Meet a member: Sarah Hill

– Interview by Sophie Gordon

This month, Sarah Hill shares an insight into her writing life – from stumbling upon Animal Farm at a (very) young age, to combining her love of writing with a career in science, and mining notebooks for gold.

Tell us a bit about yourself – where you are from and what do you do?

I was born in Surrey but also lived in Cheshire and Kent as a child. This meant moving schools a few times but luckily, I was only asked to leave one of the seven.

I am now retired after a career which included; trade journalism, running an international citizen science project, environmental management in industry and corporate communications consultancy. These days I split my time between Stratford-upon-Avon and rural West Wales. Our rescue dog takes up a lot of my days, but I am loving finding pockets of time to read for pleasure and to write, just for myself.

Where do you get your love of words from?

I can’t remember not being able to read. We didn’t have a TV but there were always books at home, our own as well as those from the library. We were read to and listened to the radio and, I recall being terrified by a broadcast adaptation of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. My own reading included a lot of Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, and other adventure stories, as well as stories about ballerinas, but my most vivid memory is discovering Animal Farm aged about eight. I was ill and to avoid my mum traipsing up and down stairs, I had a bed in the spare bedroom that my father also used as a study. Feeling better, and bored, I picked a title off the shelf that looked interesting. It was not what I expected and although parts of it were nightmare inducing, it didn’t put me off reading.

Writing came early too: I shared a large attic room with my older sister, and we often used to amuse ourselves by writing stories and creating mini-comics and magazines. At school I was taught by several wonderful English teachers. I loved composition, poetry and drama and despite all school reports noting “she has a vivid imagination but her spelling and punctuation need improvement” I hoped to study English at ‘A’ level but it clashed with chemistry. Science won out, as my teenage brain figured that I could catch up with English at any time, whilst I’d never be able to have the lab time again. As compensation, I became editor of the school magazine in my final year. 

After a degree in Botany, I was very lucky in my working life and was able to combine both my love of science and writing. 

What made you join 26 and how long have you been a member?

I first met John Simmons in the early 1990s when he worked with me and my boss on a corporate environmental report. His input positively transformed how the work we were doing was perceived across the company and after the project we stayed in touch. So, when he told me about the formation of 26 it was a no brainer, I joined up and have delighted in being a member ever since.

Have you been involved in any 26 projects?

I feel incredibly lucky to have written for two projects during the Covid pandemic. 26 Wild, extolling the wonders of the minuscule, and almost vanishingly rare, Ladybird Spider and, 26 Habitats where I had the sheer joy of researching and writing about gardens, one of the most ubiquitous and varied habitats in the UK. Both projects were a hugely welcome focus during those very uncertain times. To date, I have only seen photographs of my dotty spider but I hope to go on a wee pilgrimage this year to visit their Dorset hideaway and meet the amazing team protecting them. 

What is your ideal scenario for writing? A coffee shop? A quiet retreat?  With or without music? What do you do to get yourself in the right frame of mind?

Once I get started I can write almost anywhere.  

I love writing in cafes, on train journeys and in libraries (and retreats are blissfully indulgent) but, having had a desk of my own since I was about six, writing at my desk at home is perfect. I usually write without music or the radio unless I am trying to channel a particular era or mood when I might listen to something specific. If I have the time, I prefer writing first drafts longhand in biro on lined paper. 

Writing time is precious so usually I can just dive in but if I get stuck, I find ten minutes of automatic writing often helps. Alternatively, I might use a picture as a prompt to get the words flowing. If I’m really stuck, I might make a cup of tea, go for a walk, or do some housework. The latter soon gets me back at my desk!

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a story that I began three years ago on a Dark Angels course that is still growing. It seemed very odd at first, but the characters let me know when they have something to say and some mornings I wake up and have a new scene in my head, ready to translate on to paper. I don’t know quite where the story is going but I’m enjoying the process and intrigued as to where it will end up. 

Tell me about a piece of writing you are particularly proud of

There are several award entries that I am proud of. Wrestling with the tight word counts required is a challenge but one that I have always enjoyed. When you work with great teams, it means a lot when your words help them achieve peer-reviewed recognition for all their hard work.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Things I see on my daily dog walks, stories in the news, photographs, postcards and pictures, memories, items in shop windows, snippets of overheard conversations, books and quotations… Changes of scene including holidays, travelling and visits to museums and galleries often prompt floods of writing and I have notebooks that I can ‘mine’ for ideas if I get stuck. Plus, like lots of us, I also like a good brief or prompt too.

– Interview by Sophie Gordon

We’ll be meeting a new 26 member each month. If youd like to feature, or nominate another member, drop me a line at Don’t be shy.

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