Dark Short Stories: Trouble Crossing the Bridge By Diana Powell

Apr 1, 2022 | Reviews

I don’t think I’ve ever read a short story with a mathematical equation as the title. This is just one of the reasons Trouble Crossing the Bridge, a short story collection by Diana Powell, is astonishing. From untangling the threads of a dilapidated relationship to exploring the impact of trauma, this collection is bold, powerful and beautifully written.

Each character within the collection finds themselves damaged in some way. Through a huge variety of ages, places and situations we see the fragility of humanity and the ways the express and cope with their hardships. But there is beauty here too. In the lyrical way she paints the worlds she creates and in the tantalising hope of something better, if you can only get across the bridge.

I talked to Diana about why she chose her characters and themes, where the equations came from, and how she went about publishing her short story collection.

Dark and beautiful – you can buy the collection here

One thing that really stood out to me about your collection was the sense that in each story, each character is experiencing some sort of loss or difficulty, often quite unpleasant or extreme. Is this something that comes out often in your writing, and why do you think you’re drawn to it?

Yes, I would say this is true for most of my writing, not only my collection. I’m afraid I do favour the dark side of life in my work, though I like to think there is some humour to be found in the telling of the tales. I’m not exactly drawn to it – rather, it’s the way my stories develop from their original idea.

Unfortunately, I’m aware I do have quite a few deaths, but it’s not intentional. For example, with one story I was writing, (not in this collection), it suddenly came to me that the main character was going to drown. I actually thought ‘oh, no, not another!’, but there was nothing I could do about it. It was how the story must end.

On the other hand, I do also like to feel that, in putting these stories of trials and tribulations onto the page, it is a way of bringing the dark into the light, and showing what it is like to be these troubled souls.

I really enjoyed the ‘mathematical’ references in some of your stories. As someone who avoids maths wherever possible, I’ve never considered using equations or formulas in my writing. Where did the idea for them come from and are you someone who enjoys maths?

I’m glad you liked these stories, thank you! I did use to enjoy maths in school – though that’s a long time ago now – and I’m still interested in numbers today. I love their logic and the way they connect. I’m not sure the idea of left/right hand side of the brain applies to me – I think I’m more balanced.

The first ‘formula’ story I wrote was {W+(D-d)} x TQ/MxNa. I saw an article about Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year, and was intrigued to learn that someone had actually devised a formula to explain why this was the case. And I decided it would be a great way to frame a story – working through each letter at a time, to follow my character through the day.

Then, later, wanting to write about a shopaholic, I was excited to discover that there was also a formula for Black Friday, the highlight of the shopping year. So I used the same idea for that.

I’ve been toying with a third. I believe there’s a Red Tuesday, but whether it’s got an equation of any kind, I’m not sure yet!

The equation for sadness? How ‘Blue Monday’ was inspired

The voices we hear from throughout your collection are incredibly varied and unique, but they tend to be people who are vulnerable in society. Why do you think you’re drawn to writing about characters like this?

You mention the word ‘varied’ here. Variety is one of the things I love about short stories. They can have so many styles, forms, genres, themes and characters. And I’ve tried to encompass many vastly different characters in the collection.

But yes, they are all damaged in some way, whether by their own psychological problems or by external circumstances. And it is, in particular, the way they rise up to meet the challenges of their situations that interests me. And I love the weird methods I can make them employ. So we have a man who has suffered neglect as a child believing his life moves in time with the Doomsday Clock. Or the rejected artist’s muse, cutting off the hands of the mannequin whom, she believes, has usurped her lover’s affection. There is nothing ‘ordinary’ here, and that’s why I’m drawn to them. They offer such potential for the writer.

How did you go about getting your collection published?

Short story collections are notoriously hard to get published, because, sadly, they are a hard sell. Every now and then, there’ll be a new celebration of the form, talking of their revival, but, very soon, it’s more of the same. So it’s very important to get your stories out there and competitions and journals and anthologies are great places for this.

Little by little, I built up a C.V. of publishing and competition successes. For example, my story ‘Whale Watching’ won the 2019 ChipLit Festival Prize, was runner-up in the 2020 Society of Authors ALCS Tom-Gallon Award, and was included in the ‘Best (British) Short Stories 2020’.

This meant that when I was ready to put a collection together, I was able to say that such and such a story won this prize, while that one was published in so and so – which drew attention to their viability. (A note of caution here, publishers generally prefer a percentage of stories to be ‘fresh’.)

Fishguard Harbour, the setting for Powell’s award-winning story ‘Whale Watching’

At that time, ‘The Blue Nib’, an Irish magazine, was a great place for literary fiction, poems and essays. So I sent ones story off, and it was my fastest ever acceptance! Then I sent another, and that was also taken straight away. So, when the editor was looking to expand into book publishing, I sent my collection there, and that, also, was accepted!

What is the best writing advice you’ve been given or your own that you’d like to pass on to other writers?

There is so much advice out there, and so many writing rules. I would say what I’m sure plenty of others say, which is – ignore it/them, if you want! One of the favourites I ‘break’ is to ‘write about what you know’. I prefer to use my imagination and write about whatever takes my interest, even if I’ve had no experience of it whatsoever. Yes, I do a lot of research, but that, for me, is a very enjoyable part of the process.

If you are going to take a writer’s advice, pick those that resonate with you. For example, I love Aminatta Forna’s ‘a story is taking a thought for a walk’. That’s how it is for me, from idea to The End – I’m just walking it along.

And one other very important point is ‘don’t give up’. Keep going, though it’s always hard through all the rejections – heart-breaking, at times – but keep at it, and you’ll get there. After all, you never know when it’s going to be your time.

Diana Powell is a prize-winning writer of short fiction – both short stories and novellas. She lives in beautiful Pembrokeshire and could easily be distracted by the sea and her woodland garden, but, because she loves writing so much, she always manages to make time for it, even in this beautiful weather.

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