Sara Hills On Her Recent Work and “Staying Weird”
In the following remarks, Sara Hills answered a few of our questions about her recent book, current work, and writing process. Thank you, Sara, for sharing your words and your support of NFFR as this year’s flash contest final judge.
Valerie Fox: The many very short pieces in The Evolution of Birds are wonderful in their own right, and they also punctuate the themes and images throughout the collection. For example, “On the Night of Miracles” reminds us of a child-like wonder coexisting with loss. Or in “Safety in Numbers,” how Simi “bites her tongue before it talks back,” and how that story hints at survival after abuse. Could you talk about your survivor characters? Or child characters? And why do you find these compelling?
Sara Hills: Children are the best of us. I love writing from a child’s viewpoint because they’re inherently honest. They simultaneously take things at face value and still harbor such hope, believing in the impossible. They also notice minute details; when mine were younger, they spent hours studying a line of ants at the crack of a building, interrogating what they were carrying, where they were going, and worrying over ones that had strayed from the path. But children who’ve been neglected or abused notice other details. They’re attuned to nuance–changes in tone or expression; they take the temperature of a situation, and, as a writer, there’s a lot to learn from that. In my writing and in my life, I’m always rooting for children. They deserve a lot more than they’re given.
VF: For writers, do you have advice about getting started on stories, or on finishing them? On developing or refining voice?
SH: I love a good prompt for finding my way into a story and a resonant image for finding my way out, but it’s voice that does a lot of the heavy lifting. And luckily, voice isn’t something that needs to be found, it’s already there within us. It’s the honest way we talk to ourselves when no one is listening, the vocabulary we naturally use, the sentence length, the tenor, the weird stuff we notice and care about. That’s all voice. We can use that. And then, we can filter it through a character’s viewpoint. How big is their world, their vocabulary, their personal history and knowledge, their hurts, successes, obsessions, and preoccupations? I’m continually pushing myself to get out of my own way and have fun with the writing, to be honest and brave. As writers, as humans, we need to trust that there’s a place for our work, that our particular brand of weirdness is valid and deserves to be heard.
VF: Could you talk about one or more current projects you are excited about?
SH: I have multiple projects in the works, but one that has me jazzed right now is a novella-in-flash that takes place in the desert and the adjacent grasslands of southern Arizona, the landscape that smells like home to me. It started life as a short story draft made up of flashpoints, and it just keeps expanding exponentially into pieces like “Fucking John Wayne” (New Flash Fiction Review) and “A Beachcomber’s Guide to Desert Grief” (Bath Flash Fiction Award). Its themes are quite dark, so I’ve been taking my time with it and basking in my memories of the brutal sun, the scent of creosote, and the voices of the characters. Eventually, I’ll need to squeeze it back down into what’s essential, and maybe those stories won’t make the final cut, but for now I’m enjoying spending time hiking around the desert inside my head, which is the polar opposite of the lush English countryside out my window.
VF: “Fucking John Wayne”—the sounds in this story are amazing. The two characters are so well communicated through dialogue but also by actions. Similarly, the mother and daughter in “Heart-Tongue Connection” are deep characters, with their stories reaching into imaginary spaces, recent and less recent pasts. I could definitely follow these characters’ stories more, am curious about where they are heading. Each story speaks to how people invent stories, find new stories to live in. Why does this topic resonate with readers, do you think? Or with you, as you write?
SH: I think it resonates because we’ve all been doing this since childhood, haven’t we? Inventing our own mythologies to make sense of the confusion and hurts of the world. When I was a kid, I would invent all kinds of stuff—grounded to my bedroom one summer, I pretended that I was training to be a Solid Gold dancer or a song lyric writer, or that happy families could be made from disparate species of stuffed animals. For an entire year I went around convinced that I was not from this earth, but from Mars. I even had a secret language that I spoke only to myself. Humans are weird. We check out of the present moment because of terror or heartbreak and try to make sense of it the only way we know how—through stories. And those stories save us. Thank goodness we have the capacity for that, or else we’d be crushed by the weight of reality. In my aforementioned stories, it’s so much easier for Dale to envision himself the hero than be swallowed by his fears of death and cowardice, and likewise, with Lottie, to populate her life with imaginary friends and dogs so she doesn’t feel so abjectly alone and abandoned by her father. Though I can still feel like an outsider, as an adult I find it harder to pretend something cool is happening and usually just have to suck it up.
VF: Do you have influences beyond literary ones that are especially meaningful and might be of interest to readers of your work?
SH: Like most writers, I love learning new facts, going to art galleries and museums, and traveling. I’m especially interested in the mood of a place, whether it’s the architecture or landscape or artifacts, and I’m drawn to anything slightly off-kilter. Just last week, I stumbled upon a creepy baby doll in an alcove of an old monastery and snapped half a dozen photos trying to capture its mood. And then, because I can be a bit cheeky, I shared the photos with some economists during breakfast and enjoyed watching them react. It’s not so dissimilar to what we do when we write: try to create a shared experience that elicits a reaction. In this case, the pay-off ranged from stunned silence to bewilderment and laughter. I can’t see myself using the creepy baby in a story, but the mood of it will surely find a way into my work.
Sara Hills is the author of The Evolution of Birds (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2021), winner of the 2022 Saboteur Award for best short story collection. Her stories have won or placed in the Quiet Man Dave flash nonfiction prize, the Retreat West quarterly prize, National Flash Fiction Day’s micro competition, Bath Flash Fiction Award, and The Welkin Prize. Her work has been selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 and widely published in anthologies and magazines, including The Best Small Fictions, SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, Fractured Lit, Cease Cows, Flash Frog, X-RAY, Splonk, New Flash Fiction Review, and elsewhere. Originally from the Sonoran Desert, Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK. Find her online at sarahillswrites.com and @sarahillswrites.