Victor Manibo: Five Things I Learned Writing The Sleepless


Journalist Jamie Vega is Sleepless: he can’t sleep, nor does he need to. When his boss dies on the eve of a controversial corporate takeover, Jamie doesn’t buy the too-convenient explanation of suicide, and launches an investigation of his own.

But everything goes awry when Jamie discovers that he was the last person who saw Simon alive. Not only do the police suspect him, Jamie himself has no memory of that night. Alarmingly, his memory loss may have to do with how he became Sleepless: not naturally, like other Sleepless people, but through a risky and illegal biohacking process.

As Jamie delves deeper into Simon’s final days, he tangles with extremist organizations and powerful corporate interests, all while confronting past traumas and unforeseen consequences of his medical experimentation. But Jamie soon faces the most dangerous decision of all as he uncovers a terrifying truth about Sleeplessness that imperils him—and all of humanity.

The entire experience of bringing a debut novel to life is a non-stop learning process, especially so since this book was the first I ever wrote. I could fill up a much longer list, but for now, here are five things I learned writing The Sleepless:

Sleep Evolved Before Brains, and Other Rad Trivia

Creating a science fictional world where some people do not have the need or ability to sleep meant doing a lot of research about sleep science. I learned that “fear naps” are a thing, and that cognitive behavioral therapy is more effective than medication in treating insomnia. I learned about g-suits, which are pressure trousers worn as a part of an astronaut or pilot’s flight suit to prevent g-force induced loss of consciousness. And did you know that sleep deprivation is a public health epidemic, and that about a third of Americans get less than six hours of sleep a night?

One of the more surprising things I learned is that most of our sleep research has been brain-centric, focusing on how it functions in complex creatures; after all, those are the ones with physiologies that you can hook up probes to. Yet newer research has shown that simple organisms like cockroaches, or even brainless ones like hydras and jellyfish, do sleep or engage in sleep-like behavior.

There are a Lot of Hate Groups Out There

One of the more unpleasant parts of my book research for is learning about hate groups. The Sleepless world has created a new class of people, and with it, a new basis for othering. Because of their condition, the Sleepless are treated differently: they are discriminated against, and they suffer threats to and loss of life, liberty and security.

To more realistically depict this, I delved into different kinds of hate groups, reading about their origins, their supposed ideologies, and their modus operandi. I learned their names and histories, how they are structured and funded, where they are located, what their membership looks like and how they recruit. Resources like the Southern Poverty Law Center were invaluable for this purpose–and for my own education. Through their research and databases, I gained a deeper insight into how widespread hate is in this country, and the different forms it takes. Things I thought I already knew. Not to sound alarmist, but things are worse than we think.

Genres are Meant to Be Blended

I’m a wide reader–I have no overwhelming favorites in terms of genre, setting, style or form and I feel that I have an richer reading life because of this tendency for openness. When I decided to become a writer, that translated into the stories I created. The premise of a sleepless world came to me first, so I knew The Sleepless was going to be a sci-fi book, but I also was drawn to the idea of writing a locked-room mystery, so I tried mashing those two together. I also wanted deep character interiority and a slow build, so I also had literary fiction conventions in mind as I was writing.

This made the process both rewarding and complicated: I was playing in several story sandboxes that I love, but I also needed to learn how to write each of them individually, in order to execute them well as a whole. That meant honoring each genre tradition, knowing their tropes and hallmarks, and examining what made me fall in love with them. That also required a willingness to depart from those hallmarks, to break them and bring my own spin on them, all the while finding ways to make everything cohere.

Life Imitates Art Sometimes, And That’s Okay

The world of the Sleepless was brought about by a global pandemic of mysterious origins, which was fun to write back in 2017 when I started, but not as much in 2020. Real-life events had a lot to teach me, learnings that made their way into the book. I saw first-hand the fear and confusion caused by a pandemic, as well as the pain and hatred that misinformation and panic can cause. I also saw how our institutions responded to the threat; the inefficiencies, the incompetence, and the iniquities of world leaders and private entities were, unfortunately, useful fodder for my world building.

In 2020, I was in the middle of revising and pitching it to agents and publishing houses. I received some rejections that responded to that aspect of the book, which taught me a lot about how difficult the industry is in general, and how much more so during an ongoing crisis. Compound that with the fact that I’ve written a pandemic-adjacent book, and it truly felt like an unwinnable uphill battle. Yet I stuck to it, refining the details of the pandemic to be more grounded in reality. I believed in my story and though I sometimes had doubts, I believed that there were readers out there who would too, despite the circumstances. Luckily, that turned out to be true.

Who I Am as a Writer is Ever-Changing

When I started drafting The Sleepless, I did it mostly for myself. I didn’t aspire to publish; I didn’t even know how. As my first book, writing it was largely a process of me discovering the story, and also myself as a writer. I knew what kinds of stories I liked to read, but I didn’t yet know what kind I liked to write, or the kind that I had the skills enough to write. I didn’t know process either: would I create better stories if I plotted or if I made things up as I went along? What’s the best way to motivate myself to keep working on a project?

And there were deeper personal questions too. How much of myself do I want to infuse in my work: as a brown person, as an immigrant, as a queer man, as someone raised in a religious and lower class background, etc. Even more, do I have to? What part of my personal values and beliefs do I want to examine, or to challenge, in coming up with my stories? I didn’t have ready answers to these questions when I first put words to paper; for the most part, I now do, but they are always shifting. My knowledge increases, my interests grow and expand, and with that my view of myself and the author’s life becomes clearer and more refined. On several levels, writing is constant exploration and investigation; it’s a journey of self-discovery, one that I’m glad I set out on.

***

Victor Manibo is a Filipino speculative fiction writer living in New York. As a queer immigrant and a person of color, he writes about people who live these identities and how they navigate imaginary worlds. Aside from fiction, he also spins fantastical tales in his career as a lawyer. He lives in Queens with his husband, their dog, and their two cats. He is a 2022 Lambda Literary Emerging Voices Fellow, and his debut science fiction noir novel, THE SLEEPLESS, is out August 2022 from Erewhon Books.

Victor Manibo: Twitter | Website

The Sleepless: Bookshop.org | Indiebound | B&N | Amazon


2 responses to “Victor Manibo: Five Things I Learned Writing The Sleepless”

  1. As an insomniac, I look forward to reading Victor Manibo’s THE SLEEPLESS during those – uh- sleepless nights. But I have a felling it won’t put me to sleep….

  2. “knew what kinds of stories I liked to read, but I didn’t yet know what kind I liked to write, or the kind that I had the skills enough to write.” This is such an interesting topic!!

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