Insomnium is Latin for a "waking vision." What interests you about blurring the line between dreaming and "real life," between consciousness and unconsciousness?
The main character of Insomnium, Nel Hanima, is in a place in his life where nothing is as it should be, nothing is functional. The worst part is that he has no idea how to move himself toward something better.
The dream forced upon Nel and his friends is an inverted wake-up call, forcing them to deal with their respective situations. I think that, when we peel away the surface layers of reality, we’re forced to ask ourselves really hard questions about who we are and what we’re doing with our lives. Nel can’t do this in his waking life, so the City of Nowhere comes to the rescue.
Your story deals with multiple characters in a dream-like scenario. One of the questions you ask is, "Who is the one actually doing the dreaming?" Tell us more about how this question ties into how much of our reality and identity is formed by our perceptions.
That is the big question for most of Insomnium. Whose mind created all of this? Could it be one of us? What does the dream have to do with us disparate people, who don’t even originate from the same universe?
Put differently: why are we here? Why are any of us doing what we do? Our answers define who we are as people and how we interact with the rest of the world.
The twentieth century has created some massive philosophical questions for humanity. What is the “right” way to spend our time on Earth? In many parts of the world, we’ve solved hunger and disease, but now that we no longer struggle to merely exist, what should we be doing with all of our time?
Finding answers to these questions, I think, is the key to our identity crisis. I’ve developed an answer for myself, which I think Insomnium will make clear, but I believe it is up to each individual to arrive at his or her own answer.
There's an ongoing debate in the writing community about how much we should stick to the adage "write what you know." Do you feel that your story is improved by setting it in a future version of the real-world city you live in? Does it help with worldbuilding?
Believe it or not, the Seattle setting doesn’t get very much time in Insomnium. The bulk of the action takes place in the City of Nowhere. But, I do have my characters in... a kind of configuration of Seattle for some period of time.
I originally hail from Illinois. When I was thinking about Insomnium, I wanted a place that would be affected by rising sea levels and that would be interesting during the timeframe I wanted to set the story in—some time about halfway between our time and Kal’s adventure in Voyage. My Midwest of 2089 definitely doesn’t fit either of those conditions.
Seattle, on the other hand, does. And not only do I currently happen to live here, but elements like the Space Needle were easy targets for metaphors relevant to my themes.
If anything, doing the worldbuilding for Insomnium has helped Kal’s past come more alive for me. Insomnium’s backstory will benefit the upcoming episodes of my Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions series as well.
On the other hand, do you ever feel limited/constrained by the bounds of a "real" location? Do you worry about die-hard Seattleites nit-picking the details?
The stuff I write is so conceptually disparate from reality, I’m not too worried. Insomnium definitely blurs the sci-fi/fantasy lines, arriving in something like “slipstream” or “new weird,” whereas Voyage is firmly rooted in science fiction.
I’m not the kind of writer who needs to make all of my science extrapolate immaculately out of modern day tech, but neither will I cut holes in an event horizon or explore dark matter nebulae. If a piece of science is an established fact that someone with a high school education can easily comprehend by reading a Wikipedia article, I’ll respect it. Until I need to break it on purpose, of course.
I've found that the craziest characters can be most fun to write. Did you have the same experience when creating the Governors in your story?
Oh, yes. One of my favorite scenes has two Nowhere governors interacting with one another. They’re devious, mostly self-interested beings. It’s a lot of fun to bounce Nel and his friends off them.
Your world is populated, in part, by "very strange creatures." What's your technique for describing something that no one has seen in such a way that your readers create accurate mental pictures?
Mostly physical details. I rely heavily on the animal world and I’ve learned a lot about animal physiology researching for Insomnium.
Real-world relationships (friendships, enmities, marriages) are highly complex, but many times, in fiction, they're reduced to their simplest parts. How do you create a realistic relationship in a story without taking too much time away from the main story?
I strive to weave the two together.
I majored in English Literature, and most of my professors thought that flowery prose and metaphor were the pinnacle of good writing, and that plot was pedantic and derivative. I also see writers, most predominantly in the indie world, who believe the reverse—that plot and character drama are all that matter, and that themes, motifs and metaphor are a waste of words.
I think that truly great literature blends the best of both. A great story actually has a story—a plot and characters—and it engages the reader on a visceral level, but also weaves theme, motif and metaphor directly into the storyline. Those bring with them richness and depth. The number of basic types of plots is very small, but there are unlimited combinations of plots, characters, themes, motifs and metaphors.
As a writer, I like to ask myself, what makes my synthesis of these things unique? I think that when a really vivid, unique synthesis is achieved, complex relationships will naturally arise as a part of the trials and tribulations of the characters achieving their goals.
Do you ever find yourself writing things on the edge of your comfort zone, unexpected things that you're not sure you should share with the world? How do you resolve this internal conflict?
All the time! I take stances in my writing, directly or indirectly, that I fully understand might make me unpopular with people of an opposed viewpoint.
For example, in my future timeline, three countries exist south of Canada: the East Coast Union, the West Coast Union and the Interior. My description of the political organization of the Interior (or, more accurately, the lack thereof) is bound to turn off some readers.
But I’m very firm in my position on this. Even if I, Zachary Bonelli, lose one reader as the result of my opinions and beliefs, the world will have gained one more person who has considered moral and ethical issues from a perspective they might not have considered otherwise.
I, personally, force myself to carefully consider the ethical and moral value systems their writing presents. There are stories I enjoy immensely for their characters and narrative structure, even if I disagree with their themes and motifs. I’m glad such stories exist, because they force me to think, to consider my beliefs and opinions from someone else’s perspective.
I think artists have a moral and ethical obligation to do more than just entertain. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake has a tendency to become manipulative and exploitative, but works of art connect to readers on a level that enriches them, and helps them understand themselves and the world around them better.
I strive to create the latter, even though I’m just learning about life, about writing, about human interaction, as I go along. Just like everyone else.