Thievery: Horizon View by Helen Sedgwick
16th Mar 2012 in Thievery
Thievery is a series of blog posts about my story inspirations.
One Thursday per month, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from writer/scientist Helen Sedgwick.
‘Horizon View’ is published online in Algebra.
He remembers asking her if the comet was a falling star and how much he liked her reply: that it was more like a dirty great snowball hurtling through time and space. He looks up to the sky in his empty field and focuses his eyes on comet Hale-Bopp and presses his shotgun into the roof of his mouth and pulls the trigger. As his heart stops beating, an instant before his brain bursts from his skull with shattering violence, he remembers his almost-sister, almost best-friend, and thinks that he will visit; turn up on her doorstep and ring the bell and tell her that she is remembered, that she is –
It started with a title. In The Days Of The Comet, taken from the book of the same name by H.G. Wells, was used to inspire an art exhibition, and then borrowed again to thematically collect short fiction for Tramway’s Algebra magazine. I must admit, I haven’t read H.G. Wells’ novel. I must also admit that I didn’t see the art exhibition. What inspired me, perhaps unusually, wasn’t the literature or the art, but the thought of the comet itself.
As one of the characters in Horizon View says, comets are “dirty great snowballs hurtling through time and space.” They are composed mostly of rock, dust and ice, with frozen gasses inside and, perhaps, more complex molecules such as amino acids. Having travelled many billions of miles, they slingshot past earth and for a short time they are close enough to see us – to witness the human drama unfolding on the surface of our planet – before boomeranging around the sun and speeding away. I wanted to reflect that motion in the story, to capture the glimpse of humanity that comets get when they pass us by, and the missing centuries in between.
Like comets, which come in different sizes and with wildly different trajectories, the influences in this story are varied; stolen images like the panel on the Bayeux tapestry that shows Halley’s comet, rooms like the attic with the Velux window that was my bedroom as a child. Each appearance of the comet, in each fragment of story, sees a life that has, to some extent, been stolen. Anaxagoras was a real philosopher, Nero was an exceptionally brutal and paranoid emperor, a nightclub in Edinburgh really did burn down. Sometimes the thievery is more personal. The man who commits suicide on his farm in Brittany is based on my second cousin who, tragically, shot himself on his farm in Ireland. But despite all these influences, I gave myself a lot of freedom – I invented locations, fictionalised events, re-imagined characters. I wanted the historical details to be accurate, but the narrative and the meaning to be entirely my own.
The most truthful aspect of the story, then, was stolen from myself. When I lived in Edinburgh I used to climb Blackford Hill to look at the night sky and remind myself that there is more out there than we can possibly understand. What I wanted to convey in Horizon View was the feeling that, no matter what is happening on earth, whatever cruelty, catastrophe or kindness is taking place when comets visit us, after a few short days they speed away into a universe that is so much bigger than we are. For me, that is inspiring.
Helen Sedgwick writes, edits and teaches in Scotland, and recently won a New Writers Award for her science-themed short story collection in-progress, Statistically Speaking.