Imagine an apocalyptic novel, in which a mysterious disease threatens to decimate the population of a small college town outside Los Angeles — in addition to dismantling society in the ensuing panic. Then imagine that instead of the usual over-dramatized scenes of anarchy and violence, this biohazard disaster is written in beautiful prose, with compelling characters and a spiritual insight into their psyches.
That, readers, would be Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers. The author broke out with her 2012 novel The Age of Miracles, and her newest release follows in its haunting footsteps. It opens as a group of freshman girls in a dorm room begin to fall into a mysteriously deep sleep, and follows the disease as it affects a pair of new parents, an elderly professor, and the daughters of a doomsday prepper, to name a few. The thriller (that’s not quite a thriller) is already starting to build buzz, but Walker took time out of her book tour to answer EW’s author questionnaire.
Ahead, find out her favorite part of The Dreamers and the last book that made her cry.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: Around first grade, a friend and I used to make little books out of scratch paper, bound with a stapler. I don’t remember the storylines, but I remember putting a lot of gold stickers on the covers to indicate the awards these books had won.
What is the last book that made you cry?
The last few lines of The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, brought tears to my eyes, not from sadness, but from a sudden swell of emotion: “But is there really such a thing as nothing, as nothingness? I don’t know. I know we’re still here, who knows for how long, ablaze with our care, its ongoing song.”
What is your favorite part of The Dreamers?
A few chapters are written from the collective perspective of the girls of a freshman dorm floor, where the sickness first appears. I loved writing in that voice, the intense feeling of belonging and shared experience that is possible at that age, but also how that kind of collective thinking can leave others out. I tried to capture their blind spots but also their humanity.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite.
Where do you write?
In a revolving set of coffee shops scattered around southeast Portland, Oregon.
Which book made you a forever reader?
It’s hard to choose one, but how about The BFG by Roald Dahl, which, come to think of it, has to do with dreams.
Pick a GIF that you think, in this moment, best describes you and your book:
What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
Does coffee count? I definitely could not write a book without caffeine.
What was the hardest part to write in The Dreamers?
It was a challenge to figure out how to write from the perspective of people as they dreamed. I hoped to capture convincingly the sensation of dreaming, but I didn’t want the dreams to feel too hazy or random. It was a difficult balance. I wanted the dream life of these people to feel concrete and urgent — and ultimately consequential.
If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
I try to avoid thinking this way. It would be easy to go down a rabbit hole, obsessing over what I might have done differently. Whenever I do have that impulse, I try to shift my attention to the book I’m writing now — the one I can still change — and how I might avoid whatever mistakes I’ve made before.
If The Dreamers had a movie poster tagline, it would be:
What if you fell asleep, and you couldn’t wake up?