SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author JUNE CALDWELL about WRITING ESCAPES, going north and EXORCISING DEMONS through short stories …
Without a shadow of a doubt, there is no Irish writer quite like June Caldwell. Critics have tried to compare her to James Joyce or equate her with other maverick male literary figures, but it’s obvious that June’s in a league of her own.
Since the release of her riotous debut short story collection, Room Little Darker (2017), the book world has been under her spell. The words of June’s wild stories have pushed many of us out of our comfort zones; to sink into the murky depths of a seedy existence, to free fall down the rabbit hole, or to simply wake up and smell the manure. Rave reviews and blurbs for her viscerally funny, original prose have poured in from all directions, and they show no signs of stopping.
Belinda McKeon has said, “You haven’t read anything like this before. You haven’t had anything before like the headspin that these stories will give you. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re gaspingly, gutsily hilarious, as well as formally brave and unbothered with the rules. Just brilliant.”
Before turning to fiction full-time, June worked for many years as a journalist. Her story SOMAT was published in the award-winning anthology The Long Gaze Back (2015, New Island), edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and was chosen as a Sunday Times favourite.
June’s education includes an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University Belfast. During that time, she researched and wrote In Love With A Mad Dog (2006), a factual book based on interviews with Jackie “Legs” Robinson, who was the long-term mistress of loyalist paramilitary killer Johnny Adair.
June has won the Moth International Short Story Prize and been shortlisted for many others. Her fiction has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Moth, The Lonely Crowd and Winter Papers (2017). June recently wrote the introduction to a commemorative edition of her friend and mentor Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir, Are You Somebody?
June Caldwell lives in Dublin. She is currently working on her next project.
Room Little Darker (€11.95) is published by Head of Zeus and available from all good bookshops.
I grew up in Glasnevin North (forward slash Ballymun, as they changed the name in the 80s for reasons of inverted snobbery – it pissed off the civil servants). It’s a strange Desperate Housewives type of place. Lots of Semi-Ds with clumps built on: rooms over garages and in the roof spaces, there was a glass porch epidemic back in the 70s, and a brief caravan crush, any way to outdo the neighbours! The streets were full of kids playing football, hopscotch, tennis, kiss chasing. It was an OK place to live but soulless in the usual way of grey laneways full of dog shit and standardised rows of shops and mahogany pubs. I’m back here living with and looking after my elderly mother. I think I had fifty addresses in between: in London, Jersey, Galway, Belfast and Dublin. I’d love to live by the sea one day. I have a major cottage fetish, so one of those yokes up around Broadstone or an apartment with a cat-friendly patio in Galway on the river. I’ll need to make money from novels to achieve that dream.
I write in the bedroom only. I can’t write anywhere else in the house even though there’s a spare room downstairs looking out on the garden. Like a proper sociopath I find it easier to write at night with the curtains closed and a lamp on. There are wall-to-wall bookshelves in the bedroom, a big white iron bed and some old cacky furniture I slopped Annie Sloane paint all over. There’s something lovely about scribbling on the laptop in the deep of night when the world is asleep and there’s no-one to distract. My most prized possession in a scary looking yellow moosehead I got off a website in America. He’s called Martin and there’s always a bit of chimney soot on his nose.
On favourite bookshops
I adore the Gutter Bookshop. Bob and the staff are just lovely, they go all out for new authors, filling their windows with their books when they’re released and are great for promoting small publishers. I love going to launches there. Long may it thrive.
On her “To Be Read” pile
I’m very excited about reading Sue Rainsford’s Follow Me To Ground, forthcoming from New Island Books. She’s immensely talented and I’ve been hearing a lot about it. Also at the moment I’m reading Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz, a brilliant emotionally-violent book about loneliness and boredom. Slim books appeal to me these days, intensity rather than an orgy of tangents thanks very much, and I definitely don’t read enough European fiction.
Circle of Misse writing retreat in France is pretty special, run by a couple; a writer and an exceptional cook, so it’s all going on when you’re there. Peace to write, great meals and beautiful surroundings. It’s great to get off the rock sometimes to clear your head. I spent a lot of time in Frigiliana, a small white-washed mountain village in Andalusia full of honey, cobblestones and cats. Lack of funds and a care brief in recent years means I don’t get away a lot. However, I’m going on a cruise of the Norwegian fjords this autumn and I can’t wait!
I was at the tail-end of low-level wheelie bin journalism: trade magazines, disguised advertorials and dull as ditch water magazines. I did interview Daniel O’Donnell once as he ate a bunch of grapes in an RTÉ dressing room, and had the displeasure of writing a non-fiction biography of a Trouble’s moll, but really a lot of the “stuff” I wrote was behind-the-scenes malarkey, and aside from a plethora of press trips back when people were stupid enough to take out bank loans for holiday homes, I really can’t say it was an interesting career choice. In hindsight I had the right amount of repressed anger and Hitler Complex to make a great Barrister, so I feel I’ve missed my calling.
On the short story
In the words of Talking Heads, it’s the “same as it ever was”, I feel. It’s a smart genre that’s always attracted a smart readership, people who appreciate literary fiction and don’t mind scratching their heads at the lack of resolution. When I first started reading short stories at Uni I felt immensely intimidated and frustrated, but loved how they haunted me for days, forcing me to think about what the writer wanted me to feel. They are very psychological and moral, it’s human behaviour under the microscope, the hidden bacteria of our mental lives, all those spheres and rods and spirals that make us behave a certain way under certain circumstances. I love short stories so much I often consider them as real. Compared, say, to the novel, which is a long dance in the rain. Irish writers are very good at pinning them down because we’re natural voyeurs, we love to watch one another, especially when we make an arse of things, and we love to bitch and ponder and wonder. They suit our begrudging rebellious nature. Yes, there are lots of magazines and competitions and online depositories you can drop a short story into and get published quicker than in mainstream publishing with longer works, but they are an art form.
On Jackie Robinson
It was awful. Going north was a massive mistake, in more ways than one. That “book experience” was moronic, though it might make a good play one day. I would never turn the clock back on anything in life, but I don’t subscribe to the hippy hypothesis that somehow everything is “for a reason” and that we “learn from mistakes.” There are periods in life where if you’d decided instead to go missing and live in the cupboard under the stairs eating crisps and scratching matchstick men into the wallpaper to talk to, it would’ve been a more decent use of the planet’s air.
On exorcising demons
I lack subtlety, which I used to think was a major personality flaw, now I think it’s a handy base-camp for fiction. True experience warps into wormfeed for the imagination so no matter what you’re writing, subjective experience of the world is right there. In fact that’s the whole beauty of writing anything at all. And yes, I use it to exorcise demons, why not? If you piss me off massively or hurt me (even vaguely) I’ll shove you in a short story. But the bigger issues, the things that really blow my mind, I’d like to think I could make books out of those larger themes: misogyny, betrayal, the ability to crush one another and get away with it, how technology has and is going to impact on our lives, all of it gets me excited in terms of what I can write next and how I can write it.
On what’s next
A strange little book about death, sex, power and love. After that I might write something real that looks like fiction. There are so many hybrids these days fiction is starting to turn in on itself to reveal greater universal truths than what you read in newspapers or see on TV. That’s why I’ve jumped sides for good.
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