There was an embarrassment of riches when it came to short stories by Julia Darling. She wrote so many between the years 1992 and 2004, that a giant spreadsheet was required in an attempt to bring order to them. Even with the aid of Excel, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many stories Julia wrote. Just when we thought that we had discovered them all, a new source of files appeared, taken from the hard drive of an old computer.
There are certainly over 70 stories and naturally there exist different versions of many. Some stories were edited for publication. ‘Safety’ appeared in the Gill Airways Top Flight magazine, devoid of the bedroom scene with its ‘creamy sheets’ and ‘cool skin.’ Some stories written for BBC Radio 4 were shortened to fit into the 14–minute drama slot.
‘The Treatment’ was published in Northern Stories Vol 6 (1995), edited by A.L. Kennedy and David Dabydeen, but lying in a red box was a longer, revised and more detailed version. It is this version which is included in Pearl.
One version of ‘Virtue and Mercy’ was cut fairly dramatically, and this story has been restored, so now includes lines such as, ‘When Virtue was twenty he had hair the colour of blackberries and his act was the most thrilling thing you can ever imagine. He seemed to have wings on his feet.’
Bringing Pearl into existence was a collaborative project and we were keen from the beginning to give the greatest respect to Julia’s writing. Our policy was always to edit lightly and restore stories to their original, intended state, when possible to do so.
Then we had the tricky task of coming up with a running order. The problem which faced us was that there were just too many pearls. We were keen to include stories from different sources, which readers may not have encountered before. These included publications such as The Big Issue and anthologies such as Snapshots: 10 Years of the Ian St James Awards.
Then there were unpublished stories such as ‘How to Wait’ and ‘The Debatable Lands’ (the last story Julia wrote), which were so finely crafted that they cried out to be included.
Finally, there were the stories published in Bloodlines (Panurge, 1995). Bloodlines was Julia’s only short story collection and when we contacted Panurge editor John Murray, he encouraged us to include all the Bloodlines stories ‘as they are exceptional’. This is true but publishing all 14 stories would have meant edging out tales written post 1995.
As it was we de-selected some first-rate stories, including ‘The Postman’s Weakness’, which was a regional winner in the Commonwealth Foundation Short Story Competition in 1998. Our aim was for pearls to become a single Pearl and for Julia’s distinctive characters to assemble into a rhythmic, balanced whole. The luster of the pearl is a pleasing motif for the book, but it is worth noting that the title comes not from the iridescent gem, but from the story of the same name. Pearl is a lollipop lady whose face changes ‘like the weather’.
Also in the red box were some notes Julia wrote, possibly for one of her creative writing groups, about her own techniques, including using careful observation and staying economical. She writes: ‘A good short story is full of energy. It makes your hair stand on end.’ See how the back of your neck responds to Pearl.