Lucy Caldwell: Drawing on dynamics, from Belfast to Iraq

Lucy Caldwell’s latest novel is inspired by an ancestor’s dramatic life, and her own career has taken her from the stage to the page and recently to Iraq

When Lucy Caldwell was 13, an English teacher at school set her class an unusual exercise. The students had been reading How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston, and were asked to write an extra chapter for the book.

Caldwell, who knew the characters well, became obsessed with it – and decided to write an extra ending. “It came after Jennifer’s ending and I loved working on it. That’s honestly when I realised that I wanted to be a writer.”

Her first work was not in fiction, but in theatre – a short play, The River , which was performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. A longer play followed, Leaves , produced by Druid and directed by Garry Hynes. Drama and literature did battle, and in the same year, Caldwell's debut novel, Where They Were Missed , was published.

“I started off writing plays and novels at the same time, because I go with whatever tugs at me, but I can’t work on a novel and a play simultaneously. You need to be in control of your form, while knowing the possibilities and limitations of each.”


A third novel, All The Beggars Riding , has just been published, and its genesis comes from a fascinating family story. Caldwell's mother, in tracing the family's genealogy, discovered that Lucy's great-great-grandfather emigrated from Bristol. He left behind a pregnant wife, seven children and was never heard from again.

“We think he faked his own death, and started a new life,” says Caldwell over a pot of tea in Dublin. “As a novelist, you want to fill in the gaps about why he did it, where he went. Around the same time, I had a dream about a doctor who led a double life. At the time I wasn’t looking to write a new story but I would rip stories out of newspapers about secret lives and people kept telling me their own stories at literary festivals.”

All The Beggars Riding is told from the point of view of Lara, a woman whose surgeon father died when she was young. Lara's life is in London, but she discovers her father had another family in Belfast. It examines the horror of separate families who share a father and husband, with many dualities to the story. "I'm fascinated by the extent to which you can ever really know someone and as a writer, you are, in a way, leading a double life, because you spend far more time with your characters than with your own family."

Born in Belfast in 1981, Caldwell has lived in London for seven years (after studying at Cambridge), and is married to an Englishman. As in the story, her life is connected to both cities, something she's more at ease with now, and she returns to Belfast every month. "I go back so that I can have that connection. My writing seems to come from Belfast and be inspired by it. It seems to exist in the dynamic between the two places."

Living lives in meeting points
Her father is Irish and Catholic, her mother English and Protestant, and because of her hard-to-place accent, Caldwell often felt like an outsider growing up, and is frequently asked where she's from.

"In the same way, I'm a novelist and a playwright, I'm an Irish writer and a Northern Irish writer – I'm not interested in either/or. I'm interested in plurality. We don't live in our lives in opposites or black and white, we live our lives in the meeting points . . . where things come together. Reading Irish writers while writing my own work made me realise that I was actually in that canon."

As well as the benchmark writers who informed her work ("Elizabeth Bowen, Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha , Brian Friel"), Caldwell is effusive about her contemporaries, such as Belinda McKeon, Kevin Barry and Keith Ridgway.

“When you’re writing, you are just a writer – all the other concerns come afterwards, whether you’re Irish, female . . . but I do feel conscious that there are fewer female literary writers. I wish I had met younger women writers when I was starting out, which is why I love doing workshops with teenagers.”

Caldwell got a creative writing Masters from Goldsmith’s, teaches regularly, and is irked when writing courses are accused of hothousing writers: “No one expects a would-be pianist to sit in a garret and just start playing Rachmaninov . . . you learn scales first.”

This year she was invited to teach teenage girls in Erbil, Iraq, who would mob her afterwards. “They didn’t know women who wrote about love, or suicide or mothers. Their stories were about teachers or strict parents or sci-fi – they weren’t writing about what was happening in Iraq.

“I told them to write whatever stories they want, because they have no obligation to write anything else. When you’re living in an historical time and place, that grand narrative can take the oxygen of other, ‘smaller’ stories, but it’s important for those stories to be told, too.

“It also struck a chord because I remembered friends of my mother’s who refused to visit us in Belfast because they thought it was all bombs and guns. So it felt like there was a moral obligation to go to Iraq, because people there need you more than people at a festival in Hay or Edinburgh.”

All The Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell is published by Faber & Faber