‘Everything you write requires a portion of your soul, I think, to make it live’

Lucy Caldwell, whose collection Multitudes was published yesterday, opens up about it and her adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters to fellow Belfast writer Paul McVeigh

Were you always going to be a writer?

It seems so – I wrote my first “novel”, “the robin’s party”, when I was 4½. My Mum says that before I could even write I would ask her to fold pages up to look like books, and tell her what words I wanted in them. I made a programme recently about the Brontë siblings – who were half-Irish, as people often forget – and was digging around in my parents’ attic in search of my own “juvenilia” (not to glorify it with such a word!) and I found boxes and boxes of the “books” and “magazines” I used to make for my sisters, thick chronicles of our imaginary worlds and the genealogies of their inhabitants.

Like the Brontë siblings, my sisters and I made up fantasy worlds as soon as we could read and write. The Brontës started with Branwell’s wooden soldiers; we had Lego people, whose stories we chronicled for generations, and years on end, sending them to die on the wagon trail, or to brave ghettos in a world we called “Braxton”.

I didn’t want to grow up: wanted to stay in those worlds and our childhood forever; and leaving it, when I had turned 12 or 13 and it had started to feel a shameful secret, was one of the most painful times of my life. I understand, deeply and instinctively, what the adult Charlotte felt when, deeply unhappy in Brussels, she wrote to Branwell that at night she retreated “as fanatically as ever to the old ideas the old faces & the old scenes in the world below”.


When I teach creative writing classes for beginners there are always participants who talk of how intensely and joyfully creative they were as children, how somehow it was quashed out of them, and how they’re trying to reconnect with that imagination, that sense of possibility.

You know the words by Brian Friel inscribed onto a wall of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast? “This is your playhouse. Come play with us here.” When something I’m writing is going badly, or not going at all, and I’m in agonies over it, I try to remember that – the joy and lightness of play, of the way children play. We all know how to do it, even if we forget. Doing it, that place that writing comes from, feels like home for me.

You were casting with the Lyric last week for your reworking of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. It’s a project that’s important to you.

Yes! I’m thrilled it’s finally happening – and it had to be the Lyric, it couldn’t be anywhere else. Three Sisters has long been my favourite play – I’ve seen countless productions and adaptations of it, including two in Russian – and I’ve talked about doing my own version for years. I always thought I’d go to Russia first, learn a bit of the language, visit Yalta and – I don’t know, pour a libation of vodka on the ground and seek the blessing of the spirit of Chekhov. I saw Benedict Andrews’ version at the Young Vic in 2012, and it really was extraordinary, it illuminated so much of the play in so many ways, and it was faithful to the original and yet entirely his own, and I thought, I have to do this.

Then I was pregnant, and not going anywhere any time soon. But just after my son was born, he hovered between life and death for some weeks, and that… How can I put this, it cracked me open. I came out of that experience and thought: what am I waiting for? What am I scared of? All of my daydreams about going to Russia – maybe they were fear, that I couldn’t do it, that I wouldn’t be good enough – maybe part of me never even wanted to make it to Moscow. So I thought fuck it. And I did it. And it came pretty quickly, one of those rare times when you seem to hit a seam and you can think at the speed of light, and your instincts are true and everything makes perfect sense.

I realised, of course, that what I’d been scared of was writing about was my teens and early twenties – my secret, most shameful hopes and fears, all the longing, and oh the loneliness. Because that’s what Three Sisters is to me: the intensity of yearning and the crippling despair, the bleakness and sudden flashes of hope. There’s a raw, restless, punky energy and edgy black comedy to the play that’s often stifled or muffled when it’s presented as a lightly melancholic, polite drawing-room drama.

I was talking to a Russian scholar recently and he said that Chekhov is very tricky to translate into English, because there’s a degree of openness and sincerity in, say, a Russian toast – “I love you and esteem you highly, you’re my best friend and I value our friendship” – that sounds implausible and ridiculous in English. Aha, I said, but it works in Belfast English – I fucken love you, mate, you’re sound as a pound. So my version is set in 1990s Belfast, against the background of the unstable ceasefires and the gradual decommissioning of the troops, the uncertain and unsettling times, the swirling social and political upheaval. And I hope it’ll bring a whole new Irish generation to Chekhov.

Like Chekhov, as well as a being playwright, you’re a short story writer. Can you tell us about your debut collection that’s out this week?

I love that you say, so casually, “like Chekhov…” Yes, my debut collection is just out; it’s called Multitudes, and it has 11 stories – which is a nod to Richard Yates’ Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a collection (and title) I love. They are all set in Belfast, or between Belfast and London, and they are all narrated by girls or young women. I read an interview with Elena Ferrante recently where she said that maybe the most radical, the most revolutionary, thing a woman writer can do is to write truthfully and unsentimentally about her own experience and I thought, yes! that’s what I was trying to do! That’s it exactly. I wanted to write about sisters, about the intense friendships girls have in their teens, about falling in love, about loneliness and belonging – and as well as that, I wanted to write a Belfast that isn’t often seen in fiction, a Belfast that you wouldn’t immediately or necessarily think of if you thought of the city in the ’80s and ’90s.

I first attempted the collection 11 years ago, just after I’d finished my first novel, and it became very clear very quickly that I just wasn’t good enough, didn’t have anywhere near the technique to pull even one of my ideas off, let alone the whole thing. It’s taken a decade of writing across lots of forms to have anywhere near the craft that stories and this collection demanded. Two or three of the stories have first drafts dating back 11 years – I would come back to them every year or couple of years to try yet again to make work, because I couldn’t quite let them go, even when I couldn’t do it.

You told me this collection has more of you in it than any of your previous work. Why do you think that is? Is it related to the short story form?

I found that the short story, as a form, demands a higher price of you – a greater degree or intensity of truthfulness. I needed to write a lot closer to the bone… whether that was using my own experiences, or those of people very close to me, or even putting more of myself in there. Everything you write requires a portion of your soul, I think, to make it live… and these stories took more of me, more out of me, than normal.

I wrote the title story, Multitudes, when my son was seven or eight weeks old, just after we’d come out of the intensive paediatric wards he’d been on for weeks. I wrote it in bursts on my iPhone at 3 or 4am, and I wrote it standing up at the kitchen counter, with him in a sling. It felt so utterly transgressive, and at the same time imperative, that I wrote the story like that – wrote it at all. That I somehow capture and contain what had happened to us, what we’d been through, and to make something of it. Later on I read Lucia Berlin’s brilliant collection of stories, A Manual For Cleaning Women, and as her son says in the introduction, they’re not autobiography, but “close enough for horseshoes”. I loved that thought.

You’ve written radio plays, stories from your new collection (The Belle Dress, Inextinguishable and Cyprus Avenue) have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and Escape Routes was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. What do you love about radio and what does a writer need to bear in mind when writing for the medium?

Well, if you’re writing specifically for the BBC Radio 4 short story slot, it needs to be 2,200 words, for a start! (Of course there’s leeway with something like the BBC National Short Story Award, where stories aren’t necessarily written for broadcast slots, and can run at their natural length, or be slightly edited down.) So that doesn’t give you many words to work with. You need to create the mood, character, world, almost instantaneously. Every word always has to count in a short story, but perhaps even more in radio, where you can’t skip back or read a sentence twice. So it has to be clear, too, but if you allow the listener to get too far ahead of you you’ll bore them and lose them. So that’s a challenge.

But the thing I love about radio is its intimacy. You are, literally, a voice in someone's ear. The way people listen to the radio, too – you often have it on for companionship, if you're alone in the house, or the car – and so that sense of relationship is already established, which is a gift. Have you ever come across this essay on the difference between confessing and confiding? Radio is set up so that characters can confide in the listener, which is a very powerful thing.

The theme of suicide comes up in couple of stories. What draws you to that subject matter?

Northern Ireland has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world, and no one quite knows why, or what to do about it. People often don’t even know how to talk about it. But that’s where fiction can do something; it can go into the darkest corners of the psyche and bring back from there something true, or hidden, or otherwise inexpressible.

In Killing Time, I wanted to write about it in an unsensational way – the last thing I wanted to do was to glamourise it, or to be mawkish about it. And so I wrote about a young girl who takes an overdose but it doesn’t work and she never tells anyone, so no one ever knows. There’s something that echoed in my head as I was writing that story, the notion that the hardest battles we ever fight are fought deep in the secret chambers of our heart, and no one ever knows we’re fighting them.

I have been involved, since I wrote my first play, Leaves, with the Niamh Louise Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness and prevent teen suicide, and so that should be a first port of call for anyone who wants more information about the subject or even just someone to talk to.

I’m planning a project about the suicide rate in Northern Ireland later this year and it got me thinking about the fact that I’ve lived away from Northern Ireland for over 20 years but my writing still goes there. I also feel a sort of national duty to talk about my “people”, subjects that are specific to us or that explore our experience. Do you think there’s such a thing as a Northern Irish writer? That our experience sets us apart from the “Irish writing” category, in voice and subject matter?

I'm so glad to hear that you're planning a project about suicide, too. It's something we really need to be talking about, we need to lose the stigma and shame around it. And writing has a role to play – we need to stop saying, for a start, "committed" suicide, as if it's a crime. Yes, I feel that too – that duty, or need, or maybe it's deeper than that, less conscious, that tug - to talk about Northern Irish things. My instinctive reaction to your question is that I definitely consider myself a Northern Irish writer. In the larger sense, Irish, but Northern Irish first and foremost. I remember a family friend of ours when I was growing up, she's a Catholic and she used to say she felt she had a lot more in common with Northern Protestants than with her relatives from down South. And hasn't Ulster, historically, always been seen as different that the other provinces? I think that a whole new generation is trying to negotiate what it means to be Northern Irish, neither quite British or Irish, or maybe Irish and British both. They've grown up entirely in peacetime and they're refusing to accept the tedious, destructive sense of duality – the "us and them" – that hinders all sorts of discourse in Northern Ireland. There was a great piece in this paper by Kylie Noble and an interesting response from Paul Breen.

I think writers from our part of the world have long questioned such things, even as they – we – have at times felt crippled by or resented them. And maybe we’re questioning them even more now, at a time when the country could change, could move on. What do you think?

I have always thought of myself as Irish but more and more, as I get older, I feel I am not Irish in the same way as the majority of those carrying the same passport as me. I think we are different in the North. Have we always been, in the historical way you mention? I don’t know if that explains all of it for those of my generation. Did The Troubles define us? In terms of working in the arts, while I was growing up, I felt as though I was in a vacuum. We were afraid to go into town, to theatres etc and for the same reason few artists visited, so there was a dearth of cultural activity and engagement. This had an impact as well as the traumatic violence and human rights issues etc. So I think any artist that was evolving during that period has to have been shaped, if not by what they experienced in terms of The Troubles then by what experiences they were denied. Do you felt a difference, as a writer, being from the North – in your “voice”, your writer’s identity?

I definitely felt the burden, with my first novel, to “address the Troubles”, even as I wanted to foreground other stories. You and I did a similar thing with our first novels – using a child’s point of view to bring a fresh perspective to the story. And yours was so funny – you talk about voice, and that is definitely a Northern Irish characteristic, the mordant, scabrous, black humour. You see it in something like Frances Molloy’s No Mate for the Magpie – your book reminded me of hers, too, there’s definitely a kinship.

But I read, say, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett, Sara Baume, and I wonder – where are the Northern writers heady and playful with the joy of Northern language and rhythms? Where are the great contemporary novels making use of, say, Ulster Scots slang? Does much of the linguistic verve in Northern Ireland get channelled into poetry? You think about what sort of fiction is most successful here – it’s probably crime fiction, which is having a huge moment in Northern Irish writing, as if it’s a way of talking about the recent past and putting it right.

But I find it most interesting that many of the newer generation of writers and emerging writers I speak to seem drawn to things like magic realism – modes that allow them to break out of the confines of social realism and recent political history, approach things in a different way.

I think all of these questions of style, identity, politics, are being questioned – I think we’re at a really interesting moment. What I can’t wait for, and I hint at it in my story, Cyprus Avenue, are the stories that are going to come from immigrants and the children of immigrants to Northern Ireland. Chinese-Northern Irish, Polish Northern-Irish – that’s going to be a whole new breath of fresh air.

You talk about carrying an Irish passport – I grew up with a British passport and I applied for an Irish passport in England, as I was writing my first novel, and I did it with a sense of defiance: why should I be either/or, why can’t I be both? If I’m an evangelist for anything, it’s both/and rather than either/or. The richness and complexities of multiplicity. Or, as my favourite line from MacNeice has it, “the drunkenness of things being various”.

Multitudes was published by Faber & Faber yesterday and is reviewed in The Irish Times tomorrow by Young Skins author Colin Barrett. Lucy Caldwell’s modern retelling of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters will be staged at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from October 15th to November 19th.