Ordinary People in an Empty World: An Interview with Kevin Prufer, Author of Sleepaway

Kevin Prufer, author of Sleepaway
Kevin Prufer

In his poem “A Body of Work,” included in The Fears (Copper Canyon Press), Kevin Prufer writes, “I am calling out to you, folded here between the pages of generations.” Prufer’s latest call-out is the novel Sleepaway, described as “an allegory for post-pandemic America.” An invisible falling mist puts people to sleep; most, but not all, awaken, but the next mist is always falling, leaving the characters in Sleepaway to cling to their humanity in a world slowly drifting away. Published by Acre Books, it’s a compelling, harrowing tale that “grapples with questions of friendship, race, and family amid the horror of inexplicable, arbitrary annihilation.”

In this interview, Prufer discusses how Sleepaway explores the need for community, the excitement and challenge in writing a novel, and how writers have no choice but to address the current moment.

Q: You’ve published several well-regarded volumes of poetry, including your most recent, The Fears (Copper Canyon Press). What prompted you to write a novel at this stage of your career?

Kevin Prufer: Well, I’ve written fiction before. Mystery stories, mostly. You can find them here and there, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Crimewave and the Akashic Books’ Noir series, for instance. So it’s not an entirely new genre for me. But, before now, it’s been secondary, a way of taking on a quick project between big poetry books, a way of washing the voice from one poetry book out of my head so I could invent another one.

Sleepaway is certainly my first serious fictional project and it’s hard to say why I chose to do it.  During the pandemic, I read novels in the evenings and listened to novels during the day. The rhythm of the novel—slow, steady, the accrual of detail and character and dramatic tension—got into my blood. I could feel the novels I was reading building and, partly because I’m a writer, I kept trying to understand the mechanics of what I was reading, the choices the authors made, the strategies they used.

And I had that voice in my head: “I bet I could write one of these.  How hard could it be?  Right?”

Q: Sleepaway has a unique premise. Tell us about it.

Kevin Prufer: It’s a strange premise and I don’t know where it came from. 1984 is the year invisible mists float above the earth, like weather. Anyone who lives beneath the floating mists falls asleep, but only for a minute. Then, nearly everyone wakes up. Best not to be driving a car when the mists come; best to pay attention to the tornado sirens that have been repurposed as mist sirens.

A very small percentage, however, stay asleep forever, becoming reliant on care from their loved ones, hospitals, and, finally, the state. As the sleep storms become larger and the sleepers a little less likely to wake up, what can be done with the thousands of harmless, sleeping bodies?

Eight Track, an illegal street drug, will keep you awake, but at substantial risk to your brain health—“It’ll divide your brain in two after a while,” one character says. Still, there’s an underground Eight Track economy that grows as the world becomes unstable.

Mostly the premise is intimate, though. Sleepaway takes place in a little Midwestern town far from the chaos and the decision makers, and it follows the lives of very ordinary people as the world slowly becomes violent, frightening, and empty.

Q: One of the main characters is Cora, a former aspiring playwright working as a small-town waitress and described as “incomplete.” What attracted you to writing about this character?

Kevin Prufer: I discover characters as I write them. Cora went through many versions. She was a poet, then she was a school teacher, then she was a rich girl hiding from her parents. None of these worked. As I wrote, I realized that it was her sense of her own personal failure that attracted me to her, and her foolish daring. And her lostness—she has lost her family, ruined previous relationships, lost her job. When I finally figured out who Cora was, I felt like I knew her, like we’d been having drinks for years.

Q: Another key character is Glass, described as “about eleven years old, a little awkward, a little skinny” and “clearly sweet” on Cora. How does their relationship develop?

Kevin Prufer: Well, Glass is also lost. He doesn’t have much of a family and he’s a little bit awkward and weird and has these terrible scars on his face. And he’s quick to have a crush on Cora—and I loved learning, as I wrote about him, that that little crush concealed something much larger, something kind of dramatic. I mean, neither character necessarily behaves all that well, but as I was writing about them, I felt like I could understand them and forgive them.

Q: The drug Eight Track lurks throughout the novel, a nod to our current opioid crisis. How does Eight Track influence the world of the novel?

Kevin Prufer: It definitely offers an alternative to the frightening prospect of sleeping forever—or whatever happens to the sleeping bodies as they pile up and the state begins to fail. Alas, it’s a far more dangerous alternative, because taking it is risky and acquiring it riskier still, especially as the pills become a sort of underground currency of their own.

But more than that, I’m interested in how small communities far from the centers of empire respond to crises within the empire. Does this make sense? I’ve read, for instance, that most people during the Roman Empire wouldn’t have noticed much when one emperor was assassinated and another took his place. Sometimes events that seem world-changing in retrospect echo quietly through small communities that have their own pressing concerns.

The economy of Eight Track was like that for me—a symptom of vast changes in the empire, though most people don’t care or even really notice. Most people are still thinking about getting their kids to school and getting to work on time and being somewhere safe when the mist sirens ring.

Sleepaway by Kevin Prufer

Q: Sleepaway is set in 1984. Why did you set the novel forty years in the past? Is there significance to that particular year?

Kevin Prufer: There’s some slight Orwellian significance, yes, but that’s really just a wink. I set it forty years ago because I can see the world a little more clearly through the rear-view mirror.

In a quiet way, the book is also about race. Black people are physiologically far more likely to wake up than white people, a little play on the idea of “wokeness,” I suppose. More importantly, though, that fact suggests a reversal of the future prospects for my characters, who live in a racially divided, unfair world. I wanted to write about how people understand themselves in terms of race and systems that are out of their control—and it’s easier for me to understand that through the lens of distance. The present is far too confusing for me. But I remember clearly how my well-intentioned peers and I thought about race in the 1980s because I was a teenager then ... and in a very low-key way, I wanted to revisit them from the future.

Also, I didn’t want to have to include cell phones and text messages and internet and all that. Partly because I find text messages (for instance) inherently anti-dramatic and partly because I wanted a situation in which news would creep slowly into a small Midwestern community from sources people more or less unanimously trust (NBC News), but which are, ultimately, untrustworthy.

Q: The Sinolean syndrome disrupts families, but new “informal” families take shape in the void. What role does the need for community play in the novel?

Kevin Prufer: Well, it’s very important, I think. Community. Or closeness. Or dependence.

I based the unnamed town of the novel on Warrensburg, Missouri, where I lived for many years. It’s a friendly town, decent and quiet. There’s a college there and a couple coffee shops and a handful of restaurants. I wanted that town to be a bit like a character itself. I was careful to include as much of it as I could, to create the sense of a community that is comfortable, slow to respond to crises and set in ways of thinking that usually work well (if not entirely fairly) for its inhabitants.

Q:  Both Sleepaway and The Fears, along with some of your earlier poetry, allude to our troubled national state. Do writers have a responsibility to address the current moment? 

Kevin Prufer: I would say that, one way or another, writers have no choice but to address the current moment. Even if we’re addressing past moments, we’re writing from a current moment and can’t help addressing it, whether deliberately or not. So I suppose my answer is, yes—but it’s better to be deliberate about it than accidental. To be aware of the fact that what you say reveals much about who you are and the moment that makes you possible.

Do I think writers have a responsibility to address the current moment directly? No, I don’t think that’s true. It’s good when they do. It’s just as good when they look to other moments and see what they can discover there. Maybe they’ll discover things that the current moment can learn from.

Q: What did you find most challenging about writing a novel?

Kevin Prufer: I loved writing the novel. Every day, I walked the busy streets of Houston, Texas, thinking about what was happening back in 1984 in that sleepy Midwestern town with the Bi-Lo market and train tracks and the coffee shop. And how might Cora find happiness in what must have felt hopeless?  How would Glass survive … and how does he feel about the better fortunes of his friend Scooby? Sleepaway was all-consuming for the few months it took me to write it, and challenging only in that it took a lot of my attention and thought—which I gladly gave to it.

Now, revising it into a workable novel was another matter…. That was hard and involved piles of notes and timelines and painful cuts.

Q: There’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write poetry, and now, fiction, too?

Kevin Prufer: You know, in nearly thirty years of writing books and doing interviews, I’ve never been asked this question so directly. The easy answer is that I know it’s the thing I’m good at. I’ve known it since I was a kid. I remember giving my 3rd grade teacher a story I wrote about a penguin, telling her, “I didn’t copy this. I wrote it myself.” Not because I was proud of my story, but because I knew it was so good she would assume a professional had written it, probably a very famous writer.

But that’s not really it. I’m pretty good at Scrabble, but haven’t made a life of it. Everyone’s good at a few things, and I think you count yourself lucky if what you’re good at is also something you’re endlessly interested in.

So, I think I’m lucky in that I love writing. I’m interested in what writers have written through the centuries. I love how writing is a way that generations speak to each other, how the beginning of the 19th century speaks to us through its poetry, its novels, for instance. Writing—poetry, fiction, whatever—is like this vast conversation between people living and dead, a conversation that I believe changes the world, how we conceive of it, how we conceive of ourselves. That has always seemed important to me, and I want to be part of it, even in a small way.

More About Kevin Prufer

Kevin Prufer is the author of several books of poetry, including The FearsThe Art of FictionHow He Loved ThemChurchesIn a Beautiful Country, and National Anthem. He is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston and the low-residency MFA at Lesley University. Prufer has also edited several volumes of poetry and, with Wayne Miller and Martin Rock, curates the Unsung Masters Series, a book series devoted to bringing the work of great but little-known authors to new generations of readers.

Visit KevinPrufer.com.

Scroll to Top