Adam Foulds presents readers with a stunning and terrifying vision of the damage done between a fan and a celebrity in his new novel, Dream Sequence. It follows Henry, who has become famous starring in the fictional television drama The Grange, and whose dogged fans speak about the characters as though they are real people. Plagued by an acute and constant awareness of his own image, Henry has also—unwittingly—become an integral part of the life of the recently divorced Kristen. She watches him, rapt, on the television in her empty Philadelphia house and devours the details of his life through social media. What Kristen wants is simply to get as close to him in real life as she is in her fantasy.
Foulds joined John Wray, author of the novel Godsend, at The Center for Fiction to discuss celebrity, magical thinking, and the vulnerability of success.
John Wray: I’m John, this is Adam. Thanks you guys for all coming out. Adam and I have known each other for ten years.
Adam Foulds: Something like that.
Wray: And it’s always been a pleasure reading his books—both as a poet and as a novelist, he’s made quite amazing stuff. Each book is very distinct from the one before it. Dream Sequence is, I think, a departure for you. It’s—how could it be best described?—it’s essentially a study of two people whose lives become intertwined—timely, but in a way that I think is particularly useful in talking about all the ways in which our modern society is mentally ill. It’s the story of a woman named Kristen, who’s from the United States, who develops an obsession with an actor who plays a recurring role on a soap opera—I guess you could call it a soap opera?
Foulds: Yes, he’s an actor who suddenly got successful by virtue of getting parts in a show that’s sort of like Downton Abbey in that it’s a Sunday night historical drama, it’s got a bunch of seasons, and had become this global hit. It’s now all done, so he’s spat out at the top of the escalator, and he’s in a moment of vertigo, of ambition, of wanting to transition into being a film star and being properly famous. And Kristen, this character who you’ve spoken about, has become convinced they are meant to be together after a very brief meeting she’d had with him in an airport. It’s an accidental meeting, where she has an experience of a mystical kind in that she becomes assured that the true nature of the universe is love, and that Henry is her intended partner, and the drama of the novel is her determination to bring them together in order to conform to the universe as she understands it. Henry, at the beginning, is starving himself for a role that he hopes to get. He’s auditioning for a bigtime European art house director for very much the kind of project that he thinks will give him the credibility and the kind of Cannes Film Festival aura that is exactly what he thinks he needs—and wants.
Wray: So he’s really at the most fascinating and exciting and also terrifying moment in an actor’s career. He’s right at the moment that all actors dream of and fantasize about, but he’s also of course terrified about that, because it can also all go wrong. Basically, my way of thinking about it when I was reading the novel was he’s sort of like the member of a boy band who’s about to go solo, and he may take off and go to even greater heights and he may become the acting world’s next, I don’t know, Beyoncé or something, or it could go horribly wrong and everyone could mock him for trying to be taken seriously, and he could disappear.
Part of what this novel is interested in is desire and pleasure and the fullness and emptiness of experiences.
Foulds: Yeah, that’s about right, and the fear of disappearance has possessed him. Part of what this novel is interested in is desire and pleasure and the fullness and emptiness of experiences, depending on how they strike you. So, yeah, he’s an enviable person, from the outside at least.
Wray: One of the great pleasures of this book for me, aside from the fundamental premise of a stalker and her object of obsessive desire, is how that object, then, in turn, has a completely different mental relationship to his stalker. One of the things I like is that they know each other. Their paths have crossed, it’s not just purely a projection. Another of the great pleasures is the language in all your unbelievable descriptions and incredibly elegant turns of phrase. Just in the section that you read earlier: “in that small town along its pretty river, a place numb with gentility and heritage conservation” is so amazing. Then in that same paragraph: “they knew each other like houses they’d ransacked.” Especially for a writer reading another writer, these are themes you’ll go to magpie mode over and store away.
Foulds: Yeah, well I guess part of that is coming out of quite a lot of experience. I mean, that’s the one line I’ve written about Stratford on Avon and I lived in that town for a year.
Wray: But it’s one line that seems to encapsulate an enormous amount of familiarity with Stratford on Avon. It is evident, you know, you had me see the whole town in that sentence, or that phrase. Another thing that I greatly admired about this novel as a whole is that I think I expected—maybe without being totally conscious of it—that it would essentially just be a satire. It would be so easy, and probably really fun as an author, to just really satirize this world. And of course there is a vein of satire running through it, obviously. Sometimes it’s very understated. But that’s really not what this book is. It’s not a spoof of the world of celebrity at all.
Foulds: No, and particularly with Henry and the acting world, I feel a tremendous pain and sympathy for actors. I’ve known a few, and I’ve been very close to the acting world for periods of my life, and I’ve seen what actors suffer. And Henry’s an extremely lucky actor, but even among the lucky ones, the existential fear is ever-present. And it’s much worse for actors when they don’t get these huge breaks and they don’t get the opportunity to make so much money. So yeah, my heart goes out to people who are fighting that fight for whatever reason. And I’m very interested in the psychology of why people end up there. Partly, Henry came out of a bunch of people I’ve known, but also interviews with other actors that I’ve read or listened to. I got quite interested in the psychology. So, I’m pleased to hear that it feels rooted in the real psychology that is sympathetically understood rather than, as you say, satirized.
Wray: Yeah, it absolutely does. In fact, another surprise for me when the novel begins is initially, one expects the focus of the narrator—but also the focus of the reader’s empathy, if not sympathy—to be Kristen, this profoundly ordinary representative everywoman, in her very movingly sad and mystical fixation on this image. But really, for me at least, the heart of the book is clearly with Henry. As the narrative progresses, I think one goes from worrying about Kristen and how clearly she was inevitably going to be crushed. There’s no expectation that this dream that she has of eternal oneness with this very famous celebrity is ever going to come to fruition. But gradually, as the narrative continues, you come to be profoundly more concerned with Henry and what it means for him that this character has decided to finally make the pilgrimage to England to unite, or I suppose reunite, with her true love and the one person who completes her. I became very, very scared for Henry as the book went on.
Foulds: Oh, well that’s good.
Wray: This may just be my inherent narcissism and superficiality, but I identify with the world of celebrity. He’s not horrible, actually, I found him very relatable.
Foulds: Yeah, I mean he’s wrong about lots of stuff, and he needs to find that out quite soon, otherwise things will go wrong in a very significant way. Kristen, she’s a very benign person, I think, and it was important to me that for both of them—this pairing and this story felt so resonant in the culture, partly because they’re both tied up with things that we all experience on a continuum, on a spectrum. Kristen is deeply entangled in some magical thinking, but it’s the kind of magical thinking that we all do, in some version, when we think that something’s fated. “This is the person I’m meant to be with,” “this was bound to happen,” “the universe wants this for me.” She was in some way crystalized from a culture that has that language in it and that has the odd indulgence of tarot and astrology and all those things, which I certainly am not averse to—I approve of both those things—but they are part of a way of seeing the world that is not all necessarily reality-checking in the right ways. And Henry, too—there was an interest in fame, which we all experience, in understanding his own worth, and in balancing or calibrating his self-worth in terms of other people’s responses to him. At some point, I realized that this pairing was a version of the Echo and Narcissus story. Once I knew that, it kind of settled. I knew that they were to be in this permanent looped relationship that had to culminate in a particular sort of way.
Wray: This is a perfect illustration of the difference between the British and the American educational system, because I have virtually no knowledge of the Echo and Narcissus myth. I get the reference—yet, this happens with Adam all the time. He’s so effortlessly educated.
Foulds: It took a lot of effort.
Wray: Yeah, I know you’ve worked hard. I’m sure you’ve worked hard. I wanted to say two things about what you were just telling us. One is that I think that the considerable suspense of this novel and the reason for my increasing anxiety as I continued to read the book is that thriller jump anxiety. It comes from the fact that magical thinking, while it may in many ways get us all through our day-to-day existence, when clearly recognized in another person, is somewhat terrifying.
Foulds: Oh, yeah.
You can’t help but wonder what is going to happen when this magical thinking is revealed as such, when it collides with the actual circumstances in the book.
Wray: When you really, really encounter profoundly magical thinking, you can’t help but wonder what is going to happen when this magical thinking is revealed as such, when it collides with the actual circumstances in the book.
Foulds: And it’s also the same mode of thought as conspiracy thinking: I know something about the world that is not overt, and that is profoundly meaningful, and that means I have to behave in a certain way. You know, conspiracy thinking is a huge part of the political predicament we’re in.
Wray: Even in a simpler formulation: I am at the center of the universe. Essentially I have delusions of reference, and everything relates primarily to me—which is one of the diagnostics of schizophrenia. Delusions of reference. You know, “oh, the man on the television is talking to me.” It’s only a very small distance from that to “oh, the man on the television is my intended life partner.” And so, one can’t help but wonder with Kristen to what degree is her pathology something we all share. I mean, we have all obsessed about various people on television, on the magazine cover. But to what degree is she actually dangerously mentally ill?
Foulds: Well I think that’s the point—it’s a question of degree. And I think we’ve all, or lots of us have, at some point got hooked on the idea of a particular famous person.
Wray: Even just that kind of fan’s attitude of “oh, I get this person particularly,” you know, “I really appreciate this person’s sense of humor,” or their sense of personal style, and other people just don’t get it. Of course there are millions of people who have exactly that sentiment.
Foulds: “And if we met we’d definitely be friends.” This is another version: “if we met we’d definitely be life partners.”
Wray: But yeah, I feel like the temptation, maybe, when writing a novel of this kind in which you have this impossible crush, this delusional crush, would be to present the human being behind the celebrity as essentially different from the idealized version that the person having the crush has built up as possible. In other words, in this case, the temptation would be to show us a Henry who’s just absolutely cruel and so narcissistic that he feels nothing for others.
Foulds: That’s not my experience of actors. You know, there are some out there, but my experience of actors is that they are, by and large, very sociable, generous people. They want to be loved, they want to play, and they want to please. All things being equal—and for some it’s quite difficult for them to experience all things as being equal—but all things being equal they’re nice people. I don’t think of Henry as a bad person.
Wray: What that does for the novel, I think, which is very useful, is not only does it cause us to worry about and sympathize with him, but we also don’t quite know what is going to happen when these two characters finally do meet. We know that they will somehow intersect again, but we don’t know quite how exactly Henry’s going to react. He could react with profound kindness—it’s not impossible, not unthinkable—or he could be absolutely brutal. That kind of ambivalence, that back and forth on the part of the reader’s take on things—and I even allowed myself at certain moments to think they might have some kind of innocuous, pleasant little encounter and they would go their separate ways. That’s not really what suspenseful fiction is built on. I always hope every novel is just going to have a happy ending for some reason.
I was also interested in what one would refer to as the secondary characters in the novel, because they’re all sketched and presented to us with such economy that they’re so vivid, and they’re often very surprising. For example, there’s a long section in the middle of the novel in which Henry goes to Qatar on a kind of junket. And while there, among all the different predictably decadent activities that one, I guess, inevitably falls into in Doha, he comes to know this attractive young woman who is coming up in the world as a model but still not quite making a go of it that way, and again—this is something that the novel does frequently, I think—it presents us with these situations that we have been conditioned to expect certain things from. I think a fairly acid satire is what one expects. So, when Henry, in the course of his junket, starts to flirt with this young, attractive woman—who is essentially just being paid money to stand there and not have a personality—and they gradually come to know one another, she emerges as a very intelligent, and surprisingly insightful, and surprisingly human, kind individual. It’s not just an aversion to cliché that you have in your writing, at least this novel more than your other books, it’s almost a playful relationship to cliché because it sets up a situation that we, whether we know it or not, have very specific expectations. And then it gradually, in a very humanistic and sophisticated way, presents us with something that’s very different than what we expected. Were you at all conscious of that when you were writing?
Foulds: Not really, but I think it’s a product of just wanting to write real people. And the character that you mentioned, she reappears in the book—
Wray: Oh, she does?
Foulds: She has a role, she presents a possibility of a more grounded sense of reality. And you can feel that Henry wants this. He can hear a kind of rattle in the engine. He knows that there’s a problem but he just has somewhere to get to so he’s not going to stop driving. But there’s another actress in Qatar, a British actress who has a life as an online feminist campaigner, and he’s very attracted to her momentarily, then a few minutes later finds out that she’s got a boyfriend already. You can see he’s looking for something that feels more solid, that feels less vertiginous.
Wray: He’s an interesting type of narcissist—a narcissist who’s self-aware enough to recognize that he’s a narcissist and that it’s a problem, and he seems to sincerely want what all aspiring profession-desperate actors want, which is to just move up the ladder of both fame and prestige, I suppose. But he also has at least enough instinct in himself to know that this may be unhealthy and, in fact, completely destructive in the long run. So, we’re kind of hoping that he’ll figure it out.
Foulds: I think the reader understands it better than he does. You meet his parents and you see, in meeting them, they have a fairly significant role in the novel and it’s very easy to infer why he’s gone to strangers for love and affirmation. And he’s not quite on top of that yet. I think that’s maybe among the things he needs to understand. To take it back to real life for a minute, one thing that occasionally came to mind when I was writing this was an interview I’d heard years ago with Judy Dench, who was already a very senior and preeminent actor at the time, wherein the interviewer asked if she ever thought about the other people who might be of her generation but who were sort of competitors—people like Maggie Smith—and she said, “They’re, all of them, all the time, right here,” and she made this gesture to her shoulder. So, even someone who is a national treasure and a transnational treasure, feels this vulnerability to competition and to it all being taken away—which was quite extraordinary to see this woman in her seventies who had done everything that you would think she would’ve wanted to do in her career still feeling like Maggie Smith could take it away from her.
Wray: Well didn’t massive success come relatively late for Judy Dench? As a household name in the U.S., that happened when she was in her sixties.
Foulds: I guess that’s the predicament that Henry’s in, because he thinks that’s the massive success that will quiet that voice, but it doesn’t. Even after massive global success, Maggie Smith is still looming over.
Wray: I’ve often thought of that as the paradox of creative work, and it may actually be something that applies to people in all branches no matter what one’s occupation is, but I think particularly because there is something inherently and essentially narcissistic about the artistic impulse. Of course, on one level what any artist is doing is saying, “look at me, look at this thing that I did.” But the worst thing, the kiss of death for an artist, is often profound and substantial success, because complacency is the death of trying very hard. But on the other hand, you can be completely corroded and destroyed by excessive envy, by excessive competitiveness—it can undercut you. An example for me of that odd devil’s bargain is someone like Philip Roth, who wrote so well he was often held up as this exemplar of someone who continues to write good books even after being successful and even after doing it for decades. What I gradually learned about Philip Roth through people who knew him is that he was consumed by competitiveness and self-loathing and insecurity his entire life. Apparently when he won the MacDowell Medal, which I believe he won when he was seventy-six or something and which is not like winning the Nobel Prize, he called up a friend of his and said “oh, that Don Delillo is just shitting himself right now.” And this is a seventy-six-year-old man, this is Philip Roth, for Christ’s sake. And the flipside of that is I don’t think he was a very happy person. I don’t think he had a lot of tranquil hours.
The worst thing, the kiss of death for an artist, is often profound and substantial success, because complacency is the death of trying very hard.
Foulds: Well, happiness writes white. In other words, it leaves a page blank.
Wray: I’ve never heard that before and it’s terrifying. Thank you for sharing. That’s your worldview in a nutshell.
Foulds: Well, it’s kind of not. I did want to disagree, besides that, about narcissism, possibly to redeem myself from the charge which is implicit in being leveled with artistic types. I think because my experience of writing is of disappearing—you get to a place where, well, it’s a complex process with lots of consciousness and unconsciousness happening simultaneously, but actually in the work, I’m the last thing I’m thinking about.
Wray: When it’s going well. That’s a good point.
Foulds: And I should mention your terrific recent novel Godsend, in which you have a very different character. One of the things that really impressed me about that book was the extent to which I couldn’t see you, to which you disappeared. Did you feel that when you were writing that book?
Wray: No, but I appreciate that with any one type of fiction one writes. All the autofiction that’s being written these days is the precise opposite of that. When the work is going well, when one is doing something that’s difficult and it’s going well no matter what it is, one tends to forget oneself because it’s ultimately hard to think about oneself and try to grapple with something really difficult. But in a way what you’re describing is the definition of good acting—that one disappears. Maybe not the filmmaking described from the point of view of Henry in that section that you read, but really what we admire most in actors is when they seem to disappear into the role. That’s a very easy analog between the work of the writer and the work of the actor.
Foulds: They are quite closely related. I think getting into character can be a very similar process to a writer getting into characters. And the performance of dialogue—you hear the dialogue as you write it, so you have a kind of line reading—so when you hear other people read the work, a different line reading sounds jarring because it has been performed. Sometimes, I think about writing in terms of making a film, putting on a film in someone’s consciousness—and I try to encourage writing students to think about it in that way because, in the cliché of showing rather than telling, it leads them to thinking about putting on scenes and watching action unfold. And in that, you become invisible.
Wray: There is a very “film” quality to this novel, I think. But I’m also going to play devil’s advocate here, because exactly what I was praising earlier about this novel, all the unbelievably elegant and economical and delicious turns of phrase that can do something like capturing an entire place like Stanford-on-Avon in a well-turned phrase are impossible to do in film. That’s exactly the strength of fiction as opposed to other art forms.
Foulds: I agree. I generally prefer novels for that reason.
Wray: It’d be a better conversation if you would disagree with me. Usually you’re so argumentative. You mentioned earlier when you were describing the novel—which is interesting because I had a description of the novel that I was saying to my own people, and then you described it in a way that was completely different from how I described it (which is probably a good sign, that it can be described in more than one way).You described the mystical nature of the type of obsession that Kristen forms on this Downton Abbey, medium-grade celebrity, and this notion of twin flames and that each person has one perfect other person that they need to find in life, which is an idea that I think goes in and out of fashion. But we were talking before this event and you said online it has a real presence—there’s a whole group of people who believe in it.
Foulds: Yeah, there’s a discourse around the twin flame idea, and books have been written about living with it. There’s even a way in which that literature exists to help people who are in Kristen’s predicament to cope with what it is to be part of a twin flame.
Wray: How to deprogram yourself. Self-help.
Foulds: Well, no, not necessarily, actually. It’s more a matter of ratifying the reality of the idea of the twin flame, but also not necessarily determining that you have to be together. There’s a kind of spiritual bypassing that can be done with this predicament; that this is bigger than even this one life, so you needn’t necessarily rush to bring these things about because it’s going to come up in one incarnation or another.
Wray: Is everyone here familiar with this idea of the twin flame? Because I’d never heard of the expression before our conversation about it earlier today. There are authors out there who begin with a concept or some sort of ideology or philosophical proposition that they want to explore or investigate in novels. I couldn’t imagine doing that, but you’re the person who I could imagine saying, “This is an interesting philosophical concept that I would like to write a novel to explore.”
Foulds: If it has a conceptual center of that kind then it’s probably more about desire and fulfillment and the self-regenerative nature of desire and the desire of fulfillment.
Wray: The regenerative nature of desire in what sense?
Foulds: In that it keeps—for someone in Henry’s psychological predicament that there is no fulfillment available, it’s not going to happen, it hits that he’s going to have the sensation of “I am now famous enough, this is the role that has done the job,” or whatever it is. And so this constant deferral, in a way it’s, —not to collapse it into a particular sense of thinking about this—but it’s not too far from the Buddhist critique of desire as seeking stable fulfillments that cannot be completed.
Wray: In a universe that is essentially constantly changing.
Foulds: In a world that is of change and decay and partiality, that is conditioned. Another phrase that comes into my mind is from a Philip Larkin poem: “fulfillment’s desolate attic.” You know, the line of this person breaking into fulfillment’s desolate attic, achieving what he thinks will be fulfillment but finding there a desolate, empty space.
Wray: So it’s a little bit like the last book that Truman Capote was working on, Answered Prayers, which I believe was taken from a quotation the source of which I can’t think of right now, but the idea was that the worst possible fate is to have your prayers answered. Once one’s prayers are answered, essentially one stops fighting, one stops struggling, and I think that was very central to Capote’s later life because I think he felt that he was never more unhappy than when he had gained true prominence. A similar kind of thing is what Henry may be headed for. Or is he already in fulfillment’s desolate attic?
Foulds: Well it cycles, that’s the thing. He would have been equally excited to have got this part in The Grange, this TV show, and then that dissipates. It happens in most people’s lives that if they’re lucky enough to achieve certain ambitions then they find that it doesn’t actually assuage.
Wray: You might almost argue that that’s fundamentally human nature. Every technical and cultural innovation that we’ve ever had as a species is due to this perpetual dissatisfaction that we feel.
Foulds: Yeah, and part of why I wanted to write this book was because we have so much technology, and so much in the world around us that is fully engendering of desire is designed to continually provoke our desire and keep us in that cycle.
Wray: So the art of advertising being creating an app for something that is entirely unnecessary.
Foulds: Yeah, which is completely saturating our lives and our online lives. Everywhere we are constantly being asked to want and to desire this thing and to purchase it, and then the next thing, and to present ourselves in such a way that doesn’t give us the fulfillment of a certain number of likes or whatever.
Wray: It’s very indulgent and generous of you to say “we,” but the truth is that Adam has no cell phone, and he hasn’t had one for a couple years.
Foulds: Well, I do have a home line.
Wray: But only intermittently. Which I’m extremely envious of and in admiration of. So thank you for not saying “you people.”
Foulds: I wish it were just you people, but, in fact, me too.
Adam Foulds is a poet and novelist. He was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013 and the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets in 2014. He is the recipient of a number of literary awards, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, the Costa Poetry Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, the Encore Award, and the European Union Prize for Literature. His novel The Quickening Maze was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.
John Wray is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Lost Time Accidents, Lowboy, The Right Hand of Sleep, and Canaan’s Tongue. He was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.