J.E. Alexander has worked in sleep medicine and disorders for nearly a decade, and he’s seen enough weird things to fill a horror anthology. He’s originally from Hawai‘i and currently lives in Texas. He also lived for a time in Singapore and Hong Kong. As to interests, his current ones include locally-sourced jams, moving into a windmill, and researching The Bloop for his next novel. (And for the record, he’s quick to point out, that is not an underwater icequake.) We asked him a few questions about writing, genre fiction, and his new novel, The Waking Dreamer.
Tell us a bit about Emmett Brennan, the protagonist of The Waking Dreamer.
JEA: If a nerdy, sarcastic fanboy/fangirl was plucked from ComicCon and thrown into the middle of a fantasy world, that person would be Emmett. I’d spent many years on world-building and backstory. Keiran and Amala [the two other main characters] were whole characters with complete backstories and arcs. I still didn’t have an every-person to answer the Call to Adventure and guide the audience through the world. Since Book 1 followed a coming-of-age structure, I worked on a young protagonist. I felt like an authentic millennial protagonist required higher skepticism rooted in a belief of having ‘seen it all’ already. Young people today have seen so much that when they look at something and ‘call bullshit,’ they have a legit reason for their skepticism. That’s where Emmett’s meta voice evolved. ‘Everything’s been done,’ and thus he believes everything is fake. His relation of his life to movies and television feels real, then, because if the real world is bullshit, then the fake construct we invest into film and television would reflect actual truth.
It’s not giving away too much to reveal that Emmett is the “waking dreamer” in this story, and lucid dreaming play a pivotal role. What inspired you to build a story around this concept?
JEA: Because incest and child-rape were already taken? Seriously, though, I love exploring dreams and more specifically, the nebulous half-world of sleep. Sleep consumes one-third of our lives, and it is both the cornerstone of every communal belief system and is a uniquely individual experience. One cannot directly share in another’s dream experience. Dreams, therefore, remain intimate and personal, colored by and shaping one’s beliefs. If sleep makes life possible, then dreams make life livable. Since I work professionally in sleep medicine, it was easy enough to establish a base story rooted in reality—writing accurately of the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states—while also using the fantasy structure to explore dark, unusual realms serving as reflections of an individual’s life.
What is one work of literature that changed your life?
JEA: Two equally come to mind: Anne Rice’s The Tale of the Body Thief and Christopher Bram’s Surprising Myself. Rice influenced my writing style and love of atmosphere; Bram influenced my sense of uniqueness of character voices. I discovered both when I was a teenager. Neither are particularly easy or happy-ending stories (or authors), but I’ve never enjoyed reading something that could be fully consumed and understood in a single sitting.
This an inevitable question for writers: How much of J.E. Alexander is there in Emmett Brennan? How about any of the other characters in The Waking Dreamer?
JEA: Emmett’s voice is meta-heavy, so by definition he’s referencing his own creator. Meta dialogue is where I get to have a lot of self-referential fun, and often I am poking fun at myself. I love layered text that holds double and triple entendres for those willing to search for them—including a couple in the next paragraph. Generally, if I’m foreshadowing the remaining four novels, I’ll use a casual drop-in, such as when Keiran mentions Yonaguni Island or Amala says she knows the place in the Appalachians where Emmett is to go. Or, I’ll toss out an inside joke for genre fans, such as when Emmett calls Keiran ‘Marty Stu’ or says (in response to the aforementioned casual drop-in), that he’ll ‘hang a lantern on that.’ Book 2’s first act features a rather explosive beginning action sequence to which Emmett comments, “Of course the sequel’s got to up the stakes.”
The other character I invest myself in is Amala, the Druid Emmett has dreamt of his entire life. She is, for me, an equal heroine to Emmett and Keiran’s heroes. Many people have told me how they wanted more Amala in Book 1. But she’s held back in Book 1 because I needed the juxtaposing Emmett-Keiran dualities to establish before thrusting Amala in between them. On Amala, particularly, I wanted to do something very different. Usually, the hero/heroine doesn’t come to ‘know’ his/her destiny until the final act. It’s both the journey to that realization and how the character accepts and carries-out that realization that fulfills his or her arc. Harry Potter’s learning that he is the final Horcrux and his journey into the forest with his four dead guardians is a perfect example of this concept, somewhere between the ‘Atonement with the Father’ and the ‘Apotheosis.’ The hero/heroine must be tested and found worthy before discovering his or her destiny.
In Amala, I wanted to examine the opposite: What if she knew her destiny all along? How would she handle that burden, and how would it shape her choices? Any hero can fumble through life never knowing the ultimate test facing him, but how would these heroes react if they knew their fates all along? What if Obi-Wan had told Luke that he would kill Vader, his father? What if Hagrid had told Harry upon first meeting that Harry had Voldemort’s soul within him and he must die? They would have crumbled because they weren’t ready for that knowledge. Yet with Amala, it is quite the opposite. Amala obviously knows something of Emmett and her role in this approaching war of the Waking Dreamer. I wanted to explore the heroine who does know ‘the approaching end,’ so that her arc isn’t about her discovery of that knowledge but of how she chooses to face it: will she form bonds with those she knows will one day die, how will she protect herself from the future heartache, and ultimately how will she shoulder that burden of knowledge? For me, this is reflective of the sacred feminine and the motherhood construct. It is the burden no man could likely bear.
What’s the most useful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
JEA: The Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars” likely influenced me more than anything else—even more than Lovecraft, Dickens, Yeats, or any of my other favorite writers. The speech in the segment below is something I listen to when I need inspiration to write authentically and honestly. “You are the dreamer and the dream.”
What writer, living or dead, would you most like to have lunch with, and what question would you most like for that person to answer?
JEA: More than a few friends I shared this question with cautioned me not to be honest about my feelings on this subject because, well, the Interwebs live forever. I don’t care. Someone’s got to say it.
I’d give anything to hear what Andrea Dworkin thought about the current state of fantasy. I understand that I’m in the minority with my second-wave feminism and that many women today believe sex is empowering. I’m no prude. I will, however, dispute a state where our genre churns out codependent pushovers, whores, prostitutes, rape-victims, and manipulative, scheming mothers and mothers-to-be as the de facto female archetypes. When did prostitution and pedophilia become acceptable set pieces? What’s next? The Skinhead Anti-Hero? The Romantic Pedophile? Female characters deserve arcs that don’t require a man, and girls deserve heroines who aren’t defined explicitly by their vaginas—particularly with the long-standing history of men owning and profiting from women’s sexuality. A girl falling in love with her rapist isn’t a feminist icon, and how sad for the zeitgeist that that is the new feminist paragon. I don’t think our genre needs to proselytize, but I don’t think it needs to cede the argument, either.
Are there any trends in science fiction/fantasy/horror that you’d like to see change?
JEA: I’ve already mentioned my issues with the genre’s current profiting from misogyny. This is likely my number one reason why I prefer reading two or so decades back instead of the current bestsellers. There’s also a tendency toward needless character death which, done to excess, risks inuring the reader to the emotional connections that justify reading the series in the first place. Death isn’t pedestrian to me. My top gripe, though, is with writers who throw a ton of intriguing questions out there and then deliver with lazy, obviously-unplanned answers (if they give any true answers at all). I wish the pilot episode of Lost had said: “Spoiler: The smoke monster comes from magic water,” because it would have saved me five seasons. So that I wouldn’t hate my own series, I plotted the entire story out over the five novels before publishing this first book. As proof, the remaining four novels’ titles, arcs, and protagonists are all hidden within Book 1. I don’t think a writer should ask his or her audience to invest in a series without assurance of closure at its conclusion.
Another inevitable question: What’s next for J.E. Alexander?
JEA: I’m busy writing Book 2 in The Waking Dreamer series, which continues the story now from Keiran’s POV. It’s slow-going because Keiran’s inner voice (which is not what people would expect from Book 1) is very different from Emmett’s. I have a stand-alone dark fantasy novella about hypnagogic hallucinations that’s keeping me up at night and a somnambulist-reimagining of several classic fairy tales I’m still plodding through. I’d love to do a sci-fi+horror novel with another writer in a sort of dueling-voices narrative if I can find someone to join me.
To find out more about J.E. Alexander and his work, check out his website here.