Alistair Morgan, author of Sleeper's Wake, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Title: Sleeper’s Wake
Author: Alistair Morgan
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780143025962

Short Review by Janet van Eeden

Sleeper’s Wake is not what one would call a light, holiday read. This isn’t to say that it isn’t well written. It is extremely well written. But the author, Alistair Morgan, ventures unflinchingly into the dark landscape of the disturbed soul. This novel is a compelling exploration of what happens to a man when he loses everything that defines him as a person.

When John Wraith’s car drifts off the road on the way home from a holiday with his wife and daughter and causes a horrific accident, he has to accept the uncomfortable truth that he fell asleep at the wheel as no other cars were involved. The result was that his wife and daughter were killed by what he can only see as his own negligence. Wraith’s future is impossible for him to contemplate. His sister spends the first few weeks of his bereavement with him, then suggests that John go to her husband’s holiday home in Nature’s Valley to recuperate. John has no other options, so he moves to the cottage on the beach during winter. There he exists for a few weeks without seeing many people except the local shopkeepers. He’s forced to face the fact that he was a less than perfect husband to his now dead wife, so he turns to alcohol to find comfort.

There are few families around, as it isn’t holiday season. However, John encounters Roelf, an outwardly awkward Afrikaner on holiday with his teenage children, Jackie and Dirk. Seventeen-year-old Jackie is precocious and provocative, but her behaviour is very erratic. John finds everything about her confusing. When he discovers that Roelf and his family are traumatised after a horrendous attack in which Roelf’s wife was killed and Jackie was abused, he tries to be more understanding of the strange trio.

When Jackie’s unpredictability makes her a temptation that John can’t refuse, there are some deeply uncomfortable moments for the reader. John exploits the situation to give in to his unconscionable dark side. He is enlightened enough, however, to realise that his actions only highlight his own inadequacies.

The author makes the reader aware, through his protagonist, of the “Sleeper” theory which proves that people in traumatic situations will behave in unimaginably awful ways. This theory echoes in John’s actions and gives the reader the comfort of knowing that even the protagonist knows how unacceptable his behaviour is.

Alistair Morgan has created a compelling portrait of a man in extremis, at his most vulnerable and at his most fallible. It’s a brave novel in that the author doesn’t flinch from revealing the depths to which a damaged mind will sink, no matter how uncomfortable it might make a reader. It’s a powerful novel.

Sleeper’s Wake is currently being filmed by Barry Berk. It will be interesting to see how it translates to that medium.

Q & A

Alistair, you have written a novel about a protagonist in his forties who loses his wife and daughter in a car accident. The man, John Wraith, obviously fell asleep at the wheel and lost his family as a result of his own negligence. His future is not one to be envied. What made you decide to write about such a bleak character?

I heard about a man who’d had a car accident in which his wife and child died. When the paramedics arrived he was running around a field with his dead daughter in his arms. It struck me as an almost unimaginably horrific thing to go through, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I found myself wondering how on earth someone pieces together their life after something like that. That’s when I started writing the book.

You examine your character’s inner thoughts unflinchingly. It’s quite uncomfortable to read about his guilt and his unhealthy thoughts about Jackie, the disturbed seventeen-year-old girl whom he encounters at Nature’s Valley. In fact, some of the passages with Jackie made me feel quite ill. You venture into an almost taboo world with his relationship with her. As a woman I was quite horrified that your protagonist had no scruples about her. I almost didn’t forgive you as a writer for having crossed those lines. However, at the end of the novel there is justification for these scenes when John realises how broken Jackie actually is.
I then realised you had deeper reasons for writing these scenes. Your discussion of the “Sleeper” phenomenon shows that you were exploring the depths that people will go to when they are in extremis. Could you tell LitNet readers a little more about this theory and how you came across the “Sleeper” phenomenon?

To live inside a character’s head, especially a character as damaged as John, has to be done, if it is going to be convincing, in a very honest way. And, yes, I was exploring the depths people will sink to in extremis. My intention was never to shock just for the sake of it. If I’d wanted to do that I could’ve made Jackie 11 or 12 years old.

The idea about the “Sleeper” theory comes from a book written about Polish men in the Second World War who committed shocking acts of murder and brutality on their fellow countrymen. They were all ordinary men before the war, but something snapped inside of them and they turned into these killing machines. Psychologists have since conducted several now famous experiments which prove that, under certain circumstances, most ordinary people have a capacity for extreme cruelty and violence. It’s easy to stand back and make judgements, but you never know for sure how you yourself would react unless you find yourself in such a situation.

Your character’s surname is Wraith. Is this a deliberate play on the fact that he is little more than a walking ghost after his accident?


Your novel has been turned into a screenplay by Barry Berk, who is also going to direct the film. In fact, I think they have just gone into production. Can you tell the readers how this came about?

Quite simply, Barry read the book and thought it would make a good film. It’s currently being filmed in Port Edward.

Have you seen the screenplay? Did you have any input into the writing of this? Did you have any say in the casting and so on? And what do you think of the production so far?

Although I was initially approached to write the screenplay I really didn’t want to be involved in the film-making process at all. It’s not my area of expertise. Barry is a very talented and capable filmmaker and I wanted to concentrate on my next novel. Having said this, I have read Barry’s screenplay and I thought it was a very skilful transformation of the novel.

You were apparently the first non-American to win the Plimpton Prize. Can you tell me more about this prize and what you won it for?

The Plimpton Prize is awarded annually by The Paris Review (a New York-based literary magazine) to first-time published writers. I won it for my short story “Icebergs”.

Have you always been a writer? When did you first begin writing?

I’ve always enjoyed writing stories. But it was only in my thirties that I had the confidence to do something about it, so I enrolled for an MA in Creative Writing at UCT. I suppose that’s when I started writing “properly”. It was while doing this course that I wrote some of the short stories that were published by The Paris Review. I have Damon Galgut to thank for introducing me to the then editor of The Paris Review.

When does the film of Sleeper’s Wake come out? Do you feel it is the final mark of success to have your novel turned into a film?

I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the distribution of the film. Obviously I’m pleased that someone was interested in making the book into a film, but I also think that a book exists on its own. Film is a very different art form. For me, the final mark of success for a novel is if someone reads it through right to the end, even if it does make them feel ill.

What’s next on the cards for you? Could you tell us a bit about the next novel you’re writing?

I’m currently working on a new novel called Hinterland. It’s about a psychologist who is forced to come to terms with some very unpleasant aspects of his past. Penguin will be publishing it in 2012.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these sometimes difficult questions.

Thanks for asking me.

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