On Monday, we published the third place finalist in our 2022-2023 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers, “The River at the End of the Road” by Hillary Millán, selected by Morgan Talty. First, read this magnificent and tense story, then check out our interview with the writer below!
This is your first short story publication. Congratulations! What was it like to learn Morgan Talty picked “The River at the End of the Road” as a finalist?
Over the moon! Thrilled! On cloud nine! All the cliches.
This story was a great confidence booster. After it made the shortlist for the Berlin Writing Prize, I felt hope. I knew this piece resonated. I revised and revised some more and submitted and submitted some more. I first heard of Morgan on NPR (as a lifelong listener, my dream would be to be interviewed on NPR!), so to hear he would be reading my work, and then that he chose it for third place—it’s hard to describe how amazing that felt.
Something that drew me to this story right away was its sharp focus on the minute details, and the way that the tension grows steadily throughout until it peaks at the climax. The first sight we’re given in the story is a skinned animal, so right away there’s a little unease. But even elsewhere, there’s uncertainty: Javiera is lost, requiring her to ask for directions; her cell service is spotty; her brother’s family is supposed to be meeting them, but there’s been no sign of him, and of course there’s Pablo—or rather, there isn’t. All of this builds to the sudden intrusion of the men in the water truck, the engine growling, disrupting the afternoon. Did this all fall into place naturally, or did it require a lot of tinkering?
The broad strokes were there from the beginning, as I took the setting—the skinned goat, the river, the water truck—from real life. I spent a day there, and I wrote the first draft of the story right after. The experience was fresh, so I tried to capture the place first and then I let my imagination go. The tinkering took place at the sentence level—cutting and cutting some more, rearranging sentences, and finding the right words to move the story along.
These are my favorite kind of stories, I think: just long enough to tell a complete, compelling story, but not so short that there’s no room to shape the world the story takes place within. Like: we never see Pablo, or really learn much about their relationship, yet that detail colors the experience of the trip to the river even so. And these stories are deceptively difficult to write, but you’ve done such a great job with this one. Do you often write stories of this length?
I write pieces this length because this is about as much as I can hold in my head at one time. I often get ideas or imagine scenes while I’m out for a walk or watching my kids on the playground. Then, as soon as I can, I get it down on paper or the computer. I fell in love with vignettes after reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros in high school—life is like that, I think, a series of scenes. So much happens in those brief moments; we just have to notice.
What’s your writing process like in general?
Honestly? There is no process. I write in fits and starts during stolen moments. I write content to help pay the bills, currently as the English writer for Visit Estonia and the Estonian Development Centre. As I’m already at the computer for work, I jot down ideas or work on stories in between articles. I am trying to write with more intention, though, so I have a regular group that I meet with over Zoom (shout out to Candace, Valentine, and Lydia!). I have also taken the Creative Writing course at Tallinn University’s Summer School since 2017—the tutors have been excellent, and I come away with fresh material after every session.
What are you working on now?
I have a couple of short stories I’m currently working on. Hopefully, I’ll have them ready to start submitting by the end of the year. My novel is very much in the early stages. Ideas are marinating in my brain. I’ve written a few scenes already and my Notes app has loads of random thoughts.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer