Judy Darleyis the author of two short story collections, Sky Light Rain (Valley Press 2019)and Remember Me To The Bees (Scopophilia Publishing, 2013). Her short fiction and journalism have been published and performed in the UK, US, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and India. She co-judged National Flash Fiction Day UK’s Micro Competition 2019 and is Flash Fiction Editor at Reflex Press. Judy lives in Bristol, England, with her husband and an assortment of imaginary animals.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’d been publishing short stories for five years before my first collection, Remember Me To The Bees, came out. I soon discovered the difference between people reading the occasional tale and sitting down to a consolidated body of work. For the first time, my preoccupations – humanity’s inhumanities and the misguided machinations of our minds – were exposed. I needed to reassure some family members that my fiction is where I ask and answer questions, and remind them that these stories are fictions – i.e. made up.
I also recall that strangers took my book as evidence that I was a real writer, which pleased me, but seemed a little strange. I’ve felt like a writer all my life. Who knew printed pages were what made that true to other people?
The publication of my collection Sky Light Rain has been different in all kinds of good ways. My work has developed over time as I’ve gained both life and writing experience. But my love of spinning tales and my fascination with what lies beneath the surface remain the same. I’m still writing about the fallibilities of the human mind.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve always loved stories and since my teens I’ve wanted to make at least part of my living from inventing them. However, I also work as a journalist, and relish using the skills I’ve gained to tell people about the real world. In recent years I’ve also worked as a communications manager, and find myself increasingly entranced with all the different ways I can share news and explore ideas, using everything from social media to infographics.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It varies from story to story. Some arrive complete and need only a few tweaks. On other occasions, the first draft is a discovery process, placing one sentence and then another until I have a story arc. Occasionally, multiple drafts follow, which can take days or years. However the stories arrive, I read my work aloud and uproot any words that interrupt or slow down the story’s journey. It’s an absorbing and satisfying process.
4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Each short story begins as an entire, separate world. I take care to choose and plant every word in the most beneficial place possible, so that each sentence receives sunlight and rain, light and dark, in perfect balance to achieve the impact I’m seeking.
Every now and then, I look at my successful stories – either those that have been chosen for publication or those that have simply achieved what I was hoping for – and I search for emerging themes. Then I start shaping them into a collection where each story contributes to something larger and hopefully more resonant than the sum of its individual parts.
I want my stories to connect with people, to make them think, and to remind them that there’s more to life than the daily routines and concerns that consume most of our energy.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Do you know what, I really enjoy taking part in readings! I have a confidence in my written words that sometimes surprises me. I can shelter behind them in plain sight in a similar way to how an actor might hide behind a role. I love taking my time and delivering a story to an audience, sinking into the rhythm of the sentences I’ve constructed. The audiences I’ve read to have been exceptionally attentive and well behaved. It’s always been a positive experience to date.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I often write to get a handle on the big things that bother me, whether that’s bereavement, betrayal or the damage being done to our environment.
At the beginning of lockdown in the UK, story after story about the pandemic poured out of me. For a brief time, that was all I could write about, and happily many literary journals were hungry for that topic. I think the immediacy of those stories is why so many of them have since been published.
My ongoing concerns are, as always, the fragility of the human psyche, and, increasingly, the climate crisis.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Yes, writers have a role – to record, to interpret and to allow readers space to think, as well as to entertain and offer escapism. These are distinctly strange and challenging times. I think the greatest responsibility and privilege of any artist is to translate human stories into something more easily felt and understood by a greater number of people, to equip us to handle our circumstances and empathise with others, and to represent all facets of society. In some cases, stories can even be tools for driving positive change.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both as a journalist and a fiction writer, I hugely value the feedback from editors who can help me to see my work with fresh eyes. My Valley Press editor, Tess Dennison, was brilliant to work with. She had a knack of getting me to dig a little deeper, so that even previously published stories now say more than in their original incarnations. I love that she didn’t tell me exactly what to add, but instead said certain stories, “would benefit from a bit more filling out.” Initially I’d feel daunted, but then I’d take a few breaths and the stories would gain depth in my mind. Her encouragement helped me to add extra layers.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The judge of a writing contest a tale of mine placed in called writing a numbers game. They were talking about how you gain success as a writer – the more you write and submit, the higher your chances of being published. It’s true. You could spend your whole life writing one perfect story, but if you never send it out, no one will read it but you. I take pleasure in the sending – it feels like an act of hope and self-belief. And then when a story is rejected, I try to see it as an opportunity to look at the work anew and work out how I can improve it. Rejections will never be fun, but they’re part of being a writer, so you might as well make them useful.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I do my most unconstrained writing first thing, before I’m fully awake. If I don’t have to go elsewhere to earn money, I grab a coffee and my laptop and sneak back to bed. I then write for two to three hours.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go for a walk or a run. That’s when my writing gets resolved and refined – I dash back, grab a notepad and scribble it all down.
A change of view and pace tends to get things moving again. While walking, I often I photograph the odd things I see in my neighbourhood to feature on my SkyLightrain.com as writing prompts – a dropped shopping list, a lost toy, or a piece of graffiti, perhaps.
If I can’t go out, I write blog posts for www.SkyLightRain.com, work on a magazine feature get stuck into the boring admin I’ve been avoiding – send invoices, follow up queries, or even get started on my tax return, until I’m desperate to get back to creating.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Aside from the usual clichés of coffee and freshly mown grass, I have a weird passion for the damp, chalky smell of cellars. The ancient house I grew up in was sold to my parents by a woman who moved to a nearby house containing a secret passage. I was always certain my childhood home must have a secret passage too, and thought the cellar was the most likely place for it. I‘d search until I got creeped out by thoughts of ghosts and had to run up the stone steps as though I was being chased. One day I actually thought I’d found the passage – I still remember my heart leaping up my throat with the thrill – but then realised I’d found a full-length mirror that was reflecting a shadowy corner back at me.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Nature, travel and art are huge influences on my writing. I’m a very visual writer and often watch a scene in my head before attempting to fix it to the page. My collection Sky Light Rain is full of scenes glimpsed during journeys. Art-wise, Woman and Bird is crammed with Barcelona’s street art, including sculptures by Joan Miró. Edge of The Sand delves into the craft of millinery, or hat making. The Sculptor brings together ice sculpture and glass blowing. The Puppeteer was inspired directly by a Shirley Sharp painting, while Lamp Black focuses on a woman devising treasure hunts to get her kids out of the way so she can spend the summer painting. I also painted the artwork for the book’s cover. To me, fine art and writing are just different means of telling stories and capturing impressions.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m fortunate to have connected with many writers who amaze me.
One of my favourite childhood books was Alison Uttley's A Traveller In Time. This book captivated my imagination and taught me how you can blend the realistic and fantastical. Likewise, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer and My Sister Sif by Ruth Park, which were other favourites at that time.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I always wanted to be an astronaut, but I’m setting aside that goal with the aim of publishing my first middle grade novel instead. Oh, and I’d like to write the perfect piece of prose. All my writing is about striving to perfectly transfer glittering stories from my head to the page with losing anything en route.
Other hopes include a lot more travel. l would love to explore New Zealand and Canada, as well as more of Europe when that’s a safe possibility again.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My high school careers’ advisor told me I’d make a great careers’ advisor. I have an enduring curiosity about the people and love solving problems, which is useful when it comes to researching and plotting fiction. I think engineering or some other STEM subject (other than Maths) could have satisfied my creative urges for figuring out the ‘whys’ and ‘whats’ of the world.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As a child I first wanted to be a nurse, and then a vet, before deciding that I wanted to tell stories about people having adventure. This has developed over time into telling stories about people having misadventures. Writing is the closest thing to believing in magic forever while being allowed to choose your own bed-time.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m currently devouring The Moth: This Is a True Story, a compilation of 50 stories from the legendary storytelling nights. Truth really is more fantastical than much fiction – if you were making up these tales, you’d have to edit out the marvels and crazy coincidences that make them so powerful.
Jojo Rabbit is an extraordinary film told with unwavering courage and irreverence by Taika Waititi. I’m not sure anyone else could tell the story of World War II from the point of view of a vulnerable Hitler Youth boy in such an endearing, sensitive and comical way. I adore the way it confounds expectations.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I spent summer 2020 revising on a middle grade novel about what happens after human civilisation collapses. It’s a survival adventure with elements of eco-fable and a touch of magic.
Now I’m mulling over the shape my next short story collection might take and identifying the emergent themes.