Dreampunk profile: David Michael Williams
From an online interview on May 11 and 12, 2019
First off, tell us a little about yourself. How do you see yourself as a writer?
Even before I was a writer, I was a storyteller. Words just happened to be the most convenient, and a more permanent, way to tell my stories and to share my characters with the world.
If I were a better artist, I might have become an illustrator, but writing happened to be the easiest way to record my thoughts. And, yes, I was bad at first. Terrible, probably. But over time—and thanks to a lot of practice in my day jobs in journalism, PR, and marketing over the years—my writing skills improved, and I was able to do my ideas justice.
And fiction is my primary passion.
Like many fantasy readers, I started out drafting a sword-and-sorcery trilogy, The Renegade Chronicles, and after that tried something very ambitious: a book—no, a series—unlike any I’d ever read. I’m a wonderfully weird person—or so I like to tell myself—and my fiction is, too. The Soul Sleep Cycle is a genre-bending series that includes qualities of fantasy, science fiction, mythology, thriller, paranormal, metafiction, and family drama.
Only recently have I stumbled upon the term “dreampunk,” and I thought, “Wow, yeah, I guess that sums it up nicely.”
I love to see elements of “genre fiction” all thrown together without regard for boundaries and expectations. Do you remember where you first encountered the term “dreampunk”? Where do you see the genre headed?
I’m admittedly new to the term, but I ran across a blog post that talked about dreampunk and the mind-scrambling nature of it. Because The Soul Sleep Cycle is a mashup, it can be very difficult to explain “what it is” to prospective readers. I’m a huge fan of the term “dreampunk” because, for one thing, I love steampunk, but also because my series contains dream drifters, a small group of people who have the ability to invade the dreams of others. “Dreampunk” just seems perfect.
In the first book of the series, If Souls Can Sleep, the question “What is real?” is very much ingrained in the plot. That question, in of itself, has been around for the more than a century, predating even the Weird Tale genre from long ago. What I love about the idea of dreampunk is that it suggests, to me, that there are readers who love mind games as much as I do.
Dreampunk has the potential to take speculative fiction to the extreme. In all likelihood, my series—which goes beyond dreams to explore conscious/unconscious thought, memory, and what happens to the mind after death—only scratches the surface.
Whether it’s neuroscience, spirituality, technology, or something entirely new, dreampunk—at the broadest level—can and should be pushing boundaries.
I totally agree. All of these “punk” genres are considered speculative fiction by their very nature, but when the realms you’re speculating about include psychology, philosophy, and the like, you start to enter territory that’s traditionally been staked off for “literary” fiction. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of dividing fiction up into categories like these?
Genres are dangerous because they’re loaded with expectations and, in many ways, limits. I actually wrote a guest blog post about this very topic.
Genres are handy tools, but they also can handicap an author if a reader has decided, for whatever reason, that they do not like a genre en mass. At the same time, book stores—both online and physical—need a way to organize their wares.
My book If Souls Can Sleep got very positive feedback from editors at big publishing houses, but they were concerned that it didn’t fit neatly in any one genre. Some readers would see that as detrimental; others, advantageous or even intriguing.
If The Powers That Be condemn genre-bending, we lose the opportunity for innovation. For me, personally, coming up with something new and exciting is important—both as a writer and as a reader.
Well put. To paraphrase Mark 2:27, genres were made for books, not books for genres. Who are some of your favorite writers? Do you write the same sort of thing you like to read, or not so much?
I started out reading a lot of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, high fantasy, and the like. Frankly, I burned out. The series all started to sound/feel the same, so now I read straight-up fantasy on a much more selective basis. Of course, I’m waiting for the next George R. R. Martin book, like the rest of the world.
Neil Gaiman has to be one of my all-time favorite authors. His Sandman graphic novels are the epitome of dreampunk, I’d say, and yet they are incredibly erudite and even scholarly. They’re about the most “literary” comic books I’ve ever encountered.
Actually, I’ve been binging on graphic novels lately and have been very impressed by Vaughn and Staples’ Saga, Vaughn and Chiang’s Paper Girls, and Liu and Takeda’s Monstress, which is so well-realized and intricate that it would have made an excellent series of novels.
I know common advice is to read up in your own genre, but part of me worries I’ll be contaminated or discouraged if I encounter ideas similar to mine. So I run the risk of “repeating”—I suppose—what might already exist, but at least I know it’s fresh from my brain and not unconsciously borrowed from someone else’s.
Right, I hear you on the concern of contamination. I recently interviewed Jeff Noon, and he said about the same thing. So how about music? Is there anything you listen to while writing? Or anything you can think of with a similar feel to your dreampunk work?
Not intentionally. I listen to a wide variety of music while writing, including oldies rock, Motown, alt country, old-school country and western, dubstep/electronica, and other music from around the world, such as Chinese classical or Bollywood.
However, when I find a song that seems “in sync” with my writing, I take note of it. I’ve made a hobby of creating unofficial soundtracks for my books. In many cases, the themes of the songs tie into my books—sleep, dreaming, death, the afterlife. But other times it’s just a single lyric that makes a spark.
Here are some links if you’re interested:
Soundtracks! I love that. I have a dreampunk playlist I’ve been listening to a lot. I should totally do that for individual stories. Would you say dreaming plays a role in your creative process? Have you ever pulled anything from a dream to include in your writing?
I’ve heard tell of authors whose entire book—or even a series—comes to them in a dream. It’s almost as if they are the reporter for their subconscious. That has never happened to me, though some of my favorite puns have popped into my head in that quasi-lucid state between sleeping and waking.
I tend to have quite vivid dreams, very action-packed and nuanced. None of them have been sophisticated enough to be transformed into fiction, but the fact that I have so many nocturnal adventures surely has impacted my interest in dreams. I’m constantly wondering, “What are dreams even for?”
That half-awake state can be pretty fertile. I know Philip K. Dick used it a lot. How would you define a “dream” in terms of the genre? Would it include other unreal experiences like hallucination or virtual reality?
I see those all as distinct things with certain commonalities. Perception definitely plays a role. In my series, dreams sometimes serve as a metaphor for online experiences, including VR. For example, if you can be anything in a dream, and you choose to be someone very different from real life, then which is the actual you? The same goes for virtual environments. If I’m a different persona in the virtual world, doesn’t that still say something about my core identity?
Really, we all have our own unique understandings of reality. Someone who hallucinates—or, more commonly, makes a false assumption about some external factor—still relies on that perception.
In effect, we’re all in our own individual realities, though, thankfully, there is enough consistency for some semblance of order to exist. It’s when we encounter people whose personal paradigm differs drastically from the general populace’s that an awful lot of conflict—or evolution—can occur.
Well said. So what can we expect from you in the future? Where are you headed?
If Dreams Can Die, the third book of The Soul Sleep Cycle, will be available in paperback and for Kindle on May 21. I’m already planning my next novel—a tongue-in-cheek standalone YA portal fantasy—and hope to dabble with a serial fiction app, Radish, before the end of the year. Maybe a collection of short stories next year?
I have no shortage of future books percolating, so I’m sure I’ll always be working on one novel or another. Writing for a comic book and for a video game are also on my bucket list.
My goal is to always keep it wonderfully weird… just like life itself.
The Soul Sleep Cycle (2017–2019) by David Michael Williams
After years of being haunted by the day his little girl drowned, Vincent faces a new nightmare—one that reaches into the real world and beyond the grave. Enter a hidden world where gifted individuals possess the power to invade the dreams of others. Two rival factions have transformed the dreamscape into a war zone where all reality is relative and even the dead can’t rest in peace.
Update: David contributed to the dreampunk short story collections Mirrormaze (2020) and Somniscope (2023)!