Laurel Anne Hill’s third novel, Plague of Flies: Revolt of the Spirits, 1846, takes place in California in the days leading up to the frenzy of the gold rush. During the flurry of unrest and massive population growth happening in the area at the time, a group of Americans tried to claim California for themselves in a skirmish known as the Bear Flag Revolt. Of course, in 1846, those Americans were on Mexican land and attacking Mexican officials, including Gen. Mariano Vallejo.
Hill places her characters in the center of this conflict, primarily her protagonist, 16-year-old Catalina Delgado. Catalina has a role to play in a mysterious prophecy that predicts the flood of Americans as part of the gold rush, but in the opening paragraphs it’s those “Yankees” of the Bear Flag Revolt who are foremost on her mind:
ALL THESE FLIES. Las moscas swarm in circles around me at the corral’s gate. I flinch. Where did they come from so fast? A low, shadowy figure—like a wolf or coyote—slinks along the edge of my eyesight, then flickers and disappears. A spirit in animal form, perhaps. A shiver travels down my spine. Flies close in and dot my hands. Fat, ugly insects. Maybe a spirit wants to measure the steadiness of my nerves. I let go of the splintery gatepost. Shake my wrists over and over. Swat at the buzzing battalion. The new rope latch I need to install on the wooden gate to the adobe corral falls to the ground near my feet. Madre de Dios. The flies are as swift as those foreign warmongers who attacked my people fifteen days ago. Those horrid Yankees invaded the rancho of General Mariano Vallejo—a dear friend of my family—then claimed Alta California no longer is Mexican land.
Catalina faces the magical and historical forces surrounding her and her loved ones in what Kirkus Reviews calls “an atmospheric magical-realist tale with a compellingly ominous interpretation of the gold rush.”
Hill, who lives in California, has had a varied professional background and describes herself as a “former underground storage tank operator,” referring to her time working in the field of environmental health and safety at a pharmaceutical research and development site. She says she likes to describe herself that way because “anyone can be a scientist, but how many underground storage tank operators do you know?”
While Hill’s educational and professional backgrounds are rooted in science, she’s never been a stranger to the world of fiction and storytelling. “I started writing before I learned how to read,” she says. “I would make up stories, and my older sister would write them down for me, and I would decorate the pages.” Hill kept writing once she learned how to write her stories down for herself, and she actually earned enough money from writing contests to pay for her college education. “I figured…even if I didn’t end up making any more money from writing after that, that would be OK,” she says.
But that wouldn’t be the end of Hill’s writing journey. She transitioned into a scientific career, writing technical reports and procedures. When she turned 50, she had a nasty case of norovirus that made her horribly sick, so sick that she suffered complications for weeks after and had to be on pain medications that gave her hallucinations. When she finally recovered, she took it as a sign that she needed to stop waiting to write again. She gave herself a time limit of five years to see if she could get published. She got her first short story published after two years, and now she’s had over 30 short stories published.
Plague of Flies is only her third novel, but it’s won 12 awards, including the Chanticleer International Book Awards 2021 OZMA Fantasy Fiction Grand Prize. Much of what drew Hill to the particular period of California history when Plague of Flies is set is her own family history. Her father never talked much about his ancestry, so Hill started doing her own research around the early 2000s. She eventually found records of her great-grandmother in the California Historical Society.
From there she was able to do more of her own research online and discovered that her great–great-grandmother sent urgent financial aid to President Benito Juárez of Mexico, who was battling France. Her great-grandmother helped recruit Mexicans living in America to go home and defend Mexico. Her great-grandfather had a serious enough conflict with the United States that it was documented in the U.S. Congressional Record.
While Hill was fascinated by the exciting stories she found, her characters are their own people. “I certainly used things from my family history,” she says. “I made Catalina very strong and determined, as my great-grandmother would have had to have been.” But ultimately, her characters make themselves known to her in her mind. “They start talking inside of my head. When I was a child, they were my imaginary friends, and when I write, they’re my characters.”
Hill is also very used to creating systems of magic and fantasy worldbuilding in her head. While she worked in the field of science, she “dreamed as someone who was very involved in the magical aspects of the world, the things that cannot be explained.” Really, she feels that a scientific mind and a creative mind aren’t so incongruous as one might think, and her own writing is certainly proof of that.
Readers who enjoyed Plague of Flies will be pleased to know that Hill has started work on a steampunk novel as well as writing more short stories. “I’m not getting any younger,” she says, “and the stories are just sitting there!”
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.