Sleepers Awake: An interview with Tree Riesener

Sleepers Awake: An interview with Tree Riesener

Tree Riesener is the author of Sleepers Awake, winner of Sowilo Press’s Eludia Award. Her writing has been favorably compared to the works of both Flannery O’Connor and James Thurber. She also has two collections of poetry debuting in 2016: EK, a full-length collection of widely interpreted ekphrastic poems (Cervena Barva Press), and The Hubble Cantos, explorations of themes inspired by the Hubble Telescope’s interpretations of astronomical phenomena (Aldrich Press).

Susan Tepper recently had a chance to speak with Tree about her book of short fiction and its literary influences. Here’s what they had to say.

Susan Tepper: Your title, Sleepers Awake, is lifted from a story in this book of that same title. I’m starting here, because I was so fortunate to publish this one in the Istanbul Literary Review. It has so many strange elements, yet you manage to ground it. And it is the grounding that ultimately forces the epiphany.

Sleepers awake LARGE IMAGETree Riesener: I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of sleepers. The prototype, of course, comes from spy lore. Sleepers are thoroughly grounded in the language and culture of the enemy country and are sent there to live, sometimes for a lifetime, until their controlling country decides they can be of use and sends them on a mission. I think most of us are sleepers, in one way or another. For example, you may be employed, perhaps through force of circumstances, as a teacher at a military academy but you know that you are really an anarchist who despises the values of the place you are required to be. Alternatively, you may find yourself in a place you thought would be anathema only to discover that you are very comfortable there, that this place is dear to you, and you bless the circumstances that forced you to be there, hope you never have to emerge from this place of comfort.

ST: Yet your “sleepers” don’t seem overtly subversive. Or, are they such skilled sleepers that they’ve managed to pull wool over my eyes?

TR: Remember the old rumor that the Russians had a complete American town built someplace where their sleepers could practice? Well, of course Hell has a place like that where the demons can perfect their personas. As the story says, there are demons for every taste: “Middle-aged balding schlubs, ripped demons who look great in spandex, foodies […]” They blend in with the general population—who would ever think such types had a hell connection?

ST: It’s an absolutely fascinating slant, and things become pretty wild in this story before it makes its final turn. In another story, which you’ve titled Technical Manuals Aren’t Written Very Well, Are They?, a microbiologist facing control issues at her place of employment decides to construct a mini-universe of sorts inside a terrarium.

You write:

I’d come home drained from a hellish day in the lab, eat a frozen dinner, and take my glass of wine in beside the terrarium… Disappointing.

What gives with this gal?

TR: Her life is so fraught with dissatisfaction, with dangers at work (whether real or perceived), that as a micro-biologist, with godlike powers, she invests her whole being in the terrarium world she manufactures. She’s being sucked in deeper and deeper. Eventually she clones herself to try to gain the control of her life in this mini-world – control she can’t find in her real world. Sometimes running away is the best coping mechanism, but you often leave messes behind, as the narrator does in this bit of fiction.

ST: Your stories are so inventive yet you manage to keep us in the reality zone. It’s a skilled ping-pong match leaving the reader to decide how long the ball is going to stay in play.

Your story, Hungry, begins this way:

Quiet. You sit quiet as a mouse in the corner. Push a little doll around and hum la-la-la so they forget you’re there while they have the cocktail hour. That’s how you find out they’re killing Grandma.

My, oh my. This little girl is gathering ominous information early in life.

TR: On the surface, to an adult reading this story, the little girl is simply misunderstanding a fact of life: when people are old and incurable, sometimes in a medical setting food and water are withheld to supposedly ease them out of life. In reality, it’s murder. Children have not yet learned the adult tool of euphemism. Yet, sometimes, even we call a spade a spade. On the death certificate of someone executed by the state, the cause of death is written “homicide.” Eventually, children learn to play the game. Pets walk over the rainbow bridge. Dead people are sleeping. Fat people are plump. Eventually this little girl will be as skilled as her elders at understanding ethnic cleansing, collateral damage, enhanced interrogation and Orwell’s wonderful doubleplusgood duckspeak. But for the time being, she’s just going to make sure she keeps her parents happy so that nothing scary happens to her.

ST: Life by observation. To me this story says a lot about the violence in our culture. Movies and TV are seething with it. Kids play video games structured around violent death. It primes them, I believe, for a lack of empathy. And speaking of media, I’d like to discuss one more story titled Why Alien Reptoids Shop at Wal-Mart, which is presented entirely in dialogue. This could easily be a short play. In this story a man called Jerry interviews a woman named Amanda on cable TV. As the TV interview unfolds, here we have Jerry speaking first around mid-story:


“Yes, under sedation, then a prosthesis attached. I don’t think they even noticed when they woke up. Then the aliens wrapped the testicles… Am I allowed to say testicle on television? I am? Okay… in bacon fastened with a skewer and toasted them in a little toaster oven, which I knew was from Wal-Mart because…”

“Did you tell the victims?”

TR: I’m a fan of all sorts of vapid interview programs, but Jerry Springer is my absolute fave! So predictable, so nuanced. I can just see this show in the Middle Ages, traveling on a cart from town to town with a wonderful deus ex machina effect to bring the heavies onstage to separate the quarreling couple, like Noah and his wife fighting because she thought he was lazy in one of the Corpus Christi mystery plays. Two well-muscled angels could descend on a pulley to separate them. A good example of plus ça change, plus cest la même chose! I hope this story, with the huge waddling aliens, who love Victoria’s Secret lingerie and toast those testicles in Wal-Mart toaster ovens (they also love chips and onion dip), will find favor with some director who will make it into a Broadway hit.

ST: One never knows! A Broadway director might be rummaging through Wal-Mart for some cheap director chairs, then voila!

Connect with Tree on her website,