Some Questions for Lucy Caldwell

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Asked by HarrietLucy, people always like to know how a writer got started. So can you tell us about your beginnings, and when you realised you were going to be a writer?

My mum says that before I could even write I would ask her to fold pages up to look like books, and tell her what words I wanted in them.  I wrote my first ‘novel’, “the robin’s party”, when I was 4 ½, and by the time I was 5, I’d produced another, “the adventures of Dilly and Dolly Dolphin”, which I was brought in to the P3 class to read aloud! So it would be easy to say, I always seem to have done it…  But I’m wary of that sounding glib.  When I teach creative writing classes for beginners there are always participants who talk of how intensely and joyfully creative they were as children, how somehow it was quashed out of them, and how they’re trying to reconnect with that imagination, that sense of possibility.  In many ways, I’ve been lucky enough never to have stopped, never to have lost that.  I wrote all through primary school and secondary school, and wrote my first novel while I was at university, finishing it on my MA the following year.  The tough times came when that novel had a tiny print run and soon went out of print, the publishers declined to offer a deal for a second novel and I decided to write it anyway; I put everything I had into researching and writing it only to realize, after I’d completed a 100,000+ word draft, that it just wasn’t any good.  I abandoned it and had to work out not just how to start again, but whether or not I could, if I had that resilience, those reserves.  It was a real dark night of the soul – I was in my early twenties, feeling pretty lost, haunted by that saying that ‘everyone has one novel in them’ and not knowing if I should give up writing entirely.  A lot of people write one or several novels before they’re published, and they learn the lessons of perseverance then, but I think it’s something that every writer learns or needs to learn at some point: that you do it because you have to, because some deep, instinctive part of you needs to; that you’ll carry on doing it anyway, even if no-one publishes you, even if no-one reads you, in the hope that one day, somehow, what you say will make its way in the world.  There are words by Brian Friel inscribed onto a wall of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast that say, “This is your playhouse.  Come play with us here.” I always try to remember that – the joy and lightness of play, of the way children play.  We all know how to do it, even if we forget, or lose our way.  That place that writing comes from feels like home for me.

Your writing output is a little unusual, as you write plays as well as novels and short stories. Is there ever any doubt, when you first conceive a project, as to which genre it’s going to fall into?

I have only once, I think, started something in one form and turned it into another.  It was a short story about a girl who went missing that just wasn’t working: and I realised that we needed somehow to have the whole thing structured around this void, the space she’d left behind, to hear all of the voices but hers.  So I turned it into a radio play – my first, “Girl from Mars” – and it worked, immediately.  I can’t think of anything else that has begun in one form and migrated to another.  The way that a story is told is to me as important as what that story is – the form is inseparable from the content.  There are things that only a novel or only a play can do – you need to be mindful of the particular limitations and possibilities of each form. 

And – the question writers often hate to have to answer – where do the ideas for the projects come from? And how much research do you have to put in?

Writers do hate that question – and it’s not because it’s boring, or because you don’t know, but because deep down maybe you’re afraid of knowing.  Afraid that if you look too closely, or haul it into the daylight, or fasten it with words, it’ll all turn to dust.  So the answer is, I don’t know, or from anywhere, or from being alive.  But that’s not a satisfactory answer and so here are some of mine.  From a picture, or a story, or a scrap of a story, torn from a newspaper or a magazine.  From a song that gets stuck on a loop in your head.  From a certain slant of light on a winter’s afternoon.  From a phrase that someone says, or even a wordless rhythm, that somehow becomes a character talking.  From wanting to capture a memory or a moment that somehow seemed important.  From wanting to imagine your way out of yourself. From wanting to understand.  From wondering, even just for a fraction of a second, “What if?”  Most of all, I have always been fascinated by people, the secrets, the sorrows, the hidden depths and passions and shames, that we all carry within us.  The way you can meet someone, speak to them, spend an afternoon with them, or maybe even live with them for years, and still have no idea what’s really going on in their head or their heart. The trick is to keep yourself open to it.  To make yourself as thin-skinned as possible.  To let yourself notice things, absorb things.  And then you just have to wait, and see what happens.  I have notebooks, shoeboxes, countless Word documents, note after note on my iPhone, all of which I think of as kindling, and you never know what or when or how the fire is going to be sparked.

The internet has made a certain type of research very easy – but in truth there are no shortcuts, there’s no substitute for the hours and days and weeks and sometimes years you spend as a writer imagining yourself into different people, or places, or situations.  ‘Research’ might seem to be travelling to the Middle East or taking part in an Alpha Course, it might be spending months reading everything you can get your hands on about teen suicide.  It might be a desk covered in post-it notes or weeks of letting your mind spool idly.  But what you’re really doing is journeying down to the deepest places of your psyche, and bringing something back from there.

Henry James is brilliant on this, in his essay “The Art of Fiction”.  And Anne Enright gives a much shorter, but no less insightful, answer to the question here

Can you describe your writing day for us? How many hours, and how disciplined you are? Where do you do your writing? and do you enjoy it?

At the moment, my writing hours are very circumscribed: I have a young toddler who takes up most of my time, and so writing is corralled into a couple of mornings a week.  But I am fiercely, utterly protective of those hours: they’re non-negotiable.  And I get a lot done, partly because I know that they’re all I’ve got!  I used to write at night; I loved that feeling of the rest of the world being asleep, while you’re awake.  But that’s not a sustainable way of working if you have a family, or a day-job.  Then for years I used to go away for weeks at a time and write as fast and as furiously as I could, barely sleeping, not properly eating – and I’d produce thousands of words, but then crash and make myself ill, and that’s not exactly to be recommended, either.  What I understand now is that I was trying to get past what the German poet Schiller calls “the watchmen at the gate” – to outwit the doubting, disdainful parts of me who would criticise and ridicule the idea of anyone ever reading what I was writing, or it ever being any good.  And then, when I was fitting writing around teaching, I would get up first thing in the morning and write, when the boundaries between myself and the dreamworld seemed more porous, less policed – those watchmen again!  But I’ve been doing it for long enough now that – I suppose akin to meditation – I know how to get to that place of stillness, and I can go there almost instantly on a good day.  What I do need, always have needed, is silence.  I can’t work well in a café, or with other people around; I find myself picking up on their speech or their energies in a way that isn’t helpful, or that changes the rhythms or tone of what I’m trying to write.  But I’m getting better at creating my own forcefield of silence.  I don’t know if ‘enjoy’ is the right word – there are times when you seem to hit a seam and you feel like you’re flying, but much of the time it’s much slower and more tedious than that.  But I do find it utterly absorbing, and when I’m working on something time does funny things; it glitches and skips and hours speed by.

How about editing and rewriting? Is this an important part of the process for you?

Oh, definitely.  I try to write the first draft of something really fast, really freely – that’s often the exhilarating part – and then the real work comes when you slow down and start to assess what you’ve got, and work out how to shape it, and how to make it any good.  The thing I do religiously – a tip I got from a Paris Review interview with Joan Didion, who got it from Graham Greene, or Hemingway, so it’s of good provenance – is that I always start each draft, of a scene, a chapter, even a whole novel, entirely anew.  It’s impossible to edit on screen – your eye sort of glides over things.  But when you print the pages out and retype them in, it’s much harder to keep passages of bad or even just mediocre writing.  It also frees you up, for characters to say something unexpected, or for the story to tug you in brand-new directions.  It sometimes seems a longwinded way of working, but it’s the best way I’ve found.

Multitudes is your first short story collection – how has the process of writing short fiction differed for you?

I first attempted the collection eleven years ago, just after I’d finished my first novel, and it became very clear very quickly that I just wasn’t good enough, didn’t have anywhere near the technique to pull even one of my ideas off, let alone the whole thing.  It’s taken a decade of writing across lots of forms to have anywhere near the craft that stories and this collection demanded.  Two or three of the stories have first drafts dating back eleven years – I would come back to them every year or couple of years to try yet again to make work, because I couldn’t quite let them go, even when I couldn’t do it.

The short story, as a form, is much more akin to a play or even a poem than it is a novel.  That’s what it took me to long to learn.  It has to work on a realistic level, on the level of the narrative, but it has to work on a symbolic plane, too.  Even if it covers the sweep of a whole life, there is something taut, essential, about it.  Lorrie Moore says that the short story is like a love affair, where the novel is a marriage.  Maybe there’s something about the intensity of the form that suits the way I’m working at the moment… 

I found all the stories in the volume intensely true to the deep inner feelings of the various protagonists. I couldn’t help wondering how much of your own childhood experiences and feelings went into them?

A lot more than I’ve ever used previously, at such intensity, or such concentration.  I found that the short story as a form seems to demand a higher price of you – a greater degree of truthfulness.  I somehow needed to write a lot closer to the bone… whether that was using my own experiences, or those of people very close to me, or even putting more of myself in there, if that makes sense.  Everything you write requires a portion of your soul to make it live… but these stories took more out of me, than normal.  For example, I wrote the title story when my son was 7 or 8 weeks old, just after we’d come out of the intensive paediatric wards he’d been on for weeks, after being severely ill just after birth.  I wrote it in bursts on my iPhone at 3 or 4am, and I wrote it standing up at the kitchen counter, with him in a sling.  It felt utterly transgressive, but at the same time imperative, that I wrote the story like that – wrote it at all.  That I somehow captured and contained what had happened to us, what we’d been through, and that I made something of it. I read an interview with Elena Ferrante recently where she said that maybe the most radical, the most revolutionary, thing a woman writer can do is to write truthfully and unsentimentally about her own experience and I thought, yes! that’s what I was trying to do!  That’s it exactly.  It feels a very vulnerable thing to do at times.  But those raw moments – I think that’s what you respond to, as a reader.

All the stories in the collection apart from the last one are set in Belfast. How important to you is your identity as a Northern Irish writer?

Edna O’Brien talks often and eloquently about the hold that the place or places that you spend your childhood have over you; about how a writer’s imaginative life commences in childhood.  All one’s associations and feelings are steeped in it, she says; when you’re young, everything is seen in wonder and detail.  I was born in Belfast and grew up there, and it’s those places I know best, those rhythms of speech I hear most clearly.  It’s not, or not just, a conscious choice to set my work there.  And yet, I’ve lived in London for the last twelve years, my husband is a Londoner, and we now have a child who is born and growing up here.  So I feel very torn between the two places.  It’s hard to be of one place but not in it, to feel neither quite here nor there.  I was talking to Kevin Barry recently and he said his theory is that you need to live in a place for eleven years before you own it enough to write properly about it.  And as he said it, I realized that a couple of my stories are set between London and Belfast – one, literally, in the airport – but “Multitudes”, the last story, and the only story to be set entirely in London, was written almost exactly eleven years after I moved here.  So maybe there’s something in it.  And maybe I’ll start to write London stories now, as well.  But even when I have lived in London for more years than I ever lived in Belfast, I’ll still be a Belfast writer.  I know that, in my bones.

What are you reading at the moment? And which authors would you say had influenced you the most?

I’ve just finished a piece for The Stinging Fly magazine on Olivia Laing’s brilliant, luminous The Lonely City, which is a non-fiction book about art, and life, and how to be in the world, and what it means to be human.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I’ve also loved Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, another non-fiction book about a young woman’s struggles with alcoholism and loneliness in the city.  Along with Elena Ferrante, whom I’ve already mentioned, Lucia Berlin has been my greatest discovery of the past couple of years – her short stories have been collected for the first time in a volume called A Manual for Cleaning Ladies and there’s a great introduction by Lydia Davis.  The writers that have influenced me most are probably the great female prose stylists of the early twentieth century – Eliabeth Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann and Willa Cather – and their books are never far from hand.

And finally, what plans do you have for future writing projects? Anything in the pipeline?

I’ve just finished the recording of a new radio drama for BBC Radio 4, a five-part serial, which will be broadcast in the Women’s Hour slot at 10.45 each morning the week commencing 20th June.  It’s called Dear Baby Mine and it’s based on a true story about male infertility, told to me by a stranger who contacted me out of the blue some years ago, asking if I’d be interested in telling his story.  It’s one of the most heartrending and ultimately uplifting stories I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing, and I hope it opens a lot of conversations for a lot of couples. My adaptation of the Chekhov play Three Sisters, which I’ve set in 90s Belfast, is opening at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast this autumn, and we’re in the middle of casting that.  But apart from all that – I’m just craving the time to write more short stories.  I’ve really got the bug now – it’s become addictive, the impossible, tantalising notion of one day writing the perfect short story…

Thank you.

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Harriet is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.

Read Harriet’s review of Multitudes here.

Lucy Caldwell, Multitudes (Faber, 2016). 978-0571313501, 192pp., paperback original.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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