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.