Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes and the Possibilities of Fiction
(Susanne Stich for Humag)
May 2016 saw the launch of award-winning novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell’s debut short story collection Multitudes (Faber & Faber), which presents a fresh and powerful portrait of growing up female in 1990s Belfast. I recently caught up with her during the rehearsal process for her new adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters due to premiere at the Lyric Theatre this month, and which, like Multitudes, is set in early post-Troubles Belfast. The resulting interview covers a vast array of topics, including Caldwell’s meticulous approach to craft, her complex relationship with Northern Ireland, and the effects of reading others on her writing.
Susanne Stich: Multitudes contains eleven stories and was written over eleven years, while, in parallel, you were working on plays, novels, and giving birth to your first child. The stories explore young female experience, ranging from childhood to new motherhood. Except for the last story, they are all set in your native city of Belfast.
In an interview with the BBC Arts Show you compared the collection to a Cubist portrait of growing up. Elsewhere, in conversation with fellow Belfast-born writer Paul McVeigh (The Irish Times, 6.5.2016), you point out how you find the short story in general to ‘demand a higher price of [the writer]’ than other forms. Perhaps we can begin by talking about what the short story did for you in the process of mining aspects of personal experience across an eleven-year time span.
Lucy Caldwell: When I was 23, in the eighteen-month hiatus between signing a book deal and my first novel being published, I wrote a collection of short stories. They were all narrated by or about girls or young women, and all set in the Belfast of my childhood and teenage years, or between Belfast and London. I saw the collection perfectly in my head before I started to write it – the shape of the whole thing, the different notes I’d strike, the themes and motifs that would weave through. But none of it worked. The collection was far less than the sum of its dismal parts. I had assumed, and I’m almost ashamed to admit this now, that writing short stories would be easier than writing a novel. In part because of their length, but also, although it’s harder to put this into words, because there is something inexorable, inevitable, about great short stories. A seamlessness. I put the collection aside, humbled – but I could never quite give up on the idea. Two of the stories in Multitudes, in fact, have their earliest incarnations in those first stories I tried to write: I just couldn’t let them go, and would come back to them every couple of years. I think it took that decade of writing – three novels, a novella, several stage plays and radio dramas, monologues, and all the rest of it, to have enough of the craft and skill to make a short story live. I often think of the lines from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Stillborn’ where she imagines the poems of hers that failed to live, as if they’re pickled in front of her in specimen jars: ‘They smile and smile and smile at me / And still the lungs won’t fill and the hearts won’t start.’ There is something taut, elusive, alchemical, about short stories. As well as working on the basic narrative level, they have to make sense on a symbolic plane: you’re controlling the surface tensions between those two things, which is very tricky.
Another thing happened to me in those 11 years: I started writing and publishing quite young, and when people would ask me what I possibly had to write about, I would feel bemused, because I’d always been fascinated by other people’s stories. By the fact that you could meet someone, live alongside them, fall in love with them, even, and still have no idea, necessarily, what their secrets and sorrows were, their loves and losses, what they were dealing with or hoping for or dreaming about. Those famous lines of Louis MacNeice’s, ‘the drunkenness of things being various’, or the lyrics of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’, ‘I could be in love with almost everyone / I think that people are the greatest fun’ – that’s what I felt, and still feel. It took a long time for me to realise that what I had known and done and lived was worthy of writing about. Perhaps, too, there was a guilt about having lived a relatively normal teenage life against the backdrop of the Troubles. People, from penpals to publishers, would – and at times still do – ask about the bombs you’d seen, the bereavements you’d suffered – and there was a sort of shame about not having a big story to tell when you were living in a time of such big stories. That’s the first time I’ve tried to put that into words. I notice only now, and I’m not going to edit it out, because it seems important, that I slipped from the first into the second person for those few lines, as a way of distancing, maybe, of apology.
And so those years it took between that first attempt and the published collection that is Multitudes were a gaining in confidence, on the technical side of things, but also in an artistic, and perhaps even moral sense, about the sort of stories I could tell, that mattered most for me to tell.
SS: I was struck by the laconic and pared down language in these stories. The narrative voice seems to create a contrast with the emotionally complex and frequently harrowing events. The opening sentence in ‘Killing Time’ presents a powerful example:
I try to kill myself on the first of March, a Sunday. I haven’t planned it. I somehow just find myself standing in the bathroom, my heart beating fast, watching the watery light through the rippled windowpanes, knowing I’m going to, and suddenly it all makes sense. (75)
Another opening, from ‘Thirteen’, sets the stage in similarly incisive fashion:
On the first of July, Susan Clarke and her family move to London to start a new life. They’ve had enough is what Susan’s mum says. She just can’t take it any more.
‘This country,’ she says to my mum.
‘This country,’ my mum says back to her, and neither of them says anything else. (11)
Tonally, Multitudes feels different from the more exploratory language in your novel All the Beggars Riding (2013), where the narrator is dubious of language as she attempts to reconstruct her dead parents’ complicated love story:
It’s harder to tell a story, though, than you’d think. As I said earlier, lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory: the mind doesn’t work like that. (8)
How do you approach finding the register of language for a new piece?