Irish author Lucy Caldwell tells how son's brush with death inspired most deeply personal work
While many budding authors will have been encouraged to "write what you know", Lucy Caldwell always took the opposite to be true.
But now, after more than a decade of imagining new characters and building each one an individual history, the award-winning Belfast author decided to look inwards and draw on her own experiences for a new collection of short stories.
Her new work, titled Multitudes, contains 11 stories, which Lucy says took 11 years to write.
“Just after my first novel had been accepted for publication, I tried to write a selection of short stories. I saw them all in my head - they’d all be narrated by girls and young women and they’d all be set in Belfast,” she recalls.
However, she struggled to bring the stories to life, and the project was put aside while she worked on a series of radio plays, stage plays, monologues and novels.
The idea for Multitudes initially arose from her desire to represent a side of Northern Irish life she felt was absent from contemporary fiction.
“I was feeling at that time that the Belfast that I read in fiction wasn’t necessarily the Belfast that I recognised from growing up,” she explains.
“It always seemed to be stories from the Troubles that dominated all the narratives, so I wanted to show a whole other multiplicity of stories as well.”
Multitudes was published earlier this month. Each story is told from a woman’s perspective, and Lucy tried to capture a broad range of experiences by adding mixed-race characters, same-sex relationships and a transgender narrator in one of the stories.
The 34-year-old was born and raised in Belfast, before moving to London aged 18 and eventually marrying Tom, a London architect. The couple now live together in London with their son, William, although Lucy finds herself travelling back to Belfast a lot.
“Your imagination is formed by the places that had a hold on you when you were a child, and I always find myself drawn back to writing about Belfast,” she says fondly, adding that she put more of herself into the new collection than any of her previous works.
As she grew up, she says the question of national identity was one that caused particular concern, and one which she has continued to explore throughout her career.
“I would consider myself first and foremost a Belfast writer, and then a Northern Irish writer. I grew up the child of a mixed marriage, as it was termed then, with one Protestant and one Catholic, and we grew up not practicing either religion in Belfast,” she explains.
“I think I grew up feeling, like many other kids in school, that Irish wasn’t an option for us.”
She describes how, like many young people growing up after the peace process, she questioned the binaries of “Irishness” and “Britishness” and realised that she could be both.
“It wasn’t until I got to England and having always considered myself not Irish I realised that I was Irish,” she says.
Lucy applied for an Irish passport while she was writing her first novel, and says: “The concept of my identity as a writer and as being Irish are really bound together, they’re the twin strands of my DNA.”
The early stories offer snapshots of childhood and adolescent life in Belfast, and the dialogue is peppered with slang, which Lucy notes was crucial to create an “immersive and plausible” world in such a short form.
“Language is really important. The rhythm that people speak and the slang can tell you so much about the person, the mood and the situation. You can tell so much about the dynamic or the power struggle between two people in just a few lines of dialogue where it would take you three or more paragraphs of prose,” she says.
Although the short story has quickly become her favourite form of writing, she admits that she found it very difficult to get right.
“It’s taken me 11 years of writing to have something of the craft and the technique to pull a short story off. There are two stories in Multitudes that have first drafts going back 11 years, I kept coming back to them every year and giving it another go, but it’s only recently that I started to make it work.”
Multitudes marks a distinct shift in Lucy’s writing, as the most starkly personal work she has ever published, with stories chronicling the bruising drama of teenage friendships, the tender emotions of a first sexual impulse, and the painful desire to belong.
“I’ve always believed really strongly that the worst advice you can give is write what you know,” she says.
“I think a lot of writers maybe start the other way, they start writing about themselves and become bolder from there, but for me it’s taken a while to have any of the craft to approach things very close to me and make them into good stories.
“It takes a particular sort of attention and care it’s hard to retain that raw emotion and contain it in the form of a story. I think that’s why it took so long to write, because I had to learn how to do that.”
The final story in the volume, from which the collection takes its title, is the most autobiographical of the works, detailing the trauma of a couple with a seriously ill newborn child.
Lucy wrote it when her son was just a few weeks old, and had been released from the intensive paediatric ward.
“I had such a need to write that story, it felt so urgent. Something about writing it felt really transgressive because I’d never, ever written so closely about myself, but it felt so necessary at the same time. That sort of cracked something open for me, I felt there was a whole new of writing that I’ve never tried,” she says.
“Something about how close we were balanced between life and death, it made me bolder, it made me not care so much, because someone criticising or not liking your story matters so much less.”
William is now nearly two years old, and Lucy cares for him full-time, but takes two half-days to write each week, a change she believes has improved her work.
“It’s far less writing time than I used to have but I make far better use of it I think. When you know you’ve only got this handful of hours before your writing time for the week is over, you make use of it,” she says.
Next up for Lucy is an appearance at the Dublin International Literature Festival, where she will join Anakana Schofield in a discussion about the renaissance in Irish fiction and what it means to write “slightly on the margins”.
After that, she says she hopes to write more short stories.
“I think I’ve caught the bug, and that feeling that you might just write the perfect short story is really addictive, so I’d love to write more of them.”
Lucy Caldwell is taking part in the International Literature Festival Dublin which runs until May 29th. Lucy and Anakana Schofield will discuss new Irish Fiction at the Smock Alley Theatre on Tuesday May 24 from 6pm. Tickets €10/€8.
For more info on this and other events check out ilfdublin.com