Interview with Sarah Hilary

Welcome to our special 1st  anniversary issue of Every Day Fiction!

Every month, we’ve interviewed our most read author for that month, so on our anniversary we thought it was only appropriate to interview the author whose work has received the most reads in our first year.

Though Sarah’s work hasn’t been the most-read story in any month, cumulatively over 20,000 readers have read her work in these pages. When she publishes a new story with us, readers search for her other stories and find them on the site. Top Ten favourite “Lolita’s Lynch Mob” still gets a stunning number of reads every month.

Interview with Sarah Hilary

EDF: What should people expect when they see a story with your byline under it?

SH: I love the word “eclectic” and am always happy to have my stories described that way. I write humour, horror, literary, crime, historical, you name it. I can’t write sci-fi for toffee but I try to, every once in a while. That’s the great thing about flash — the chance to experiment, to push out past my comfort zone. The challenge I set myself these days is to tell a story. Not necessarily with a beginning, middle and end, which can be murder to pull off in flash fiction, but a story nevertheless, something that will stay with the reader.

I always aim to leave elbowroom in my stories for the reader, space for him or her to bring meaning to what I write. It’s my favourite part of reading, uncovering that secret message or frisson that’s just for me. It’s an important part of how I write too, wanting my stories to find resonance with the reader. This approach doesn’t always work, of course. There are only so many times you can be told your writing is “oblique” before you start suspecting that you’re writing confusing balderdash. But when a reader tells you that the story spoke to him or her, that’s worth everything.

EDF: You have appeared in numerous anthologies, including appearances in The Crime Writers’ Association’s “MO: Crimes of Practice”, and the Fish Anthology 2008. Can you describe your experiences? How is publishing in an anthology different from publishing in a webzine?

SH:Anthologies are great because they have eclecticism built in. Different writers, different styles, different stories. The Fish Anthology has everything from sixty worders to stories of five thousand, across genres as diverse as historical crime and comedy. They have poems in there, too. I was lucky enough to win a prize and a place in the 2008 Anthology with a flash about Lizzie Borden. The launch ceremony was a terrific experience, meeting so many great writers and enthusiasts. I didn’t think I’d get the nerve up to read my story to a large audience but I did, and it was such a buzz. Afterwards, a young mum with a two year old in tow sought me out to say she’d liked my story best of all the evening’s readings. It really was a priceless experience, and humbling, to meet my readers face to face like that. I was even asked to sign some copies of the book. Amazing.

The CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) Anthology came as a complete surprise. They weren’t accepting submissions from anyone who wasn’t a published novelist, so I didn’t even consider it as a long shot. The editor contacted me after learning of my Fish win and asked if I had anything suitable to their theme, “Modus Operandi”. I immediately ransacked my hard drive for everything and anything remotely close to the theme, edited like mad and sent a bunch of stories just in time for his deadline. Even then I didn’t get my hopes up too high, but he loved one of the stories and snapped it up. It appears in the anthology as “One Last Pick-Up” but EDF readers know the story as “The Ravages of Tim”. Luckily for me, you guys agreed to it being reproduced in the CWA Anthology, which credits EDF as the place of origin for the story.

I’m very excited about the launch of the Subatomic Anthology, One Step Beyond: Rocking Tales of the Fantastical which features a love story I wrote about Elvis, set in a trailer park. I’m chuffed to bits about this one, not least because it’s an American publication and I’m always afraid my Englishness is showing. It probably doesn’t help when I use phrases like “chuffed to bits” but there you go.

EDF: You have the ability to vary your “voice” to suit a story’s needs, from the eloquent in “Lolita’s Lynch Mob”, to the colloquial in “Mug’s Game”. Is there a process you follow when trying to capture a particular voice?

SH: Thank you for the kind words. I wish I had a formula I could share, some handy technique but no, I just dive right in. It works, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I try again. I have an ear for voices which I think of as compensation for being tone-deaf, musically. If I’m lucky a character’s voice will speak to me before I start writing. I’ll hear it very clearly and it will lead the story. That’s what happened with “Mug’s Game” and the character of Jackson, the narrator’s boss. I got to thinking how a man like Jackson might deal with the red-tape frustration of not having enough evidence to bang up his villain. Then I chucked in a hefty dose of ambivalence, to give the reader some work to do. Jackson either knew what he was doing, or he didn’t. It was justice, or irony. Or maybe it was just paranoia on the part of my narrator. The reader gets to choose. I hope the story works equally well whichever meaning the reader brings to it, whatever choice he or she makes. That’s the gift from the writer to the reader ““ the space to make a story the one you want to read ““ and I love giving it.

EDF: You’ve reviewed several collections for The Short Review. What attracts you to reviewing?

SH: Reading stories! You get to read stories by writers you don’t know. And you read them in a way which speaks directly to your chosen craft. Reviewing books for (a stonking site edited by Tania Hershman) is especially good because the site’s devoted to short stories and Tania goes to lengths to unearth new talent, as well as reviewing established classics. I started out reviewing some of my favourite writers of all time, including Muriel Spark. Now I enjoy getting first collections by emerging writers. You never know what you’re going to find between those pages but you know you’ll learn something valuable about what makes a story tick. It’s not enough to say “I liked this story” or “I hated this one”. I have to figure out why a particular story worked or didn’t, and in doing that I cram so much knowledge about this writing lark, it’s remarkable.

My favourite review recently was of Benjamin Percy’s collection, “Refresh, Refresh”. There are some cracking stories in there. The more I read, the more I became fascinated by the role of women in his stories. I’d probably never have noticed it had I not been reading in order to review the collection. Then I started thinking about the role of women (and men) in my stories, and other people’s. The process of reviewing is a whetstone for my writer’s brain, and I love it.

EDF: “Lolita’s Lynch Mob” was one of the first stories that EDF ever published, and you’re one of a very small number of authors who’ve placed a story in every issue of the magazine. Can you talk a little bit about your experience here at EDF?

SH: In a way I feel that I’ve “grown up” as a writer with EDF. (Can I say that without sounding sycophantic? Possibly not!) I remember seeing EDF listed as a “fledgling” site on Duotrope and subbing “Lolita’s Lynch Mob”, which I’d just written that same day. The acceptance came almost immediately and was so enthusiastic, I was bowled over. Such a contrast to the form rejections and acceptances I was used to. You guys actually went to the trouble to say why you liked it. That’s rarer than hen’s teeth, in my experience. I zipped off a couple more, and you liked those two. It began to feel like it was meant to be.

Your rejections always provide useful pointers, and you encourage editing where it’s needed, as you did with my recent story, “The Slaughter of the Lawns” which is much better for it. Too often with online journals it’s like subbing into a vacuum, with no guarantee of a response let alone one which reads as if it’s written by a human being rather than generated by a piece of software. Then there’s the reader feedback — what writer doesn’t thrive on that? Good, bad or nasty, it’s all proof positive of that goal for which we’re striving: connecting with another person, hitting home.

Happy Anniversary, by the way! I believe a first anniversary is traditionally celebrated with paper, so splash out on those party streamers.

EDF: What has been your best moment as a writer so far? Your worst?

SH: I feel I could jinx everything by giving the wrong answers here. The worst is a regular visitor, pitching up whenever I let it. That demon every writer has, I’m sure. Telling me it’s all smoke and I’ll never make that big fire, set the publishing world alight. I’m horribly ambitious, always pushing on for the next goal and the next, rarely satisfied with how far I’ve come. The best moment so far? Every time I succeed in shaking off the demon and allowing myself to believe I Can Do This. It’s a constant battle, almost epic in proportion, makes Luke and Darth look like a slow dance at a wedding reception.

EDF: What is next for you as a writer?

SH: I’m tackling the latest round of edits to a crime novel which is taking forever to get right. It’s a painstaking, humbling and frustrating process, but I’m reaching there with the help of a literary agent who’s taken an interest in my writing.

There are no short-cuts in this game, or at least I haven’t found any. Luckily I was born stubborn. Sheer bloody-mindedness has got me this far and with luck it’ll see me through the next series of hoops. If not, well, you can fun have watching me jump.

EDF: Thank you for you time.

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