Karen Perry is the pen name for two Dublin-based authors, Karen Gillece and Paul Perry. Their debut novel, “The Innocent Sleep,” addresses a number of issues, which the writing team talk about in this interview.
Parental fear and the pressure that deep personal loss can place on a marriage are central issues in “The Innocent Sleep.” The book is both a crime novel and an emotional journey. The authors said, “At the heart of this story there is both a missing boy and a marriage in crisis. Dillon is lost, presumed dead after the building he was sleeping in was destroyed by an earthquake, and for his parents—Harry and Robin—that loss has a profound and different effect on each of them.”
The authors have been friends for more than ten years and are both separately married with young children. When they started talking about working together, they discovered a common concern. They said, “We were both interested in exploring the various sides to parental love and the attendant fear, as well as the impact that children can have on a marriage. In the earliest conversations we had about what was to become ‘The Innocent Sleep’ we talked about exploring a fictional relationship with a hole at the centre of it—a vacuum created by the loss of a child—and the mystery that surrounded this child, whether he had died tragically or could he still be alive and his death a cover-up for some other dark purpose? We discussed at length what the psychological impact of this loss would be on his parents, how each of them could pull in different directions. We talked a lot about missing children—Etan Patz, Madeline McCann—and how, as a parent, you could ever come to terms with such a loss, how you could carry on living a normal life when that spark of hope is still there that someday you will get that phone call or that knock on the door, someone telling you that your child is safe and will return to you.”
Paul Perry also discussed the trigger behind the book. “Karen recalled reading an article in a newspaper many years ago about a woman whose baby died in a fire although the child’s body was never recovered. Then, some years later, the woman saw a child at a birthday party and was convinced this child was her daughter. DNA testing proved that this was indeed her daughter and that the baby girl had been stolen and the fire started as a deliberate cover-up. This story acted as a springboard for our early discussions and gave us the idea to start with Harry catching sight of a boy and becoming convinced this child is his dead son.”
“Harry cannot accept that Dillon is dead,” added Karen. “His own guilt about leaving the boy alone in the building is a driving force behind his committed refusal to grieve for the boy, and as the years pass, he imagines Dillon growing and changing as if he is still alive. Robin is more stoic and realistic—she wants to move on, to put the past behind her. She deals with her loss by suppressing any emotions that come to the surface. The crisis in their marriage is triggered when Harry catches sight of a boy in a crowd—a boy he is convinced is his missing son, Dillon—and this sends him on an obsessive quest to find the boy. Robin refuses to accept Harry’s sighting, and fears her husband is spiraling into a breakdown borne out of his guilt, but she has her own guilty secrets and as the trust between them disintegrates, these dark secrets must be drawn out into the light.”
The authors felt that their writing styles were different, yet complementary. They each took responsibility for a different narrative voice—Paul wrote Harry and Karen wrote Robin. That was not where the collaboration ended, however. The authors said, “Later on, perhaps the third or fourth draft, we swapped over and Karen re-wrote Harry’s chapters while Paul re-wrote Robin’s. While we hammered out the details of the plot in a series of meetings and phone-calls and emails, we also gave each other the freedom and space to deviate from the planned storyline if it felt right, and it was this freedom, as well as that frisson of excitement that comes with collaborative writing, that allowed so many twists and turns to creep into the plot.”
“The Innocent Sleep” began as a conversation over a drink in the famous Dublin literary pub “Neary’s”. According to the authors, they viewed it as a writing experiment, something that would be “fun and interesting,” and a break from their individual writing and teaching commitments. “From quite early on,” they said, “it seemed to take on a life of its own—our method of ‘relay-writing’ meant that there was the excitement of anticipation on a weekly basis as to what direction the other writer would take the story in.”
Both writers agree that their children influenced the writing of the book. Karen was pregnant with her second daughter for a part of the writing period and this had a strong effect when writing about Robin’s pregnancy. Paul added, “Waking in a half-sleeping state, I often went to the small desk in my son’s bedroom, and sat down to write in that hazy zone between sleep and dreaming. Many of the otherworldly material like the tarot cards, the child mummy in the British Museum, and the séances at Cozimos came from such a state of in-between-ness, the creative space that wells up in the shadows.”
Karen Gillece is the author of four critically acclaimed novels. In 2009 she won the European Union Prize for Literature (Ireland). Paul Perry is the author of a number of critically acclaimed books. A winner of The Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award, he is a lecturer in creative writing at Kingston University, London, and course director in poetry at the Faber Academy in Dublin. Learn more about the book and this writing duo at theinnocentsleep.com.