How EM Forster inspired Lucy to finish her story

Interviews, News

A writing life’s long afterglow…

Lucy Caldwell, the latest winner of a prize funded by the royalties of the novel Maurice, reflects on conquering shame.


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The first draft of the novel, a story of homosexual love, had been completed almost 60 years earlier, but had remained unpublished.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.

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.

EM Forster (1879 – 1970), was an English novelist, short story writer, essayist and librettist. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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.

These days, though lost, will be all your days…


On writing These Days.

As a toddler, my son was obsessed with Janet & Alan Ahlberg’s Peepo! It’s a day in the life of a baby, but in the background is the London Blitz: bombed-out buildings, a Zeppelin. Night after night I thought how, in our bedroom, part of a converted Victorian warehouse in East London, we would have survived the entire Blitz: but safety could be measured in metres, maybe even inches: the rest of the once-adjoining buildings on the street had been flattened.

I started to think that there’d been a Belfast Blitz, too: I remembered my grandma talking about it, her brothers scrambling up the Black Mountain in search of shrapnel. To my surprise – as if the later obliteration of the Troubles had superseded that Belfast – the only fiction I could find was Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream.

But it was just about in living memory. I began speaking to people who’d lived through the Blitz as children, teenagers – even one woman in the year of her 103rd birthday. This was the spring of 2020, and with Covid 19 closing in, my quest took on a new urgency: capturing these stories before they were lost.

In that first lockdown, I wrote with an intensity I can barely describe. The Belfast Blitz consisted of four aerial raids in April-May 1941 which caused some of the greatest devastation and mass casualties of any bombings in the UK, and which people did not think the city could ever come back from.

Surfacing, I’d wonder what my children, then 5 and 2, would remember. Then I’d think of what the Belfast Blitz survivors were telling me. About the day the greengrocer had oranges in, or the new dress made for the scorched doll snatched from flames. The unexpected ride in a motorcar – the joy amid the horror.

Because life does go on. No-one who lived through that time, or these Covid years, remains unchanged. But you don’t get another chance to turn fifteen, or six – to have your first baby – first kiss. As MacNeice puts it in the poem that gives my book its title: These days, though lost, will be all your days. These are our days, and they are all we have, infinitely precious, and we must fill them with as much life and love as we can.

Open Book on BBC Radio 4

Interviews, News

Chris Power talks with novelists Lucy Caldwell and Louise Kennedy about their new novels, both set in Belfast at intense moments of 20th century history, both treatments of women’s lives at a time of war and conflict: Lucy Caldwell’s These Days is the story of sisters Emma and Audrey during the terrifying Belfast Blitz of 1941, while Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses is about a relationship between an older Protestant man and a younger Catholic woman during the Troubles.

“In ways it was a normal childhood…and yet”


(Irish Times)

In Lucy Caldwell’s forthcoming novel, These Days, she describes bombed-out Belfast – the fire “cascading” into terraced houses, the bank so badly damaged it must be dynamited before it collapses, and street after street which has been completely destroyed.

“Belfast is finished, people say. There is no way we can come back from this,” she writes.

This was not the Troubles but the Belfast Blitz, a devastating series of bombing raids on the city by the German Luftwaffe during the second World War which killed about 1,000 people in April and May 1941.

“I took those quotes from an Irish News journalist who was interviewing people at the time and they were saying Belfast was finished and that it could never come back, and I think there is a real poignancy writing that when we as readers know what is to come,” says Caldwell.

“This novel seemed to come like a gift out of nowhere, and I had always wanted to write it.

“Maybe it’s something that you have if you come from a city. I’ve always wanted to write a novel of my city, and I never expected this would be it.”

These Days tells the story of two sisters from east Belfast – one about to marry, the other in a secret romance with another woman – who must survive the assault on the city; like all Caldwell’s work, it is about women and girls and the relationships between them.

Yet it is, first and foremost, a story of Belfast; of the historical reality of the city at war and what it went on to become, as well as of the many other Belfasts that might have been but which were lost to the German bombs, the Troubles or even the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was writing that Belfast of the Blitz, I was writing with my awareness of what it meant to grow up in Belfast and the Troubles…and I was also writing something of what it meant to live through the April and May of the extraordinary times that we lived through [in 2020].”

These Days had its genesis in her son’s obsession with the picture book Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, which tells the story of a day in the life of a baby set against the backdrop of the second World War.

At the time they were living in east London, in a street that had been badly damaged during the second World War. “I was reading the story to him in bed thinking how strange it was that if his bedroom had been one metre away we wouldn’t have survived the London Blitz. In his bedroom in our flat we would have survived, but the entire rest of the street was obliterated.

“It’s that thing, if you come from Belfast or Derry, you can’t help thinking of the pure vagaries of chance that if you’re in this building, you’re fine, and if you’re a metre away, you’re not.”

That there had also been a Belfast Blitz “was never anything we had done in school”; she remembered her grandmother telling stories about it and “started realising that it was in living memory”.

Caldwell began researching and setting up interviews. “It was that period, that spring of 2020, when coronavirus was closing in, and there was that sense this thing was coming closer and closer and we were unprepared and it was unavoidable.”

She describes it “as if this portal opened of understanding” between life in those months before the first wave of the pandemic and the period of calm before the Belfast Blitz, when people “were telling themselves, almost with a sort of magical thinking, that it wouldn’t happen…when it did happen to Belfast the city was completely unprepared.”

The raids came in April and May 1941, months which “coincided exactly with our first lockdown,” says Caldwell.

“I wrote the first draft of the book in 11 weeks. I’ve never written anything like that before. It felt like it became untethered from reality, and I was living in this world and I was writing these characters.”

As she spoke to women who had been children during the Blitz she wondered what her own children, then two and five, would remember of the pandemic; interviewing a woman of 103 felt like “the most precious thing because at that time it was people in care homes, elderly people who were being hit the worst”.

“On more than one occasion I had managed to find someone and arranged to speak to them and then the conversation never happened, and it felt like there was this precious link and I was saving these stories as they were being lost.”

Born in 1981, Caldwell grew up in east Belfast and, like many before and since, left Northern Ireland at 18 to study, in her case at the University of Cambridge.

She published her first novel while a student and is a multi-award-winning playwright, novelist and short story writer; recent accolades include the BBC National Short Story Award, one of the world’s richest prizes for a single short story, which she won last year.

“I think of myself as a Belfast writer. It’s that Edna O’Brien thing, isn’t it? She says it’s the places of your childhood that haunt you, those crucial formative years. They’re like your bedrock, the place that you return to or the place that you’re trying to resolve. The place you can never escape.”

Yet she is equally part of a “whole generation of us who were reared with the expectation that we go away”. Being Northern Irish in London is, she says, a “peculiar kind of diaspora…because you have the illusion that you’re close, you’re only an hour’s flight or a ferry away and then something like the pandemic happens and you realise you really are far away”.

She arrived in Cambridge in 1999, the year after the Belfast Agreement which ended the Troubles; she recalls both the sense of dislocation – “you feel completely foreign, completely alien” – but also how the agreement brought “suddenly that possibility of plurality, you can be both, you don’t need to be either or.”

She applied for her first Irish passport the year later. To those who came of age at that time, she says, “it felt like those realisations about the complexity of identity are our particular generational thing”.

“The Good Friday Agreement – which is so imperilled – I think it brought possibility and hope and plurality to a whole generation.”

Just as she is a Belfast writer – “in that sort of layered, different-labelled way” – she is also a Northern Irish writer: “I have both passports but none of them ever feels completely right, and I think identifying as Northern Irish is something that’s particularly of that band of us that were that Good Friday Agreement coming of age.”

The Belfast Blitz was a devastating series of bombing raids on the city by the German Luftwaffe in April and May 1941. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
The Belfast Blitz was a devastating series of bombing raids on the city by the German Luftwaffe in April and May 1941. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

This sense of complex, multiple identities informs all Caldwell’s writing. The stories in her first short story collection, Multitudes, are told by girls and young women between Belfast and London. Her latest collection, Intimacies, is similarly “a book about being caught between here and there, a condition which is so familiar to so many of us who still call Northern Ireland home even though we’ve lived much of our adult lives away”.

“At first it felt like a lack, and then I realised that was what I had. You work with the material you’ve got.” Of Multitudes, she says: “If I had stayed maybe I would have written something else but I wouldn’t have written those stories.”

Her description of the story that won her the BBC National Short Story Award, All the People were Mean and Bad, could stand for all her work; it is about “closenesses” but also “distances, the distance between where you came from and where you end up, who you think you are and who you turn out to be. All those distances, real and metaphorical and metaphysical”.

This was learned in childhood; she recalls as a girl struggling to answer questions posed by “pen pals who wanted to know what it was like growing up in a war zone, being in the midst of a bomb”.

“I grew up in leafy east Belfast and I had ballet lessons and ice-skating lessons and in lots of ways it was a very normal childhood, and then how do your reconcile that with the girl in my P6 class whose father was murdered, or the time you are stuck in bomb scares or there’s a bomb scare phoned in to your school, or we were swimming and there was a bomb scare and we had to get out of the pool in November and be wrapped in tinfoil blankets.

“At the same time you feel you didn’t grow up at the front line and so you feel guilt at laying claim to any kind of Troubles experience and yet there are all these elements that are just not a normal childhood, so it’s how you come to terms with that.”

She still feels “completely torn…guilty for having left” yet also “so angry” at the poverty which persists in the North, the lack of investment in the arts – which is lower per capita in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in these island – and that almost 25 years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement integrated education is still the exception rather than the norm.

I think it’s not talked about enough that the root cause of so much of the Troubles was poverty and systemic inequality

“You look at the sheer number of children in somewhere like Derry especially who are living below the poverty line and you think, if they don’t have an education and if they don’t have artistic outlets for their soul and for their expression…you can see how the old sectarian myths appeal because they give an explanation and a sense of belonging.

“You can see how young people can get sucked into something,” she says. “I think it’s not talked about enough that the root cause of so much of the Troubles was poverty and systemic inequality, and that was the case for the civil rights marches of the 1960s and I think it’s still the case now.”

When she began writing some of the stories that eventually became Multitudes, more than a decade before they were published in 2016, “I never believed that those stories of Belfast girlhood were of value to anyone because they’re not the sort of stories that people seemed to want of Belfast of that place and time…especially in England, people expect you to write about the Troubles or a particular type of story and it can feel impossible to tell other stories.”

This extends to the way in which writers from Northern Ireland are often defined. She accepts she is regarded as a Protestant author, even though she was never baptised into any religion and her parents – who were in a mixed marriage – stopped practising their faiths as they felt it was the only way they could bring up children in that time and place.

“It’s that sense of narrative collapse. People want to see me as a Protestant writer, why? Because I’m not overtly Catholic?

“My mum is from a big Irish Catholic family in England and she went to convent school, and the nuns insisted they all speak in RP English accents so when she came to Belfast of course having an English accent is seen as like upper class aspirational Protestantism, and that wasn’t my mum’s background at all.

“I find it sometimes frustrating, sometimes amazing, and constantly of interest the way those definitions are used to narrow someone or box someone [in] and I’m always interested in the complications or the untold stories – the multiplicity.”

It’s like Anna Burns winning the Booker or Belfast being nominated for all the Oscars, it brings a spotlight and suddenly people realise there’s something there

In the years since, those multiplicities have become much more apparent. “It feels amazing to be part of this huge wave of writers [from Northern Ireland],” says Caldwell. “You build on things that other people do and it makes you up your game and there’s a sense of being in conversation, or even on a sort of shared enterprise that feels really exciting.

“I said earlier [in the interview] that it’s opened the floodgates, but it’s blasted open the possibilities for other writers.”

Nowadays, she says, in place of that “received narrative” of Troubles fiction there is “space for so many stories”; she singles out writers like Darran Anderson, Michelle Gallen, Kerri ní Dochartaigh and the “masterpiece” of Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman.

“There are so many writers who are writing to a world-class standard,” she says. Wendy Erskine, a short story writer and Caldwell’s sixth form English teacher, “is one of the greats, and even young writers like Dara McAnulty, I think he is so impressive in writing nature.”

Yet she resists the idea that Northern Ireland is experiencing a literary awakening. “I’m always quite wary of that…I think of people like Jennifer Johnson, Deirdre Madden, Anne Devlin, this whole generation of women who were writing at a time when it was much tougher to be a women writer.

“So it’s not that the writers haven’t always been there, it’s the sort of attention that gets paid to them.

“It’s like Anna Burns winning the Booker or Belfast being nominated for all the Oscars, it brings a spotlight and suddenly people realise there’s something there and they’re keen to read more.”

Indeed, for writers from Northern Ireland that multiplicity of identities and experiences may just be their greatest strength. “I think it’s so complex and so rich and not resolvable into any one thing, and different in a really exciting, dynamic way for so many writers” – not least Caldwell herself.

‘There is still so many more stories about the Troubles that need to be told’


Writer Lucy Caldwell on about her love for short stories and why we should celebrate our homegrown talent
Aine Toner for the Belfast Telegraph

Photo by Tom Routh


It is a pleasure to speak with Lucy Caldwell, award winning novelist, playwright and short story writer, someone who is keen to promote the variety of Northern Irish creative talent.

er writing career has been varied and significant, delivering personable, believable works that have captured critics and readers alike.

In March, she’ll add another string to her bow — her first foray into historical fiction with the publication of These Days.

The novel centres on sister Emma and Audrey, living in Belfast during April 1941, at one of the most turbulent points of the Second World War.

“When my son was a toddler, he was obsessed for a while with the Janet and Allen Ahlberg book, Peepo!” explains Lucy of the children’s book set against the backdrop of the war.

“I got fascinated with the London Blitz which of course, when you think of the Blitz you default into London, and so many of my favourite writers were London Blitz writers like Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene and Virginia Woolf.

“I wrote the short story, and I started to think hang on, there was a Belfast Blitz and that has not been anything we ever learned in school.”

There have been few novels based around the Belfast Blitz and though it doesn’t exist within so much fiction, it’s still within living memory, says Lucy.

“As lockdown happened and everything started closing in, I really felt I had this new way of understanding the people then, living through these times.

“My own son was six at the time when the first lockdown happened. I was interviewing people who were in their 80s. It had an impact on me; the elderly were the first ones we were losing [to coronavirus].

“I thought about what my son was going to remember about all this time, and I asked people of what they remembered living through the Blitz when they were six or seven.

“Even though it’s a historical novel, and it’s very much a faithful historical novel, I was really writing about what it meant to live in our days as well.

“You automatically think of the Troubles, and the 70s or the 80s. But there was a whole other chapter to the city that I was kind of writing into being in fiction.”

We share a mutual love for Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie series and talk about how reading those at a young age made you feel almost special, having novels written about our locality.

“I remember my mum driving us and stopping at Cypress Avenue, explaining how it was in a film,” says Lucy.

“It’s like a door opens when you realise the place you come from is as worthy of being in those films and stories.”

Fellow writers have already praised These Days, with Jan Carson calling it a ‘novel which looks suffering straight in the eye and yet will leave you full of hope.’

It’s a pretty accurate summation of writing from Northern Ireland, we say. We plough on regardless of what’s going on.

“Do you know who’s a brilliant model for that? Toni Morrison,” says Lucy, who is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

“She gets asked in an interview about writing — and she’s writing about racism and these really difficult things — and she says you can write them so long as you engineer moments where the light can come in.

“I love that, and I think that sometimes, that is what you’re doing.

“You’re taking this dark stuff but you’re making something of it and you’re showing ways through it and you’re writing towards those moments of light.”

Last month, Lucy hosted the second NI Writers Day, in association with RSL. Was she pleased with how it went in terms of showcasing the wealth and diversity of writers and genres in the place we call home?

“I was really pleased with it. Especially something that’s showcasing Northern Irish literature, you feel responsibility for that,” she says.

“When I was doing my anthology, Being Various [an anthology of new Irish short stories which Lucy guest edited], you feel the responsibility to present a complex and rich and exciting and maybe different version of the place to the world.

“It was very, very important to me to have a range of writing.

“It was important to me to have a children’s writer [Máire Zepf] because I think it’s the first way that we encounter literature, the stories that were told as children are so important.

“I think it takes so much more for a book that you read as an adult to become part of the fabric but reading as a child and I have young children myself and reading to them, that’s the way that you’re most intimate with your children, when you’re kind of cuddled up to them and reading.

“It was really important to me as well that Máire, who writes as gaeilge. I’m not an Irish speaker myself but it was really important to me that that was represented on the day.”

Inclusion for other genres was paramount for host Lucy.

“It was really important to me as well to have science fiction, someone like Ian McDonald has written three dozen books. He’s been nominated for or won awards in all of the genre fiction awards, and he is someone who is maybe not always celebrated outside of a sci fi fantasy circle.

“Similarly, Steve Cavanagh, he’s sold over a million copies of his last book alone. He’s translated into I don’t know how many languages; he has won such prestigious awards. I think that crime writing fiction… I’ve said in the absence of any truth and reconciliation commission, it’s been a lot of our great crime writers that have had taken on a lot of those things.”

Poet Abby Oliveira also featured ‘poetry has long had the freedom of the highway in the north with all of our great talent’ and Lucy applauds the genre and in particular, performance poetry.

“It’s kind of a new art in the 21st century, really, in terms of the ways that it celebrated, the poetry slam, the sort of crossover with hip hop, the ways that young people might engage with poetry.”

Lucy hopes the Writers Day can blossom and perhaps to include the writers shining a light on and engaging with the natural world, such as young environmentalist Dara McAnulty.

Every Northern Irish author I’ve interviewed has always taken time to generously promote others’ work. Positive promotion is something that benefits the industry, says Lucy.

“You see something like Anna Burns winning the Booker for Milkman, it lifts everyone up. It’s not just her victory, and although it is and it’s deserving, it shines a light on all of us. It makes us all better. And I think we all learn from all the sort of achievements and gains that everyone makes.”

Plus, the ability to write about our locality means an opportunity — as Stuart Neville previously said — to write in a dialect and language exclusive to this shore.

“I think, some stories, some books like Milkman or maybe like Paul McVeigh’s A Good Son, about a young boy and his sexuality, you can’t write that in the immediate aftermath of having experienced it,” she says.

“It takes maybe years, maybe decades for something like that to alchemise enough to be the stuff of fiction or for the writer to be able to write things like that. I think there’s still so many more stories about the Troubles that need to be told — and there are other stories.

“One of the things I love about Jan Carson’s writing, and she’s got a brilliant book coming out next year, is her writing uses more and more and more of the Ballymena dialect and lovely Ulster Scots phrases and idioms.

“Every time I read Jan Carson, I think of my grandma, my dad’s mum, her family were all Ulster Scots, and the phrases that she used. I have a note on my phone, where every time I remember one or my dad remembers one, I’ll write it down. It’s so gorgeous and again this is part of the melting pot in Northern Ireland.”

Short story writing is never far from her output, and in October, Lucy won the BBC national short story award for All the People Were Mean and Bad, wherein a mother and her young child take a transatlantic flight after a relative’s death.

Each detail is carefully weighed, each description is necessary and I read it almost forgetting to exhale. Dubbed ‘masterful storytelling,’ it’s a type of writing — second person narrative — that Lucy has been working out how to create.

“How to make it as intimate as possible that the reader, as you say, has to almost hold their breath,” she says.

“The reader is privy to something really, really profoundly important. And they’re right up there, hardly daring to breathe, you know.

“And also, kind of trying to write truthfully, as well. I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean that it literally happened in terms of flights, the longest I’ve done is London to Belfast and believe me, that’s kind of long enough,” she laughs.

Lucy thought about the story for close to a year before writing a word.

“When I knew that I could make it work, it was when I heard in my head, the tone, and I realised that the tone was one of elegy,” she explains.

“As soon as I could hear that, I wrote that first draft in a couple of days.”

A lover of the short story form — her works Multitudes and Intimacies have been critically praised — says it was years before they began to work.

“I signed the deal for my first novel, I was 23, and I had this vision for a collection of stories that would all be narrated by girls and young women. They’d all be set between Belfast and London and here will be stories you wouldn’t expect of Belfast in the 90s.

“And I wrote all these stories and not a single one of them worked and the collection as a whole was even less than the sum of its parts.

“It was such a lesson for me because, naively I’d written a novel, it can’t be that hard to write a short story. I realised just how hard it is to make a short story work.

“And when my short story started working, it was when I realised that even though you’re writing them in prose, they aren’t prose narrative, they have much more in common with a poem or a play, something with that kind of intensity.”

That intensity relates to every inclusion within the story — down to punctuation.

Lucy mentions a quote from Seán Ó Faoláin, one of her favourite Irish short story writers, and it seems apt given where a section of All the People Were Mean and Bad is located.

“He says the novel is like a jumbo jet. It can carry a huge amount of people vast distances; it needs to lumber along for quite a long time before it takes off. Once it’s airborne, it can go a long way with a lot of people,” says Lucy.

“He says a short story, in contrast, is like a hot air balloon. It can carry like only a couple of people, but it can soar to really vertiginous heights and I love that way of thinking of them.”

Going back to the first lockdown, Lucy found it difficult to read novels.

“It was as though I didn’t have the spare emotional capacity to invest in the whole world. But what I could every day is sit down and read one short story. A novel is a more forgiving form; you can read a novel on your commute or in the bath or chapters before bed.

“The short story is much less forgiving because you need to read it in one go. That’s why it can be sometimes quite hard. If you can read a short story like that, they can be incredibly powerful.”

‘God saved Noah, but were all the other people really mean and bad?’


Belfast-born writer Lucy Caldwell is a well established name on the Northern Irish literary scene and most recently won the BBC National Short Story Award. She chats to JOANNE SAVAGE about belief, motherhood, creativity and the drunkenness of things being various

By Joanne Savage

East Belfast born novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell recently won the BBC National Short Story Prize for ‘All The People Were Mean and Bad’

East Belfast born and bred, writer Lucy Caldwell is a firmly established star of the Northern Irish literary scene, and several weeks ago was again making waves when she was declared winner of the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award, which is organised in tandem with Cambridge University, where the intensely eloquent, cerebral and inventive author naturally clocked up a First in English literature.

The 40-year-old prolific mum-of-two won the prestigious competition for a compelling story, All The People Were Mean and Bad, which is partly a rumination on motherhood, on travel, on time, and on the question of the essential virtue or fallenness of human nature, guided by the narrator reading a child’s version of the biblical tale of Noah and the Ark to her young daughter on a long haul-flight from Canada to London.

Beautifully written, taut, eagle-eyed and wise, the piece was first conceived when Lucy began to think about children, and in particular about when her son William (7) and daughter Orla Rose (4), would come to encounter the grand narratives that Christianity provides us with about who we are, our purpose, ethical living, and the structures of belief upon which our culture is predicated.

Caldwell is interested in how there are as many paths to truth as there are people

Lucy said: “I was thinking about what it means for someone to, say, grow up with a very certain religious belief framework, and what it might mean to then lose that. I was thinking of Noah’s Ark because it is one of the great Abrahamic myths that you find in Christianity, in Islam and in Judaism, and, even if you aren’t religious, you will have heard of it.

“The flood narrative and the animals in pairs; we all know about it, and the ark is cosy, but then you have this terrifying idea of a God who was so capricious, vengeful and petulant that he can justify wiping out so much of creation and so many people but save Noah and his kin because he was virtuous.

“So the narrator is also mourning the loss of this sense of certainty that she once had about the world and wondering if, as in the biblical story of Noah, all the people were mean and bad, or if the bulk of humanity are in fact essentially good.”

Lucy, who, since leaving Northern Ireland, spent some years lecturing in creative writing in London ,and writing four novels, plays, short stories, and editing anthologies that have helped bolster the popularity of innumerable other Northern Irish writers, including her former teacher at Strathearn Grammar, Wendy Erskine (who she recalls as “being so cool, she used to turn up with a skirt over her trousers and this kind of Pulp Fiction bob, and she gave me her copy of the poems of Sylvia Plath), now lives in Folkstone, Kent, near the deep blue sea, and on a clear day, she insists, you can actually see France on the horizon.

Novels such as The Way They Were Missed, All The Beggars Riding and The Meeting Point, established as a writer of note and she describes herself as being interested in “ the stories we tell ourselves about why we are and how we came to be. We can get trapped in the stories we tell ourselves and I think we need to remember to question these and think freely.”

All The People Were Mean and Bad is a profound piece, in that it wants to ask the fundamental question about the darkness or starlight defining human nature, and it asks questions about belief and about whether it is possible for people to change; were all the people really mean and bad in the eyes of God, or were they simply doing their best and perhaps incapable of the high virtue displayed by Noah? Did they deserve the fate they met?

“I was brought up not attending church,” confides Lucy. “One of my parents was raised as a Catholic, the other as a Protestant. They had stopped practising and when my two sisters and I were children they made the decision not to bring us up in any particular faith, but specifically because of that I had long been fascinated by the things that people believe and what different religions have to tell us about morality and human nature and this reaching towards something higher.

“I think quite often the practice of Christian faith becomes very rigid and very ossified, but if you go back to the Jesus of the Gospels, and you think about how radical and actually based on love that his message was, you can see that a lot of the institutionalisation of faith has maybe gone in the wrong way and a lot of people who appear terribly religious are not always actually very spiritual.

Lucy aged approximately seven before a trip to the Dundonald Ice Bowl where she used to love to go to skate

“I’m interested in why we give any power to a church or a state? Well, I think because it is obviously easier than having to think for ourselves.

“I have a good friend who is a Dominican monk, friends who are very Catholic or Protestant or Jewish, and practise deep faith, but that is not me. I think Buddhism is the closest religious cultural practice I have found that resonates, but I think there are lots of paths to the truth. The one thing I couldn’t stand at school was the notion that Chistianity was the only path to the truth. I mean, I’m interested in Christianity but also Islam, Hinduism, and shamanic indigenous practices – there are as many paths as there are people.”

Lucy is immensely proud of her Belfast heritage and believes that bearing witness to the conflict here taught her a deep respect and appreciation “for the importance of plurality and tolerance and for different approaches to faith and identity.”

‘I refuse to be either/or – identity is plural’

Caldwell can list off reams of writers and poets from Northern Ireland whom she deeply admires and draws inspiration from, one of the first of these being the poet Louis MacNeice, who famously wrote about “the drunkenness of things being various”.

But she also has immmense respect for writers like Glenn Patterson, David Park, Nick Laird, Anna Burns, Jan Carson and others.

“Look at the variety of writers and artists who were born here; it’s a massively rich mine relative to the size of the place.

“We can absolutely stand shoulder to shoulder with anywhere else in the world for storytelling.”

She would love to see the province move towards an integrated education model. which she sees as the ultimate solution to division here, and feels that it’s “a disgrace that it has not been implemented since the Good Friday Agreement”.

But, also, growing up here has made her refuse to identify as ‘either/or’, because she fundamentally believes in plurality, respect for difference and would rather be defined as what she calls “both and”.

‘I think as a society we don’t have the blueprint for creative motherhood’

Lucy, like many female writers, was at first concerned about how motherhood would impact on her literary output, having repeatedly been reminded of the writer Cyril Connolly’s infamous dictum that “the pram in the hallway is the enemy of art”.

This pernicious notion has endured despite the fact that Cyril was a man who never had any children, and hardly therefore a worthy authority on the link between maternity and creative endeavour.

“I think we lack the blueprint for creative motherhood,”observes Caldwell.

“I always wanted children, and I did worry at first about the impact it would have on my writing, that it might limit it, but I found, to my great surprise and great joy, that the complete opposite was true.

“I felt more vulnerable and I think anything that makes you more vulnerable makes you a better artist, and I felt a greater urgency to write because, with a child, you understand time in a different way, like I felt like the sand was running through the timer, that I no longer had infinite time, that it was measured out and I had to practice my art when I could with a more sharpened sense of focus.

“But then I have friends too who, since becoming mothers, have found the pursuit of art next to impossible.

“I felt what motherhood gave me was all this new material, and I thought about how few stories there are about pregnancy and new motherhood in fiction, often because new mothers are exhausted and overwhelmed, but also because people tend to think of domestic novels as something to be derided or dismissed, as though you can’t find anything profound or interesting in the domestic sphere or in the quotidian.

“I mean, writers like Anne Enright and Rachel Cusk have written with incredible insight about maternity, but still I think there is more to be said and so many more stories about motherhood to be told, because it is a completely profound experience that is often not granted the literary spotlight in the way it could be.

“I think that should change.”

She describes her own children, William and Orla Rose, as being the people who make her laugh most and in her latest prize-winning short story the theme of motherhood is central to the narrator’s perspective.

Primarily, the mother at its centre doesn’t want to believe that her daughter is damned to grow up in a world in which All The People Were Mean and Bad.

Q&A: ‘Love is all there is, but it is more various than we think’

Tell us some of your earliest childhood memories?

I remember sitting under the hood of my buggy in a rainstorm and feeling very safe and cosy inside. I had such a happy childhood and was very close to my two sisters who are similar to me in age, but I used to hide my favourite books length-wise behind the bookshelves because I just didn’t want to share them with my sisters – which is terrible!

We had all these elaborate imaginary worlds together and shared magazines and chronicles.

Tell us about your school days?

I found it difficult because I very much felt this reluctance to grow up. A lot of the time I just wanted to stay home and play Lego with my sisters. I loved English, languages and physics and I made myself read a Brief History of Time. At one stage I had a theory of time travel wherein the mind can travel faster than the speed of light ever can. I still believe that theory.

How would you spend an ideal day off from work commitments?

I would love to have coffee in bed, read books, then go to a matinee theatre showing and later enjoy a glass of wine with some friends.

Who is your best friend?

My husband Tom. I think the secret of our longevity is being able to have a glass of wine together and to keep laughing and to let the other person change over time and to respect that, because we married very young, when we were 29, and you have to let your partner try out being new people as time passes because I don’t think any of us remain static or stop evolving in some way.

What kind of music do you like to listen to in your downtime?

I love classical music but in terms of contemporary music, I saw the Staves a few weeks ago. I play Motown in the car for the children, and I love a bit of The Velvet Underground.

Can you tell me your three favourite books?

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, the Collected Poems of Louis MacNiece and Anton Chekov’s plays.

If you were having an ideal dinner party to which you could invite anyone alive or dead, who would you bring, and what would you serve them to eat?

My mother has been studying our family’s genealogy and a lot of our ancestors were really poor and had really hard lives so I’d like to invite them, especially the women, and my children’s, children’s children whom I will never live to see. I’d like to collapse time and have the people who are no longer together with the people who are not yet. Wouldn’t that be magical? I’d serve them an ottolenghi buffet.

Love is…All there is, but it is much more various than we think.

The meaning of life is…Something we’ll realise one day and in the meantime all we can do is be kind to each other and forgive ourselves.