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.