the dark. Can you discuss your approach to writing? How much of the book came from your own insomniac nights?
You’ve hit on exactly what I set out to capture in this book: the unexpectedly profound thoughts that coalesce out of the wisps of a dream, or that scream at you through the dark (but barely whisper by day). The point, of course, is that you have to be alert—awake!—to catch them. There’s a certain amount of bravery required to fully capture the insomniac experience, because in insomnia you end up paying attention to unwanted information, like repressed feelings, or stuff that sits at the very edges of your perceptual world. Or you have to confront the void. My allusions to history, philosophy, and literature allowed for a broad-palette approach to this matter of crystallizing and clarifying feelings and ideas that—because we often glimpse them only hazily, through the fog of sleep or the ennervation of night-waking—are difficult to pin down.
The night-waking experiences I describe in the book —the alien and alienated states of being, the way sleeplessness lets me commune with the dog, the distracted pacing, the nighttime writing and reading—are all drawn from my own insomniac experiences. But then I intercut those experiences with those of others: Proust and Nabokov, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Robinson Crusoe, Leonard L. (his brief awakening), and so on, to bring depth and contrast and to round the subject out. I also wanted to give voice to the terrifying sense of desolation and the empty longing that can assail you when your daytime defenses are down, to convey how reality shape-shifts in the dark and becomes menacing—the way the ground seems to open up beneath you, revealing the void, and how all the tools you ordinarily use to tackle your fears by day desert you in the dark.
There’s an incredible loneliness at the heart of insomnia that I tried to fathom. But then, insomniacs are also given to grandiose (or at least exaggerated) thinking, and so the book is peppered with cosmic references that serve to embody that dimension of unwieldy vastness and overblown perspectives. I enjoyed spinning out multiple, anxious plotlines that circle back on themselves and that fully make sense only in a self-contained, self-referential world, not unlike the insomniac’s sensorium. If this generates in the reader a feeling of claustrophobia and intensity, then so much the better.
Photo courtesy of Marina Benjamin
Over the course of your research, what was your most surprising discovery?
So many things delighted and surprised me! I was so excited reading the scientific literature about sleep when I came across “sleep spindles”—the term given to a characteristic pattern of brain waves, like yarn wound around a spindle—that you absolutely need to have appear as a prelude to falling asleep. It brought the idea of actual sleep and the enchanted sleep of fairy tales into direct dialogue. It felt like I’d stumbled on another key, another door opening.
I was also struck in the course of my research by the symbolic significance of sleeping (and also vigilantly wakeful) women. Women, of course, are always ciphers for our cultural anxieties, but I’d never considered the various meanings that slumbering women codified. In the second half of the nineteenth century in particular, depictions of sleeping women seemed to embody the malaise of an entire society sated on the comforts and productions of capitalism, but alienated from its wants, and of a society living off its nerves.
Another surprise was finding out how active pre-moderns were at night. How common it was for them to perform by night tasks we normally associate with day.
In looking at mythological figures such as Penelope and Scheherazade, you write, “The weaving of hopes and fears, dressing up the truth and spinning yarns: this is women’s work . . . Anxiety is women’s work as well.” Can you explain the “emotional brain” and discuss the often unseen labor of women vis-à-vis insomnia?
These are an interesting bunch of questions. I think that women’s anxiety doesn’t have many places to go; in the ordinary run of things there aren’t many outlets for its expression and release, and so it gets turned in on itself (ditto for women’s anger) This is one reason why anxiety emerges in sleeplessness. The way women chew over their perceived failings, the way their unmet needs and unmet ambitions gnaw at them, was something I wanted to capture. Of course, it’s not entirely healthy (even if better out than in!) But it seemed to me that these nighttime anxieties, and sometimes revelations, have seldom been addressed in literary form. Or perhaps they have in poetry, but not so much in prose.
Penelope and Scheherazade were also interesting contrasts: both insomniac figures, both anxious, and both deeply invested in the shape of love. They were good characters on which to hang my thoughts about women’s relationship to fretting, but also the skills of survival. And also storytelling, the weaving of tales that make sense of the world and of why that world generally occludes women’s experiences .
To extend your consideration of Penelope, you also point to the marriage bed as a symbol of ultimate trust. Much of Insomnia is indeed a meditation on love, hybridizing philosophy and memoir in incredibly poetic prose. Where do you see the book fitting in the traditions of auto-fiction or semi-fiction?
Had I wanted to write a book that merely mused on insomnia as an experiential oddity or cultural artifact, or historical phenomenon, I might just as well have written your standard nonfiction appraisal: balanced, evaluative, somewhat detached in tone. But I wanted to write personally, from the inside of insomnia—which of course meant that I ended up writing something fevered, unsettling, and urgent, and by default, very personal.
Penelope recurs as a character through the book, because she embodies both sleeplessness and also fretful love. And insomnia and love are fatally twinned, since both involve pining for the absent other. In symbolizing love (and also trust, and sleep) the marriage bed was the perfect vehicle to carry this strand of thinking, and having introduced it I was then able to refract my own love relationship into the frame.
Insomnia counts as auto-fiction in the sense that auto-fiction uses fictional techniques to craft memoir, but not to the extent that the narrator is anyone other than me. I am not blending my authorial “I” with any fictive self, invented or borrowed. It’s more that I believe that the art of revealing and concealing—or even revealing while concealing—qualifies as an auto-fictional trope. I think the book also shares a certain mood or atmosphere with auto-fiction, that hovering uncertainty about where the “I” is speaking from, inside/outside, past or present, here or there. Again, the business—the objective—of creating dis-ease and maintaining a feeling of uncertainty was what I wanted to achieve. It’s a reaction against the way, when things are comfortable, unquestioned, taken for granted, you become blind to them. When you are discomfited, you really see.
Much like a sleepless night, Insomnia offers no resolution—no miracle drug or practice to enforce restful sleep. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I think there’s some irony in the way readers require or crave resolution. In fiction, for example, a meaty resolution contributes a feeling of satisfaction to the reading experience. Caps it off. Fixes the book, somehow, as a coherent creation. But in memoir, I think that a resolution often feels trite, or overly simplistic. A neat resolution actually works to undermine the book’s complexity and integrity.
So I had a number of aims in place when it came to takeaways. First off, I wanted to elevate insomnia as a subject worthy of proper literary attention, so that people might look at it as something more than a sleep disorder, or a malfunction in need of curing—or else merely as a state of lack, a negative, a nothing. Then I wanted to convey the richness and depth of the experience, its history, symbolic resonances, and universality. I also wanted it to expound on the joys and terrors of the dark, and the longings that truly plague us when we crave sleep.
Above all I wanted the book to celebrate what it means to live your life fully and startlingly awake.
You can get Insomnia here .