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Short stories

Short stories by Julia Darling are like espresso shots of prose brewed in a stove-top Italian percolator. They are intense tales of the complex emotionally charged relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters or teenage peers. With characters often confined to the margins of society, these are stories in which defiant women claim power over the violent, overbearing men in their lives. Although sometimes dealing with hard-hitting subjects such as domestic abuse, anorexia, tyranny and grief, Julia’s writing is bursting with dark humour. Her publisher, the novelist John Murray, wrote that her stories were passionate, funny and powerful:

‘Her women stride courageously through them with ambition, lust, desire and doubt.’

Writing short stories was a preoccupation for Julia and applying for a fellowship in 2000, she explained how she wanted to ‘concentrate on writing short stories, which is what I always most wanted to do’. Citing her influences, Julia wrote how she returned ‘again and again’ to Raymond Carver, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and was ‘delighted’ by Lorrie Moore and Alistair MacLeod. Writing about her short stories, Julia revealed: ‘I am more and more interested in the musicality of words. I read out prose to myself over and over again, trying to get the sound right. I often write in the first person, looking for a true sense of voice, character and experience. I try to let different worlds speak to each other and attempt to make sense of one another’s predicaments.’

In May 1993 Julia won the Tyne Tees Television Put It In Writing short story competition for her story ‘Beyond’. The judges commented on the sense of humour evident in the story, saying that it was ‘one of the few entries that made us laugh out loud’. The story was published in The Page Arts Paper, produced by The Northern Echo. At the time Julia had a six-month residency working with housebound people and their carers in the Blyth Valley, which led to the poetry book Unbound (produced by Blyth Valley Council in 1994). Asked what she would do with the award by the Newcastle Herald and Post she said: ‘It will buy me time to do more writing – much as I might be tempted to celebrate with champagne and roses.’

‘Beyond’ is the story of an abused mother whose body is hard ‘like concrete under sacking’. She metes out her own justice when her husband beats and terrorises their two daughters. Julia writes: ‘Mother… grew at least three inches and had a new smell about her. It was like meatballs.’ The story traces the narrator’s own abuse at the hands of her alcoholic partner, before she too becomes empowered, guided by the spirit of her mother. Julia writes: ‘A crime is on my breath and sometimes I try to cover it up with pungent foods.’

The story is included in Bloodlines, Julia’s collection of 14 short stories published in 1995 by John Murray’s Panurge Publishing. She completed this collection after a writing residency at the Tyrone Guthrie centre in Ireland’s County Monaghan, funded by Northern Arts (now Arts Council England). Bloodlines also features ‘Floor Wax’ which won the annual Sid Chaplin Short Story Competition, run by Shildon Town Council in memory of the County Durham-born writer.

 

 

Bloodlines is a compelling depository of themes, some of which Julia would develop in later novels and plays. ‘Nesting’ concerns guardian angel character Hilary who lives high in a tree and assists anorexic Gabrielle in her recovery from the disease when her mother cannot. It is a story of the painful relationships of three generations of women, disconnected from each other. Julia writes: ‘Then Gabrielle became anorexic, and mother nodded and smirked as if Satan had been there all along, hiding in the fridge.’ The tale features the magic of the everyday, which Julia developed in many of her stories: the ordinary gaining power to become extraordinary. As she writes: ‘In time the whole episode seemed dreamlike and insubstantial. My daughter was saved from death not by a doctor, or by her mother, or by God, but by a woman who lived in a tree.’

The story ‘Bloodlines’ concerns a young woman suffering from a disastrous love life who reconnects with her distant father through amusing airmail letters. In a description of the narrator’s lesbian liaison, Julia writes: ‘Nothing had touched me apart from the palms of businessmen for nearly three years. Her touch had the smell of some exotic French brandy, or bay leaf, or eucalyptus.’ The idea of the doomed relationship is developed further in Julia’s debut novel Crocodile Soup, as is the story ‘Lilo’ about a Swedish au pair who plumps herself on an inflatable and disappears during a family holiday.

Writing for the British Council: Literature website, Dr Jules Smith observes that Bloodlines is concerned with indomitable women coping with difficult lives and defiantly taking liberties. She writes:

‘Julia Darling was a specialist in the fears, foibles, and eccentricities of women, capturing the poignantly funny side of family life. She also explored women’s relationships – with their bodies, and with each other ­– especially the fraught one between mother and daughter… Relationships are at the heart of the prose fiction that brought her considerable acclaim.’

Arc Publications selected two of Julia’s stories, ‘Sack Depot’ (which was included in Bloodlines) and ‘The Treatment’ to appear in Northern Stories Volumes 4 and 6 (1993 and 1995). Arc ran an annual short story competition open to writers in the North of England and about ten of the best entries were published in the resulting anthologies. Primarily a poetry publisher, Arc collected three books of Julia’s poetry: Sudden Collapses in Public Places, Apology for Absence and Indelible, Miraculous.

Julia was asked to contribute to numerous UK and international magazines and publications, while her stories often featured in prestigious anthologies. In 1997 her story ‘The Street’ featured in Penguin Modern Women’s Fiction, edited by Susan Hill. This is the tale of the indomitable Amy Steel, who worked as a welder in the shipyard and could ‘tell a good sausage from a poor one by putting it to my ear’. Also in 1997, ‘Breast’ was included in New Writing 6 (edited by A.S Byatt and Peter Porter) and published by the British Council. In a continuation of the same series, New Writing 10 (2001) published by Picador (edited by Penelope Lively and George Szirtes) featured Julia’s story ‘Love Me Tender’.

By this time Julia was being commissioned to write for BBC Radio 4 and four of her short stories were broadcast under the umbrella title Scraping the Sky. These were stories about folk who spent time high in the air such as an oil rig painter in ‘Safety’. The idea of proximity to the sky is touched upon in the story by the narrator of ‘Beyond’ who lives in a tower block: ‘I grew to crave the emptiness of sky; the heightlessness of it.’ Also broadcast on Radio 4 was ‘The Debatable Lands’ set in the wild border landscapes of Reiver country and read by actor Gina McKee Radio 4 broadcast in early 2005.

Julia was selected as the regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 1998 for ‘The Postman’s Weakness’. The following year she won a short story competition run by Ireland’s Fish Publishing and ‘Three Stages of Heat’ was included in Dog Days & Other Stories. The same year her story ‘Last Days at the Asylum’ was printed in Snapshots: 10 Years of the Ian St James Awards – a collection of the best submissions to the international short story awards.

In 2001 Julia was asked to contribute to a major collection of short stories, England Calling: 24 stories for the 21st century (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). England Calling provided fictional snapshots of England, all deeply rooted in a sense of place, magnified by the discussion of culture and identity following devolution in Scotland and Wales. ‘The Day I Lost Her’ was included in this collection, while the same year ‘Geographicals’ was published in another collection of new writing, Biting Back (Iron Press), edited by Kitty Fitzgerald.

‘Pearl’, which first appeared in Bloodlines, was included in Gas and Air (2002), a volume of short stories about childbirth, edited by Jill Dawson. ‘Pearl’ does feature a home birth but primarily concerns the character of a lollipop lady who delivers the school run twice daily. Julia writes: ‘Pearl has two faces. When she is standing on the crossing holding her lollipop stick she has a buttery smile and eyes that slant upwards. After the cars have gone she turns and her dark face with the pursed mouth and the two lines on her forehead crosses her features, like a stage curtain.’

New Writing North commissioned writers including Julia to write a story as part of a project inspired by fragments of ideas left in notebooks by Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. Julia’s response was the tautly written ‘The Dress’ about a stolen frock, which worn by a teenager ‘felt delicious, like water’. The story featured in the collection So, what kept you? (Flambard Press) published in 2006.

Over her career Julia wrote more than 50 short stories, many of which were printed in magazines, newspapers and anthologies, while some remain unpublished. Interviewed by the Independent’s Christina Patterson in 2003, Julia explained that she was unable to gain a mainstream publisher for her short stories.

‘The classic thing happened. Agents were all saying “marvelous stories” but as soon as you finish the novel let us know.’

Julia also talked to Christina about the impetus to write short stories in reference to the rather ‘worthy’ plays of her early career.

‘If you wrote anything self-indulgent then everyone would tell you off… so I thought maybe I’ll write some short stories and maybe that will keep a part of me happy.’

Julia always hoped that a second collection would be published.

Copyright Tamzin Mackie

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