On the Craft of the Short Story

Interviews, News

‘It took me more than a decade of trying to write short stories before any of them worked. It was long and gruelling’
(from The Irish Times)

I retype everything. It’s my most consistent, most abiding editorial practice – and it has good literary provenance; I got the idea from Joan Didion, who, in turn, got it from Ernest Hemingway.I edit as I’m writing, of course, within drafts, and my last few passes over a story take the form of obsessive reading, attuned to the difference removing a comma might make. But the real magic happens with retyping. For each new draft, I’ll print out what I’ve written so far and type it all back into a fresh blank Word document. It’s essential to me because, on screen, in an elegant font, even first draft dross can look deceptively polished.

Retyping forces you to consider, defend, allow, every word, every sentence anew – especially those passages that you sort of know are no good, but sort of have to be there … they stick in your craw. Retyping is a good way of tightening things. It also allows you to experience the story in a useful way – it helps to blend, to harmonise, the various states and moods in which a story might have been drafted; the day you wrote steadily (or wildly) for several hours, the passage you tapped out with one thumb on your phone in the playground, wielding schoolbags and snacks, the sentences that came to you in a bright sharp burst in bed at midnight …

But most of all, retyping allows the story to stay provisional, alive, right up to the final moment. The better you know your characters, their world, the more likely they are to say or do surprising things – things you couldn’t have predicted half a dozen drafts ago. An overworked story gets leaden; ossifies. It’s very hard to lever open fresh space between the bars of text on a screen. As I’m retyping, I’m allowing room for new things to happen, updrafts I can catch, impulses I can follow – and if they don’t yield anything useful, I can just delete them and go back to the sheaf of printed pages on my left. And the corollary of that: sometimes a paragraph, a sentence, is there right until the penultimate draft, when you suddenly realise that it was scaffolding, and has played its part, and the story doesn’t need it any more.

All this is crucial to the way I see the short story at a more metaphysical level – as not the product of thought, but its process. I learned this from Chekhov – the great speeches of his plays, done badly, like carpets unrolled with a flourish to be admired, are dead on stage. But when an actor speaks them as the attempt to articulate something in the moment – they’re bewitching. Alice Munro often says something similar, telling Brick magazine in 1991: “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening, or happening over and over again. I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.”

It took me more than a decade of trying to write short stories before any of them worked. It was a long and gruelling and often despairing apprenticeship. I’d have a good idea, a decent plot, and the resultant story would occasionally flicker, but it would be lifeless on the page – as Sylvia Plath says of her failed poems in the chilling poem Stillborn: “They smile and smile and smile at me. / And still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start.” I think now it’s because I was presenting something as a fait accompli, as an anecdote, something packaged-up, already over. I was writing stories, at the time, about Belfast girlhood, and when I started concentrating not on plot, not on what “happened”, but on atmosphere, when I started to see the stories as spells – words and rhythms in a precise order for the purpose of conjuring something up – they started to live.

I don’t yet know, entirely, what my collection Openings is about. When you’re writing a collection, it doesn’t do to look too closely – you need to keep something of it at bay, or you’ll become too self-conscious, or too schematic. Part of the beauty of a collection is the way you can explore the same thing from different angles, so that the stories can overlap, contradict, amplify each other. I could feel what I was trying to do as I was writing, and that was all that mattered. There were some stories written over the same period – about five years – that just didn’t fit, occasionally in subject matter, or style, but most importantly in tone, in feel.

Now that it’s finished, and about to be public, now that I have distance from it, a new work begins, that of trying to articulate and explain what it’s about. People will soon tell me. Readers will see things that seem so obvious, it will be a shock I wasn’t consciously aware of them – or needed not to be, to write the stories well. There’s always a tension, too, between continuity and variance. Reviewers often like to précis the themes and subject matter a writer returns to, delineate their territory and techniques, confirm the ways in which a writer tells the same stories. From the inside, it’s infinitely more interesting to think of how a book is written in opposition to its predecessors – of the ways you seek to do something different, something new.

But what I do know is this. Openings is part of the same, ongoing psychic project that Multitudes came from, and Intimacies – but where the stories of Multitudes were tightly focused on Belfast girlhood, and Intimacies on motherhood, with those of Openings I found I had more range. There are stories set in Marrakesh, in Berlin, during the London Blitz, in the world of dark matter particle physicists, and, in the title story, a complicated solace of Islam. Years of devotion to this tricksiest, most demanding of forms has given me more technical range, too – the stories are more complex, longer.

Edna O’Brien says of Chekhov that his mysterious genius is that he “makes dramatic something that is desultory”. Some of my favourite stories are those in which nothing and everything happens – stories that seem to operate on this material and human plane, and yet have another, palpable spiritual dimension. Openings takes its epigraph from Chekhov – from one of my favourite speeches by Masha in Three Sisters, where she says (in this translation, by Elizaveta Fen) that “I think a human being has got to have some faith, or at least he’s got to seek faith. Otherwise his life will be empty, empty … How can you live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars shine in the sky! … You must either know why you live, or else … nothing matters … everything’s just wild grass …”

I think the stories in Openings are about the ways that our lives can ossify, can shut down, close in on themselves, under the weight of the roles we play, the expectations we have of others, and they of us – and about the ways they can open up. The ways in which, until the last minute, we can rewrite the script. The ways in which, to be fully in the world, we must stay provisional, alive, uncertain, open to wonder, to possibility, to change. The ways in which no life is “ordinary”, ever, and that even in the midst of the most mundane and repetitive and, yes, desultory of circumstances, the numinous is possible. To remain attentive to that possibility is its own sort of faith, just as attention is a form of prayer.

A poem by Frank O’Hara comes to mind, which would also have made for a beautiful epigraph: “I want my feet to be bare,” he writes in My Heart, “I want my face to be shaven, and my heart – / you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open.” I think of Emily Dickinson, too, and her poem I dwell in possibility, which ends: “The spreading wide of narrow Hands / To gather Paradise –”

All of the ways that we can, even momentarily, slip the bounds of time, and the grooves of our quotidian lives – I want my life, like my stories, to be as open as possible, and right till the last possible moment, open to it all. I hope these stories feel that way, too.


Three City US Tour

Events, News

Lucy will be joining Jan Carson and Michelle Gallen for a series of events in the United States entitled ‘A New Chapter: Women Writing Northern Ireland Now’

This ambitious 3-city touris  in partnership with Columbia University, NYU, Georgetown and Villanova, supported by Northern Ireland Bureau.

The tour, presented as part of the Consulate’s commemorations of the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, will see the writers in conversation at Columbia University with Caoilinn Hughes and Stephanie McCurry on Monday November 27, at Villanova University on Tuesday November 28, and at an event at Georgetown University in partnership with Solas Nua on Wednesday November 29.

Dates & Venues

Mon November 27: Columbia University’s Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities will be hosting the 3 authors for a conversation from 6:15 to 8 pm in the Joseph D. Jamail Lecture Hall, Journalism School. The link to the event registration page can be found here.

Tues November 28: The Villanova Center for Irish Studies will be running a literary panel discussion and readings about women’s rights and sectarian division in Northern Ireland with Lucy Caldwell, Jan Carson, and Michelle Gallen at 6 pm in the Mullen Center’s Topper Theater. This event is co-sponsored by the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership and supported by various departments within Villanova and St. Joseph University’s Irish Studies program. The link to the event registration page can be found here.

Wed November 29: Georgetown University will be hosting a readings and conversation event at 6 pm in the ICC Auditorium at Georgetown University’s Intercultural Center. The link to the event registration page and directions can be found here.

Openings: Thirteen Stories


Faber has announced Openings by Lucy Caldwell, a powerful new collection from the acclaimed, prize-winning author of Multitudes and Intimacies, and winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2021.

Publishing Director Angus Cargill bought World All Languages from Peter Straus at RCW. Publication is scheduled for 16 May 2024, when Faber will also publish a special exclusive edition for No Alibis bookshop in Belfast.

From a passionate affair in Blitz-era London, to a highly charged Christmas party in Belfast, to a trip to Marrakech which could form a new family, the thirteen striking stories of Openings pulse with possibility and illuminate those fleeting but recognisable moments of heartbreak and hope that can change the course of a life. In this much-anticipated third collection, Caldwell continues her exploration of the contemporary female experience, as she delves deeper into motherhood and marriage, love and longing.

Cargill said: ‘Lucy has had a really exciting couple of years, as her writing just goes from strength to strength. With Openings she has once again delivered a beautifully crafted collection of stories – continuing and developing the themes of her two previous collections. She has hit such a rich seam, which readers will love and cherish.’

Caldwell said: ‘I think the short story is the most magical of forms. Reading and teaching stories, and deepening my own practice, has been central to my life for the past couple of years with my masterclass series at the Faber Academy. It continues to be one of the great privileges of my writing life to work closely with Angus, and it’s a dream to be publishing a third collection with Faber.’

Walter Scott Prize Interview

Interviews, News

Lucy Caldwell’s These Days won the 2023 Walter Scott Prize, Here, she talks  about research, inspiration, and how her 8-year-old son and writing in lockdown made her realise history was being made in the present

(interview by Rebecca Salt for the Walter Scott Prize)

I have loved historical fiction since I first read Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety as a 17 year-old, about to study the French Revolution for A-level. The way it brought another time and place so vividly to life, as the best historical novels can do, was sheer magic. That feeling of: Yes! This is what it was like! Pure enchantment.  And it was such a wonderful surprise to find myself longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize because I hadn’t particularly, or consciously, considered myself a writer of historical novels: my three previous novels, and my collections of stories, are all set within or just before my lifetime. But These Days felt so alive to me as I was writing it, so urgent – it didn’t feel like “history” at all, it didn’t even feel like it had happened, it felt like it was happening as I wrote it. Maybe that was Mantel’s trick.

For me, even though fiction comes with a certain license to use or to shape facts in the service of greater emotional truth, fictional worlds can still fail or succeed on the precision of these details – you need to be sure of the coordinates of your place and time.

These Days is the first of my novels that follows the Waverley rule, of “sixty years since”, but I don’t think that anything I’ve ever written exists in a vague or indeterminate present-day. Even if I’m writing a story set in my own recent past, I need to ask myself: is this the year mobile phones had got smaller and smaller, till they were barely the size of credit cards, or by this point had they got so small that they’d started to get bigger again? How did we navigate London then – were we still just about using A-Zs? Did we get our DVDs delivered in the post? And, of course, on a larger scale, so much has changed in Belfast in recent times, there have been so many twists and turns in the place’s story, you need to know exactly when your Belfast-set novel is taking place, or you won’t have a hope of capturing the way things truly were – the way they felt.  For me, even though fiction comes with a certain license to use or to shape facts in the service of greater emotional truth, fictional worlds can still fail or succeed on the precision of these details – you need to be sure of the coordinates of your place and time. Of course, there are greater and more specific challenges writing something set long before your own lifetime, and I loved attempting to rise to those. But do people ever really change? I’m not sure that they, that we, ever really do.

It began, in a strange way, with the Janet & Alan Ahlberg book Peepo! “Here’s a little baby, one two three, stands in his cot, what does he see…” It’s the day in the life of a baby, set against the backdrop of the London Blitz. My son, as a toddler, was obsessed with that book – I read it to him in bed every night for the best part of a year. The signs of the Blitz were all around us where we then lived in East London – but I started to think about the Belfast Blitz, about which I knew next to nothing. There is very little fiction written about it, with the exception of Brian Moore’s (brilliant) semi-autobiographical novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream, which surprised me, because everyone has stories about it, and many of the stories are extraordinary.

After the final May raids, known colloquially as the Fire Raids, a Luftwaffe radio operator said, “We stared silently into a sea of flames such as none of us had ever seen before… One would not believe it.”

The Belfast Blitz consisted of four aerial raids over the course of April-May 1941 which caused some of the worst devastation, the most casualties, of any bombardments anywhere in the UK, in the whole of World War II. After the final May raids, known colloquially as the Fire Raids, a Luftwaffe radio operator said, “We stared silently into a sea of flames such as none of us had ever seen before… One would not believe it.” And I realised that although the Belfast Blitz is an under-told chapter in the fiction of my city, in this year of its 80th anniversary it still exists within living memory, just about.  So I started collecting stories. I didn’t yet know that I was writing a novel: or laying the groundwork for one.  But over the autumn of 2019 and the early part of 2020 my interest in the period really began to solidify – I was reading Jonathan Bardon’s books, working my way through Brian Barton’s magisterial The Belfast Blitz: the City in the War Years, ferociously annotating Stephen Douds’ book of eye-witness and oral history, trawling forums and online archives, poring over old maps of the pre- and post-war city. In my present-day, this was the time, of course, that the strange new “Wuhan flu”, as it was being called, reached Europe, and even as we saw horrific footage from lockdown Italy, despairing pleas on social media, we hoped that it couldn’t, wouldn’t, be like that here. But as it reached our shores, this thing so feared and dreaded, this thing we were so underprepared for, a window seemed to open for me between worlds: our April to May, and theirs. My characters and story became so real it felt eerie – as if their time co-existed with ours, just on a different frequency, or on a different plane, and it was possible to tune in and out between them.

“Research”, for me, encompasses everything but actually sitting at my laptop and typing the story – that is to say, the most part of the work. I just paused to look up the etymology of the word, and it comes from the French, “to go about seeking”, which couldn’t be more perfect. That’s what you’re doing: seeking your world, or seeing a way into it. The writing is such a small part of finding the story. “Research” for me could be walking the streets of your days letting your characters talk in your head, listening to their voices, tuning in more and more clearly, until you know them well enough to write in their voices. The whole process of research, perhaps, is an attunement – to a place, a time, an emotional state, or frequency.

“Research” comes from the French, “to go about seeking”, which couldn’t be more perfect. That’s what you’re doing: seeking your world, or seeing a way into it.

Every novel has its own precise requirements, and I loved the specific adventure and challenges of writing These Days. I loved combing the diaries of Virginia Woolf, paying acute attention to where she used “looking glass” instead of “mirror” – the challenge of getting the vocabulary just right, without it seeming like pastiche. Or reading the diaries of Doreen Bates for the passages when her hair was just greasy enough to be manageable but not yet looking unwashed, and the polish on her nails unchipped enough to last another day – the moments that someone’s quotidian reality leapt to life.

I loved the hours I spent reading newspaper archives, eyewitness accounts, Mass Observation diaries, combing through 900-page tomes by historians as the world accumulated around me, like magnetic filings, gaining shape, mass, momentum.

I loved interviewing people on the phone who lived through the Belfast Blitz as children or young women – they’d invariably say they were sure they’d have nothing of interest to tell me, but then they’d tell stories about playing shop in the air-raid shelters when word came in that the greengrocer had oranges, the helter-skelter dash to get your granny’s wicker basket and get there in time, or about the patent Mary-Janes that were confiscated by Customs officers on the train from Dublin, or their mother-in-law sourcing a dove-grey fabric for their wedding dress that would be practical enough to be made over afterwards – the perfect details I didn’t know I was looking for until I heard them. I loved the hours I spent reading newspaper archives, eyewitness accounts, Mass Observation diaries, combing through 900-page tomes by historians as the world accumulated around me, like magnetic filings, gaining shape, mass, momentum. I realised I had my own, hitherto inert memories – of hearing from a grandparent how a nugget of coal in the lettuce-spinner could refresh old leaves, say – what a joy to have a use for these, to weave them together into something new. For me, the fiction takes over from the facts when it can’t not – when something starts bubbling over. When your mind starts leaping between the facts, knitting them together, understanding them, in new ways.  When those voices in your head are clear. When the world starts feeling real, alive, charged, current, relevant – you’ve found it, or you’ve aligned with it – or, to go back to that seeker, through the sincerity and purity and commitment of your intentions, like some old-fashioned grail quest, you’ve earned your way in.

The historian Juliet Gardiner has a wonderful phrase, “fingertip history”, which she describes as “that which is just within our reach, when many of our present day dilemmas and achievements can be found in a raw yet hopeful state of formation.” To write a historical novel means to make the past anew – to bring it to life – to relive it.  Writing These Days during lockdown was a strange, intense sort of solace for me. As the world that we knew, or thought we knew, fell away, it was the work of my days, my weeks, to plot a course through the horrors of the Belfast Blitz, not stinting on the cruelty, the meaningless of them, but showing how people survived: how, in even the most desperate of circumstances, life goes on. No-one who lived through that spring, or ours, remained unchanged.  But whenever you live, you don’t get another chance to turn – say – fifteen, or twenty-one, or six – you don’t get another chance to have your first baby, or your first kiss.  You make the most of what you have.

To write a historical novel means to make the past anew – to bring it to life – to relive it.

James Kelly, the Northern Political Editor of the Irish Independent, reports survivors saying after the devastating raid of 15-16th April 1941, “My God. That’s Belfast finished.” But it wasn’t. Iris Rocks, of Broom Street in West Belfast, remembers everyone saying, “We’ll never get over this.” But we know that they did. The city came through, its people came through – went through terrible times again, the bombing, the devastation, the destruction of the city in my childhood – and came through those, too. And yes, of course, even when writing the past, you’re writing the present, too, and you’re writing into the future.  I often wondered, writing These Days, speaking to people who were children during the Blitz about their memories, what my son, then 5, would remember of it all. I asked him, the day I finished my novel, what he remembered about that first lockdown. London smelled like Belfast, he said, and he was right, it did: with far fewer cars on the streets, the air on our inner-city balcony was soft and fresh. We all clapped on our balconies, he said.  We watched lots of nature documentaries and wrote poetry. And then he grinned: you bought me Lego in the post! All that’s there too, in my novel, all of it.

The Edge Hill Short Story Prize: Interview

Interviews, News

Lucy Caldwell was shortlisted for her collection, Intimacies. She was born in Belfast in 1981. She is the author of three novels, several stage plays and radio dramas and two collections of short stories: Multitudes and Intimacies. She won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2021 for ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’, and she has also won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Canada and Europe) and the Edge Hill Readers’ Choice Award. Other awards include the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the George Devine Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize – for her novel The Meeting Point – and a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

For you, what is the most difficult aspect of writing?

The part when you’re not. The first time it happens is the most terrifying – you’ve finished something and you feel you’ll never write again.  It does come back again, and you develop the muscle memory to know that, but it somehow never gets easier.  Sometimes it lasts for weeks, or months – a couple of times, for me, it’s lasted well over a year.  If I’m not writing, I don’t feel fully alive.  I love that first tug of an idea – the sudden, unwarranted interest you feel in something otherwise quite random.  Quantum physics – mystical prayer – the history of Ulster Scots in county Antrim – techniques in Venetian glass-blowing – the ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ game traced back to Pepys – these are just some of the recent rabbit-holes currently evidenced on my desk.  I love the feeling of having a secret world inside – I love that most of all.  I love the rare moments when you hit a seam of gold – when the words just come and the hours vanish.  I love when the story pushes everything – to-do lists, emails, household tasks – helplessly aside, as if they were never important anyway. I love the first wild and reckless draft of something, where you’re writing to find out, to feel the shape of it. I love the technical aspect of subsequent drafts, honing, finessing, balancing. It’s hard when a story’s not going well, but there is a grim satisfaction in trying to make it work… And the first time you see your story published, in the world – the thrill never goes away.  The conversations, the unexpected connections with readers.  Each stage has its own rewards. But the wait for the next thing to surface, the dreary time over which you have no control – that is by far the most difficult part of all.

There is an assumption that the first story in a collection should be the strongest or the most accessible/entertaining, that it should act as a hook. What are your thoughts on this?   

I’m always so intrigued to see how other writers structure their collections. Sarah Hall – a writer I love – does this, bookending her collections with knock-out stories. But when I was putting my first collection together, I took my cue from Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island.  It begins with a slight – in terms of word count – and playful story called “Across the Rooftops”. It’s about an afterparty, and the build-up to a kiss which – in the brilliant and chilling phrase – “doesn’t take”. The story is about everything and nothing – it works perfectly as an amuse-bouche to the collection.  That’s what I’ve tried to do with my collections since – to open with something that sets a tone, or startles into attention, but leaves you somewhere to go, leaves space for a mysterious cumulative force to build towards the final stories.

Out of all the characters in your collection, which one would you like to spend more time with and why?

In the years I was writing the stories in Intimacies, I did a lot of travelling alone with babies or young toddlers – or both.  I breast-fed, co-slept – so it was impossible to leave them even just for a couple of nights, as I tried to take part in book events or literary festivals and keep my creative self alive.  By that logic, the helpful stranger in “All the People Were Mean and Bad” would never be unwelcome.

If you had to write a manifesto for writing short stories, what would be your first declaration?

A short story has almost nothing to do with a novel: don’t be deceived by the fact that they’re both prose forms.  A short story has much more in common with a poem or a play. For me, even more than either of those things, it is a spell: a series of rhythms, of images, to conjure a feeling, an emotion, an atmosphere…

In terms of description, how do you decide what to put in and what to leave out?

Description isn’t just a stage-manager talking us through the set – it’s atmosphere, pace, character, mood.  So it depends completely on the tone of the story – on its mood – on its narrator or protagonist and their state of mind – all of its own precise and mysterious demands.  I think I tend to be a taker-outer – I hone things right back to what feels essential.  But I also love Toni Morrison’s description of her process, where she talks about adding layers, colour, making things brighter, deeper, more textured, draft after draft.  Sometimes the slow work of an edit is just that, and my recent stories have been getting longer, more complex.  For me, more than anything, it’s a tonal thing – I listen and listen and see where it’s moving too fast, where it’s skimming over and needs to eddy and swirl, where we need silence, or where it’s stagnating, and I rework the rhythms accordingly.

After finishing a story, how do you feel? Do you celebrate?

If I’m close to finishing the first draft of a story, I will probably be working right up past the moment when I should have left to collect the children from school – in which case I won’t be celebrating, but frantically grabbing football cards and snacks and inhaling a banana for my own missed-lunch as I leg it up the hill and try to ground myself – children sense and hate it when you’re more absorbed in another, imaginary world. Then there’ll be the first finished draft of a story, which may be a dozen drafts in, but which feels solid enough to send to one or two of the writer-friends who are my most trusted readers.  The draft that takes in their notes and thoughts – and the draft that I send to my long-term editor, Angus Cargill.  After his edits, when it really does begin to feel finished, I read it and read it and read it and read it – over and over, non-stop, obsessively, on my computer, on my phone, for as long as I can, reading for a word or a punctuation mark that I might yet change, but mostly reading it to feel how it works, reading it while I can – because soon it will begin to close over, and after it’s closed over, I’ll never be able to read it again.  I might have to approve copy-edits to it, I might be asked to talk about it, or to read aloud from it, but I’ll never again be its reader, and I’ll be inured to any magic it might ever have had.  So – weirdly – finishing a story often feels like a loss, rather than cause for celebration.  Or an occasion to apologise, yet again, to the partner who’s temporarily lost you to the story’s terminal velocity. It’s always far easier to celebrate with friends when they have finished a new story – and I am very good at that.

Actually, I tell a lie. I finished a short story the other week that had eluded me for years. Before sending it off to anyone, knowing, finally, that it was basically there, I went out and had a vegan sausage roll and a tin of fizzy wine on the beach.  Perfection.

How EM Forster inspired Lucy Caldwell to finish her story

Interviews, News

A year before he died, EM Forster sent a parcel to Christopher Isherwood containing the manuscript of his novel, Maurice. The first draft of the novel, a story of homosexual love, had been completed almost 60 years earlier, but had remained unpublished. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence in England until 1967, and Forster had been an impressionable teenager during the trial of Oscar Wilde, his psych scarred deeply by the cruel sentence of two years’ imprisonment and hard labour meted out by the Old Bailey.

Forster had become weary, he wrote in his diary, of writing about “the only subject that I can and may treat – the love of men for women and vice versa”. In a moving letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he declared his intention never again to publish a novel after A Passage to India (1924): “My patience with ordinary people has given out. But I shall go on writing. I don’t feel any decline in my ‘powers’.” And go on writing he did, returning again and again to Maurice, redrafting, revising; writing not just against the odds, but against the strictures of his own plot, it sometimes seems, to give his eponymous character, in an act of intimate and private heroism, a happy ending.

In his memoir, Isherwood declared Maurice to be “both inferior and superior” to Forster’s previous novels: “Inferior as an artwork, superior because of its purer passion, its franker declaration of its author’s faith.” He, and others who had seen various drafts, had tried to convince Forster to publish it, but Forster was adamant that he could not. Now, in the knowledge that he was nearing the end of his life, Forster gave the book to his younger, openly gay mentee, to do with it what he would. Any royalties, he said, were Christopher’s.

I sat there by her qersu pleading silently for help, from her, from the universe, from anyone

Maurice was published posthumously a year later, in 1971, and in an act of generosity to equal Forster’s, Isherwood donated all royalties, then and in perpetuity, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, to fund an annual award for a young British or Irish writer, in Forster’s name, for travel in the United States, in the spirit of broadening horizons. Early recipients included Margaret Drabble and Seamus Heaney; most recently Sally Rooney and Stephen Sexton have been beneficiaries. It is a wonderful award – there is no longlist, no shortlist, no sense of competition, just a letter that comes out of the blue, on an unexpected day.

The day I heard that I had been chosen as this year’s recipient began with another email, one not so welcome. It was from my editor at Faber about a story that I’d recently sent him – a story I’d been working on, off and on, for nearly five years. I had intended it as the final story of a collection before any of the rest of the collection existed. Now, it was the only missing part, and it still wasn’t working: it was, as Katherine Mansfield might have put it, “too made-up”, somehow not real – I could feel that, but I didn’t know why. It is not a long story, maybe about 5,000 words, but I must have written more than 50,000 words towards it, in draft after draft after draft that I quarantined in their own separate folder on my computer, with increasingly desperate filenames.

All I could feel was the failure, not just of that story, but of all the things I’d tried to write and couldn’t

I’ve worked with my editor at Faber, Angus Cargill, for well over a decade now, and consider it to be one of the most fortunate relationships a writer could be blessed to have. Angus has read all of my stories as I’ve written them, usually within days, sometimes within hours, and gives me his thoughts while the story is still quicksilver, still malleable. This time, his email was perceptive, as ever – the story was “reaching”, he thought, without quite getting there, which is exactly how it felt to me – but he could offer no immediate practical solution. He added a postscript that the names of the children (“sorry,” he said) were annoying. I felt momentarily plunged into such despondency. The fact that even the children’s names, innocuous enough in any objective sense, were irritating to him seemed a symptom of the extent to which the story just wasn’t working.

[ Lucy Caldwell on Hilary Mantel: ‘There is no writer that I quote more frequently’ ]

[ Lucy Caldwell: ‘In ways it was a normal childhood…and yet’ ]

I had abandoned work before. Most notably a whole novel, that I finished at 39 weeks pregnant, and went back to when my son was six months old, only to find that it had withered from neglect, ossified, or maybe that I had changed too much, could no longer care about it, or make it live. Stage plays, through lack of technical facility or, more often, a seizure of confidence. More stories than I can count. But this one, I don’t know why, felt particularly painful.

I happened to be in Belfast that day, speaking at a conference at Queen’s University, which is right by the Ulster Museum – whose ancient Egyptian room, and famous mummies, feature in the story. At lunchtime, I skipped the buffet and went to visit them. There is Takabuti, a perfectly-preserved mummy, and Tjesmutperet who, upon unwrapping, was found to have turned to black dust. The story had started when Tjesmutperet came to me in a dream – a strange dream whose spell I lingered in for days, obsessively walking the childhood corridors of the museum in my mind’s eye as I tried to go about my quotidian work – and so I sat there by her qersu pleading silently for help, from her, from the universe, from anyone. The case’s wide, vigilant, kohl-lined eyes stared back at me and I felt that particular loneliness of a writer who has attempted something and failed – has found themselves, in some mysterious, inarticulable way, not good enough in the attempt.

We were acknowledging the long afterglow a writing life can have – one that outlives the mortal span of its author

Returning to the conference, I felt ashamed of the version of myself the chairperson described – that smooth and shellacked success. All I could feel was the failure, not just of that story, but of all the things I’d tried to write and couldn’t, all the things I’d written that could have been truer.

It is a particular, lonely shame. How often do you wish yourself a different writer, with other stories to tell, or the capacity to tell yours better? Maybe most writers know it, Forster certainly did. Why write at all? It is that fundamentally, I think – whatever genetic, psychological, spiritual quirks might be at play – if you are a writer, to absent yourself from the world, to hold yourself at a remove from it in order to better distil it into words, is the way you feel most fully in the world, most fully connected. It’s an intensely private battle – to go deeper, to be truer. You can only tell the stories you have to tell, and only you can tell those stories. There are no shortcuts, and there is no one who can do it for you – no editor, no writer-friend, no long-dead mummy.

But on that day help came, in what felt like the most magical of ways. To know, at that particular moment, that my work had been read and deemed worthy of the EM Forster Award – it was as if Edward Morgan himself had appeared before me, and given a fairy-godfather blessing. It gave me such heart, at a moment when I was feeling that I had lost it. Failure, in my experience, is not usually the penultimate paragraph, the twist before success. That story was almost not even a story, but not an anecdote, either. I managed to go back to it – to go to the places I needed to in order to finish it, this story that was about childhood, about motherhood, about personhood, despair, and hope, in so many complicated ways.

A week later, I went to New York to receive the prize. Honoured alongside me this year – although in absentia, as her wonderful book Seven Steeples was being lauded by the Goldsmith’s Prize at the same time – was writer and artist Sara Baume. It felt a profound honour indeed to stand in that beautiful Upper West Side library, against a wall of signed portrait photographs of eminent writers (I made a particular pilgrimage to Willa Cather’s), to hear Paul Muldoon’s citation.

But even more meaningful was to know that, although I stood there as that year’s recipient, what we were really celebrating was that fortitude can triumph over loneliness, courage over shame. We were celebrating the love story of Maurice, and the affection and generosity of two beautiful writers, beautiful men; the legacy of theirs that gives the most meaningful gift of all – that of time and space, and of broadening horizons. We were acknowledging the long afterglow a writing life can have – one that outlives the mortal span of its author. My heartfelt wish, as I raised a glass that night to Edward Morgan Forster and to Christopher Isherwood, was that wherever they might be now, they might somehow know that we were gathered to salute them, and that triumph of love over fear, in ways that lonely author writing Maurice might hardly have dared dream.