We’re delighted to share an interview below with hugely-talented writer Sara Hills, whose debut flash fiction collection The Evolution of Birds is now available to buy on pre-order at a 25% discount from Ad Hoc Fiction until publication day on 9th July. Jude Higgins is hosting a Zoom launch for Sara’s new book on Saturday July 17th from 7.30 pm – 9.00 pm. Sara will be reading stories from the book and talking more about it. And three of the writers who have given her quotes for the back cover, Christopher Allen, Amy Barnes and Diane Simmons will also be reading a short piece of their own work. Do come to give this wonderful new collection a good send off into the world. Email jude (at) adhocfiction (dot) com for a Zoom link to the event.
- Can you tell us more about The Evolution of Birds and its themes?
Early on in my flash journey, SmokeLong Quarterly’s Christopher Allen gave me the best advice; he said write to the themes you care deeply about. The Evolution of Birds is a collision of those themes, the metaphorical monsters under my bed and tearing at my heart: the welfare of children, family relationships, sexual assault, yearning and loss. At our core, we all yearn for love and safety, but life throws up so many hurdles and hurts—How do we navigate those situations? What do they teach us about love, trust and survival? How do they grow and evolve us? While many of these 48 stories focus on the lives of girls and women, this collection also contains male and plural protagonists, explorations of parenthood, marriage and religion. Birds and other animals feature in many of these stories, along with elements of magical realism and other transformations. Among the splintering darkness, there’s a bit of humor too and patches of light.
- Did it take a while to find the correct sequence?
It took ages! Sequencing seemed an overwhelming task, as the permutations are into the novemdecillions. I studied Nancy Stohlman’s advice on creating collections from Going Short (Ad Hoc Fiction) and was fortunate enough to take part in LongLeaf Review’s ‘Common Threads’ workshop with Kate Finegan and Stephanie Trott; both helped me think more about the overall feeling I was trying to convey, how my pieces worked in conversation with each other and how imagery echoed between the pieces.
Many of my characters feel as though they might live in the same trailer park, and I situated those stories near each other. The placement of other stories together allowed certain themes to build and swell, which pleased me immensely. Though not as a rule, there is somewhat of an evolution from childhood to adulthood, with birds flitting in and out. The titular story was the final piece of the puzzle, and I wanted it upfront to set the tone. It’s a bit of a risk to place an unpublished piece first, but it felt right to me—it hints at our animal natures and, as if it’s setting an object in motion, the themes to come. The final story in the collection, “Holy Jesus, There’s a Nun in IKEA,” with its flash of a crow’s wing, allows that final exhale.
- Had you been writing longer form fiction before you began writing flash fiction? And what got you interested in the form?
I’d always been writing something to amuse myself, but it wasn’t until relocating from the United States to Switzerland in 2008, in the midst of culture shock and crushing loneliness, that I afforded myself the space to really write. I had three young children at the time, and we were homeschooling, so there wasn’t much room or outlet for my adult brain. A friend told me about Nanowrimo halfway through November, and I stayed up in the middle of the night for two weeks and wrote 50,000 words of a novel. It was such a freeing experience, I did it again the following year and so on, amassing over the years eight very messy novel drafts.
Writing for one mad month per year didn’t sustain me, so in 2014 I splurged on a short story workshop to develop craft. I had initial success, placing my first short story submission in a competition, but the more I learned, the shorter my writing became. In 2019, my wise author-friend Emma Norry (Amber Undercover, Oxford University Press) suggested that I try writing flash. I’d always been in awe of the form, but I thought the skill level was beyond me. I trust Emma though. She gave me a list of places to submit, and even though I didn’t believe I knew what I was doing, two of my early submissions landed on the Bath Flash Award shortlist and in the NFFD micro competition. My initial success was an invitation, as it helped me understand how flash fiction, as a deep and rich art form, requires an even greater attention to craft. The pursuit of it has consumed me since.
- As well as the collection, you have had some other recent publications in literary magazines. We’d love some links to these also.
- I’ve had a surprisingly good year so far regarding publications, and some of the stories I’ve held closest to my heart were published this spring: “How to Tell a Scary Story” in X-R-A-Y Literary, “Osmosis” in Reckon Review “Ewe” in Cease Cows and A Baby Born En Caul Can Never Drown” which was shortlisted in the Janus Literary Story Prize. Also close to my heart is my micro series. “Lessons in Negative Space”, which appeared in Fractured Lit in May.
- Have you got any other writing projects on the go at the moment?
- Too many projects! I draft everything longhand which means that I have stacks of notebooks full of flash stories and cnf pieces needing to be typed up and edited. My next big goal is to finish my novella-in-flash set near the Mexican border where I grew up. And, hilariously, in a recent workshop with Alison Woodhouse (The House on the Corner, Ad Hoc Fiction), I realized that my first messy novel draft would actually make a riotous novella-in-flash, so I’ve started outlining toward that as well. Eventually, I would like to finish editing at least one of my novel drafts. As usual, I have more ideas than time.
- Your top tip for anyone putting together a collection?
Voltaire said perfect is the enemy of the good, and someone else said perfect is the enemy of done; to avoid being paralyzed with fear, these are messages I’ve had to take to heart. There is no singular right way to put together a collection, so be brave and take a chance on yourself. Include stories that you love, even those that no one has seen before—especially if no one has seen them before. Definitely read collections by writers you admire and see how they’ve pulled their themes together, but most of all, follow your gut. Create something that above all else pleases you.