[Interview] Lucy Cadwell

Award -winning playwright and novelist Lucy Caldwell is one of the youngest writers to be shortlisted in the EDS Dylan Thomas Prize.

In June 2004, her first short play, The River, previewed at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. It was subsequently produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Chapter Arts Centre and the Sherman Theatre (both in Cardiff) in the United Kingdom. She has written short stories for BBC Radio 4, Zembla magazine and the V&A Museum.

Her first novel, Where They Were Missed, was published in March 2006 by Penguin (Viking). Four months after publication, the novel was placed on the EDS Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.

In addition to writing, Caldwell works with the Pushkin Trust, a Northern Irish charity that teaches creative writing (dramatic and prose) to primary school children and their teachers. She also works with the Niamh Louise Foundation, a recently established charity seeking to address the problems of teen suicide in the Province.

Lucy Caldwell spoke about her writing and some of the concerns that influence her.

What is your novel about?

The novel is narrated by Saoirse (pronounced Seer-sha), a six-year-old girl growing up in Belfast in the late 1970s with her mother and father and younger sister.

Things are going badly wrong, but she is so little she doesn't quite understand what is happening, and during one heat wave summer, she and her little sister, Daisy, run wild in a fantasy world of their own.

But there is a tragedy, and the family splits apart; the second half of the novel takes place 10 years later, when Saoirse is going on 17, and living with her aunt and uncle in an isolated part of rural Ireland.

She discovers dark secrets in the family past, and decides to go back to Belfast to discover the truth about what happened during that fateful summer, and to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

How long did it take you to write it?

I started off writing what I thought was a short story for a university publication called the May Anthologies, where lots of writers (including, most famously, Zadie Smith) have been discovered. But I suddenly realised that I'd written 10,000 words and the "story" was showing no signs of stopping!

I finished the first draft at university, and redrafted it during my M.A. in London and Where They Were Missed was published in March of this year by Viking/Penguin. (Incidentally, this month [September] sees the launch of the German translation — Sommer In Belfast - the first foreign-language edition!)

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I am only ever concerned that the writing is "true." I believe that literature — that art — can be not only inspirational but cathartic, and I believe that at times it can even be redemptive. The best writing can change you, or change the way you see the world; I can only hope that one day, perhaps my writing will come near to "making a difference" in however tiny a way.

Specifically concerning Where They Were Missed, I was very conscious that, as a Northern Irish writer, people might expect my book to be "about the Northern Irish Troubles." I was very concerned that the book was not "about" the Troubles at all: I wanted to write a book in which the Troubles were there in the way that the weather is there - they are a backdrop to events, they change people's plans and are a topic of conversation but they are not the focus nor the concern of the book.

Who would you say influenced you the most?

A couple of books that I think influenced Where They Were Missed are Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark and Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy. Elizabeth Bowen and W.B. Yeats are two of my absolute favorite writers, and, in terms of playwrights, Chekhov, Maeterlinck and Brian Friel have been really important.

But I think that most significant of all have been myths and folklore and fairytales - the idea of storytelling, and stories as a repository of cultural memory; the way we use stories to create and enforce and define who we are and where we come from. And of course many of the books I read as a child: Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House On The Prairie sequence, Richmal Crompton's Just William books, also Lorna Doone, Moonfleet, all that sort of thing.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

I found the bereavement and funeral passages of the novel difficult to write because they were so very sad. People often come up to me saying that those parts of the book had them crying their eyes out, and they ask me, "Why did you do it?" and my response is always, "I don't know — I just wrote the story, I wish it hadn't had to happen like that either ..."

Which did you enjoy most?

The best times were when the story and the characters took over - when I couldn't type fast enough to keep up, and it felt as if I was just the conduit: rather than writing the book, I was merely the means by which it was written. Those moments were rare, but utterly magical.

What would you say sets the novel apart from other things you have written?

I wrote it in my early 20s, before I'd ever read much Joyce, or Flaubert, or Dostoyevsky, or many of the other writers who are so important to me today. And because it is the first "proper" thing I ever wrote, I think it has a rawness and energy and innocence that I'll never be able to capture again.

But then again, in a funny sort of way every single thing that you write feels as if it's the first thing you've ever written ...

In what way is it similar to other things you have written?

When I was growing up I couldn't wait to get away from Belfast. Once I left, I thought I'd never go back, and I was surprised — and not a little resentful — to find myself writing about Belfast.

But I am increasingly conscious of writing in an Irish, and a Northern Irish tradition — which, when you consider the great writers who have come from this part of the world, is something which makes me feel incredibly honored and humble — and now I am exceedingly proud to be Northern Irish.

And although this is a horrible generalization, I suppose that all of my writing, at some level, is "about" Northern Ireland, or at least shares a concern about what it means to be Northern Irish.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

Everyone always assumes that my writing, especially Where They Were Missed, is strongly autobiographical. But it isn't at all!

I had a very happy childhood, and my poor mother is horrified by the number of people who've covertly wondered if she has an alcohol problem...

In his essay, "The Art of Fiction," Henry James writes of an English female novelist who was much praised for the "accurate" depiction she'd given of French Protestant boys, and asked how long it had taken her to do the research. She replied that once, in Paris, she had been walking up a staircase when she had glimpsed some youths eating around a table with their minister. And from that moment, she had created the whole world of her novel. "The glimpse made a picture," James writes, "and it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience."

I think that this explanation sums up perfectly what it is to write fiction: that although not everything I write about "happened," all of it is in some sense "true".

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

As a writer of both novels and plays, my biggest challenge is always staying in control of whichever form I'm working in. If I've been writing a lot of prose, for example, I'll find myself giving characters in a play huge, eloquent, beautifully-written speeches which are absolutely dead on stage - because, of course, in a play it isn't what a character is saying that matters, it's what they're doing, or in other words, why they're saying it.

Similarly, if I've been spending a lot of time on a play, my prose tends to get a bit too dialogue-heavy.

How do you deal with this?

I find that I can only work in one medium at a time; I can't spend the morning on my novel and the afternoon on a play, for example. While I was writing my play, "Leaves," I immersed myself in theater, reading only plays, and I didn't touch a single novel for the whole two months it took to write it!

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I have always wanted to be a writer - literally for as long as I can remember. My mum has kept in the attic all my early endeavors - piles of jotters filled with stories that I "wrote" and illustrated when I could barely even hold a pen...

Every fortnight I used to get a wonderful magazine called Storyteller, which included a cassette tape to go along with the words. I used to listen to it until I knew my favorite stories by heart, then sit behind the sofa and recite them, pretending to be a radio! But I date my "serious" literary ambition from an English class in school when I was 13. We were studying the Ulster writer Jennifer Johnson's How Many Miles to Babylon? and for homework we had to write an extra chapter. I got really carried away — I read lots of W.B. Yeats, who is quoted in the book, and spent ages working on my alternative ending, and by the time I'd finished, I had decided that all I ever wanted to do was write.

What will you be exploring in your next book?

My second novel is very different: it is set in modern-day Bahrain, in the 10 days leading up to Easter Sunday, and it is about a young minister's wife who loses her faith. I suppose the "themes" - might include faith and identity, and the search for something to believe in, and how to believe in it.


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