BackStory: Five Questions with Lilly Posnett
Author of Bird Sounds
What inspired you to write ‘Bird Sounds’?
I’ve only recently discovered flash fiction and I was considering what kind of moments the form is uniquely able to capture. I came to the idea of ‘glances’, the split second where a person sees something and then decides whether to look closer or look away, and I thought about how many historical events could be viewed as being made up of thousands of these ‘glances’ in one direction or another. Then I considered the role stories play in history and how, alongside every atrocity that has taken place, there must be another ‘history’ of the stories people told themselves when making choices about how to respond to the injustices being carried out.
What is your favourite piece of historical flash, prose poetry or hybrid work? What do you like about it?
I was really impressed by Remi Skytterstad’s piece, Soul Theft, which was published by Flashback Fiction in February. It’s amazing how such a small number of simple words can pierce so sharply into a historical moment and into the readers’ emotions.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
I think Anne Michaels (Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault) is wonderful. She grapples with the nature and the philosophy of history, and (subtly) her own position as a historical fiction writer, while following the quiet, poignant, sad and beautiful stories of her characters.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I returned to the 2010 fictional film Sarah’s Key (or Elle a’appelait Sarah), which centres around a real event: the Velodrome D’Hiver Roundup. Then, I researched the event further online. In July 1942 in Paris, thousands of Jews were taken from their homes and detained inside a sports arena (the Vélodrome d’Hiver), in appalling conditions, for several days before being deported to transit camps and, ultimately, to concentration and death camps where the majority of them were murdered.
‘Bird Sounds’ was a difficult piece to negotiate in terms of research because I was finding out about terrible things that had happened, but I wanted to explore how people might choose to not know (or not know much) about these atrocities, even when they were taking place close by; how an ordinary person might enable themselves to look away and how, alongside every historical tragedy, there is a history of glances in the opposite direction.
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
As I mentioned, I think a really engaging and important element of writing historical flash is that it can prompt you to consider history differently. For me, I was able to reflect on the idea of how every historical event is made up of countless “tiny” moments and, in those moments, the decisions people make, the stories they tell themselves, the memories they recall, the relationships they cherish—all these tiny fragments can be considered part of history.
Lilly Posnett has recently completed an MPhil in Children’s Literature at Cambridge University. Her work has appeared in The Mays Anthology and been performed at The Corpus Playroom. She placed third in the Louis de Bernieres Fiction Prize 2018 (run through Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education).