Nicole Wolverton’s debut novel The Trajectory of Dreams follows a Houston sleep lab specialist named Lela White who has a very dark secret. Lela is obsessed with the space program, and she spends her nights breaking into the homes of astronauts to observe their sleep patterns. She is compelled my a mental illness to fulfill what she believes is a duty to NASA, and she’s fully prepared to kill in order to achieve her goals.
But a personal relationship with a Russian astronaut named Zory threatens to destroy her life’s work and pushes Lela further into a mental descent and forces her to make some very disturbing decisions.
The Trajectory of Dreams is a fast-paced and haunting psychological thriller, and we were lucky enough to interview Nicole Wolverton about her debut novel. What follows below is a brief (mostly spoiler-free) discussion with Wolverton about her fantastic novel and the inspirations behind her writing:
Nicole Wolverton is a freelance writer and novelist living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her debut novel, The Trajectory of Dreams, will be available in March 2013 from Bitingduck Press (from the author’s website)
TE: Who is Nicole Wolverton?
NW: Nicole Wolverton is part of a clandestine ninja ring intent on righting that which once went wrong. Or I might be a freelance writer and editor with a background in nonprofit fundraising who lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband, two cats, and a dog. Whichever sounds more probable.
TE: How did you first get started with writing?
NW: I wish I had a really great story for this—how I woke up after being in a coma for five years, suddenly imbued with a talent for writing and a burning need to tell stories. The truth is far less interesting: I’ve written short stories and poetry since I learned to read and write. When I was in elementary school I wanted to grow up to write Trixie Belden mysteries. I still harbor a vague desire to be the new voice of Trixie Belden, but that’s a different story.
TE: What is the biggest challenge in transitioning from writing short stories to writing a novel?
NW: Belief that you can sustain a story long enough for it to be a novel. That was always my number one problem. I’d get an idea, start writing, and then I’d hit this wall where I’d think, “Who are you kidding? There’s no possible way you can stretch this out to 80,000 words.” Part of it is having a big-enough idea, of course, but there’s definitely an aspect of believing you can do it that makes novel-writing possible. Of course, now I find it more difficult to be brief. Go figure.
TE: In The Trajectory of Dreams, Lela is quick to point out the psychological flaws in others while her own mental state rapidly deteriorates. Was it challenging to write from the perspective of a person suffering from a mental disorder?
NW: Yes and no. On some level we’re all a bit like Lela—few of us are self-aware enough to recognize our own personality flaws and failings, but we’re quick to judge others for theirs. Lela is just an amplified version of that, and that made it easier to write in a way. There was a lot of research that went into Lela’s particular disorder, how and why she thinks the way she does, her likely reactions and the history of how she developed. Parts of the story were very difficult to work through, particularly as Lela unravels. She has a very distinctive pattern of rationalization and almost a sociopathic ability to compartmentalize the various parts of her life.
TE: Lela and Zory have quite a few discussions about Russian literature. Are you a Russian lit scholar yourself?
NW: There’s a parallel to be drawn between Lela and Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment)—Lela herself makes the connection, only to reject the similarities immediately. That’s one of the reasons the Russian writers are such a large part of the novel, but the other is that I had a Russian acquaintance some time back who was borderline obsessed with the Russian literary legacy and its supremacy in the literary canon. Much of Zory’s Russianness (his sense of national identity, I guess) is based on this person because it always stuck with me. Now me, I like Russian literature just fine, but I’m no expert. In fact, it was while researching Russian poets that I came across Akhmatova and Kutik. I’m ashamed to admit I know very little about contemporary poets of any nationality.
TE: Throughout the novel, Lela’s most trusted confidant is her cat, Nike. What prompted you to include a talking, paranoid, conniving cat in the narrative?
NW: It’s what’s really missing from contemporary literature: we need more talking cats. No, it’s just that Lela secludes herself so much, and she doesn’t trust anyone. It makes sense that she’d look for a confidante who can’t communicate her secrets to anyone else, like a pet. A cat is the perfect choice—they’re sneaky and judgmental and aggressively cool. Nike is modeled after one of my own cats. Mayor McCheese is a giant yellow cat who has been known to meow in such a way that it sounds as though he’s calling out “Watch out!” Don’t worry: I know the Mayor doesn’t speak (or blink out sentences), but it’s tempting to think so.
TE: How did you maintain the balance between humor and horror in The Trajectory of Dreams?
NW: I have a very bad habit of making jokes at the most inappropriate of times. I’ve been shushed at weddings, funerals, etc. It doesn’t mean I’m a big jerk (okay, I might be). It’s just that I get nervous when I’m uncomfortable, and the nerves make me snarky. Lela inherited that habit from me, and I think it works to humanize her in a weird way. In earlier versions of Trajectory, Lela was colder, less relatable, and a bit less funny.
TE: Who influences you most as a reader?
NW: I read a variety of book blogs as well as websites like The Millions and Bloom, and of course many of my friends are readers. What I end up reading isn’t necessarily what bloggers or my friends or other writers tell me I should read, but it’s generally where I start looking for titles. Here’s my big confession: some of my favorite books are those found by going into a bookstore (independents are best for this, I’ve found) and randomly choosing. So I guess on that end the biggest influence is the store owner or the employee who curates the books.
TE: Who has influenced you most as a writer?
NW: How much space do we have? Believe me, I could go on and on about what I like about various writers. Someone who is always on my favorite list, though, is Kurt Vonnegut. He’s got such a distinctive voice, yet every novel is a complete experience. I admire John Irving’s plotting skills and his ability to write character. Monica Drake’s Clown Girl is so layered with subtext that I find something new every time I read it. Shirley Jackson’s ability to build suspense, her amazing imagery . . . John Green’s honesty . . . Kathe Koja’s language. Yeah. I read their work and sigh and immediately get fired up to find ways to improve my work.
TE: What’s the last great book you read?
NW: The books in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series. I realize the last of the trilogy came out in 2010, but I’m always the last to read everything. Despite that, I recommend it to everyone I run into. There’s so much to love: the concept, the dog, the discussion of the nature of war and misogyny and gender politics. I know people think young adult literature is nothing more than vampires and werewolves and paranormal romance these days, but there’ve been a lot of really amazing novels coming out of the young adult lit field (that have nothing to do with vampires, etc).