Award-winning novelist and playwright, Lucy Caldwell, will be joining us for an interview and reading on Thursday 30th May at 3.30pm at St. John’s Theatre & Arts Centre. She is also one of our 5 shortlisted nominees for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2013 with her third novel, All The Beggars Riding, which was serialised on Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4 and chosen as both Irish Waterstone’s Book of the Month and Eason’s Bookclub Choice.
Belfast born Lucy read English at Queens’ College, Cambridge and is a graduate of Goldsmith’s MA in Creative & Life Writing. Her other novels are Where They Were Missed (2006) and The Meeting Point (2011). In 2011 Lucy was awarded the prestigious Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for her body of work to date. Her stage plays, Leaves, Guardians, Notes to Future Self, and radio dramas, Girl From Mars and Avenues of Eternal Peace have won numerous awards, including the George Devine Award and the Imison Award.
JG. Congratulations on being one of the five shortlisted writers for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award. What does this mean to you?
LC. Thank you! I’ve wanted to come to Listowel Writers’ Week since before I even wrote my first novel, and to come as a shortlistee for the Kerry Group Award is just fantastic. Writing All the Beggars Riding left me completely eviscerated – it seemed to take everything I had, and more. Perhaps every novel feels like the last or the only real one you’ll write, but I felt it more keenly with this than with either of my previous two, and the exhaustion has taken a lot longer to lift than I anticipated. So it means more than I can say to have it read and recognised in this way.
JG. This is your first visit to Listowel Writers’ Week. What are you most looking forward to?
LC. Besides – of course – the chance to hear admired writers and discover new ones, I can’t wait for the music and merry-making, and most of all the magical conversations over a pint after hours, I’ve heard Listowel is legendary for that.
JG. All the Beggars Riding is a heartbreaking story of a woman confronting and trying to make sense of her past. Can you tell us something of the background to the story?
LC. A few years ago, just after my first novel was published and before I’d even begun my second, I had a dream about a surgeon who led a double-life. It was such a vivid and startling dream that I wrote it down, and it stayed with me for years. I wasn’t looking for new ideas at the time – I was immersed in the world of my second novel – but I found myself idly collecting stories about men who led double lives or had second families, or mistresses who have their lover’s baby. I’d rip them out of old magazines at the hairdresser’s, or from newspapers, and suddenly I realised I had a whole shoebox of them. Then, at book readings or workshops, I started mentioning that I was interested in second families and double lives, and the number of people who’d come up to me and offer their stories was surprising. I started to think about how you would go about telling such a story, and telling it well; not sensationalising it. Even more interesting than the passion of the love affair is the sheer banality of maintaining a double life for so many years, the quantity of lies and half-lies you have to generate to feed the need of the deception. It beggars belief… I chose to write the book from the perspective of the surgeon’s illegitimate daughter, grown-up, because it meant that she too could be trying to understand; what her parents did, and how, and why. It also allowed me to look at the consequences of the double life, and not just the fact of the it. The proverb “the children of lovers are orphans” was playing round in my head as I wrote…
JG. Part memoir, part historical fiction and part personal account, the narrator sets about writing her memoir, inspired by a creative writing class. How do you manage this blending of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction?’
LC. The books I kept coming back to as I was writing Beggars were all writings that blur or blend or question the nature of factual versus fictional ‘truth’ – like Coetzee’s masterpiece Summertime, or Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. I was also thinking of the line by the Danish writer Karen Blixen, “all sorrows can be borne if they can be told”, and about how what’s important isn’t, or isn’t just, the story itself, but rather the telling of it. A book that affected me very deeply when I first read it at university was the young South African journalist Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, her account of covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. At first she writes factually, transcribing people’s stories, but as the hearings go on her prose starts to buckle and fracture under the pressure, and it becomes very personal, and at times breaks down into fragments and unfinished sentences, or even attempted lines of her own poetry. It’s fundamentally about the power of narrative, and the struggle between telling a story or being told by that story. The narrator of Beggars is of course fictional, but I needed her story to feel real, and so I wove through references to real or thinly veiled people and places and events – starting with a version of the Russian journalist Svetlana Alexeivich’s interviews with Chernobyl survivors, which is one of the most moving narratives I’ve ever read – and incorporating meticulously researched details about place and time, most of all Belfast. Lara’s voice is very stilting and hesitant as the book begins, and that was important; she gains in confidence and fluency as she writes. I wanted to avoid, too, perfectly lyrical flights of memory, because that’s not what memory’s like. I wanted the book to be a testament to the power of telling your own story – and in a funny way that might be intelligible only to me, it felt like my writing autobiography, too, packed full of the writers (MacNeice, Plath, Alexeivich, Van Morrison, and others more elliptically referenced) who’ve been most important to me. It isn’t factually true, but it felt like the truest book I’ve written.
JG. Your first work of fiction was a play The River, performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Can you tell us something of the different dynamics involved in writing a novel and a stage play? Do you have a preference for either form?
LC. They’re completely different forms, and the more I work in both of them, the more I respect and understand that, and the harder it gets to make the wrench from one to the other. Novels, or at least the sort of novels I write, are more interior, reflective, descriptive – all of the things that are lifeless on stage. Drama, it seems to me, is about action, and about subtext: it’s not what people are thinking or feeling so much as what they’re doing, whether or not they’re fully cognizant of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Even the most beautiful writing will be cold and dead on stage if it doesn’t have that charge. Writing plays definitely helps novels, because it helps you to structure them more tautly by envisaging them in parts, acts, scenes. I’m not sure what novel-writing gives to plays – but perhaps that’s because I’m currently trying to make the switch back to drama and finding it hard. Nor do I have an answer about which form I prefer; I love the intimacy and secrecy of having the whole world of a novel inside you, but the noisy conflicted collaboration with actors and director and designers when you’re working on a play is really thrilling.
JG. You were born in Belfast, but studied at Cambridge and now live in London with your husband. Would you say Belfast inspires your writing or is there a mixture?
LC. I consider myself very much a Belfast writer; my writing seems to come from and be inspired by Belfast at a very fundamental level. It’s something I’m only learning the more I write. Although we live in London, I travel back and forth between the two places and keeping that connection alive and vital is increasingly important.
JG. You are senior lecturer on the MA Creative Writing course at City University London. What aspects of teaching do you most enjoy? How do you balance your writing life with teaching?
LC. I never intended to be a teacher of writing, but you find that once you’ve published a book, people ask you to do a workshop here, help out on a writing course there, and I found – to my surprise – that I really enjoyed it. I’m uneasy about the idea of being a teacher, because – unlike a more finite discipline – it’s not as if there are any hard-and-fast rules to writing, nor is it the case that once you’ve written a novel, you suddenly know how to do it and can hand down your methods from on high. But you can explore techniques together – so much of “teaching” writing is actually communal close reading. I love taking an aspect of writing – child narrators, say – and, with my students, working out: how does Joyce grow his narrator up from babyhood to schoolboy in that virtuosic page and a half? Word by word, line by line, what is he doing, and how does he do it? How does Roddy Doyle create the breathless effect of a ten-year-old narrating? How does Seamus Deane attempt to capture what memory feels like to a child, or how does Henry James create Maisie’s consciousness? What tense are they using, what point of view? How might you learn from it? My MA students tend to be on the receiving end of what’s obsessing me at any given time: for a while when I was writing Beggars it was Zadie Smith’s essay on “Two Paths for the Novel” and the artifice of memory as it’s so often presented in lyrical fiction, and the differences between fiction and memoir, and the question of how to write truly. So my writing life doesn’t seem that separate or distinct from my own writing.
JG. Here at Listowel Writers’ Week we have a broad range of Literary Workshops which take place during the festival. Do you think you might like to direct one of our workshops in the future?
LC. I’d be delighted. There’s something very heady and intoxicating about a week’s intensive workshops in an atmosphere like Writers’ Week. You always come away as exhilarated as you are exhausted. When you’re taking workshops – as a leader or participant – you’re somehow right at the heart of things.
JG. What advice would you give our emerging writers at Listowel Writers’ Week 2013?
LC. Stay up half the night having passionate discussions about writing. Buy too many books. Have that extra drink and throw yourself open to the possibility of new lovers, new friends, new ways of seeing.
JG. Thanks very much Lucy. We hope you enjoy the festival as much as we look forward to welcoming you.
To book Lucy Caldwell’s event, please click here Lucy Caldwell