David Gilbert on Finding Stories in Dreams

This week’s story, “Come Softly to Me,” takes place against the backdrop of a family gathering in the Berkshires, where the extended family of three sisters—Louise, Lily, and Eleanor—come together, as they do every summer. When did you think of this as the scenario for a story?

It came from a dream I had, of these sisters who perform this strange ceremony to honor their dead sister. I woke from this dream not because I was scared or startled, my usual exit ramps, but because I was crying. Now, on occasion I have yelled because of a dream, shouted “No! No! No!” and jumped from the bed, but I’ve never cried like that before. It was almost like keening. So that was interesting. And the dream was so narrative that it sort of nudged its way into being a story. Plus, as every creative-writing teacher will tell you, you should always, always, always write about your dreams. It’s practically rule No. 1.

There are numerous relatives at the gathering, who will all watch or take part in the ceremony honoring the dead sister, K.K., who passed away as a teen-ager. A handful emerge as distinct characters in the story, among them Mickey, Eleanor’s ex-husband, who has recently recovered from cancer, and his grandson Miles. Did you know from the outset that these two would take on a larger role in the story?

I always had the sisters; they, as an image, burned bright. And a boy was the reader of the collective eulogy, but his role as Miles was beefed up in the post-dream production work. Mickey? He was invented and is essentially the proxy reader, the one reëxperiencing the ceremony under new, deeper circumstances. The biggest, and most helpful, decision I made was to break the story into four parts; it added a multidimensional quality to the piece, in particular by ending with the sisters as girls, when their eulogy is read by Miles, which let time take on some negative space.

Most of the relatives Mickey runs into say something along the lines of “Mickey, you look terrific!” But Miles asks him directly about his feeding tube. Which would Mickey prefer?

I think being asked about the feeding tube was a novel experience for Mickey. And refreshing in its candor, even if it just reflects morbid curiosity (and, in Miles’s case, a dare from his older brother). It’s like when I read an obit: I always want to know the cause of death. It seems important to me, and I can feel cheated, to the point of distraction, if I don’t get that particular bit of info. (And, yes, I realize that we never learn how K.K. died.) Maybe this says something about my character. I want to know the ending, to hold it up against my own potential end (especially the older I get). Being sick, I’ve learned, is an incredibly alienating experience, so, when someone engages with your sickness, even the nitty-gritty parts, it can feel like a relief. I’d much rather have someone say “I thought you’d look much worse” than “Wow, you look terrific.”

The story takes its title from a 1959 song by the Fleetwoods—“this otherworldly song,” as Mickey thinks of it. Why did you want to use “Come Softly to Me”? Is it a record you’ve always listened to? Does it capture a mood that you’re looking for in the story? Are there other songs that you could imagine being played that day in the Berkshires?

I wish I could claim that I’ve always been obsessed with that song, because it’s a song worthy of obsession—it’s so odd and lovely, as though sung by heartsick teens with a secret suicide pact. But in reality I needed to find a song from that period, and so went to good old Google and looked up the Top Forty from 1959, and there were the Fleetwoods with this killer track—I had heard it before, but not in a long time. (“Mr. Blue” is also awesome.) This is where writing can be fun: those moments when the universe seems to be sitting on your shoulder. “Come Softly to Me” was perfect (though for a second I considered naming the story “In Heaven Everything Is Fine,” from the Lady in the Radiator song in “Eraserhead”).

The sisters, who are now grandmothers, have been performing this ornate ceremony since they were girls that both memorializes K.K. and celebrates death. How long did it take you to work out the details of the ceremony? Did you ever think you were going too far?

Like I said, it came by way of a dream, fully formed. I did have to come up with the name for the coffin-like thing that the sisters lie down in, hence the Reliquadry, and how it might operate. I did sketches and everything. (O.K., it was a doodle.) I wanted the vibe of the ceremony to be Shirley Jackson creepy—like, what the hell is happening, are we about to see the end of “The Wickerman”?—and then to sneak in the sweetness of these sad girls and how their only true power over death was the power of repetition and remembrance, accepting death as a kind of communal performance, both figuratively and literally. If anything, I wondered if I was going far enough.

The sisters wear flower-girl dresses that have been expanded and mended over the years, and crowns of flowers made by their grandchildren. How important is the visual aspect of the story?

I’m a visual person, so I could clearly see the dresses in my imagination, but, boy, was it hard to describe them. That can be frustrating. I mean, writing is hard enough without the amateur textile engineering. I’m not sure I succeeded. At the end of the day, the idea of a Frankenstein flower girl was the best I could manage, since I wanted those dresses to feel undead yet fully alive, almost like grief itself. In general, the visuals often outpace my abilities as a writer, but I try to use this weakness as a strength (which involves hitting things sideways, as with the stitching, saying it looked like “a calendar in Morse code”—I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I know it evokes something I like).

Younger members of the family now play roles that older relatives once performed. Has K.K.’s place in the Reliquadry, a four-section coffin-like box, which the girls’ father made, allowed her to defeat death in any way? Do you think of “Come Softly to Me” as a story about death?

It’s all about death and remembrance, holding on to those feelings for the ones you loved and acknowledging your eventual convergence into memory. I just hope the Grim Reaper has the dulcet tones of the Fleetwoods. ♦

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