Holly Hilliard, author of our new issue, “One Small Step,” in conversation with editor Patrick Ryan

For starters, how on Earth did you come up with the idea of starting the story with a girl cleaning out a chicken coop while dressed in stiletto heels?

One of my best friends from college often did her vacuuming in high heels. At the time I was writing the story, she was in Equatorial Guinea studying sea turtles and we couldn’t communicate for five months, so I was missing her. It was comforting to put that little bit of her into Sam. So, initially, Sam was vacuuming in the first scene, but since she lives in a farming community I wanted it to be more congruous with the setting. Chickens seemed like a good solution.

And those chickens function almost like a Greek chorus in the story. Have you logged much time on a farm, working with farm animals?

I’m from a small town in southern Ohio, so a lot of my friends and classmates had farm animals. We actually used to get a week off from school every September for the county fair, since so many students had livestock. I lived in the middle of town, so I didn’t have farm animals, but I have some good memories of hanging out at my friends’ farms.

Was this always going to be a story about two sisters, or did the focus of the story change as you wrote it?

It definitely changed as I wrote it. It used to be more about the romantic relationships in the story—Sam and Charlie, Abby and Ken. I didn’t even realize that the sister dynamic was driving the whole story until someone told me, and then it was obvious.

Abby is plucky. Charlie is a good-hearted bumpkin. Ken is a douchebag (according to Sam). And Sam, your narrator, is a laser-tongued, self-deprecating, standup gal. Are any of these characters based on people you’ve actually known?

Of course. It’s fun for me to take bits and pieces of my friends and thread them together. This story was actually inspired by a moment in high school when a guy told me I had a mustache. Now it’s funny, but back then it was kind of scarring. It was therapeutic for me to create Sam, a character who is a lot like me but a little more courageous. She’s tough but she also acknowledges her insecurities. I view her as my cooler high school alter ego. I also have a sister who is two years older than me, and I think I’ve always been interested in the way sister relationships work.

Would you ever consider writing more stories about any of these characters?

I would love to keep these characters around. I really enjoyed writing from Sam’s perspective, and I think the setting provides good fodder for stories. I haven’t written anything yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s my next project.

What are you working on now?

I wrote a young adult book last year. I had intended to make it into a series, but recently I’ve been playing with the idea of making it a stand-alone novel. So I guess you could say I’m in the revision stages.

What’s the best piece of advice on writing you ever received?

I wrote my book when I was a senior in college, and I was really self-conscious about it. A lot of different people kept telling me what it should be about. It was overwhelming, and after a while I felt like I was writing a book that no one else would ever want to read. My advisor on the project, Julie Tetel, told me something that I haven’t forgotten: “You have to write what you want to write. Even if you feel like you’re digging your own grave, take out your shovel and keep digging.” It reminded me that at the end of the day the only thing that matters is that I’ve written something I like. If I’m writing what other people tell me to write, then I’m not being true to myself.

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