Issue 050 Author Interview: Jamie M. Boyd and “The End of Sleep”

In our penultimate Issue 050 author interview, Jamie M. Boyd is bringing the science to science fiction! Find out what kind of research she did for her story “The End of Sleep,” as well as her thoughts in happy endings.

LSQ: This has such a precise and scientific concept. Is there such a thing as unilateral sleep? How much research went into writing this story?

woman sleeping on bed under blanketsJamie: Yes, unilateral sleep is real. It allows birds to sleep with half their brain while still flying and dolphins to sleep while surfacing for air. When I heard about it, my first thought was, “Imagine if humans could do that.” At the time, my children were very young, and I was exhausted. I still fantasize about having an extra eight, productive hours a day.

In real life, the closest thing humans have to unilateral sleep is what’s known as the “first night effect,” named after the poor sleep many people experience when sleeping in a hotel for the first time. One side of the brain is more awake then the other, as if on guard duty. (You can read more about it in this Scientific American article “Sleeping with Half a Brain.”

I did quite a bit of research for this story, mostly to make it believable, but also because I’m just
fascinated by sleep and sleep disorders. Sleep is something we all spend so much time doing, yet science knows so little about it. Consider sleepwalking and night terrors, where people are up and moving around and interacting with the world, yet overlaying dreams and nightmares on top of reality. It’s spooky and begs the question, ‘How do our brains decide what’s real and what’s imagined? How do our dreams and nightmares affect our daily lives?’ That’s where the rest of the story started to fill itself in, with Ocan and his dreams of his dead wife.

LSQ: What a story arc! You cover years in Ocan’s life and so many changes. What was your process for planning “The End of Sleep”?

Jamie: I didn’t plan out this story in terms of plot — if I had, I probably would’ve told myself to focus on a smaller slice! Especially in a short story, whenever you jump forward months or years, you risk disorienting the reader or losing the flow, so it’s not really something I’d recommend or do on purpose. During the editing process I tried to reign it back in – a lot of speculative publications won’t even accept a short story that’s over 5,000 words – but each time I carved a section out, it fell flat. I finally accepted that Ocan’s journey from hopelessness to hope was what I was most attached to, and I needed the longer story length and time span to do that in a believable way.

LSQ: Despite the years and trauma, you gave Ocan a happy ending in line with his dream
fantasies: a daughter. What were your thoughts for Ocan’s happy ending? Happy endings
for stories in general?

Jamie: A lot of people suffer from grief and addiction, so with Ocan, I wanted to show it was possible for him to rebuild his life.

Happy endings are common in novels but rarer in short stories. Part of this is just the logistical
challenge. You only have only so many words to introduce your character and conflict. There’s not always time to get them out of trouble in a way that feels true. The second issue is that the entire purpose of many short stories is cautionary. For example, if a science fiction story is imagining all the things that could go wrong with a new technology, a tragic or ironic ending can be more fitting.

The last reason I think there are fewer short stories with positive endings is that they require the author to take a bigger risk. If an editor or reader doesn’t like piece of dark fantasy or sci-fi, they might call it cynical or bleak, but that really doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But if a story with a happy ending doesn’t work, it might be labeled trite or naïve. Especially in speculative fiction, where writers are working so hard to be taken “seriously,” that somehow feels more personal. And in the literary world, where male authors have traditionally held the power and money, anything labeled soft (i.e. feminine) also risks being more easily dismissed.

Despite this, I believe stories that offer hope are vital. You saw this during Covid, with the flurry articles recommending fiction to lift everyone’s spirits. Within science fiction, the solarpunk sub- genre is an important next step in the conversation about climate change. I can only read so many depressing end-of-the-world stories. We need to start exploring worlds with workable solutions.

LSQ: “The End of Sleep” was a complex sci-fi drama. What other genres do you like to write in?

Jamie: I generally gravitate toward anything in the speculative realm. I also like to write about animals and nature, anything that evokes a sense of wildness and wonder.