After reviewing and falling in love with Diving Belles by Lucy Wood, I was desperate to ask her some questions about her craft, inspiration and collection of short stories. I am very lucky to have Lucy join me on the blog today to answer a few questions and give some insight into her beautiful book based on Cornish mythology.
I came to love writing through a love of reading – I remember devouring whatever books I could get, from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, through to the Secret Seven, Point Horror and beyond. I began to write little stories that I illustrated. One was about the adventures of four mermaids, so in some ways I have returned to my original ideas when writing Diving Belles! I grew up in Cornwall and went on to study for a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter University, where I developed the idea of writing a collection of short stories based on Cornish folklore for my dissertation.
“They” say that it’s hard to publish short stories nowadays; did you find it hard to find a publisher, at all?
I have been very lucky. My tutor at the university liked my stories and passed them on to an agent. My agent then showed them to some publishers, including Bloomsbury. I think having a specific theme, or framework, for the short story collection was helpful in getting it noticed.
What was your original motivation to write the book?
Having grown up in Cornwall, I wanted to write something about the place and the landscape. I also wanted to write something with an element of magic in it. I realized that by using Cornwall’s folklore I could explore these ideas in what would (hopefully!) be an original and interesting way. Cornwall’s folklore is often seen as rather twee and clichéd, something for tourists and gift shops, and I wanted to readdress this. I wanted to explore the emotions behind the stories and show that there is a darker side to the folklore which engages with issues such as death, guilt and loss. Folklore is a response to life with all its problems, expressing peoples’ need to understand and interpret real events through narratives. There is tragedy embedded in it, but I realized that figures of witches, mermaids and giants could also lend themselves to moments of beauty and humour. Rather than retelling the stories, my aim was to use the original folklore as a jumping off point, allowing me to reinvent it, play with it, and in some ways make it new again.
I know it’s like choosing a favourite child… but do you have a favourite story?
I would say that ‘Notes from the House Spirits’ is my favourite story. I enjoyed the experience of writing from such a different perspective, and playing around with shifts in time. I felt that the house spirits offered an interesting perspective on the idea of houses and home, and their pedantic, repetitive way of thinking also seemed to come quite naturally to me…
Were there myths you wanted to explore but were ultimately left out?
That’s a good question. I did want to write something about the myth of Lyonesse, which is a story about a lost land, rather like Atlantis, a land submerged beneath the sea. Apparently you can still see petrified tree stumps from a submerged forest at extreme low tides around St. Michael’s Mount. A specific idea for a story based on Lyonesse failed to come to me, so instead, I decided to weave the idea of this flooded place into some of the stories: so, for example, you have the wrecker muttering about a town underwater; Oscar finds a door washed up on the beach, and the house spirits have dreams about houses flooding. My hope was that using recurring images of the myth in this way would help to tie the stories together.
There must have been a great deal of research behind the stories, what did you read to help?
I focused mainly on two books, both nineteenth century collections of the original Cornish folklore: Robert Hunt’s The Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall, and William Bottrells’ Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall. While reading these original stories I was interested in finding particular elements that jumped out at me and suggested ideas for new stories – elements of the folklore that I could play with and recast in my own work.
What attracted you to write a collection of short stories rather than one myth in one novel?
I knew right from the start that I wanted to write a short story collection – it felt like the best way to make use of the original folklore. There were so many ideas in there, so many interesting bits and pieces, that they each called for their own individual stories. On top of this, I felt that much of the folklore would not support a longer story – short stories lend themselves very well to ellipsis, to what is left in the background and what is not said, to glimpses rather than overt explanation, all devices that work particularly well when trying to evoke the world of folklore.
What’s a writing session for you like, how do you go about your craft?
The best time for writing for me is early in the morning. I try to set myself a certain number of words to write on that particular day, but it is hit or miss whether that works out or not… I try to get a full rough draft of a short story done before I rewrite it, but if I get stuck I do go back and work on the beginning instead. It is very satisfying turning a clunky sentence into a lovely sentence! It is definitely all about editing and rewriting.
Your short stories and the original myths explore the idea of adding an extraordinary aspect into everyday life; does this idea attract you as a writer?
Yes, very much. I like the idea of writing about things that are half-seen and glimpsed, things that exist alongside the everyday and the domestic. In Diving Belles I wanted the magic to be two sided: on one level to seem real and matter of fact, but at the same time to function as a metaphor for the human situation at the centre of the story. In a way, using the rule of framing the stories around the folklore, of using extraordinary things alongside the everyday, forced me to push my imagination further and to come up with situations and relationships that matched the themes in the folklore – ideas that I may not have come up with otherwise. I also just really enjoyed being able to spend time writing about the thoughts of house spirits, ghosts and witches!
How did it feel to walk into a book shop and see your début on the shelves?
I know it’s early, but can you share any details on your follow up? Am I right in thinking it’s a novel?
Yes, I am now working on a novel. It is in the early stages, but it will involve some element of magic, a river, and will be told through the voices of three generations of women.
I would like to thank Lucy for taking the time to answer my questions and I can’t wait to read her future works.