‘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.