From an online interview on March 17 through April 12, 2021.
First off, tell us a little about yourself. How do you see yourself as a writer?
Aged twelve and emerging from a trance-like state, I carved four words into wood and knew I needed to write more. Through my teens and twenties, this progressed as poetry, and I often struggle to shake off the lyrical voice entirely—I guess past habits have a way of haunting us.
Now, they tell me I write fantasy. Why not? I find it easier these days to simply smile and nod.
Having always gravitated towards the mystical and the strange, I tried in my debut novel to bridge that divide by speaking directly to the adult inside the child, and the child inside every adult.
As a writer, I remain a hopeful catalyst for recollection.
Where did you first encounter the term “dreampunk,” and what does it mean to you personally?
I only encountered the term quite recently, via Twitter, and greatly enjoyed reading—and finding harmonious links within—the Mirrormaze anthology, which I would highly recommend to any readers interested in learning more about the dreampunk genre.
I suppose, for me personally, the term revolves around the idea of questioning reality: investigatively probing and stretching those “gray areas” where the fringes of our consciousness become uncertain. This inescapable feeling of Reality being “not quite so,” a sentiment so often linked to dream symbolism, reminds me in many ways of an extract from Louis MacNeice’s poem, “Snow”:
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
Who would you say are your biggest creative influences and inspirations?
Must defeat my Piscean indecisiveness here! Okay, so for the beauty of simplicity, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince blew me away and is still possibly my favorite book of all time. Kahlil Gibran’s work, for its soulful linguistic beauty—an unattainable carrot that I fear I shall be forever chasing.
John Wyndham for his imagination, Arundhati Roy for her irrepressible passion and bravery, and my personal dream team of Carl Jung, William Blake, and G. I. Gurdjieff for their philosophical and spiritual wisdom. I should probably stop there, but feel that I am undoubtedly forgetting so many others.
What drew you to dreams as a source of inspiration for your fiction? Do you connect your work to Jungian psychology, for example?
For me, it was probably more a “write what you know” decision. Having been a lucid dreamer for most of my life, it was a personal subject I wanted to approach with a certain level of honesty—as fantastical as that might seem. The way the narrator—Zoofall—speaks of unbroken dreaming sessions as a young child, for example, is entirely based on real experiences.
Despite being a great admirer of Jung’s work, I hadn’t really thought about a direct connection until you asked. Jung is mentioned briefly in the novel, referred to fondly by the Freedivers as “King of the Skimmers.” So, definitely an influence, but perhaps a further connection could be drawn to Jung’s belief in the collective unconscious and mythological archetypes appearing in our dreams.
Do you have any pro tips for aspiring lucid dreamers out there?
Not really, I’m afraid. I was fortunate in some ways to have developed this skill at such a young age that “techniques” were not really an issue, though I wouldn’t really wish my own journey—a cocktail of early trauma, a subsequent terrible fear of the dark, and vivid night terrors—into lucid dreaming on others.
With lucid dreaming becoming increasingly popular there are plenty of videos, guides, and courses popping up all over the place, and most of the advice I’ve seen on those sites does seem logical and sound in principle. Techniques such as MILD, WILD, or WBTB could be good for beginners, although I would try to avoid disrupting the sleep cycle more than necessary. Visualization is a great tool and, in my personal experience, a sort of meditative focus, usually on something singular, simple, and banal, before going to bed.
As expressed in Steggie Belle, many adults seem to talk mainly about gaining “control,” as in “the ability to control one’s dreams.” For me, that was rarely the aim or intention, but rather the absolute freedom found in diving, and letting go.
Flying (more like hovering by pushing energy through my feet, or sometimes like swimming through the air) happens a lot in my dreams. Lately, it’s actually served as an indicator that I’m dreaming, helping me go lucid. It also plays a role in Steggie Belle. Did you draw inspiration from Peter Pan for that? Do you fly in your own dreams?
What a wonderful indicator and way of going lucid! Flying does come up several times throughout the book in a variety of contexts—based on personal lucid experiences—from the magical and exhilarating, to the nerve-racking, desperate, and even lonesome. From my experience, the accompanying sensations are often the most fascinating: you mention “swimming through the air,” and I—like the narrator, Zoofall—have sometimes found reaching/maintaining altitude to be problematic, normally at the worst possible moments. I suspect that the degrees and forms of these struggles during the act of flying might hold a deeper meaning to the individual dreamer’s psyche.
Yes, Peter Pan was, without doubt, a form of inspiration, alongside The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley—another story I have a huge soft spot for. I was thrilled last year when one reviewer described my novel as reminiscent of “a darker Peter Pan,” and yes, when I started writing Steggie Belle back in 2016, I remember describing the concept to another writer as “Peter Pan meets A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
That sounds about right. Though there were some gruesome bits in the novel, I got the impression you were still writing with a younger audience in mind. Is that accurate? How do you navigate marketing classifications like middle grade, YA, etc.?
That’s a tricky one! I’m so glad that the book came across that way to you, but I think primarily I was writing more with an adult audience in mind—sort of a reverse “crossover” that would appeal to younger readers too. It’s still early days, but so far the overall feedback from adult readers has been great! As a novel, Steggie Belle and the Dream Warriors starts out relatively light and then grows progressively darker, and I really wanted to push those concepts and nightmarish limits, hopefully without leaving a generation of young readers traumatized—in a similar way to how the cartoon version of Watership Down affected me.
Perhaps because of this, the marketing classification has been a hard struggle. My ex-publisher changed their minds repeatedly between those two categories you mentioned, before finally insisting to settle on young adult—although I thought it could just about squeeze into upper middle grade.
I suppose some works simply refuse to fit neatly into specific categories, so in the end—perhaps naively—I took a leap of faith: believing that the story would find its own non-exclusive place within readers’ hearts… as unusual and unconventional as that place might be.
I know exactly the sort of audience you’re going for. My longtime work in progress is the same way. So if Steggie Belle were to get adapted for the screen, do you have any casting ideas or maybe a director preference?
Reluctantly snapping out of the seven-hour daydream your question induced.
You know, I think with casting, I might just let go of my own ideas and leave that to “chance.” When writing the novel, I deliberately left out nearly all character descriptions—except for Steggie’s rebellious curl of dark hair falling across her face—so I would be fascinated to see what direction the casting might take.
That thought reminded me of Kahlil Gibran’s words “on children”—as I suppose to writers, our work could be viewed as such. The part “You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams,” came to mind… so yes, with casting, I think I would take a step back from such decisions.
The director? Well, for that I think in my dream scenario, it would be George Miller. I am a huge admirer of his work and creative vision and was absolutely blown away by the beauty and imaginative cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road. It would be incredible to see what wild and epic action sequences he could create out of Steggie Belle.
What are you working on these days? Is there a Steggie sequel on the horizon?
I’ve been working on a couple of projects recently. One of which is a strange, mystery thriller for adults, set in a remote fishing village in Italy, where I used to live almost twenty years ago. There are strong dream-related elements within this story too—with one of the characters suffering from night terrors—but these will be mixed with themes of precognition versus fate, religion versus occultism, and the possibility that our accepted history is merely a thinly-veiled sleeve stretched over a darker, subliminal reality.
The other novel is indeed the sequel to Steggie Belle, although funnily enough, right now there is a battle raging inside my notebook between two parallel plots. The initial idea for the second book was the immediate continuation Dream-side, following Zoofall’s story. However, much to my surprise, the smaller offshoot narrative seems determined to claim the entire sequel for itself, pushing the main plot back into what I suppose would be the interquel—or third book. Never a dull moment between the waking and dream worlds!
That sounds awesome! What’s the best way to support you in your work?
Right now, I would love to find more readers and reviewers for Steggie Belle which is available on Amazon, and if you enjoy it, please do get in touch and consider spreading the word. You can also check out my website to find out more about my other published works, and sign up to my mailing list for occasional newsletter updates.
Steggie Belle and the Dream Warriors, by Elias Pell (2020)
A mysterious man in a sealed attic is desperately scribbling down secrets from his childhood. About how, beyond the limits of lucid dreaming, he discovered the existence of another world where Reality and Mythology meet. He must finish his incredible story before the seven candles run out, then face the nightmarish demons of his past, and the question which has haunted him for most of his life: “What really happened to Steggie Belle?”
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