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Author Spotlight: Holly Phillips

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and what inspired “Three Days of Rain”?

“Three Days” started with the image of an island city left standing above a waterless lakebed, stranded by drought. I expected it to be a bleak story, but discovered that I found the setting remarkably beautiful. My own response to it is like that slightly painful yearning of nostalgia for a place or a time that never was. Probably it was that feeling of nostalgia that made me feel I was writing a tribute to Ray Bradbury, whose stories I grew up with and loved. But the story is very much built around images.

There are beautiful descriptions throughout this story. It’s obvious you care deeply about the language. I’ve read that most writers fall into one of two categories: storytellers or wordsmiths. Do you agree with this idea? Would you put yourself in the wordsmith camp?

Hmm. I think all writers are storytellers. I certainly feel like a storyteller when I’m writing fiction. But it’s true that, for me, plot, and especially action, can take second place to evoking an emotion. Yet I get incredibly frustrated with literary writers who don’t move beyond the plotless “slice of life” kind of story. I guess it’s just that I feel “story” lives in the character’s desires and fears, motivations and relationships, at least as much as it lives in what the character does. Some writers grab their readers with suspense. I’d rather grab them with language. So I guess in the end I’d have to say that, yes, I’m in the wordsmith camp.

The environment plays a key role in this story as the complication that drives the choice the characters must make. Is this relationship between the characters and nature something you tend to explore in your fiction?

Very much so. I grew up on the edge of the wilderness in the mountains of western Canada, and my environment, my setting, was always a big part of my awareness. Of course, as an adult, I’m also ethically committed to environmental causes. I don’t want to use fiction as a soap box—I don’t want to use fiction at all, just to write it—but there’s no denying that I think the incredible stresses human beings put on their environment has to translate into stresses on individual lives. Those stresses—those conflicts—do come up in my fiction a lot. (Mind you, I think it’s also inevitable given my love of description. If there’s not some conflict there, it has to go, and where’s the fun in that?)

I like how open the ending to this story feels. I was left wondering about the fate of these characters and if Santiago had made the correct choice. Why did you choose to end the story at this point?

I wrote “Three Days” at a time when I was particularly interested in the moment of decision—the moment a character has some dramatic revelation or makes some fundamental, life-changing choice. What drives people to change their lives? What makes them take significant action to disrupt the status quo? What does the build-up to that moment—a moment that I have, in my own life, found both thrilling and terrifying—feel like from the inside? I’ve been told that actions and consequences are more typical story fare, but for an emotional, character-driven story, I still think that moment of choice carries a lot of promise.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Oh, probably the same advice they’ve heard a million times. Write a lot. Read a lot. Read everything. One thing I’ve noticed in a lot of aspiring writers, both in and out of the genre world, is that they tend to restrict their reading to what they “like.” Fantasy writers won’t read literary fiction. Literary writers won’t read science fiction. Science fiction writers won’t read popular mainstream. Fiction writers won’t read non-fiction. I think that’s a huge mistake, and the most eager, active, successful writers I know are amazingly omnivorous. Curiosity is a vital component to imagination, and we should all be actively cultivating it ourselves. The same goes with taking risks: How can I grow as a writer when all I know of the writing world is one tiny neighborhood? Plus, it’s amazing what tricks of the craft you can learn from reading people outside your field.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this piece? What’s next for you?

I’m in a major transition phase right now. I’ve gone back to school, and I’m starting to explore a wider array of writing. Non-fiction? Mainstream? YA? I feel like I’ve thrown a decade’s worth of writing ideas into the air and I’m waiting to see where they all land. But just at the moment, I’m principally writing homework assignments. I’m not sure if I should confess this, but even the homework for this very rigorous professional writing and design program is easier than writing a novel. Wow! I’m working 50-hour weeks and it still feel like a holiday.

Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeilKevin McNeil reads slush and helps out with a few other things for Lightspeed and Nightmare Magazines. He is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2012 and Kij Johnson’s Novel Writer’s Workshop in 2011. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.

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