I’m absolutely thrilled to be welcoming Judy Darley back to the blog. Last year I featured her collection Sky, Light, Rain , a themed collection that contained beautiful stories and gorgeous writing. This time, we’re talking about The Stairs Are A Snowcapped Mountain, a collection of stories that similarly revolves around the natural world and relationships, but feels a little darker at the edges.
One thing I love about Darley’s writing is the style. There are the odd turns of phrase that just lift the whole story off the page, like ‘mushroom-hued water’ from Tidal Suck and ‘Crumbs drop between us like pollen. Like rain.’ from Wild Times. We go from an arguing couple on holiday in Italy to a family stranded in their house during lockdown, and it always feels true. The way she captures the essence of these lives in sometimes very short pieces is truly astounding. Do take the time to read it, you won’t regret it.
I wanted to talk about the dark turn Darley’s stories have taken in this collection, and her route to publication. Read on to find out more.
While I’ve always found your stories to be full of the glory of the natural world, there was something darker in this collection. I had the sense that nature was either fragile and on the verge of collapse, or things were not as they seemed. How or why do you think your stories shifted this way for this collection?
I wrote many of the stories in this collection during 2020, when the world felt unstable and almost unrecognisable in many ways. Nature and home became more of a solace than ever, but I’m more aware than ever of the climate crisis and the damage we’re doing to our surroundings. I was also drawn to examine the possibilities we don’t see at first glance – my fiction is often overlaid by ‘what ifs.’ I think that’s the kid in me who still wants to believe, and actually does believe a little, in magic. One of my favourites of these is Simmer and Steep, in which a pretend doorway spray-painted where a real door used to be offers unexpected developments. The world has huge capacity for beauty and wonder, and I aim to show that in the stories I tell, and create characters with resilience and hope.
The mysterious door that distracts an office worker in ‘Simmer and Steep’
I love your enormously varied characters and relationships. Why do you think so many of your characters have dark, looming things in their worlds?
I believe every story needs a grain of conflict or discomfort, whether that’s between your protagonist and someone or something else, or happening within them. Dark, looming things are great for seeding tension and presenting characters with challenges. But it’s also a reflection of my own life and anxieties. In January 2020 my dad-in-law died, and then the pandemic took hold. My own dad died in June 2022 after a long illness. I write partly to understand our fallibilities and strengths, and to make sense of unfathomable losses. I think a lot of my protagonists are quite feisty, though, including Hera in Self-Defence Against Yesterday, Pippa in Tunnelled, Zel in Stealing from Windowsills, and the River in Why Rivers Run to the Sea. I love to create characters with unlikely viewpoints.
In ‘Why Rivers Run to the Sea’ we hear the voice of the river itself talking to us
There’s something so lyrical and effortless about your style. I love the way you use unusual verbs with things, like birds that ‘stitch surprise’ on the sky and the noise ‘quatched.’ Are these words and phrases things that come to you at the time or do you take a while to develop and edit them?
Firstly, thank you! While some stories arrive virtually fully formed, others take a while to find their shape. Often, it feels like I watch the stories playing in my mind like a film and then look for the right words to express what I’ve seen. Reading aloud is an important part of the process and often prompts a word change or deletion. It’s really satisfying when the right word or phrase slots into place! Stretching Out, which features “a treetop’s quatching rowdiness”, is one of those stories that’s a pleasure to read aloud to audiences as well.
The length of your stories is fascinating — some are over in a flash, while others fully absorb us into a moment of the characters’ lives. How do you find the process of writing stories of different lengths, do you have a preference, and is it hard for you to extend a story, or to cut it down?
I start with an idea or an image, and explore it on the page, line by line, editing as I go. Some stories need bigger word-counts than others, but when I have a tight word limit, I find it weirdly enjoyable to cut it down in a way that amplifies what I’m trying to say. Quite a few, including Aftermath, The Sideways House and Minotaur, were written for submission calls for tales under 100 words. I love how the brevity requires you to choose what to trust to the reader’s imagination.
I also work as a journalist, and crafting a concise, information-rich sentence is a vital part of that job.
A love of foraging is shared between a grandfather and granddaughter in ‘Stretching Out’
Do you have any writing tips for my readers or recommendations?
Writing is an experience that’s different for every person. I recommend allowing a story space to breathe between edits – a day, week or even months can allow your subconscious to get to the root of the tale so that when you return to it you can edit it to clarify what you’re trying to say. When I teach writing flash fiction, I refer participants to flash fiction doyenne Kathy Fish’s statement:
“We revise for CLARITY. We revise for BEAUTY. We revise for EMOTIONAL COHESION. We revise for RESONANCE.”
Finally, just a reminder: whatever the occasion, books make great gifts!
Judy Darley is a fiction writer, journalist and occasional poet from Bristol. Her fiction has been described as ‘shimmeringly strange’, possibly because she can’t stop writing about the infinite fallibilities of the human mind. Judy’s words have been published and performed on BBC radio and harbour walls, as well as in bookshops, museums, cafés, caves, pubs, a disused church and an artist’s studio. Judy is the author of three fiction collections: The Stairs are a Snowcapped Mountain (Reflex Press), Sky Light Rain (Valley Press) and Remember Me to the Bees (Tangent Books). Find Judy at http://www.skylightrain.com; https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.
Purchase link: The Stairs are a Snowcapped Mountain is available to buy from Reflex Press: https://www.reflex.press/product/the-stairs-are-a-snowcapped-mountain/
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