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Questions & Answers on Lucid
What is the book about?
Lucid is a complicated story. At its most basic, it’s about a guy called Ollie who lives in Cardiff and is having some really messed up dreams.
In these dreams he meets a woman, only she’s not just a normal dream because he meets her again, and again, and again.
The question is really: if we go to sleep each night and wake in Dream, can dreams wake in our world too?
On a more complex level, the story explores the relationship between the chemicals in our head, and neurochemistry, and how recreational drugs and these inner dream juices can create visions.
It’s a little hard to explain, which is why I put it into a novel.
I think what first got me interested is the fact that these biological chemicals going on inside us, and our body’s need to dream, is something that every single living human being on the planet has in common.
That’s part of what I set out to explore because, as I say in the book, it means that every night a kid on a sink estate in Glasgow is walking side-by-side with the shamans of Siberia. The difference is cultural interpretation and the importance, if any, that we place on dreams.
How much of the science is real?
Hopefully, a lot of what I talk about in the book stands up to debate.
The relationship between human biology and hallucinogens is almost symbiotic. At least in terms of dreams. We seem to have an innate need for them. The chemicals inside our brains that create dreams, or what we know of them so far, aren’t that different from something like Ayahuasca, which is a South American hallucinogenic brew used by shamans in rituals.
Now, Ayahuasca is made up of two plants. One contains an incredibly potent hallucinogen called DMT, but on its own this just passes through the body. It’s not actually active. So, it needs another chemical to make it active, and to allow the body to absorb it into the system and create visions.
Now, our bodies create something pretty similar, and there have been studies which suggest that this really potent hallucinogen is perhaps a by-product of our digestion, or our digestive process. So, that’s already in our system in small amounts. And then, when we go to sleep, we also start to produce another drug, which is the one that makes this hallucinogen active. So, there are a lot of correlations between these external drugs like Ayahuasca, and what our body naturally does when we sleep at night.
I mean, whatever the chemicals involved, it’s just a question of whether you dream whilst you’re asleep, or whether you dream whilst you’re awake. Throughout human existence we seem to have embraced both.
I think what really got me into all of this was an article I read on Wiki a long time ago. It was about the Harmala alkaloid, which is one of those chemicals which would make the hallucinogen active in Ayahuasca. The thing that caught my attention was that it used to be known by the name Telepathine. Now, really, that just blew my mind because it meant that, once upon a time, a group of educated, scientifically-minded individuals looked at a chemical and agreed that that it had the ability to promote ‘telepathic communication’.
Now, however off-the-wall that sounds, it’s the kind of thing you really want to investigate.
A lot of people say that they’re not interested in rationalising dreams, or in hearing about the chemistry, and Lucid isn’t a book about science. Fundamentally it’s an adventure. But, for me, that adventure begins with a little bit of science.
I don’t think that kills the magic of dreams at all. I think it enhances it. Neurochemicals might cause dreaming, but we’re not all dreaming the same dream, and we’re not all having the same visions. So, it might explain why we dream, but it doesn’t explain what dreams are.
It’s that powerful uncertainty that I like to play with.
Is there a message about drugs in the story?
I think, as a writer, I try to avoid telling people what to think. Although, I would like to encourage people to think.
It’s very difficult with such an emotive subject as drugs, because everybody’s got an opinion about them. And those opinions, often, are media-fed hyperbole or parentally implanted paranoia.
In the case of neurochemistry and hallucinogens, I honestly think that truth is stranger than fiction.
I mean, there are obviously more things betwixt heaven and earth than you might read on the front page of a sensationalized tabloid.
But, at the same time, I think that the study of drugs and their effect on the body and mind probably need to be in context. And what I mean by context is the difference between popping pills at a nightclub, and approaching them as entheogens.
Entheogen is a fantastic word that was coined to describe hallucinogens used in a shamanic or spiritual context. It’s taken from the Greek, and translates as ‘god within’. It’s most commonly used to describe plants such as Peyote, or Ayahuasca, Psilocybin Mushrooms, LSA Morning Glory, but it’s less about the substance and more about the mindset of how it’s approached.
For instance, if you go to sleep at night and you have a terrible nightmare, you wake up the next day and you say: “I’ve had a bad dream.” You don’t wake up and say: “Oh, dreams are terrible, I’m never going back to sleep again!” But if someone takes a pill at a nightclub and has a ‘bum trip’, which is the chemical equivalent of a nightmare, then often they come down from that and they say: “Pills are awful, all drugs are bad!” But, with entheogens, in context, people will often treat it like dreaming and say, y’know: “I’ve had a bad trip,” but rather than “the plant is bad, and all drugs are bad, and all entheogens should be banned,” it’s usually a bad trip because it’s exposed something about the person that they are either afraid of, or ashamed of, or that they can’t control.
And through that, and within the right context, that can become a psychological tool, which can strengthen somebody, and make them less afraid.
It’s a bit like a study of the effects of LSD on terminal patients which I mention, in which people who were dying, who, y’know, didn’t particularly wish to die, as I don’t think really anybody wishes to die, but it’s an inevitability. They’re given a dose of entheogenic drug to help to control their, their terror, basically, or their depression.
And, it’s a very small study, but the results were that one third of participants felt much better within themselves, much calmer. One third said that they felt a little bit better, and one third said that they didn’t really notice much of a change. But I think the important thing to note there was that nobody reported getting worse. Which is probably not what you’d expect from a trial of that sort, and Stanislav Grof has done an awful lot of research into psychedelic therapy.
And I think one of the problems we face, as Terence McKenna and Eliade often point out, is that our culture and our society is not really structured to validating these experiences. So, most of the time, they’re shrugged off or they’re frowned upon because they go against what is considered to be the normal social ethos. And, again, in doing so, perhaps we miss or dismiss some really important things.
So, back to the original question, um, no, I don’t think that I am setting out to tell anybody what they should think, or to give a message either endorsing or condemning drugs.
I think, if there is a message in the book, it would probably be not to accept everything for what it appears to be, but to look at it from several different angles. A bit like a hologram. Y’know, there are always layers of reality behind what something is.
Is there any reason that the book is set in Cardiff?
I spent three years in Cardiff. I eventually ended up doing my Masters there in Language & Communication Research. I did my final thesis on sign language provision and the criminal justice system but, every now and again, I’d attempt to slip in a paper on entheogens. When I did, my grades tended to take a dive, so, admittedly, because they were probably quite badly written. Which is why I decided to put everything into a novel.
Anyway, Cardiff was a big part of my life. I’m hugely fond of the place, and it seemed natural that Ollie should be too.
How do you pronounce gwyddon?
Well, ‘dd’ in welsh is ‘th’, so I believe it’s pronounced gwyth-on.
Was it difficult to write Adrian Roy?
For those of you who don’t know the book, Adrian Roy is one of the key characters. He does very nasty things to very vulnerable people. He’s thoroughly evil. Which is probably why the book is pushed more towards the horror end of the market, which I wouldn’t really say that it is entirely.
It may not be the most politic thing to say, but, in all honesty, I think that dark characters are easier to write. There really is no lack of darkness in human nature, so it’s a fairly boundless resource. I think I’d find it more difficult to write a saintly character.
I once saw the crime writer, Maria Schenkel, talk at a literature festival, and by all accounts she writes some fairly horrendous characters herself. Somebody in the audience asked her whether her characters gave her nightmares, and her reply was that they didn’t because she understood the characters. They were a part of her, so they didn’t frighten her.
I think that’s a really good answer.
I have a short story collection called Splintered Door. I term them ‘dark fairytales for adults,’ and they’ve had some interesting reactions. Somebody asked me where all of the darkness comes from in the stories, and I had to say that I don’t really know but, however it got there, it’s part of me, and I’m comfortable with that.
It’s certainly not all of me and, when I’m not writing, it’s not the part of me that’s important.
Where do the names come from?
This question came from someone who wanted to know where the names in Dream came from. Whether they were real names, based in reality, or things that I had made up?
The answer is that they are actually real. Um, you’ll probably have to excuse my pronunciations, but Àbíkú are from Yoruba, and that means ‘hungry ghost’ or, I think more literally, ‘those born to die’. They’re spirits that suck the life out of the living, to feed themselves. And then the Jinamizi, from Swahili, which literally means ‘nightmare’, um, y’know, I really believe in the power of words, and the power of names. So, if there’s a word for one of these concepts in somebody’s culture, then I like to borrow it because, to me, good fiction is not real, but it could be real.
Lucid was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary in 2009. Was that a big deal?
It’s a fantastic prize for new British authors. Lucid was actually the first novel that I wrote, but it took me a little while to get it to the stage where it was ready to publish.
I think, had it not been for the Luke Bitmead Bursary, I would probably have left it at that. But, because it was shortlisted, it was the first ever proper prize I’d received for writing, and I went away and wrote a second, which was my debut novel Angorichina.
There’s so much uncertainty in writing when you first set out. So, to have somebody turn around and say ‘yes, this is good, and we like it enough to make that public,’ is a huge, huge confidence boost.
I think both the Bursary and Legend Press are absolutely fantastic for the work that they do.
Will there be a sequel?