Today I am delighted to welcome Judy Darley as a guest on the Blog to talk about her short story collection Sky Light Rain (published by Valley Press) and her writing process.
Read my review at the end of this post.
including in The Mechanics' Institute Review 16: The Climate Issue, Spelk and SmokeLong Quarterly. She’s Flash Fiction Editor at Reflex Fiction. Judy’s second short story collection Sky Light Rain is out from Valley Press.
In this collection of eerie, beautifully-crafted stories, lives are lived slightly out of sync with the ordinary world. From a man who makes sock puppets to elderly Italian craftswomen and hens at a taxidermy party, family stories are seamlessly woven with folklore, journeys and natural phenomena to examine the quirks, pain and resilience of human existence.
‘Sky Light Rain abounds with original imagery. It jostles with ice sculptures, seagull feathers, puppets, flowers, lost suitcases and – unsurprisingly – birds, being a collection that looks upwards into the sky. Many of the stories seem to end with the sense of a new beginning, a newly-discovered peace. This is a rich collection with a distinctive, haunting atmosphere.’
– Heather Child
‘Brave, honest, beautiful.’
– Jayne Joso
Q- Can you share how you found a publisher for the collection?
My first collection ‘Remember Me To The Bees’ came out from a micro press in 2014. I found the process of assembling the collection really satisfying and was keen to publish more of my fiction in this way. I work as a freelance journalist and was already an ardent submitter of short fiction to journals. After a publication printed one of my stories, they expressed interest in publishing a pamphlet of my tales. As the story I’d already published with them was about the sea, I put together a selection of water-based tales.
However, the publisher then disappeared, as occasionally happens with small presses. I was keen to publish a full-length collection anyway, and the pamphlet stories amounted to a third of the volume I wanted. I set about thinking up two additional themes.
When I settled on ‘Rain’ for the watery tales, I realised the name of my culture blog already held the components I wanted, so the title ‘Sky Light Rain’ was born.
I searched online for independent presses and came across a few possibilities. I then read a poetry review in the Guardian for Antony Dunn’s ‘Take This One To Bed’. Valley Press was the publisher. Looking at their website I saw that they also published collections of short prose. I wanted to find out more, so I contacted the publisher and asked for a copy to review. I loved how promptly and professionally they responded and the quality of the printed poetry collection that arrived. When they re-opened for submissions, I emailed my collection over.
Around a year later we chatted via FaceTime and they told me they’d like to publish it. On a rainy afternoon a year and a half after that, I was holding the printed book in my hands and doing a happy dance.
It was a great reminder of the necessity for patience in this industry – which isn’t something that comes naturally to me at all!
Q- I particularly loved the variety in this collection, your stories weave between reality and folklore. Where do you find inspiration and are there themes/topics that you return to?
I’ve always loved reading fiction where reality and folklore intersected in unexpected ways that the protagonists took for granted. ‘Marianne Dreams’ by Catherine Storr was one of my early favourites, along with ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ by Philippa Pearce. Following those days, I discovered Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri and Philip Pullman, among countless others.
The world is full of wondrous and horrifying improbabilities. When writing, I often feel I’m conjuring something magical through exploring everyday life, while my fairytales and folklore make perfect sense of the situations my characters choose or that choose them.
I frequently write about people whose sense of reality is slightly off-kilter. My dad has semantic dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; his wavering sense of the world has influenced several stories, including ‘The Sculptor’. I love art, and find artworks prompt tales. My story ‘The Puppeteer’ sprang from a painting by artist Shirley Sharp. As a journalist, I’ve written masses of travel features and these often seep into my fiction, including in my stories ‘Woman and Birds’, ‘Two Pools of Water’, ‘Paper Flowers’, ‘Not Every Wound Can Heal’, and ‘Fin’.
Between April and July 2020, I wrote masses of Covid-19 stories as a way of managing the stress of so much uncertainty, and found myself highlighting the small, claustrophobic details of life in lockdown.
Q- The acknowledgements in this collection shows that your stories have been widely published. How do you source potential homes for your work? Can you share your process and where to find opportunities?
I’m a constant forager when it comes to finding markets for my words. I spend a fair amount of time browsing Twitter, which helps me connect to other writers and literary journals. I also look at author blogs and take note of the publications they’re being featured by.
I publish calls for submission on my blog SkyLightRain.com, which keeps me abreast of opportunities as they arise. As a journalist, I’m used to writing to a brief. Calls for themed submissions work in a similar way for me, triggering ideas that entice me down unexpected paths. The Cabinet of Heed published two of my stories in their ‘Writing Prompts’ special.
I keep a spreadsheet of every piece I send out, where it goes and the response. I can’t recommend this approach enough – it helps me to stay unemotional about the pieces that get turned down. The fact is that for every piece published, several will have been rejected. I try to think that when something comes back it just hasn’t found the right home yet. I take a good look at it, see if anything isn’t flowing or if there are substantial changes I need to tackle, and then I begin thinking about where to send it next.
Q- All writers have their own process, can you talk us through how you create a new story or flash fiction. What triggers a new piece and how do you take it through to publication?
I’m always on the lookout for fresh creative prompts, partly because I publish weekly ones on my blog, SkyLightRain.com.
I might see something that lodges as a scene in my head, which I then write down to find out what it could be about. It could be an object left by the side of the road, a couple arguing on a bus, or a child watching the harbour cormorant dry its wings – anything that snags in my mind and starts a ‘What if…’ avalanche. What if that couple are arguing because of a terrible deed they witnessed? What if the cormorant is the child’s father? What if the road-side object is a clue, or if someone just believes it is?
I might attach the scene to a thought that was already in my head and use exploration of it to examine ideas stemming from an existing myth, Covid-19, vulnerability, or the climate crisis. I might attach two of these odd observations to one another to see what new directions that takes me in. For me, writing is a process of discovery.
Occasionally a story emerges fully-formed, but at other times I need to tease it out, bit by bit. I’m trying to learn to set the first draft aside for a day or week – at least. Sometimes I get stuck when I’ve tried to pile in too much, and other times I get stuck because there isn’t enough – the complete tale is too slight and insubstantial. Time and space really help with writing revisions. I might lift out one thread and discard it, or change a point of view that isn’t working.
I have writer friends I swap stories with to learn how they read to someone who hasn’t got that whole world bubbling in their head. As much remains unwritten as written, and I need to know a tale stands up without needing additional scaffolding.
When a story is rejected, I take that as a chance to look at why. Have I unearthed the themes enough? Was I too subtle or not subtle enough?
At this stage, I often change the title. It’s amazing what a difference this can make. As Flash Fiction Editor for Reflex Fiction, I’m keen to remind writers to put as much effort into the title as the story – it should work as hard as your first and last lines!
I’m also trying to learn that not every story needs to be finished. Some are just ways to develop an idea, before moving on to the next story. I find giving up on a story difficult.
Q- Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline?
I’ve recently finished my second draft of a middle-grade novel about what happens after the end of human society as we know it. The protagonist and her family set out to find a safe place to start afresh. It explores my pervading concerns about the climate crisis, as well as darker aspects of human nature. Book Two is sitting in my head, but I don’t want to start work on that until I’m certain Book One works. I was lucky enough to gain a place on WriterMentor’s 2020 summer school. Working with a mentor on the opening chapters has helped me to take the full manuscript apart and put it back together again into a far better book. Luckily, as a journalist I’m no stranger to editing in response to feedback.
I’m also beginning the slow, satisfying process of assembling my third short story collection, identifying themes to stitch the whole thing together.
Q - Where can we buy a copy of Sky Light Rain?
Sky Light Rain is available from Valley Press.
I’m publishing an insight series into the collection over the next few weeks. To find out about the inspiration behind each individual tale, visit my blog.
Thanks so much for inviting me to take part, and for your thought-provoking questions!
Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley (Valley Press) is a collection of short and flash stories, and follows her debut collection Remember Me to the Bees (2013). This collection consists of three parts: Sky, Light and Rain, which explore nature and our relationship with the world around us. I loved how the stories weave between reality, very recognisable contemporary settings, and folklore where the world isn’t quite what we expect.
The settings continually change, allowing us glimpses into the lives of people all across the globe and time. The characters are rich and varied, all with distinct voices and stories to tell. Sometimes the story seems familiar and then it distorts, the characters are not what they seem, they may have stepped out of folklore but still share the same heartfelt struggles and desires as us.
This is a beautifully written collection where each story compels you to keep reading. The mix of short stories and flash fiction is perfectly balanced, the flash pieces are a burst of emotion, making you gasp, before you immerse back into the longer stories and their intriguing characters.