Issue 048 Author Interview: Elizabeth Hinckley and “Ornithomancy”

Did you know February is National Bird-Feeding Month? What better way to celebrate than grabbing some birdseed and reading Issue 048 aloud to our little feathered friends? Elizabeth Hinckley’s story “Ornithomancy” is a good place to start!

LSQ: This is such a journey of a story. I love the far-future setting combined with the ornithomancy. What drew you to write about this particular form of divination? Was it part of the original idea for this story, or did you figure that part out later?

Elizabeth: I have a deep love of birds, and my relationship with them comes from both my work as a naturalist, and a connection to them spiritually. They’re endlessly fascinating, whether I’m handling birds of prey at work, or watching sparrows in the snow. They have the capacity to capture our imaginations through the sheer variety of bird life, the parallels of the life experiences we share with them, and the fascinating differences between us that help us see things that we may not see in ourselves right away. And throughout human history we’ve seen them as representing beauty, freedom, and many other archetypal concepts. If a good divination system has to have a language that speaks to the most important concerns of our lives, then birds provide us with quite a vocabulary.

I hadn’t set out to write a story about divination; originally I started to write a story about the deeper connections that are possible between humans and birds, but I found I couldn’t quite get there without a lengthy scientific, anthropological, and spiritual explanation. I think those things are worth talking about, but this was a short story, not a novel or a thesis! So I went back before the beginning and it took me to a whole other place and person, whose simple story told so much more. Tirza’s experience with birds is from a distance – much like the reader’s may be. She doesn’t need to be a bird expert to have a meaningful encounter, and ornithomancy connects her to them.

LSQ: It’s both painful and kind of compelling to read Tirza’s journey of emotional distancing from her father. It’s sad, but also it’s clear that she’s doing what she needs to do. Was it challenging to decide how much resolution, or lack thereof, to give Tirza with regards to her dad?

Elizabeth: It was important for me to have Tirza go through the experience with her dad to tell something a little different, and real, than we believe about difficult relationships. (I’m sorry,  dear Tirza – I know it was painful, but you did well!) By all means, if a person can heal a damaged relationship to the benefit of all, that is a wonderful thing. But there’s also something liberating about letting go of what how we think a relationship should be and accepting how it is – how a person is. I have observed many different versions of people not getting what they need from someone who “should” give it to them, and it’s painful. They become the victim of someone else’s shortcomings, or collateral damage to that person’s own pain. I thought it would be special for Tirza to discover that when life isn’t “fair”, you don’t have be the victim in someone else’s story, and that it’s ok to not fix everything.  You can also live through it with intention and dignity, and without resentment.

LSQ: I’m intrigued by the idea of distant Sumeria. Have you considered following Tirza to her new home and telling us a story of her life there?
Elizabeth: Yes, I have! In fact, I really started to write a story about birds and people on Sumeria in the first place, and got hung up on building that world to the point that it got in the way of just telling a good short story. If I ever get around to figuring that out, then Tirza’s story will just be the beginning of a very interesting life for her there! Right now, someone in a Sumerian forest is looking up as a transport ship enters the atmosphere. I wonder if she will ever look back one day and realize that she saw the moment that Tirza arrived…