Writer’s Block With Lucy Caldwell

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to LUCY CALDWELL about growing up in Belfast, her interest in ZEN BUDDHISM and the intimacy of RADIO DRAMA

Photograph by Tom Routh
Photograph by Tom Routh

Lucy Caldwell’s gift of storytelling has a pedigree that appears with each generation of writers, but that only few possess. Easily one of Northern Ireland’s great young talents, the celebrated playwright and author continues to glide from strength to strength on these shores, as well as across the pond. In her career so far, Lucy has collected the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright, the BBC Stewart Parker Award, a Fiction Uncovered Award and a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Her most recent novel, All The Beggars Riding, was chosen for Belfast’s One City One Book campaign in 2013 and was short-listed for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. Multitudes (2016) is Lucy’s first offering of short stories, two of which made waves prior to the collection’s release. Escape Routes was short-listed for the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award, while Killing Time won the Commonwealth Writers’ Award (Canada and Europe) in 2014. Last year also saw Lucy’s eagerly-anticipated adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, set in 1990s Belfast. The Independent has called her ‘a writer of rare excellence and beauty, Caldwell doesn’t just get inside her characters’ minds. She perches in the precarious chambers of their hearts, telling their stories truthfully and tenderly.’

Lucy Caldwell lives in London with her husband and young family. She is currently working on her next project.

Multitudes (€9.99) is published by Faber & Faber and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

My husband is a Londoner and we live in Whitechapel, East London, with our two-year old son and impending new arrival. It’s a very vibrant, multicultural place to live – we’re a stone’s throw from the famous Brick Lane, a few minutes’ walk from Tower Bridge and the Thames, and within walking distance too are the ancient graveyards and rose gardens of Wapping. We’ve been here several years now. Tom’s architectural practice, Gatti Routh Rhodes, is a cycle ride away in London Fields, and one of his current projects is a new church, community centre and block of flats just opposite the V&A Museum of Childhood (where you can often find me on rainy afternoons). Our flat is in a very inner-city area and for the past few years I’ve been creating a wildlife garden on our balcony – I grow lots of herbs and wildflowers in pots, jasmine and honeysuckle for the summer evening scent, and pride of place is a fig tree which produces the most amazingly aromatic green figs. As I potter round watering them in the evenings, I love hearing the muezzin from the nearby East London Mosque calling the twilight prayers, such an ancient and melancholy sound.

On roots

I was born and grew up in Belfast, and my parents still live in the house we moved into when I was twelve, which I do call ‘home’. Edna O’Brien says that a writer’s imaginative life commences in childhood: that all one’s associations and feelings are steeped in it, and that the place or places of your childhood have a hold on you that they never really relinquish. I certainly feel like that about Belfast. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to get away. I imagined, like most young people everywhere, that ‘real life’ was happening elsewhere, most likely amid the bright lights of the big city; that there was a place I more truly belonged. When I found myself in England, writing about Northern Ireland for the first time, I resented and resisted it – but the more I write, the more important Belfast has become to me; the more I have come to need it and, yes, to love it. I feel an unwarranted surge of pride in its achievements – its new literary magazines, its festivals, its rare sunny days – and a biting shame at its shortcomings. It’s a peculiar love/hate relationship. For some years I have traveled back and forth, often on a monthly basis – one of the stories in my collection Multitudes, ‘Cyprus Avenue’, is set almost entirely in an airport lounge – but it’s becoming harder to do, now that I have a young family of my own. One solution would be to move back, and it’s something I do imagine, and wonder about. Belfast has a lot going for it. But London – the adopted city of my twenties and thirties, the city of my married life and new motherhood – has its hold on me, too. It’s also given me the exile’s crucial, critical, and yet simultaneously nostalgic distance from a place, without which I doubt I could write the Belfast of Multitudes or of my recent Three Sisters. I often feel very torn: even when I’m physically in London I am often emotionally, psychically, across the Irish Sea. I’m on the phone to my parents, asking them if this particular road existed at that particular time, or I’m reading the local newspapers online, or I’m on Google Maps, retracing remembered walks through the ghostly panes of Streetview… Multitudes is my most intimate piece of fiction to date, and I put as many of the sounds, smells, images and memories of my Belfast in it as I possibly could: I really wanted to evoke that place and time, and its untold stories.

On creating

My ‘creative space’ is a couple of shelves and a desk in the corner of the bedroom, which is also the baby’s room. It’s wrenched from the chaos of the room by necessity rather than choice, and would certainly never be chosen to feature in a stylish black and white series of Authors’ Rooms photographs. But with young children, time, space – everything – is squeezed, and I’m just grateful for the snatched hours I get. There’s no space for art, but pinned on my noticeboard are postcards of images I like – David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Lartigue’s Vera, Villepion, Arlette et Bibi, Cannes – some of the most meaningful letters I’ve received, and a card my sisters made me when my first novel was published: that famous image of Ireland’s Writers, all male, with my head cut out and stuck on just above George Bernard Shaw’s hat and below Oscar Wilde’s shoulder. That always makes me smile when I glance up.

On favourite bookshops

No contest – it’s NO ALIBIS on Botanic Avenue in Belfast. Imagine a Tardis of a bookshop that contains more books than seems remotely possible, stacked floor to ceiling and in teetering piles, and where the kettle is always on. For Dave and Claudia, the owners, running NO ALIBIS is more a vocation than a job. They are incredibly well-read and have that uncanny knack of recommending exactly the right book to you at the perfect time. Several times a month they push back the tables and open a few bottles of wine and have readings, book launches and even gigs. They slip proof copies into your hands as you pay for the books you didn’t know you so badly needed, and they’ve even been known to entertain toddlers while their parents browse the shelves. Belfast is lucky to have them.

On her nightstand

My ‘bedside table’ is a ramshackle pile of books squeezed in around a baby’s cot. There’s Sinéad Morrissey’s beautiful new poetry collection On Balance and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s brilliant debut collection of stories, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, which I’m currently reading, and Beyond The Glass, the last in Antonia White’s extraordinary autobiographical quartet, which I’ve recently finished but can’t quite let go. My editor sent me Celia Fremlin’s recently reissued 1958 debut The Hours Before Dawn, described as ‘a lost masterpiece’, and there’s a secondhand Penguin Classics edition of Sean O’Faolain’s Midsummer Night Madness. I’ve been dipping into the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, before bed at night, and top of the pile is Timothy O’Grady and Steve Pyke’s masterpiece I Could Read the Sky, which I picked up last night in search of a particular remembered passage, and instantly decided I had to reread again.

On escapes

I used to go away to Andalucia if I really wanted to write – the whitewashed buildings clinging to the cliffs, the bright splashes of bougainvillea, the high blue skies and glittering sea, the glimpses into a Moorish past. But it was never so much escaping things as finding a place to confront them head-on, with none of the distractions of the grind of everyday life. These days, even the notion of escape is a luxury. The challenge is finding, or creating the conditions for that fierce, deep concentration that writing requires. Basic meditation techniques, learned from years of yoga, help: even just a few, slow, conscious breaths. And maybe that’s where my renewed interested in Zen Buddhism comes into it, too…

On radio drama

I love radio. I love the intimacy of it; the way that you are literally a voice in someone’s ear. People listen to the radio as they’re pottering around the house, or driving, and they have it on for companionship late at night – so you catch your audience in solitary, unguarded moments. It’s a very pure medium – you have no props, no sets, no costumes, just voice and sound and silence, which can be very powerful. You can move about fluidly in space and time in ways that just aren’t possible on screen or stage. It’s also a lot of fun working with foley artists and seeing how they manage to create whole worlds from such unprepossessing props. Radio drama has a great pedigree among Irish writers, from Beckett to MacNeice, writers attuned to the sound and patterns of speech, the rhythms of silence, and I always go back to their work or inspiration.

On what’s next

A retreat to a Dominican monastery. No, really! It’s for a project I’ve been obsessed with for years, and is only now rising up to the surface ready to be written. I can’t say any more, or it will turn to ashes, but watch this space…


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