Live at the Red Ink Series: On Writing and Dreams
Featuring Claire Messud, Julia May Jonas, Jean Chen Ho, Emily Maloney, and Daphne Palasi Andreades
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at Books Are Magic, focusing on women writers, past and present. The next discussion, “Answers,” will take place on May 19th at 7pm EST on Zoom and feature Samantha Hunt (The Unwritten Book), Madhushree Ghosh (Khabaar), Ursula Villarreal-Moura (Math for the Self-Crippling), Annabelle Gurwitch (You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility), and Naheed Phiroze Patel (Mirror Made of Rain).
The following is an edited transcript from March’s panel, “Dreams,” which featured Claire Messud, Julia May Jonas, Jean Chen Ho, Emily Maloney, and Daphne Palasi Andreades.
Michele Filgate: I recently came across a study that claims creative people are more likely to remember their dreams. Do you have vivid dreams that you remember? Are you in the habit of remembering them? What is your dream-life like?
Claire Messud: I have times where I really remember my dreams and other periods where I do less. But I think that one of the periods that I remember most strongly is when I was working on a novel. The impulse and the setting came from a real place, but I needed it to become fictional. And I started having these recurring dreams, and I realized that I was dreaming the fictional place. The place that I knew had actually been transformed into a new place that was in my dreams. And I don’t know whether I had five or fifteen, but I mean, it seemed like a lot of dreams about that place—and that’s when I knew that the novel was on its way, was when it had left reality and become part of my imaginary world.
Julia May Jonas: I tend to dream very banal dreams, which I sometimes remember and I sometimes don’t. And I have a few very vivid dreams that I keep from childhood that I think a lot about, and I’m sure in some way those have created some image map for me that I’m constantly negotiating with in my writing. But I recently had a dream that my publisher sent me a tooth whitening kit. And I think that there was something that felt so accurate about that dream, because it was really about feeling exposed, that vulnerability of the publishing process.“I solve a lot of writing-related problems in my sleep, I think.”
MF: Was that before or after your book came out, I’m curious?
Jean Chen Ho: I have really vivid dreams, but unless I write them down I don’t really tend to remember them—except that I was recording a podcast this morning, and the interviewer asked me about a scene in the first story of Fiona and Jane where one of the characters has a crush on her piano teacher. And I was telling the interviewer that I had to take piano lessons when I was a kid, and I hated it; I hated practicing, I hated performing at recitals.
One of my recurring dreams that I still have sometimes now, is that I’m getting ready to go to the piano recital, and suddenly I’m about to go on stage and I realize that I’ve totally not practiced enough or that somehow I’ve forgotten all the notes and I have to stumble through this awful performance. And that was such an unpleasant experience. So that’s one of my awful, recurring dreams.
Emily Maloney: I had a dream earlier this week where a boa constrictor came out of the toilet and tried to strangle my friend, a marmoset. And there are no marmosets or boa constrictors in my life. But typically dreams are a place where I can take out the trash of my writing, brain, life, day… I solve a lot of writing-related problems in my sleep, I think.
Daphne Palasi Andreades: Yeah, I’ve gone through periods where sometimes I do like to record my dreams upon waking—I like that process of taking something that doesn’t seem to have any logic, or is very surreal, and trying to capture it in language, and seeing that it’s never quite the same. My dreams are often just very imagistic, too. Not really with, like, smell or sound–It’s just the images that I remember.
There’s a scene and a character in my debut novel, which was just published two months ago, that was inspired by [having] a dream of a childhood friend who had passed away, and…it just stayed with me, even two years after the fact, and made its way into my writing. So, I like that process of something that is unconscious making its way into something much more deliberate.
MF: I do too, absolutely. So let’s talk about dreams in the larger sense. Dreams as in goals, dreams as in daydreams, dreams as in creating, writing. What do dreams mean for you as a writer, and how is the topic of dreams or dreaming significant in your work or to your characters?
JCH: I’ve always said that it would be a dream to publish a book, and so I have been feeling just so grateful and it has been a dream come true, just to have a book out in the world and to have friends send me pictures when they are at their local indie bookstore. As far as my characters, I don’t think I have any dream scenes in the book that I remember, but you know, Fiona is a person who has a lot of goals and she’s very ambitious and Jane is sort of the opposite of that—so that is one way that I thought about contrasting those two characters when I was working on this project.
JMJ: I’m very skeptical about the idea of having dreams in general, not even being a pessimist, just being someone who, I don’t know, I don’t attach the idea of having dreams. I think I only feel trust when I’m actually doing a thing, and all of the rest of it seems very specious.
But I do like to think about dreams. With dreams you are just in a situation and then you are in another situation and you are in another situation and then you are in another situation, so all of those things, it helps me when I think about something as a dream to not feel like I have to over-explain, you know, you have the luggage and then you’re in the tree, you know, and the reader can do the rest.
EM: Yeah, I find dreams suspicious. Just the idea, the concept of having a dream, whether it’s for your work or anything else, I just think, I don’t know, maybe I don’t trust it. I’m clearly very untrustworthy, at least when it comes to my friend the marmoset. But I think in terms of having dreams about your work or thoughts about your work, I try to hedge against that. I just think it’s better to just do the work, like Julia says, when you are in the work, when you are doing the thing, then that’s great, so I try not to think too much about doing the thing and try to just do the thing. I think that’s where dreams can get murky.
CM: I was told years ago in grad school, writer Toby Wolff told us that you should consider that when you are writing fiction, you are allowed three dreams in your lifetime. So anytime you are thinking about putting a dream in your fiction, you should think, do you want to use one of your three dreams now? Because it’s not that you can’t have a dream in your fiction, but they serve a particular purpose and you can’t use them too often.
But the book that I just published is called A Dream Life, and it’s actually referring to dreams in a slightly different way which is that it’s about a character who moves with her family to a new place, which in this case is Sydney, Australia. And I think for me, one of the things I’m always aware of is the surreal or slightly dreamlike nature of so many experiences, especially when you are displaced. I grew up moving around a lot, and there was no circularity to my life—my life was picaresque, it was like an episode, or life, few years, you get up, you move, few years, you get up, you move. So in that sense, there was nobody except say, my sister, to corroborate the existence of the life before.
I have another novel in which there’s a family that comes to the US for a year, and this breakup of friendship with this woman who’s the protagonist of the novel, and they go back to their other life and they kind of forget about her. And it just seems like, if you’ve ever been on exchange or you know, like when you go home, you’re like, oh were all those people still there? It seems slightly unreal because it was an aberration, it was a disruption from regular life. So I feel as though dreaminess in regular life comes up quite a bit.
DPA: One of the first thoughts that came to mind just in a more general, associative sense, was thinking about “the American Dream.” I’m a second-generation immigrant; my parents immigrated to the US from the Philippines in the 1990s. And, so, thinking about “the American Dream” came to mind, in terms of having a vision for the future of something that’s very hopeful–America representing a place of promise and opportunity; that was my parents’ dream, I think. And I thought of growing up in the shadow of that.
There’s so much expectation and sacrifice [that accompanied] my family making a life in the States and, for me, this always felt like a lot of pressure, but also a disconnect from growing up in the States and experiencing the sense that it it didn’t always feel like this promised land that my parents had dreamt of. Very often, for me, there were moments of experiencing marginalization or prejudice or racism or sexism.
So, it’s a different experience, that first-generation experience, second-generation experience. Brown Girls is set in Queens, New York, which is my hometown where I grew up. It is actually one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse places in the world, but a place that I feel isn’t written about a ton. The characters in my book have these ambitions of wanting to leave their hometown, but in having these dreams and ambitions and vision for their future, they wonder if leaving signifies a betrayal of their communities, of their families, of the people they leave behind.
So I think dreams can be fraught sometimes because they might be so different from someone’s reality, or a character’s reality, and maybe that’s the conflict–if it’s even possible to reconcile [the two], or if it’s worth reconciling, or if there is an unimagined future that we can’t even picture at the moment.
MF: Emily, in Cost of Living, in the afterword, you write about a dream you have about your psychiatrist years after seeing her. You write: “And maybe that’s the difficulty in writing this or any other life—that in making sense of what I’ve done or seen or said, I’m trying to rationalize, trying to order away those parts of my life that felt absolutely unordered, strange, or nonsensical.” How did working on this book help you make sense of the chaos and hardships surrounding medical debt and our country’s broken medical system?
EM: In dreams, there is that internal dream logic, right? Things make sense inside the dream. It’s this safe processing space, and then you wake up and things don’t really make sense anymore. And I think that’s something that a lot of people experience when facing the healthcare system in the United States and how broken and screwed up it is. Which is, we are caught in this dream and when we are in the experience of receiving healthcare, sometimes things seem reasonable, or we’re not able to speak up or we’re worried that we’re not going to get good care if we do.
I think that, in particular of course, both women and people of color experience crazy and terrible things at the doctor’s office.. So you leave the dreamscape of having had that experience, maybe they saw you, maybe they didn’t, maybe they fixed something but probably not. And you wake up and it’s like, oh, here’s the bill, and nothing’s changed—you are still having to deal with the same medical issue. And that keeps happening again and again.
Narratively speaking, I included that section at the end because it’s really hard for me to explain myself to myself. And I think that there’s a fuzziness to narrative and working in nonfiction, you have this experience where it’s hard to know even now, exactly what happened. And I present myself at various points as potentially an unreliable narrator. The first line of the book is, “I don’t remember 2005 but I have the medical records.”
So we know that there are things that happened or things that didn’t happen. So I’m interested in playing with that fuzziness of narrative or not knowing, or maybe not knowing, and that’s where I think there is a utility in dreams and dreamscape.
MF: Jean, in Fiona and Jane, you open with a story called “The Night Market,” where Jane’s father comes out to her while she’s visiting him in Taiwan, and he introduces her to his lover. We learn that Jane has a crush on her piano teacher, Ping. Distance is a theme in this chapter: the geographical distance between father and daughter, and the disappointment that comes from Ping moving back to China. “Adults were all the same,” you write. “Even Ping. They were always feeding you some line, expecting you to eat it up without any questions.
I’d thought it was different, like a friend’s cool older sister, someone who listened. Though of course she was more than that to me, or could have been, anyway. The trip to Taiwan had taken everything away.” Do you think dreams have a different quality or resonance when writing teenage characters versus adults?
JCH: Yeah, I think so, because they are less informed by sort of the rigid structures of what we are supposed to be living into as like, quote unquote, responsible citizens, right? A big thread of this book is these two girls growing up into women and having two divergent paths even though they were childhood best friends, and Fiona is the one who is very ambitious, so she does everything right: she goes to college, she works really hard and is a striving, young woman, and is really smart.
But she keeps running into problems and failures in her romantic life, in her career trajectory, and you know, money issues, and everything with her family starts falling apart. And then Jane is the underacheiver: she is queer, she is a party girl in her twenties, she took a gap year but she never ended that gap year, it turned into a gap lifestyle. And so she was sort of drifting about, and the two of them meet one another again in their thirties and have to figure out how to be friends again.
Part of being friends as adults is that the person who you thought you knew when you were a teenager is no longer the person who is in front of you. I guess you have totally different dreams or you have to revise what you thought your parallel dreams were.
MF: Julia, in Vladimir, a 58-year-old professor and writer longs for an experimental novelist and colleague named Vladimir. You write: “Older women with lust are always the butt of the joke in comedy, horny sagging birds with dripping skin. But then again, what was I saying, I didn’t want to consummate anything with Vladimir. I liked his wife, I liked his daughter, I liked his writing, I liked his personality. What did I even think I wanted to do about it?
In truth, when I got to the real imagining of the act, I found myself repulsed by the idea of actual physical contact. I only wanted to think about him, framed by my darkened window.” Can you talk about dreams as they pertain to fantasies, and how you wanted to explode that idea in your novel?
JMJ: Yeah, I absolutely thought about this idea of this obsession with Vladimir being something that started to tilt the narrator’s reality, so that she herself was creating this dream that she was living inside of, and in a way, she’s making this story as she goes along, and she’s perpetuating it with this obsession, and she’s able to bring in all these little signs and symbols and all these things to be able to create this dream world. So the beginning of the fantasy allows her to create more fantasies, and she just continues to interpret the world through this kind of increased filter.
MF: Daphne, in Brown Girls, there’s an emphasis on the collective, on a chorus of girls since your book is written from the “we” POV. In a chapter titled, “Our Mothers Speak,” you write: “Our mothers stand behind us and seek our gazes in mirrors. Our not-reflections. Are you listening? they repeat. We do not answer them. Instead we busy ourselves, run the tap over their voices or, better yet, blast hair dryers. Chop peppers and carrots atop oil-flecked tables. Say nothing, absolutely nothing at all, but think: Wrong.” Can you talk about daughters defying their mothers dreams or wishes?
DPA: My novel follows the characters from childhood through adulthood and beyond. Some of the characters have this rebellion toward their moms—their moms really want them to be obedient, they have a certain kind of gender expectation for how they should be as young women. But, then, it shifts as the book goes on, in terms of the girls having much more empathy for their mothers—one of the most fun scenes for me to write in the book was this time travel scene where the girls suddenly find themselves on the same airplanes that their mothers are on as they’re immigrating, for the first time, to the States.
So, the story goes into this speculative territory at one point in the book. I don’t want to say too much but, this speculative time travel scene, this dreamscape, helps the characters see, and envision, where their mothers were when they first arrived, and [the act of this envisioning] builds empathy and understanding.
MF: Claire, in A Dream Life, an American family relocates to Australia and rents a grand manor. The grand lifestyle is daunting for Alice Armstrong. You write: “It was as if she had awakened after a drugged sleep to unfamiliar surroundings, as if some irretrievable portion of her life had been stolen from her. She felt her heart palpitating, ferocious in her breast, and almost panicked. How do I get out of here? She thought. How do I get back to myself?”
Living overseas can feel surreal at times, and your novella captures that experience and dreamy atmosphere. I saw in the acknowledgments that you wrote this book at the American Library of Paris. Did where you wrote it influence the mood of the book?
CM: When I’m teaching fiction, I say to my students, we are all who we are because we are where we are when we are, and because of all the places that we have been before. It’s this accumulation of things. If you have somebody who has lived 80 years in a place, that’s really different from somebody who arrived 20 minutes ago—you have a different relation to that place, but we are always in place. But when you are displaced, when you are in a place that isn’t your place, this complicated web that binds you, almost like Gulliver, being bound by Lilliputians; the mothers of the girls in Daphne’s book, their expectations bind their daughters. But if you are somewhere else, suddenly… right?
And we all as readers and as writers know the possibilities of that liberation. It doesn’t work anymore because it’s too long ago, but when I was young, we’d say all stories are either Star Trek or Gilligan’s Island. Now people say, what’s Gilligan’s Island? But basically, all stories are someone takes a trip, or someone comes to visit. Which basically means somebody is displaced, right?
Either the main characters are displaced or going somewhere else, or there is a community into which somebody arrives who hasn’t been there. I think the minute you as a writer are separated from your own place, that sense of—if you have a place, whatever that might mean to you, but when you are unseated in some way—then I think all sorts of possibilities come, just as they do in real life, and they come in imagination.