Smoke and Mirrors–An Interview with Ann Hillesland

by Brenna Womer Read the Story April 3, 2015

Writers sometimes find inspiration in the most unlikely of places, or they are inspired to write by the tiniest passing detail. While reading “The Dentist’s Parrot,” I couldn’t help but wonder at the origins of the story. Could you share a bit about its conception?

I was afraid you’d ask this question, because the origins are not that clear to me. I remember thinking that if a parrot learned to talk in a dentist’s office, it probably wouldn’t talk very clearly. However, I don’t know how that became a story from the parrot’s point of view.

When you get an idea for a story, do you bookmark it to come back to, do you feel compelled to sit down right then and give it life, or some other way?

Well, for this story, I got the idea about a dentist’s parrot while I was at work, so I couldn’t write it down right away. In fact, several days passed before I wrote it. I confess that at other times I sit down to write with no clear idea at all. I just start and something comes. Or not.

Describing unusual or exotic places can be tricky, but you give a lovely description of a rainforest toward the end of the story. Have you visited a rainforest, and, if you haven’t, what is your creative process for describing a place you have never seen?

Nope, never been to a tropical rainforest. In this case, I wasn’t trying to write about a real rainforest, but the rainforest in the parrot’s mind, which would be idealized, the way places in our pasts often are. So I just imagined it.

Which authors inspire you to write and influence your particular style? What are you currently reading?

When I was in high school, I was in love with the prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wanted to grow up to write like him. I love Jane Austen—great characters and humor. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping was a huge book for me—just so beautifully written. Right now because I’ve been teaching it, I have been rereading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It’s so wonderfully written. In a way it’s a shame that it’s always assigned to young people. So much in it is about regret and looking back that I don’t think I fully appreciated it when I was younger.

Your story is very lighthearted at the outset, but it quickly and subtly takes on a more melancholy tone as you introduce themes of displacement, isolation, and longing. Is there some subtextual meaning you were hoping to communicate to the reader?

When I was an undergrad, Robert Pinsky guest-taught a poetry writing class I was taking. He said something like, write the poem and let other people figure it out. So I adopted that philosophy.

About the Author:

In addition to SmokeLong Quarterly, Ann Hillesland's work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in many literary journals, including Descant, Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, and Corium. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions and presented onstage by Stories On Stage. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte.

About the Interviewer:

Brenna Womer is an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University, where she teaches writing and literature and serves as an associate editor of Passages North. She is the author of the cross-genre chapbook Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance (C&R Press 2018), and her work has appeared in Indiana Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.