Lucy Caldwell and Jan Carson on Woman’s Hour

Interviews, News

Is Ireland going through a ‘golden age of literature’ when it comes to women’s writing? Sally Rooney and Anna Burns are hugely popular but what is behind this boom in new writing? Writers Lucy Caldwell and Jan Carson discuss.

Small Wonder Festival

Interviews, News

An online panel discussion with Lucy Caldwell. Caleb Azumah Nelson and Eley Williams, shortlisted writers from this year’s BBC National Short Story Award with chaired by BBC’s Editor of Readings Di Speirs.

Now in its fifteenth year, the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University is one of the most prestigious for a single short story. From the short and pithy to the layered and literary, via robust poetics, family hierarchies and maligned youth, this year’s shortlist is the perfect reflection of all that can be achieved in few words.

Small Wonder Festival at Home is a weekend of free digital events to mark Small Wonder: Charleston’s annual festival dedicated to short stories and short form writing which runs from 10am (BST), Friday 25 September – 10pm (BST), Sunday 27 September.

‘An Openness, an Outwardness’


Photo by Eamonn Doyle

Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes and the Possibilities of Fiction
(Susanne Stich for Humag)

May 2016 saw the launch of award-winning novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell’s debut short story collection Multitudes (Faber & Faber), which presents a fresh and powerful portrait of growing up female in 1990s Belfast. I recently caught up with her during the rehearsal process for her new adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters due to premiere at the Lyric Theatre this month, and which, like Multitudes, is set in early post-Troubles Belfast. The resulting interview covers a vast array of topics, including Caldwell’s meticulous approach to craft, her complex relationship with Northern Ireland, and the effects of reading others on her writing.

Susanne StichMultitudes contains eleven stories and was written over eleven years, while, in parallel, you were working on plays, novels, and giving birth to your first child. The stories explore young female experience, ranging from childhood to new motherhood. Except for the last story, they are all set in your native city of Belfast.

In an interview with the BBC Arts Show you compared the collection to a Cubist portrait of growing up. Elsewhere, in conversation with fellow Belfast-born writer Paul McVeigh (The Irish Times, 6.5.2016), you point out how you find the short story in general to ‘demand a higher price of [the writer]’ than other forms. Perhaps we can begin by talking about what the short story did for you in the process of mining aspects of personal experience across an eleven-year time span.

Lucy Caldwell: When I was 23, in the eighteen-month hiatus between signing a book deal and my first novel being published, I wrote a collection of short stories. They were all narrated by or about girls or young women, and all set in the Belfast of my childhood and teenage years, or between Belfast and London. I saw the collection perfectly in my head before I started to write it – the shape of the whole thing, the different notes I’d strike, the themes and motifs that would weave through. But none of it worked. The collection was far less than the sum of its dismal parts. I had assumed, and I’m almost ashamed to admit this now, that writing short stories would be easier than writing a novel. In part because of their length, but also, although it’s harder to put this into words, because there is something inexorable, inevitable, about great short stories. A seamlessness. I put the collection aside, humbled – but I could never quite give up on the idea. Two of the stories in Multitudes, in fact, have their earliest incarnations in those first stories I tried to write: I just couldn’t let them go, and would come back to them every couple of years. I think it took that decade of writing – three novels, a novella, several stage plays and radio dramas, monologues, and all the rest of it, to have enough of the craft and skill to make a short story live. I often think of the lines from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Stillborn’ where she imagines the poems of hers that failed to live, as if they’re pickled in front of her in specimen jars: ‘They smile and smile and smile at me / And still the lungs won’t fill and the hearts won’t start.’ There is something taut, elusive, alchemical, about short stories. As well as working on the basic narrative level, they have to make sense on a symbolic plane: you’re controlling the surface tensions between those two things, which is very tricky.

Another thing happened to me in those 11 years: I started writing and publishing quite young, and when people would ask me what I possibly had to write about, I would feel bemused, because I’d always been fascinated by other people’s stories. By the fact that you could meet someone, live alongside them, fall in love with them, even, and still have no idea, necessarily, what their secrets and sorrows were, their loves and losses, what they were dealing with or hoping for or dreaming about. Those famous lines of Louis MacNeice’s, ‘the drunkenness of things being various’, or the lyrics of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’, ‘I could be in love with almost everyone / I think that people are the greatest fun’ – that’s what I felt, and still feel. It took a long time for me to realise that what I had known and done and lived was worthy of writing about. Perhaps, too, there was a guilt about having lived a relatively normal teenage life against the backdrop of the Troubles. People, from penpals to publishers, would – and at times still do – ask about the bombs you’d seen, the bereavements you’d suffered – and there was a sort of shame about not having a big story to tell when you were living in a time of such big stories. That’s the first time I’ve tried to put that into words. I notice only now, and I’m not going to edit it out, because it seems important, that I slipped from the first into the second person for those few lines, as a way of distancing, maybe, of apology.

And so those years it took between that first attempt and the published collection that is Multitudes were a gaining in confidence, on the technical side of things, but also in an artistic, and perhaps even moral sense, about the sort of stories I could tell, that mattered most for me to tell.

SS: I was struck by the laconic and pared down language in these stories. The narrative voice seems to create a contrast with the emotionally complex and frequently harrowing events. The opening sentence in ‘Killing Time’ presents a powerful example:

I try to kill myself on the first of March, a Sunday. I haven’t planned it. I somehow just find myself standing in the bathroom, my heart beating fast, watching the watery light through the rippled windowpanes, knowing I’m going to, and suddenly it all makes sense. (75)

Another opening, from ‘Thirteen’, sets the stage in similarly incisive fashion:

On the first of July, Susan Clarke and her family move to London to start a new life. They’ve had enough is what Susan’s mum says. She just can’t take it any more.

‘This country,’ she says to my mum.

‘This country,’ my mum says back to her, and neither of them says anything else. (11)

Tonally, Multitudes feels different from the more exploratory language in your novel All the Beggars Riding (2013), where the narrator is dubious of language as she attempts to reconstruct her dead parents’ complicated love story:

It’s harder to tell a story, though, than you’d think. As I said earlier, lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory: the mind doesn’t work like that. (8)

How do you approach finding the register of language for a new piece?

(read the full interview at Humag)

by Alex Peake-Tomkinson at Bookanista

Multitudes is the first book of short stories from the prizewinning novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell. The collection is eleven stories strong and each of the stories seems to describe a character in peril so that holding one’s breath whilst reading them sometimes feels unavoidable. Caldwell agrees to meet me to discuss the stories and I worry that she might be quite earnest – few people write their first novels at 21, after all. My fears dissipate, however, when she suggests we talk over glasses of wine at a bar in Spitalfields.

The stories in this collection feel quite perilous, as though the characters are on the brink of something that could be dangerous and there is a sense of people waiting for their fate. I guess that’s what it’s like to be a teenage girl, when you lack agency, I suggest.

“Yes, and I desperately didn’t want to grow up, I was the eldest of three sisters and I wanted to stay playing Lego with my sisters. I was more than a year younger than the girls in my class, so when I was still a child of 12 there were girls in my class of 14 who were being proper teenagers, smoking and drinking, and I was so terrified of those things and having to grow up. I think growing up can be pretty scary for any young woman, but perhaps particularly against the backdrop of Belfast. Although I was 13 when the ceasefires happened so I had a relatively normal childhood, you realise that even if you’ve had a really sheltered or middle-class upbringing, something of that is still in the air.

“I’m really interested in the rates of teenage suicide in Northern Ireland, which are some of the highest in the world, and you wonder if it’s because there’s a history of violence or self-loathing or self-monitoring and of self-censoring, and even though the outward violence is no longer acceptable, the violence is somehow turned inwards, you wonder if the psyche of the country is somehow damaged. There’s a small thread of that in this collection. The narrator of ‘Killing Time’ attempts suicide and you find that out in the first line. I wanted to state the facts at the beginning and then look at the aftermath. Suicide is often glamorised and that’s why you get so many clusters of copycat suicides. I wanted to go as deeply as I could into that idea that sometimes the biggest battles we fight go deep into the inner chambers of our hearts or our souls and no one else would really know what we’re fighting or what’s going on.” (read the full interview at Bookanista)

The many faces of Lucy Caldwell

Interviews, News

Five Things Right Now: Lucy Caldwell

Interviews, News

(chosen for Granta Magazine. See the original article here)

1. Dusty Bluebells documentary

The Northern Irish poet Stephen Connolly, @closeandslow, tweeted a link to this old BBC NI documentary from 1971, and I happened to see the tweet, watch the documentary, and was entranced. It’s about Belfast children and the street songs they sang, the games they played, even as their wider world was disintegrating around them. It took me right back to my childhood, the endless skipping games and cat’s cradles, but even more preciously, it sparked a story, ‘The Ally Ally O’, which is now the first story in my debut collection. (Stephen: if you happen to see this, the pints are on me.)

2. The Architecture Foundation: New Architects 3

Every ten years, the Architecture Foundation selects Britain’s best emerging practices and publishes the result in a glossy hardback. (Think Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists . . .) I’m very proud that my husband has made it in here with his new practice, Gatti Routh Rhodes. They’re currently designing a new church and community building opposite the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London.

3. Spitalfields City Farm

In the unlovely grid of streets between Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, a stone’s throw from Brick Lane, is the magical Spitalfields City Farm, an oasis of wildflowers, bees, ponds, organic vegetables and a treehouse (not to mention the animals). I come here several times a week to buy fresh eggs and pick vegetables, and inspired by the City Farm, I’ve been trying to create a (miniature) wildlife haven on my inner-city balcony. As well as herbs I’m growing echinacea, lunaria annua, or honesty, devil’s-bit scabious, buddleia and achillea millefolium, which always makes me think of Paul Muldoon’s poem, ‘Yarrow’:

Achillea millefolium: with its bedraggled, feathery leaf
and pink (less red
than mauve) or off-white flower, its tight little knot

of a head,
it’s like something keeping a secret
from itself, something on the tip of its own tongue.

4. Enda Bowe’s At Mirrored River

Irish photographer Enda Bowe won The Solas Prize this year with his series At Mirrored River, in which he visited the same, small, unnamed Irish town for four years, taking portraits of the town and its young people. More than just the beauty in the mundane, he captures his subjects at their most hopeful and most vulnerable, their dreams and fears shining from them. The series will be exhibited at Visual Carlow this July, and published as a book to coincide with the opening; the poet John Glenday and I have both contributed words for it.

5. In the Night Garden

Maybe it’s the chronic lack of sleep, maybe it’s the time of day, but it never fails to make me weepy: the moment when the stars in the sky turn into white flowers blossoming. In the Night Garden (on CBeebies every evening at 6.20 – but you either know that already or you don’t need to) has been a guilty pleasure of mine since my toddler started watching television. But! I came across an article by a Chaucer scholar who said it’s basically an introduction to the conventions of medieval poetry, and specifically early Chaucerian dream visions. Who knew! She quotes The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, The Book of the Duchess and more, and it’s a pretty darn convincing case.

On Why Short Stories Matter


maeve_brennanA good short story: greater than the sum of its parts

A short story is a shot of vodka (Chekhov), a love affair to the novel’s marriage (Lorrie Moore), a high wire act (Kevin Barry). It’s a hand grenade, a sprint, a shock, a shiver. There’s something taut, essential, elusive about it. There’s a magic to it, an alchemy. A good short story has to infer the entire and immersive world of a novel, create the same depth of consciousness in its characters, and yet with a mere fraction of the words. It requires the concision of poetry, and maybe the comparison with poetry goes even further: it needs to work on a symbolic plane as well as on the level of the literal narrative.

A good short story needs to be far greater than the sum of its parts, something that unfurls in you after you’ve read it, echoes within you long after you’ve finished it. My favourite definition, perhaps, is William Carlos Williams’: “Short stories are the flare of a match struck in the dark, the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people’s lives.”
A short story… eleven years in the making

I attempted to write my first short story collection over a decade ago, just after I’d finished my first novel, in that strange no-man’s land before publication. I saw the shape of it perfectly in my head: the stories would all be set in Belfast or between Belfast and London, and they’d all be narrated by girls or young women. I thought it would be easy (cue hollow laugh). I realised very quickly that I had none of the skill or technique to make even the simplest of my ideas work: and it’s taken a further decade of reading, and the writing three novels, a novella, several stage plays and radio dramas to learn or acquire enough of the craft that stories demand.

Two of the stories in my collection, Multitudes, have first drafts going back eleven years to those earliest attempts: I’d come back to them every year or couple of years, unable quite to let them go, unable to make them live.
Demanding a lot from the reader

It’s often said that the short story is perfect for modern times: for our short attention spans, for our commutes, for our over-stretched, time-poor, bite-sized lives. I think this is utterly wrong. If a novel is a warm bath, something that you can sink into and get comfortable in, the short story is an ice-cold plunge pool.

The short story can be a profoundly uncomfortable form: it often demands a lot from the reader. It requires concentration as you’re reading, and it needs to be allowed the space and time to resonate in you after you’ve read it. You need to read a story in its entirety, in one sitting, and you often need, as Mavis Gallant recommends, to close the collection or the anthology after you’ve read one story in order to recover and regain the strength to plunge into the next.
Five short stories to love and learn from

Here, in no particular order, are five stories that I have loved. I am excluding Chekhov, Lorrie Moore and Kevin Barry on the spurious grounds that I have already mentioned them; I am also not allowing myself to look at my bookshelves as I choose the stories otherwise I’ll find myself paralysed with quandariness…

“The Eldest Child” by Maeve Brennan

I first read this story in the excellent anthology The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson. Maeve Brennan is better known for her acerbic, witty New Yorker columns, and this story floored me. It’s narrated from the point of view of a mother remembering the death of her newborn son, and the sleepless vigil she kept for his soul. It is impossible to read the final lines without your heart breaking.

“Sleepwalking” by Amy Bloom

If “The Eldest Child” breaks your heart, then “Sleepwalking”, from psychotherapist Amy Bloom’s first collection Come to Me, will stop you breathing. In my edition, the moment comes 13 pages in. You think you know where you are, and you’re ignoring the faint, creeping sense of dread and then, in an awful, inexorable rush, it happens. The brilliant thing about this story is that Amy Bloom doesn’t leave it there: like the best of Greek tragedies, she forces you to look, and look, and look.

“Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace

An entirely different tone now: the most tender coming-of-age story you’ll ever read. “Forever Overhead” comes as a shock and a relief in the tangled, tortured, brilliant collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. On one hand, it’s about a young boy deciding to dive from the highest diving board at the public swimming pool one slow, hot day at the end of the summer. On the other hand, it’s about… everything.

“Brownies” by ZZ Packer

Another coming-of-age story from her first, and to-date only (come on ZZ!) collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. A high-spirited young Brownie pack from Atlanta, Georgia go to summer camp, where they become convinced that a group of white girls are racially abusing them. But there’s an unexpected twist. The story is both playful and profoundly serious, and asks all sorts of questions about the confusions of growing up and the complications of friendship.

“Boxing Day” by David Park

I’m really torn here for my final story. I was about to write about one by a criminally under-read writer, Katherine Anne Porter, and the title story from her recently reissued Collected stories: “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”. It’s about a young woman hallucinating in a hotel room in Colorado in the influenza epidemic of 1918, as she lingers at the gateway between life and death. It’s an astonishing story. But North American writers, I suddenly see, are over-represented in my list.

I could go instead with Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera’s jagged, brilliant “The House of Hunger”, or I could attempt to answer the question I’m always asked and always make a hash of: what is my favourite Irish short story (today it’s a toss-up between Claire Keegan’s “Walk the Blue Fields” and Sean O’Faolain’s “Lovers of the Lake”). But I’m going to choose, instead, a brand-new story from a brand-new collection.

Northern Irish writer David Park published his second collection of stories, Gods and Angels, on the very same day that my Multitudes was published. The second story in the collection, “Boxing Day”, is about a father taking his truculent teenage son on the boy’s annual visit to his estranged, mentally ill mother. The story is almost unbearably tender. The collection is worth buying for this story alone.