In Michelle Cuevas’s fantastical middle grade novel, The Dreamatics, a mythical theater troupe performs dreams for a sleeping child each night until tragedy strikes in the real world, prompting her dreamscape—and the Dreamatics’ theater space—to undergo a drastic change from fanciful visions to frightening nightmares. Only a dedicated stagehand named Dormir can set things to rights. Cuevas spoke with PW about the ways in which theater and writing overlap, how she processes her own life through her books, and the mystery of consciousness.
Being an author is a bit like being part of your own theater troupe—you are simultaneously the writer, director, set designer, etc. Does your theater experience influence how you write?
As much as any part of your childhood does. My theater experiences were in middle school and high school, and I think my writing style reflects that. Theater productions rely heavily on storytelling layers so I’m very big on using them—the idea of the book under the book or, like in the theater, the story under the playwright’s script.
The Dreamatics is a good example of how I always try to say to myself, “Okay, what is the top-level story?” It’s about a theater but, in this case, a dream theater. Then I say, “Okay, but what’s under that?” Is it about something deeper, like the trauma stages? And then under that, is it about something more universal, like the mystery of consciousness or the connection between time and space?
I think The Dreamatics is pretty similar to, say, a musical, and how a lot of times the songs will reveal the deeper emotions, but the reader is so focused on the action that the feelings or awareness doesn’t register until later. When it comes to any piece of media, when you’re a kid, you sort of meet it where you are. And so, for a book, when you’re young, it’s one thing, and then if you revisit it later, it’s another book entirely. And if your parents are reading it to you, it’s also a different book for them. And finally, when you’re a teen or an adult, it’s a different book for you, too.
To answer your question, I think yes and no; I think that theater is a very similar art form, but I’m not sure if my time playing Amanda Chicken Wing in eighth grade influences my work today.
You mention in a previous interview that you spent your years performing in plays in your school’s cafeteria, because you didn’t have a dedicated theater space, so you always had to be both actor and stage crew. How much of this experience informed how you developed the dream theater? Did you do any additional research to build an authentic performance space?
Yeah, I went to public school and no dig on public school, but they do combine spaces a lot. And so, our theater space was the cafeteria; during the day I was eating lunch and then I’d have rehearsals there after school.
My favorite kinds of ideas are the ones that have so much space to work with. So, The Dreamatics has this theater, and there are so many possibilities with a theater. I definitely feel that my own experience with performing inspired me to create some of the elements that are in the book. We certainly didn’t have a trapdoor at my school, but I knew that they were things that existed. And there’s unlimited numbers of things that could be beneath a trapdoor—it could even lead to another magical place.
But how do I make these mundane theater elements magical and cozy? My favorite aspect is coming up with new ideas that make me say, “Well, how does this work?” It’s kind of the way a Pixar movie operates, where they’re like, “Let’s reimagine something everybody knows about,” and then they ask, “But how does this technically operate?” And they go through all the moving parts of it. So yeah, in that respect, I’d say that my personal experience with the theater, plus my research and asking myself these questions made me think that this idea had legs, and it was one I really wanted to dive into.
Dreams can sometimes feel bizarre with seemingly no explanation for how or why any of the things one dreams come to be. What were some challenges or rewards of crafting a coherent narrative around dream logic? And how did you ensure that the more silly and whimsical elements didn’t overshadow the more serious aspects?
I’m glad you didn’t think they did, because I worry about that sometimes. I’ve never written capital-M magic, if you will. Whimsical magic is such a great term. I was calling it cozy magic. And I think of cozy magic as kind of like Liz Lemon’s “I want to go to there.” I think of Narnia, The Night Circus, you know; I get my hot cocoa, my fuzzy blanket, I light a candle, cue the rain sounds, and I get ready to read.
People always say that writers should have rules for their magical systems. I mean, I have to give myself some rules, right? Because I’m basically taking something with no rules, like dreams, and so I have to create a system here. And then I’m taking something like magic with, again, no rules. So, I have to decide, what’s my rule here? Some of literature’s most beloved magic systems, I feel, are very open-ended, so I wasn’t trying to get into the whole “how does one get this power?” of it all. I was more interested in making up something that was enjoyable to read.
Balancing it with the technical bits was probably one of the hardest parts. I usually make a cork board with the plot, and it looks like I’m like solving a murder. A lot of the technical things that happen in the theater, like the way things work or break down, I felt kind of loosely imitated the stages of the trauma response: the stabilization, remembrance, and then integration and reconnection.
That was one way I helped guide myself through the technicalities of it. I think it also connects with a reader. While they’re reading, they’re going on that journey, too, of course, with me. At the beginning, the reader is a little bit unsure of what’s always going on. I start with the prologue of a dream, and then, as my audience follows along, they start to understand that “Oh, this is a dream world, and this is how it works.” And when they think they’ve got it, it changes a bit, because it’s magical. I had fun with all of that.
The Lunarian Grand and the Dreamatics are distinctly Luna’s dreamscape. Do you imagine that dreams and how they’re made manifest differently for everyone? What would your dreamscape look like?
I think I do. You know the question people commonly ask: Where does this idea come from? For me, they usually just find me. I’ll be reading something, or I’ll see something, and I’ll think, “Oh, there it is.” And it’ll connect to something that’s been a deep-down feeling within me. I’ve been kind of mining internally.
In the case of The Dreamatics, I had started taking Zoloft for my anxiety, which I don’t mind people knowing at all. And I was having really, really, really wild dreams. That’s one of the early side effects of the medication, and it was fine, and I didn’t mind, but some of the things I dreamed made me question myself. Like, what part of me needs me to know how to hide a body? What is going on? I started imagining this chaotic theater troupe that was meeting inside my brain discussing, “Okay, I guess this is the thing she wants to dream out. Let’s write it up. Let’s cause chaos.” And I loved it, it was really fun.
I’m sure that each person, and their own personality, would influence their dreamscape. Maybe someone has a gothic dream theater, or a circus, or a Jim Henson/Muppets theme. There are so many ways it could go. I feel like that’s a cool thing for kids to be able to think about. How does it connect to you as a person?
Let’s say you were to return to the world of theater. Do you have a dream role, or do you think you’d prefer to be part of the stage crew, like Dormir?
I love that. I remember when I first started college, I wanted to double major in English literature and theater, but that felt too specific. Though I think that my being a writer clearly conveys that I’m not the spotlight type—it sounds more fun to be a behind-the-scenes person.
But I also think that writing in the first-person is a little like acting. I sort of pretend to be that character. My favorite character in The Dreamatics is Winks: he’s the maestro of the Forty Winks orchestra. In my mind, he is 1,000% played by Martin Short. As I was writing him, I was like, “You’re hilarious.” For Dormir, I thought, “Okay, so you’re a low self-esteem stagehand in a dream theater, go.” I feel like the characters I write in first-person are sometimes mostly just me and others are just pieces of me.
Your 2017 book, The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, is currently being adapted by filmmaker Matt Reeves, and your 2015 book, Confessions of an Imaginary Friend, is being developed into an animated film by Fox Blue Sky Studios. Is there any news you can share about these adaptations? Will you be involved in any capacity?
What I can say is that Confessions of an Imaginary Friend has been reacquired by a different animation studio and is actively being developed with awesome people. And I can’t say more, but it’s really exciting.
And I don’t know what stage The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is in. My involvement in that was early on; I helped them hash out some plot stuff while they were writing a draft of the script, but it seems like now they’re going more with just the book plot. They really thought that it was written in a very theatrical way anyhow. So, I’ve just been getting super fun updates.
I think I used to be a little fussy. There was probably a time when I’d say, “I don’t want them to change it or do something with it that I don’t like.” But now, I’m very free about that. I just think, they’re artists, and they’re going to make their own kind of art with it. I’ve very much accepted that it’s going to be a different thing, because it’s a different group of artists making it.
We’re actually out now with The Dreamatics, we’re talking to people. So yeah, we’ll see. I think that one could really go both ways; it could be a cool film, or a cool TV show. Like, if each episode was a different dream. We’ll just have to see where it lands.
The Dreamatics by Michelle Cuevas. Rocky Pond, $18.99 Sept. 12 ISBN 978-0-593-53222-5