‘Like the dust’: critical introduction

Leila Segal

I awoke one morning after a most disturbing dream in which I had met my own death. The dream had a clear narrative in which I had gone looking for a lost friend and found that she had burned herself to death. When, at the end of my search, I was told what had happened to my friend, and shown the place where she had died, I knew without a doubt that this was the site of my own death—that it was I who had taken my life in this place.

The dream intrigued me. It had presented itself with clear characters and straightforward plot, yet the underlying theme was complex. It was, I decided, a dream about death of part of the self, for how could I have witnessed the site of my death if I were still alive? I decided to explore this theme—nostalgia for a lost part of the self, and reconciliation with its utter passing—in a short story.

Setting down the narrative was not hard, as the dream had been so lucid. In about 750 words I had my story—complete with strange, otherworldly atmosphere and barren landscape lifted from the dream. The plot was simple enough: my narrator goes in search of a lost friend, Siobhan; finds clues to her existence at a hotel in Mexico; meets a dark man who appears to know Siobhan; goes to Siobhan’s room with the man, who treats her as if she were Siobhan; and finally finds out from the hotel manager that Siobhan has committed suicide.

The challenge was to find a way to write the two selves as separate people, bringing them gradually closer, until at the end they merge as one—and allowing the reader to understand this. How can one make concrete fiction from such an abstract notion? An idea came from Einsteinian concepts of space-time and multiple universes. In Einstein’s parallel universe theory, all possible events exist simultaneously in an infinite number of worlds. So, in a parallel universe to this one, another of our selves exists, varying only because we, at some stage in the past, chose differently when faced with alternatives to how we chose in this world.[1] Universes connect through wormholes, and occasionally, most likely accidentally (possibly through a physical or chemical event of such magnitude that it blows atoms apart), we move from one into another.[2]

I decided that the narrator would approach her earlier self (Siobhan), growing closer through the narrative, until at a moment of unity, the narrator and her earlier self would become one: the moment of the burning unites them—is the ‘wormhole’. At this moment the narrator would suffer and mourn the permanent loss of her earlier self.

Once I had the first, 750-word, draft set down, I gave it to two writer friends to look at for feedback and ideas on development. They thought that the narrator’s motivation for going in search of her friend was not explained; and that the role of the dark man she meets in the hotel lounge was unclear (in this first draft the man looked over at the narrator, but they did not leave the lounge together). These, I realised, I held in my head but had not expressed in the story: the inferences I expected my readers to draw lay too deep.

So I gave the narrator a back-story, which made it clear why she needed to search for her lost friend. I gave more information about her life in London: she had, I decided, reached a point in her life where she felt lost and alone, missing the passion of her youth. She and Siobhan had been close—inspired one another—and the narrator felt that only by rekindling the friendship could she reconnect her with her youthful passion. I put this section at the opening of the story.

Next was the addition of a whole new scene in which the narrator and the dark man go upstairs to the room where Siobhan used to live. This scene was key to development of the ‘two-selves-in-one’ element of the plot. By revisiting Siobhan’s room with the man, I was able to make the man treat the narrator like Siobhan: he reacts to the narrator as if she were Siobhan, showing the reader that he knew Siobhan, and showing the reader what Siobhan had done and what she was like. This scene also unites the narrator and Siobhan in one body, preparing for the final scene where the narrator experiences Siobhan’s death through burning as death of part of herself. The difficulty was to bring the two selves together without confusing the reader. I felt that a certain element of confusion was appropriate—part of the reader’s coming to understand what was happening in the story. But confusion that can not be cleared is undesirable.

Another challenge in writing this scene was creating the dynamic between the man and narrator. I wanted to convey his confusion: that he both desired and feared her, ultimately rejecting her, the pain of which led Siobhan to kill herself (or the narrator to kill the part of herself that engaged in such reckless behaviour). And I wanted to show the narrator retracing earlier steps into emotional and physical danger. These two characters come together with wildly varying agendas. I used Stein on Writing, to understand the ‘essence of dramatic conflict’[3]—particularly the chapters, Thwarting Desire: The Basis of Plotting; Suspense: Keeping the Reader Reading; and The Secrets of Good Dialogue, which helped me translate my ideas for the scene into writing.

Once I had my full-length version of Like the Dust, I presented it to the workshop group at Middlesex University, and to writer-in-residence Alison Fell. The group felt that the section on my narrator’s motivation, added to the beginning of the narrative, was clunky and unnecessary: it detracted from the movement of the plot. They were right: so I cut this section, allowing the narrator to tell one or two of its key points later in the text. Alison felt that the dark man was underwritten, and that the story’s end happened too fast. I therefore drew the man’s physical presence more clearly, and slowed down the ending by showing more of the manager’s character and of the narrator’s reaction to the death of Siobhan.

 

Bibliography 

General:

Kaku, Michio, Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through the 10th Dimension (OUP, Oxford, 1999)

Windham, John, Consider Her Ways and Others (Penguin, London, 1983)

 

Structure, editing and technique:

Browne, Renni; King, Dave, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Harper Collins, New York, 2001)

Scott, Virgil; Madden, David, Studies in the Short Story (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980)

Stein, Sol, Stein on Writing, (St Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1995)

 

Inspiration and finding a voice:

Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, (Macmillan, London, 1996)

Goldberg, Nathalie, Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, (Rider, London, 1991)

 

Notes

[1] Michio Kaku explores and explains the parallel universe theory in Hyperspace A Scientific Odyssey through the 10th Dimension (OUP, Oxford, 1999).

[2] In Random Quest, a short story by John Windham, a scientist is hurled through a wormhole into a parallel universe after an experiment goes wrong. He finds that he has changed places with his alter ego in that universe, and that although he looks the same, his life is barely recognisable. He lives in a different house, is married to a stranger and now works as a writer, rather than a scientist. There are, however, points of contact: he recognises certain friends and places—and concludes that this universe is the one flowing from a choice he made at some earlier stage in his life.

[3] Stein, Sol, Stein on Writing, (St Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1995), p 83

 

leila segalLeila Segal Born in London, of Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian descent, Leila trained as a barrister before working in journalism for several years, becoming features editor of Jewish News and a writer for The Times, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Independent. In 2008, Leila lived in the Israeli city of Jaffa, where she led the Jaffa Photography Project, with Arab-­‐Jewish collective Sedaka Reut, using word and image to bring together Arab and Jewish teenagers in workshops exploring their relationship to each other and to the land they both call home. Leila founded and directs Voice of Freedom, an organisation that works with formerly trafficked women. Voice of Freedom enables women who have escaped their captors, and sometimes given evidence against them, to use text and photography to talk about their lives. Breathe: Stories from Cuba is her debut collection for which she received a £5,000 grant from the Arts Council England. She does regular readings in London. http://www.leilasegal.com

Copyright © Leila Segal, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.