The vignettes in “A Girl Like You” are taken from my new novel, A PERSON OF THE WORLD, which is based on the last year of Elizabeth Short’s life. Short, who was called “The Black Dahlia” by the press after her murder, is often left out of the who-done-it narrative that surrounds her death, and what is known about the last year of her life in Los Angeles is retold through a historically problematic lens. Beyond the common ingénue and ruined woman tropes, we know little of the woman. There are parts of stories—hearsay, folklore—existing without beginning or end, and told with the purpose of reinforcing a stereotype or proving a murder theory.
When I first imagined the novel, I wanted to recast Short’s narrative without gender bias or moral qualifications. The story, I thought, would be best presented in fragments. The fragments would reflect loss and neglect: the neglect of leaving a woman out of her own narrative, of a public more interested in her gruesome death than her too brief life. I wanted to show personhood, and I thought I knew how to do it. By stitching the narrative together, I would eventually find my novel, but each time I began, I ran into structural issues.
After a few months of struggle, I changed Elizabeth’s name to May to gain fictional distance and moved to a more conventionally novelistic arc, but in “A Girl Like You,” I was able to return to my original intent, reworking sections of my novel that felt closest to my original ambition. I experimented, seeing what would happen when I reordered the fragments, editing and reshaping.
After several drafts of the short story, I went back to the novel and edited it again, adding what I’d learned about May from writing the story. It became a conversation, this story and the novel, and as I worked on them simultaneously, I was surprised how my understanding of May deepened. In the short story, I could investigate emotional currents by focusing on small moments. I did not need to consider the infrastructure of the novel—that constant building and pacing. I handled a smaller cast of characters. I was not sweeping. I became interested in the smallest detail—the scar of a glass on a wooden table, for instance, or a chip in a teacup.
In the conversation between the novel and the story, “A Girl Like You” got the last word. Though versions of what’s in the short story appear in the novel, the final paragraph never does. There is some finger-wagging at the facility of the novelistic arc. The story reads, “Everyone assumed that a life had a shape,” but change “life” to “story” and you will see what I mean.
We like patterns. We like riddles answered, crimes solved. That these things don’t always happen in life probably makes us crave them even more in fiction. I like answers, too, but I don’t always provide them in my work. I am enamored with beautiful language, ambiguity, and strangeness. That doesn’t change from one form to the next. It’s the infrastructure that changes, the mode of telling, the craft.
BETH HAHN studied art and English at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania and fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She attended Bread Loaf, and was in residence at the Ragdale Foundation and the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. Her work has appeared in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Writer’s Digest, Necessary Fiction, The Hawai’i Review, The South Carolina Review, The Emrys Journal, and as a digital short with Platypus Press. THE SINGING BONE (Regan Arts, 2016) is her first novel. Beth teaches Wednesday night fiction workshops at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Her work is represented by Jessica Papin of Dystel, Goderich, and Bourret. For more information, visit beth-hahn.com.