In our Northern Ireland Writers Day 2 evening panel discussion, in partnership with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), we celebrated some of the finest Northern Irish writers working across form and genre today. Led by RSL Fellow Lucy Caldwell, sci-fi novelist Ian McDonald, Irish language children’s writer Máire Zepf, performance poet Abby Oliveira, and crime writer Steve Cavanagh discussed their work, routes into writing and the Northern Irish literary scene.
“The second-person narrator, when done badly, is the form of narrator that irritates me the most”: Lucy Caldwell on how to use “you” in fiction
Doreen Bates is a truly remarkable woman: ahead of and unvanquished by her time.
Born in Plymouth in 1906, she was posted to Belfast as a Tax Inspector in 1941, where she survived the Belfast Blitz, documenting it meticulously for the Mass Observation project, as “Diarist 5245”, and in her own private journals.
A selection of Doreen’s diaries were published by Viking in 2016 as Diary of a Wartime Affair, and deserve to take their place as one of the essential chronicles of the twentieth century. Brimming with soul, passion, candour and wit, they are an extraordinary read, giving a vivid insight into the life of a woman unvanquished by her time. Edited in an act of great love and generosity by her children, they detail the minutiae of her daily life in the 1930s and 40s, in love with her married boss.
In this event, Lucy Caldwell will be in conversation with Dr Margaret Esiri, daughter and editor of Doreen Bates. Lucy will talk of encountering Doreen Bates in the course of her research into the Belfast Blitz, and of writing her as a character into the forthcoming novel, and Margaret will talk of her memories of her mother, of how her mother’s unconventional life shaped her own, and about editing the diaries. Lucy and Margaret will present extracts from the diaries, including exclusive, unpublished extracts from Doreen’s struggles as a single mother to twins during the wartime years, and discuss the extent to which the societal pressures and issues Doreen faced are still relevant to women today, for both Margaret’s generation and Lucy’s, in the balancing act of working motherhood.
For the third year in a row, Lucy Caldwell has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2021
Listen to “All the People Were Mean and Bad” by Lucy Caldwell Read by Laura Pyper.
New voices dominate the 2021 BBC NSSA shortlist as three-time nominee Lucy Caldwell is joined by Dublin-born novelist, playwright and screenwriter Rory Gleeson; Orange Prize shortlisted writer Georgina Harding; former postal worker and Creative Writing lecturer Danny Rhodes and journalist, novelist and Mastermind Finalist Richard Smyth.
The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University (BBC NSSA) shortlist was announced this evening, Friday 10 September 2021, during BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. Celebrating 16 years of the Award, the shortlisted writers have been influenced by a year of lockdowns with a focus on kindness, memory, loss and longing. The judges praised the shortlist for its humanity, compassion and hope with the stories inspired by teenage empathy, time passing and journeys triggered by ‘in-between spaces’ like planes and trains, folklore, loneliness, and the ‘Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature’.
The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University 2021 shortlist is:
- ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ by Lucy Caldwell
- ‘The Body Audit’ by Rory Gleeson
- ‘Night Train’ by Georgina Harding
- ‘Toadstone’ by Danny Rhodes
- ‘Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast’ by Richard Smyth
The BBC National Short Story Award is one of the most prestigious for a single short story, with the winning author receiving £15,000, and four further shortlisted authors £600 each. The 2020 winner of the BBC National Short Story Award was Sarah Hall who won for ‘The Grotesques’. The 2021 winner will be announced live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on 19th October 2021.
All five stories will be broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds and published in an anthology produced by Comma Press. The readers of this year’s stories include Harry Potter and Merlin actress Siân Thomas, who reads ‘Night Train’; Northern Irish actress, Laura Pyper reading ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’; Irish actor and screenwriter, Emmet Kirwan reading ‘The Body Audit’ and Krypton actor, Blake Ritson, reading ‘Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast’. TV actor, Shaun Dooley, whose credits include It’s a Sin, Innocent and Coronation Street completes the line-up reading ‘Toadstone’.
Intimacies, Lucy Caldwell’s second collection of short stories, follows young women interrupted by sudden, destabilising forces
At a point in Lucy Caldwell’s 2013 novel All the Beggars Riding, a character is struck by the anger of a widow: if you have to ask why wives and mothers risked their own health to nurse their dying husbands and sons then you do not, the message is, understand love.
Intimacies, Caldwell’s second collection of short stories, is also a work in which high stakes – the life and death of the body, disaster, violence, illness, loss – play out in domestic life, where they are handled with a delicacy that illuminates, rather than mutes, their profundity.
The stories follow young women, often wives and mothers, in states of domesticity,
interrupted by sudden, destabilising forces in the inner or outer world which prompt a look under the hood, as it were, of love. This love, even when it is reciprocated or anchored in a nuclear family, is lonely.
It also functions, formally, as a kind of emotional trapdoor. This is established in ‘Like This’, the opening story, in which a harried mother’s split-second decision to leave her baby with a stranger leads to a terrifying, dizzying sequence of catastrophe. There is also a moment when, immobilised by fright, she faces a confused crowd:
‘The mass of people; faces, talking. Dark jackets everywhere, brownish hair. A teenager, spots still on her cheeks, wearing the Frankie’s baseball cap and badge.
‘Excuse me, can I help you?’
‘She’s lost her mother.’
‘She’s not her mother.’’’
This proliferation of mothers feels signifcant. In the moment this is a mother who – stricken – needs mothering, and the theme of the sudden, strange, transformative responsibilities of parenthood as something that catapults characters from the
status of child to mother and leaves them bewildered recurs throughout.
In ‘Words for Things’, friends rock buggies while remembering, laughingly but with growing alarm, the mockery of Monica Lewinsky that was current in the 1990s when they were girls.
Dropping more quietly into a trapdoor (as well as “a late-night google black hole”, another place sleepless new mothers go), the protagonist decides to make a junk-food cake she remembers from childhood; eating cherries and marshmallows, she recalls a spirited schoolteacher, the feminist Nell McCafferty, and a host of girls and women sacrificed to the sugared violence of pop misogyny: Anna Nicole Smith, Shannen Doherty, Jade Goody.
She messages her own mother idly and discusses the baby. Her mother tells her – joking, or lightly, once more – “You’ll never be loved so much again.” Questions of love, of values, of what kind of woman is valued and what kind of woman is not, are let wash over us without being resolved.
(read the full review at the Irish Independent)
An outstanding collection of short stories about the vulnerability and enlightenment of motherhood
(Carrie O’Grady, The Guardian)
In Making Babies, Anne Enright referred to the months after giving birth as “life in here on the other side”. The mother crosses over; she enters a new room she can’t leave, and everything is different there. In her second collection of stories, Belfast author Lucy Caldwell settles down in that dim, warm room to explore its shadowy corners, breathe its sweet and foetid air, unmask its ghosts.
Intimacies is the perfect title for a collection in which 10 of the 11 stories are about mothers and babies or children. It is a relationship too close for comfort – sometimes literally, as on the red-eye flight Caldwell depicts so expertly, a mother enduring seven hours of toddler on lap, “heavy and warm and limp and sprawling”. Like all the women here, she is caught at a vulnerable moment, when exhaustion, love and grief combine to offer a flash of enlightenment. Caldwell specialises in this exposure of vulnerability: not the gradual peeling away of a character’s emotional onion-skin layers, but the heart-stopping second when a whole potential future gapes before them. It’s particularly powerful in the first story, “Like This”, whose narrator, in a moment of desperation, has left her baby in the care of a total stranger, and is suddenly hit by the implications.
If you want to yank the heartstrings, writing about a stolen baby is a surefire winner. But Caldwell is doing something more interesting: taking the possibility of trauma and rotating it, re-examining it from unusual angles, showing us a fresh, sharp edge of horror. She has an amazing ability to zoom from small-scale to large in an instant, one moment mired in stifling domestic immediacy, the next contemplating the vast shadow of tragedy across the generations. As one woman, awaiting her biopsy results, puts it, families are like an Escher staircase: “The potential grandchildren that I might never even see, joined in a vertiginous rush with the grandmother who only barely met me, the centuries collapsing.”
Four of the stories use a second-person narrator. True to the title, it draws the reader in, makes them complicit – that uneasy intimacy again. But it also awakens one’s inner contrarian, prompting the thought: “You might do that, but it’s not what I would do.” It has the negative effect of making four of her narrators feel like the same person. That aside, this is an outstanding collection. Caldwell’s skill is evident on every page; she maintains effortless control even as she ventures ever deeper into those dark areas “on the other side”.
How to read a short story collection
So Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies was one of my May reads, but I’ve split off into a separate blog to write about it, because I found it so interesting. I’ll say straight out that it is a great collection of stories, which much of the same calm, wry, politically and socially observant writing as her debut collection, Multitudes, but the reason I want to write about it (and not just it) is something different from just the quality.
I’ll also say second out that I met Lucy last year, when she kindly agreed to talk with me, and Michael Hughes and David Collard, for the Irish Literary Society about my poem Spring Journal and its connection to Louis MacNeice, of whom she is a great fan, as evidenced by her Twitter handle @beingvarious, and in fact the great anthology of contemporary Irish short stories of the same title that she edited; and she was kind enough to say some words about the book, which were used for a blurb. So I am in her debt for that.
And but so…
Short story collections.
I own maybe 100 single-author individual collections, as opposed to anthologies or Collecteds, but I’ve got no idea how many of them I’ve read in their entirety. I do read plenty of short stories, not least because of A Personal Anthology, the short story project I curate, which pushes me weekly in all sorts of directions, some of them new, some of them old, but when I do read stories I mostly read one, two or at most three stories by a particular author at a time.
This partly comes down to the practicalities of reading. A short story you can read in the bath, and a long decadent bath with bubbles and candles might stretch to three or four, depending on the writer. Or, as I have done this afternoon, sitting outside in the garden, reading ‘Heaven’, the final story in Mary Gaitskill’s seminal Bad Behaviour, a story which… but now’s not the time.
But seriously: what a story!
What I generally don’t do is read collections in order, from start to finish. I appreciate that this might be annoying for authors, who presumably put some effort into sequencing their collections, but a collection isn’t like a music album – not quite – which lends itself almost exclusively to listening in order. (I remember when CD players came out, and the novelty of random play. It’s not something I would ever do now, and I find it annoying that it seems to be a default setting on Spotify.)
The reason why I don’t tend to read collections in order, is partly because I like reading stories in isolation. I think it’s a Good Idea. If – to be reductive about it – novels are a writer doing one big thing, slowly, and stories are writers doing a small thing, over and over, then there is a risk, in reading a collection in one go, of seeing a writer repeat themselves. After all, they most likely wrote the stories to be read individually. Read me here, doing my thing, in The New Yorker. Read me here, doing my thing again, in Granta. And here I am, doing something similar but different in The Paris Review.
Some collections of stories are just that: agglomerations of pieces that have individual lives of their own, published here and there, and their coming-together is primarily a commercial rather than an artistic act. Some collections are more integrated than that, more self-sufficient or autarchic, having no particular dependence on anything outside of its little biosphere.
As I tweeted about the theme of this blog, John Self mentioned David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son as two collections that operate like this, that need to be read in order. He’s right, though annoyingly I don’t have either to hand. The Vann I think is in a box in the loft, and I’ve never owned a copy of Jesus’ Son, despite it being a touchstone of sorts. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is another example, with its famous ambiguity as to whether it’s a novel or a collection of stories, but that has the oddity that I think you could read it in any order.
There must be others. I might think further and come back to this. You might have thoughts yourself.
So once you’ve leaned away from the idea of reading a collection in one go – to avoid the risk of diminishing marginal returns – then the need to read them in order seems somehow weaker. So that’s what I do. I take a collection down from the shelf, a new one or an old one, and I scan the contents page; I consider the titles; I look at the page-length. I make my choice.
Reading a book is all about giving your time to the writer, putting yourself in their power. Choosing to read a collection out of order is a way of taking back a small amount of that power, or control, or cocking a snook, in a minor way. You wouldn’t do it with a novel (unless you’re reading Hopscotch) but with a collection: what harm can it do?
Certainly I’d probably start with the opening story, or at least give it a chance to do its work on me. The opening story of a collection, no less than a title story – a story that the writer has chosen to stand for the collection as a whole – is a way of a writer setting out their stall. This is, broadly speaking, what I’m about in these stories. It makes sense to take them up on their offer.
But I’d be as likely to lump for one in the middle, with an intriguing title, or that seems the right length for the moment. The last story? Unlikely. Presumably the writer put a story last that think ended the collection well, so it’s worth bearing that in mind too. Every story has an ending, but stories can have many different kinds of endings, and the kind of ending they choose to end the whole collection is, like the ending of a novel, something particular, and potentially precious.
Not reading the stories in order doesn’t mean ignoring the order they come in. Even if you read a final story first, or penultimately, it makes a difference that you know it’s the last story in the book.
As an example, Chris Power’s debut collection Mothers is scaffolded by three linked stories, the first one, one in the middle and one at the end. You don’t have to read them in order, but once you’ve read them, you see how they gain power from their placing.
Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies I think does need to be read in order.
Broadly speaking, the stories in it are about motherhood, and womanhood. Babies – unborn, lost, marvellously, exhaustingly there – haunt the book. Often the main characters are mothers, but in ‘Jars of Clay’ the narrator is a young American Christian woman come to Ireland ahead of the Repeal the 8th referendum to campaign for the no vote. The stories are all contemporary, with some memories floating in here and there, and the sense of the recent past of Ireland and Northern Ireland is ever-present.
(read the whole article at Tiny Camels / Jonathan Gibbs)