Belfast author Lucy Caldwell has enjoyed meteoric success as a novelist and playwright. Ahead of her appearance at the Eastside Arts Festival, she tells JOANNE SAVAGE about how motherhood has shaped her new short story collection
This story also gives the collection its title - Multitudes.
“William, my one-year-old son, was very ill after he was born with a suspected case of meningitis. He was in an intensive paediatric ward for a week after his birth and we were given a 50 per cent chance of him living.
“We had weeks in and out of the hospital.
“I remember when he was seven weeks old I had this compulsion, stronger than any compulsion I have ever had, to somehow write it all down and make sense of it. It took all the craft I had to keep control of it because when your own child is sick it could end up being so sentimental.
“I had William strapped to me in a sling and I would write it in bursts and at times on my iPhone at 3am when I was putting him back to sleep. It was something I had to write and I realised I really am a writer because it is a compulsion I can’t ignore.”
In the hands of a lesser writer such a piece so rooted in personal experience could have easily tipped into breathless hysteria.
But Caldwell has seriously practised her craft, publishing three novels in quick succession after reading English at Cambridge University. Where They Were Missed (2006) looked at the struggles of a young girl with an alcoholic mother; The Meeting Point (2011) was set in Bahrain and ruminated on themes such as love, religion and cultural difference, scooping the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize. Her third novel, All The Beggars Riding, which was chosen for Belfast’s One City One Book initiative in 2013, also received high praise from literary critics and was recently translated into French.
Caldwell has also mastered the taut art of writing for the stage with award-winning plays such as Leaves, which looked at the motivations for a teenage girl making an attempt on her life.
But with her latest venture she returns to the notoriously difficult form of the short story; Chekov may have made it seem effortless but it is anything but.
“Kevin Barry has a brilliant way of describing it because he said a short story is a high wire act and at any moment you could tumble off and the whole thing is lost,” explains Lucy.
This form is a daunting: a writer must set up the whole scene and achieve some moment of insight, enlightenment or realisation within a very short space of time so that everything has to be layered, compressed and charged with symbolism.
“Everyone thinks a short story is much closer to a novel because they are both prose but actually it has much more in common with a play because with both of them they need to be pulled very tight,” she explains.
“A short story has to work not just in terms of narrative but also in terms of symbolism. It’s really much more akin to poetry than the conventional novel.
“The new collection contains 11 stories, three of which have been published before.
“All the stories here are narrated by teenage girls or young women and are set between London and Belfast, mainly in east Belfast, where I grew up.
“I think one theme that might link all of this together is transition and coming of age.
“Short stories are a lot closer to the bone than other fiction might be and they have demanded more truth from me as a writer so that I have used more raw material from my own life or the lives of those close to me in a way that I perhaps haven’t done before.”
Caldwell’s recurrent themes involve the confusion of childhood, the quirks of her home city (her imagination repeatedly returns to Belfast even though she has now relocated to London), teenage girls struggling to navigate a solid sense of self, memory and all kinds of feminine experience, and with this new collection, motherhood.
Most new mothers would be too exhausted to even think of compiling a short story collection, but Caldwell has found a new flowering of creativity.
“Whereas before I would make extra cups of coffee or play about online, now when I find time to write by mind is so much more focused and you tend to get things done in less time because you have to.
“In many ways motherhood has made me feel affirmed as a writer because despite all the challenges it has brought I still feel I can’t ignore the imperative to write.”
Lucy Caldwell will read from her new work Multitudes as part of the Eastside Arts Festival on August 28 at Ballyhackamore Library. Her short story collection, Multitudes, will be published by Faber in May 2016. Visit www.eastsidearts.net/events.