Lucy Caldwell is the author of three novels: Where They Were Missed, The Meeting Point and All The Beggars Riding. She has also written several stage and radio dramas. Her short stories have been published in various anthologies: Belfast Noir, Beta-Life, The Faber Book of New Irish Writing and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. She is currently working on her fourth novel, her first crime novel and her debut collection of short stories. Her writing has won numerous awards including the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Lucy teaches the MA Creative Writing Course at City University London.
We’re delighted that Lucy is directing our 3-Day Creative Writing – Advanced Workshop during Listowel Writers’ Week, which this year runs between 27th – 31st May 2015.
Q. Did you know from a young age that you would be a writer?
A. I did: my mum still has the “stories” I made before I could write, dictating the words and drawing the pictures. But I don’t think that makes me exceptional: I think that just shows the supportive parents and teachers I had who encouraged me and didn’t quash those early ambitions and desires. I had a student come on an introductory course I taught a few years ago who was very shy, worked in IT, had wanted to be a writer when he was a child, but his family had persuaded him to study “proper” subjects and get a “proper” job. For the first few weeks he barely spoke. Then we read the opening to Trainspotting and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and he came alive: he said that he didn’t know you were allowed to do such things. He completed the introductory course, went on to an advanced course, was accepted onto an MA programme and has since written a novel. Sometimes our creative needs and urges are beaten down in us, or suppressed. But it’s possible to reconnect with and to reawaken those young and playful desires.
Q. You teach the MA Creative Writing Course at City University London. What aspects of it do you most enjoy?
A. I have been Senior Lecturer on the course for six years now, and I have loved it: I love the buzz of it, the discussions and arguments. I love exploring with students issues that are preoccupying me. I love working closely with a writer on early drafts of their work – it’s a position of real trust and privilege – and when someone who’s been struggling suddenly has a breakthrough, and of course I love it when a student signs a big book deal and I get to take them for champagne. I have just left my permanent position at City, with a heavy heart, because I have recently had a baby and the teaching hours are just not compatible with motherhood and writing. But I think that teaching will always, in some capacity, be part of my working practice.
Q. You write across a number of genres – stage & radio plays, short stories and novels. Do you have a preference for any particular form?
A. I love poetry, actually, and it’s my great regret that I was never a poet myself. I think the key to working in lots of forms, though, is to be very aware of the possibilities and limitations of each: there are things that you can do in a novel or a play or a short story or radio drama that are just not possible in any other form. I enjoy the various degrees of collaboration and solitude, too. With a stage play nothing exists without director, actors, designers, so you’re working as a team. With a novel it’s the opposite, while you’re writing it there’s just you and the huge whole world inside of you. Radio drama is very intimate: it’s as if you’re right inside the listener’s head. Short stories are I think the most strange and magical and elusive of forms. The form, being aware of it and respectful of it and in control of it, is always crucial.
Q. You had a short story published in Beta Life: Stories from an A Life Future back in November. The anthology brought together scientists and authors, working in pairs, to imagine what life (and A-Life) will look like in the year 2070. Sounds fascinating. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
A. Comma Press, who commissioned and published the anthology, have a great record of pairing writers with scientists to explore various ideas and concepts. I jumped at the chance to take part in their anthology and was paired with Professor Alan Winfield, who works in the fields of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. I spent a fascinating day, and many subsequent conversations, exploring the work he did and thinking about how the scientific and philosophic principles of the technologies he investigates and creates might play out in real life. It’s a real leap in the dark taking part in a project like that – you have no idea of a story when you commit to it, and have to trust that an idea will spark and something will come. It’s good to stay on your toes and try new things! I’d really like to try another.
Q. Belfast Noir is another anthology you recently contributed to. You were born in Belfast. Do you still consider Belfast home?
A. I’d quote Edna O’Brien on that. She talks often in interviews about how a writer’s imaginative life commences in, is fuelled by, even fixed by, childhood. I was born in Belfast and grew up there; my parents still live in the same house we moved to when I was 11, it’s very much home. My husband is a Londoner and we have our life in London – in fact I’ve lived in London for more than a decade now – but when I sit down at my computer and all else falls away it’s Belfast I’m writing from.
Q. What projects are you currently working on?
A. I’m currently working on my debut short story collection. “Debut” makes it sound very young but it’s been some time in the making. I’ve been writing short stories, or trying to, as long as I’ve been writing but they’re the trickiest most elusive form, the hardest to get right. I finished a story recently that I began almost exactly ten years ago – which is such an odd feeling. I’ve gone back to it many times over the years but haven’t been skilled enough or had the technique to make the idea work. I’m two or three stories away from finishing the collection at the moment.
Q. What are you currently reading?
A. I’ve just read the Danish writer Dorthe Nors’ collection Karate Chop. When she’s good, she’s so good. I’m about to start Richard Beard’s new novel, Acts of the Assassins – I loved his last book, Lazarus is Dead. And I’ve been re-reading the wonderful Anne Enright’s essays, Making Babies. I first read it when I was pregnant and it’s even better now, the shock and delight of recognition is there on every page.
Q. Can you describe your daily schedule? How do you manage your time?
A. I always used to write first thing in the morning, when I felt the borders to the unconscious were most porous, less policed by the guardians of fear and shame and self-consciousness. Then the afternoons would be correspondence and reading and admin and two or three evenings a week would be teaching. But all that’s changed now that I have a young baby. I write in the snatched scraps of time when I can – on my iphone, while he’s feeding, while he’s sleeping, if I manage not to fall asleep myself, after he’s gone to bed… It’s a reminder just how much of a need and a compulsion writing is, and nothing has changed that. I am very lucky in that my husband, who’s an architect, has just started his own practice and he’s looking after our son for two half-days a week so that I can write. Those two mornings are so precious to me, and it’s amazing what you manage to get done when you know you only have a handful of hours to do it. But the world is going to survive if it doesn’t have another Lucy Caldwell novel for a few years!
Q. You last visited Listowel in 2013 when your novel All the Beggars Riding was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. What were your impressions of Listowel Writers’ Week?
A. I loved coming to Listowel Writers’ Week. The atmosphere was heady, passionate, intoxicating – hearing other writers talk about their craft, meeting readers, talking reading and writing into the wee hours – everything you hope a literary festival will be.
Q. Briefly, what will you be covering in your Creative Writing – Advanced Workshop?
A. I was reading a Paris Review interview with Alice Munro and I was really struck by something she said: she was asked why so many of her stories were about love, sex and death and she laughed and said, What else is there? I’ve had a postcard pinned to my noticeboard for a long time that reads, ‘If you could save just one memory, what would it be?’ And I’ve been thinking a lot about our most intense moments and experiences, how we capture them, and for whom; how we shrug off fear and shame and write truthfully. So we’ll be looking at those moments in our lives, and those of our characters. We’ll be looking at passages from writers from Jona Oberski to Miriam Toews and we’ll be looking into the rag and bone shops of our own hearts. I hope that participants will go away with brave hearts and bold swords, ready to tackle the moments that matter in their own writing.
You can book a place on Lucy’s Workshop here