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Interview: Rebecca Zahabi on “Birds Without Wings”

Tell us a bit about “Birds Without Wings.”

Zoe is hitch-hiking across Spain with her boyfriend Alex – but as the story progresses, they are separated along the road, and we discover that there are shifters in the country, fake people which can replace your loved ones, and you would never know… The story progresses from that premise. I can’t tell you more without spoilers! It’s a story about love and change, and life on the road.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I’ve lived with my partner for 7 years now, and of course we’ve both changed during that time. When I started writing this story, I was wondering – why does our love feel special? Lots of couples separate. There is no good reason to believe we won’t too, in time. To me, that is a frightening thought: the fact that what we have spent so much time building together, trust and love, can be overturned. That love, as well as people, can die. So I started playing with that idea: what if he changed – what if I changed? We weren’t the same people we were when we met. We could change again, and change more. What if he looked the same, spoke the same, was still the person I loved – but what made me love him had been taken away?

Of course in this story, the change is more than simply growing apart, or growing up; but I think it comes from the same place, this fear that we won’t recognise the people we love.


Was “Birds Without Wings” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

As I’ve said, I was writing from a personal place when I started this story. Aside from that, I’ve done the same trip as Zoe – the Santiago pilgrimage, picking the path across the North of Spain. When I was 18, I went hiking for a month, stopping in a different inn or youth hostel every night. I walked through the South of France, reached the border, and crossed over to the Northern Camino, which I followed until Bilbao, where I turned back. I didn’t do any hitch-hiking – I walked all the way – and I was alone, but it was an interesting setting which I wanted to put in a story. And it really did pour down with rain the whole time!


In this story and in your previous one for F&SF, “It Never Snows in Snowtown,” a recurring theme in your work seems to be the idea that evil lurks beneath the surface of people and places we trust.  Can you talk about this at all?

I think we take a lot for granted – the people around us, modern comforts such as food, heating, transport, etc. And we don’t spend much time worrying about what would happen if we lose it, because it feels so set in stone. But as we’ve seen with this pandemic, not everything is set in stone; people, and circumstances, can change quickly, leaving us treading quicksand. I think that’s why I often wonder what evil, or darkness, can lurk beneath the surface. Sometimes it was always there but we didn’t see it – like in It Never Snows in Snowtown – and sometimes it appears – like in Birds Without Wings.


Why do you write?

That’s a difficult question! For lots of reasons. Because I can’t not write; the voices whispering in my ear want to be heard. Because I believe (and I hope I’m not wrong!) that I have something useful to say. But mostly because we need stories: they change and shape our mindscape, and our mindscape changes and shapes the world. 


Anything else you’d like to add?

I hope readers enjoy the story and, if so, I’ve got an exciting announcement: my début novel, The Game Weavers, is coming out this fall 2020! I mentioned it briefly in the interview for Snowtown, but I can tell you a bit more now. We follow Seo Kuroaku, a champion of Twine, a high-pressure international sport. Played in arenas where thousands come to watch, weavers craft creatures from their fingertips to wage battle against fearsome opponents. But Seo is harbouring a secret. When he is outed, he has to find a way to get his life back on track, whilst facing the biggest match of his life.

Watch this space!


“Birds Without Wings” appears in the May/June 2020 issue of F&SF.

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