American writer Richard Zimler, naturalized Portuguese citizen and living in Porto, reveals to iSleep his new novel, The Gospel According to Lazarus ,which will be released in 2016 in Portugal. It is a story of the resurrected Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, inspired by a dream in which his older brother Jerry, who died of AIDS in 1989, also comes back to life.
In your books, have sleep and dream been a source of inspiration?
It is very interesting that you ask that because the novel I have just written is closely linked to a dream I had almost 30 years ago.
The new novel is called The Gospel According to Lazarus. It will come out in Portugal in 2016.
Here is how a particular dream is connected to the novel:
Shortly after my brother’s death from Aids in 1989, I dreamt that he had returned to life. He was walking across the patio of a mansion constructed of unpainted stone where I was apparently a guest. He was walking toward an annex or carriage house at the back of the property.
I observed him go into annex and then, almost immediately, come out again. His face was very sad. I discovered that although he could talk, and although he knew who I was, he was unable to show any emotion other than sadness and disappointment. He was aware that he had died and had returned to life, but he also realized that he was greatly diminished and would never regain all the emotions that made him the man he’d been.
In the dream, his incomparably mournful face was the same one that he showed me so many times while I was caring for him in the hospital.
He didn’t tell me how he had returned to life. And it didn’t occur to me to ask him. I didn’t venture into the annex; somehow, I knew not to enter.
I had the same dream on at least two other occasions in the early 1990s. And then again in 2006.
This time, after I awakened, I was once again left with a strikingly clear image of my brother’s sad and troubled face. Whenever I saw him with that expression in the hospital, I became convinced that he was thinking of the unfairness of dying young.
Later that day, while considering my brother’s predicament in the dream, the New Testament figure of Lazarus entered my mind. In the Gospel of John, Lazarus is raised from the dead – resurrected – by his beloved friend Jesus.
Why did I think of Lazarus? I don’t know. Possibly because I had recently finished writing my novel, The Seventh Gate, which had obliged me to research Jewish history and mysticism for many months.
I began to consider what Lazarus would have felt on coming back to life. In what ways would he be changed or – like my brother – diminished by the experience of death?
A novel about Lazarus seemed like an exciting idea to me, so I started researching Jewish life in the Holy Land at the beginning of the Common Era. But, as it turned out, I was unable to write the book then. In fact, I was unable to write a single word of prose for seven months following the death of my mother.
In early 2013, however, after completing my novel The Night Watchman, I once again grew excited about the possibility of writing a novel about Lazarus. After an initial six-month period of research – and after accumulating a vast amount of notes from the texts I studied – I began to write the novel. I completed it two years later, in September of 2015, some twenty-six years after my initial dream about my brother coming back to life.
So it is a kind of pre-release of your new book at iSleep. I did not know at all that the issue was not yet public. It is indeed a coincidence…
The Gospel According to Lazarus begins with a dream that Lazarus has as an eight-year-old boy. He dreams of an Eagle-God that must fight against well-armed enemies to save Jerusalem. And he dreams that he is transformed by the fires raging in the city into this winged divinity. In other words, he himself becomes the Eagle-God.
Within the context of the novel, Jesus and Lazarus both grow up in Nazareth. When they are boys, Lazarus tells his dream to Jesus, and Jesus is stunned by what he hears. He realizes that Lazarus might make a good study partner and friend. But he also has another secret reason for wanting to become friends with Lazarus – one that is only revealed 28 years later, when they are both 36 years old.
Lazarus’ has other dreams throughout the novel that influence the way he behaves and how he interprets the behaviour of others. He is a man influenced by reveries and visions. He believes that they sometimes offer us guidance.
Literature has many references to sleep and dreams. Why do you think so many writers like to depict it?
I think it is because a dream is a kind of story. And novelists are storytellers! So there is a very natural connection. Also, there is a long tradition in the West – going back to the Old Testament, which was compiled about 2500 years ago – in which dreams are meaningful and reveal truths that are otherwise hard to discover. In this tradition, dreams use cryptic imagery that must be deciphered. So there is also a mysterious element to dreams. I think that many novelists find that appealing.
At what time do you prefer to write?
I like to begin writing just after breakfast. I get up very early, around 6:30, so I like to start writing around 8 a.m. I am most alert and energetic in the morning. I generally work until about noon, then I eat lunch. Sometimes I take a brief siesta, then start working again around 14:00 and continue until I am too exhausted to write any more. I usually work between 6 and 8 hours a day. I used to be able to concentrate for longer periods of time, but I find that my stamina has diminished with age (I am now 59 years old).
Do you often wake up with an idea for a book you are writing? Do you usually write it down?
Yes, when I am writing a novel, I become obsessed by it. I am unable to let the characters go and to return completely to my own life! So sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning with an idea for the book. It usually has to do with a character – some characteristic about him or her – or with a solution to a difficulty I am facing with the plot. I get up and write my ideas down on a piece of paper and put the paper next to my computer. When I next begin working, I read what I have written. About half the time, it seems like a silly idea, but half the time it is useful, so I incorporate it into the story.
Which is your favourite literary passage about sleep or dreams?
From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.”
Is it true that you sleep badly and have insomnia when you are preparing or write a book?
I am obsessed with the story of my novels. I have great difficulty sleeping during the writing period, which may extend to two to three years or more. I think I will not be able to fall asleep and the day after I will not have enough strength to write. Sometimes I only sleep three or four hours. When this state lasts for two weeks or more, I get desperate. But I prefer not to take sleeping pills, because it makes me wake up sleepy and the next day I will have low energy. I think the ideal solution would be to learn to shut me off the novel in the evening and distance myself completely from the story and the characters before going to bed, but it’s not easy.
You said in an interview that memory has saved you on some occasions…
It is very hard to maintain the plot of a novel in your head for two or three years. It really is a parallel universe that only exists in the novelist’s head. Hence the importance of having excellent memory, of knowing all the details of each chapter, so that everything fits in the story. For instance, what a character says in chapter 28 must not contradict what it said in chapter 11. There has to be consistency.
Because of my great memory, whenever I read the Portuguese translation of one of my novels, I can tell when a sentence does not quite match the original text. It’s like having all the sentences of the novel in my head. It is very useful to me when I revise translations.
You have dual citizenship, American and Portuguese. Are the Portuguese sleeping habits very different from those of Americans?
Yes, very different. The Portuguese go to bed later, frequently at 2 or 3 a.m., including elderly people. As a result, they wake up very late. Americans, in general, go to bed around 10 or 11 p.m. and wake up early.
Another difference lies in the fact that the Portuguese can drink coffee at night without it affecting their sleep. From what I know, few Americans have this habit (or talent!).
What do you think about the expression that God does not sleep?
Is that true? I don’t know. Applying the verb “sleep” to God does not seem appropriate to me. It has no meaning to me. It’s like saying “the universe does not sleep”.
But since we humans do sleep and, according to the Old Testament, we are made in God’s image, maybe it means that God also does take a nap every now and then. A Hindu idea that I like is that our universe is a dream of Vishnu. It is a theme often treated in Hindu art.
Have there been occasions in your life when dreams have been a good adviser?
My dreams about possible story plots for my novels have been quite useful. As I said, they give me ideas for the story and the characters. Sometimes they solve problems that arise as I write the book.
I know you do not fall asleep easily. You are certainly more of a “lark” than an “owl”…
I am more of a lark. I do not fall asleep easily. Sometimes, because of insomnia, I have to take a nap the next day. It’s not really a problem because I love taking a nap.
I also know that you are very fond of sports. Does exercise improve your sleep?
Walking at least a half-hour a day is very good for your health. I fall asleep more easily when I interrupt my computer work to do things outside the house. It is not easy because of my obsessive personality. Sometimes I cannot let go of what I’m writing, my story, my parallel universe!
Do you recall any funny personal or professional story related to sleep or lack thereof?
Once, many years ago, when I was 14, I took a trip with my older brother to the US Rockies and we went to Salt Lake City to see a movie. I had trouble sleeping in the camping park because I was not used to it. So I fell asleep in the cinema and started snoring. My brother woke me up once, but it was useless. As I was snoring for the second time, the manager forced us to leave the room. It was very embarrassing…