The author of three novels and several stage plays, Lucy Caldwell has had stories broadcast on BBC Radio and featured in Granta’s recent magazine New Irish Writing. Her first short story collection Multitudes – released in May – spans the lives of different Belfast women, offering “a cubist portrait of growing up”.
In a recent interview you mentioned Multitudes took 11 years to complete.
I’ve been writing short stories as long as I’ve been writing, which is about 11 years. I’ve always wanted to write this collection, I had this idea in my head it was going to be these stories narrated by girls and women between Belfast and London. I finished a draft of it just after my first novel but before it was published.
I thought writing short stories would be easier than writing novels, and it became clear to me that they were so much harder, and I had nothing of the craft or technique to pull it off. It’s taken all those years of writing – three novels, several plays, radio plays, lots of different stuff – to pull it off.
Some of the stories are very different, and some could only have been written recently. But there are two stories whose first drafts go back 11 years, because they were just two that I couldn’t let go. Every couple of years I’d come back to the idea and try to have a new draft or another go of it. It wouldn’t quite work but I couldn’t let it go.
Several of the stories were broadcast on BBC Radio first.
Two of them were radio-commissioned. “Through the Wardrobe” was a commission to write a story inspired by CS Lewis for Radio 4 and had to be under 1,300 words. With “Inextinguishable”, I was asked to write a story to be broadcast during the interval of the Proms for Radio 3, and I did have an idea for a story so I took that opportunity to write it. “Cyprus Avenue” was broadcast on Radio 4, but it wasn’t initially written for radio broadcast, so they slightly cut it.
I have worked a lot in radio, and what I like about radio is just the sheer intimacy of it – you are literally a voice in someone’s ear. You can get a real closeness and directness with the reader or listener with radio that’s quite hard to get otherwise. It suits my style of writing because I tend to write a lot of first-person or second-person narrators, stories that are more akin to monologues than a lot of more traditional third-person past-tense stories. So I love radio.
The title story “Multitudes” is very autobiographical and stylistically different from the other stories in the collection, how did you come to write it?
That story is really close to the bone, it was written after my son was very ill in hospital. If you’ve had a relative or someone you love in hospital for as long as that, it’s a really strange thing, because time is acute – things could go wrong at any moment. You’re in the middle of a sense of urgency, but also time seems to stop, so I needed to formally convey that sense in the story.
It felt wrong to write the story with a beginning, middle and end, because for a lot of the time we didn’t know if the ending was going to be five minutes away, an hour away, or the next morning. You totally lose your bearings. The way I wrote that story was when my son was seven or eight weeks old, I would write in bursts on my iPhone at night, and I wrote it with him stuck to me in a sling standing at the kitchen island. The form needed somehow to capture what it felt like, and was also akin to the way it was actually written.
Is the structure of the collection significant, with “Multitudes” appearing at the end?
I’d been working towards a collection for a while, and all of the stories were from childhood to adolescence, to being a woman in Belfast to London and back again. They were all stories of coming of age or important moments. None of the narrators have names, and the circumstances and facts of their lives are quite different. Some have brothers, some sisters, but they’re all quite different. I loved that they could be read almost as a cubist portrait of growing up.
For the last story, I wrote it and sent it to my editor at Faber, who I’ve been working with for years on this collection. He said he loved it and that it should be the final story in the book as I start with childhood – a mother having a difficult time with her children – and ending it with a different [kind of] child story felt really right, like the collection was rounded off. With stories that are so intimately about women, and sisterhood, all that sort of thing, it felt right for that to be the final story.
It resembles a female Dubliners in that sense, starting with childhood and ending with death.
Yeah, I wanted that sense for the collection. There are so many stories I left out, and myself and my editor spent weeks discussing their precise order. Angus Cargill [Caldwell’s editor] loves music, so he spent a long time talking about what the first track on the B-side would be.
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison was a huge influence. I wanted the sense that the stories at the beginning are simpler and starker, then as the collection progresses they become more complex. It becomes shot through with almost a tenderness or euphoria that builds towards the end of the collection. I wanted people to be able to read the collection all the way through, with the stories placed in an order like the album Astral Weeks, or like one of Bob Dylan’s albums, to definitely tell a story.
You’re label-mates with Van Morrison now Faber recently published his lyrics as a poetry collection.
I desperately wanted a line from Astral Weeks as my epigraph. I wrote a letter to him explaining why the lines were so important and why he was so important to me, especially as an East Belfast writer. I first got to know those streets in Belfast through the music of Van Morrison, rather than on my own. You listen to music and generally references will be America or other glamorous places, and the shock of realising that these streets in Belfast are the streets that are in the music, it does something really profound, when you’re young and starting to get your bearings.
I wrote to him with a couple of stories that I felt were most indebted to his music. He wrote back through his manager and gave me permission to use those lines. His manager was brilliant at helping me clear the rights with Warner Brothers. It’s not his responsibility to do that; it’s the publisher’s, so I’m really grateful for that.
“Cyprus Avenue” references the song on Astral Weeks, but it’s also written in the second-person – as are several more stories in the collection.
Four of the 11 are in second-person. Second-person is something that I really struggled with. It’s so popular with American writers: David Foster Wallace did it brilliantly in “Forever Overhead” – one of my favourite stories – and Lorrie Moore in “How to Be an Other Woman”. When the second person is done badly I absolutely hate it, there’s nothing as bad as a story that starts off with “You are sixteen and this is the best summer of your life.”
Yet I kept finding myself writing in the second-person. I realised for me when it worked there’s a sort of distance and there’s a sort of intimacy. You could have the idea exactly as in “Cyprus Avenue” – someone is trying to imagine a way out of themselves, like the voice in our head that narrates our lives. Or, with “Through the Wardrobe” it can be almost that an older self or the narrator is telling the character that everything is ok and they’re going to come through. You need to get that intimacy for the reader to not feel directly harangued because they’re eavesdropping on something really special or important. That’s how the second-person works for me.
What I particularly liked is how some things are left unsaid, as a kind of narrative avoidance on the part of the narrator – particularly painful things.
In “Inextinguishable” the mother says “I’m not going to talk about how my daughter died.” There’s a deliberate omission. What I like about the short story form is in a novel you probably couldn’t get away with saying something sentimental as that. The facts of it being withheld would start to fulminate, and would overpower the narrative. In that case you think of often parents whose children have died in awful ways, or even someone who’s just died in the hospital, who are maybe disfigured, that they want to remember them as they were.
For the mother in that story, her world has been so devastated and thrown into turmoil, yet she retains an element of control over how the story’s told. That omission was really important for the mother as a character, and I think it’s important to have that omission for the narrative.
Kevin Barry talks about the sort of short story that withholds everything until the penultimate paragraph, as a kind of mode. Then you realise you can read so many competent enough stories, that aren’t great stories, how they follow exactly that format – a piece of information is withheld, or some resolution is reached at the penultimate paragraph. I wanted to push at the form a little bit and see what it could do. The short story by its nature is not complete, so having something that explains everything and is sort of a closed hermeneutic world would feel wrong.
Another example of this kind of omission is the lack of references to the Troubles. It’s almost as if the parents of different narrators are intentionally keeping the Troubles from them.
It changes from story to story; I didn’t have one rule that I follow throughout the collection. What I really wanted to do was celebrate multiplicity, it’s even there in the title – all the stories you wouldn’t normally hear or wouldn’t have associated with Belfast in that time and place.
It’s something that you become increasingly conscious of if you leave Belfast. I’ve been in London for almost 12 years and while I’m back and forth to Belfast, you would find people outside of Northern Ireland who see the news headlines or TV images of a particular sort of Belfast: a Belfast of the bombs and guns, a Belfast of the barricades and a Belfast of the soldiers and male politicians and the male religious leaders and male voices.
I wanted to write a collection that focused on something else, on other lives that happened during that time which were just as rich as the Troubles but that weren’t defined by it. So I wanted to write stories about a child questioning her or his sexuality, and about one girl falling in love; stories that just wouldn’t have occurred to you if you were thinking about Belfast in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
You’re also adapting Chekov’s Three Sisters to be set in Belfast. What has that been like?
We’re finished writing, and doing the casting at the moment. I’m still at work on the script and revising it. A play is never really finished until opening night – that’s the collaborative nature of it, you’re constantly revising, cutting and questioning things right up until it opens – which makes it a really different form to the novel, which is sort of finished and signed off.
I happened to be at a dinner party and sat next to a Russian scholar. We were talking and I mentioned I was doing a version of Chekov’s Three Sisters. He said Chekov is really hard to translate into English, because in Russian the transliteration of a toast would be ‘I want you to know that I esteem you so much and you’re my best friend in the world and that I value your friendship.’ People don’t say that in English, it’s so understated and self-deprecating that it’s really hard to translate into.
That’s when I said if you wanted to translate that into Belfast English you could just say, “I fucking love you, you’re sound as a pound.” You’re getting all that you need to get across from the Russian but it’s not sounding sentimental. He took my point about Belfast English that you can do things with that sort of slang that’s harder to do in Standard English.
Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes is published by Faber and available now.
Words: Eoin Tierney