On Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell: how 11 stories became a collection

Multitudes is about relationships and empathy. We live the narrators’ singular experience but there are profound comments on family, romantic and societal entanglements

Joe Thomas on Lucy Caldwell: At a pure, sentence level, it is hard not to admire Lucy’s writing; her great skill is, I think, an ability to distill intense human experience into a single line, phrase, word even.  She combines urgent, taut imagery with distance and intimacy, control with a form of questing experimentation. Photograph: Russell Pritchard / Presseye

Joe Thomas on Lucy Caldwell: At a pure, sentence level, it is hard not to admire Lucy’s writing; her great skill is, I think, an ability to distill intense human experience into a single line, phrase, word even. She combines urgent, taut imagery with distance and intimacy, control with a form of questing experimentation. Photograph: Russell Pritchard / Presseye

 

We make a funny little writing group, Lucy, me and William, Lucy’s two-year-old son, as we chase pigeons around Spitalfields market and talk about books. But a writing group, of sorts, is what we’ve become. I first read drafts of the stories in Multitudes three years ago now. I’ve watched, as this group of stories became a collection. And the process posed an interesting question: what is the difference between a group of stories and a collection?

At a pure, sentence level, it is hard not to admire Lucy’s writing; her great skill is, I think, an ability to distill intense human experience into a single line, phrase, word even. In Here We Are, a key line cascades to its final “we”, capturing the story’s star-crossed essence in a syllable: “All love stories are the same story: the moment that, that moment when, the moment we.” She combines urgent, taut imagery with distance and intimacy, control with a form of questing experimentation. In Thirteen, another moment of realisation, of hope, in a troubled romance is articulated by the “perfect…long, slow, pull of a kiss”. Reading the early drafts, it was this that stood out: that she communicates in her work a fragile and yet robust sensibility. At the most affecting moments, her work feels like a meditation on writing itself; longer sentences are threaded almost to breaking point, and then settle, recover, just as her characters do too. In the title story, a newborn child lies desperately ill in hospital, and his parents understand that “Words don’t fail us. The problem is the opposite: there are too many words.” They determine to “master this language, and in doing so…wrest back control”.

I read these early drafts as a reader, and if that sounds disingenuous, I mean to say that as I read them, I thought about how my experience as a reader might be improved. Often, this involved questions of structure and tense. And it was while addressing these questions across the 11 stories that Multitudes, I think, became the collection it is. Looking back over emails exchanged and notes made, I see that we’ve discussed everything from the use of first and second person – a key motif of the collection – to whether or not a character would listen to The Levellers (not, I insisted), to the use of Belfast slang (“Pointy-head on you!” a phrase I’d never come across before, and one I wish I could steal). One thing pops up again and again: that the stories deal with social issues, the multitudes of ways to live, and yet the reader never feels that the stories are in thrall to these issues, they are never shoehorned in, the stories never didactic. I feel that Multitudes is a collection about relationships and empathy. We live the singular experience of the narrators, but within a wider context of understanding: there are profound and fundamental comments on familial, romantic, and societal entanglements. It was – it felt, to me – that as Lucy defined the broader shape of the individual stories, the collection became a unified work.

I read the stories as a reader, but I benefitted as a writer. There may not be too many obvious comparisons to be made between Multitudes and my own dirty, Ellroy-lite, São Paulo-based crime novels, but interrogating the mechanics of storytelling in Lucy’s work was an invaluable part of my own development. (And, of course, having her as a first reader.) Perhaps the most useful point of comparison is in the depiction of place; while Lucy writes of Belfast from the remove of London, I write about Brazil – where I lived for almost 10 years – but at a similar remove. The idea of being both insider and outsider, of displacement, was a keen point of discussion in our little writing group, and is a pertinent theme of Multitudes. In Chasing, a young woman returns to Belfast after a difficult experience in London and tells us, simply: “I got vague back home.” The stories document the relief and joy of connecting with someone – however briefly – on fundamental issues of character: the ideas of home and family.

The first question I ask friends who’ve read the book is: what did you think of the order? I remember discussing this with Lucy, thinking of it like an album – Side One, Track One, and so on – though I realised during these playful discussions, that the point is the 11 stories work as a unit, as a collection, and the running order would inevitably find itself, which it has. Reaching this final stage was what I witnessed when reading the drafts in their various forms.

When I got a finished copy, the first thing I read was the one thing I hadn’t read before, the dedication:

For William

and everything that brought you, us, here, now

It struck me that this is as beautiful a piece of writing as any in the book, and, in its way, a short story itself, worthy of the 11 that follow it.

Joe Thomas teaches English literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. His first novel, Paradise City, will be published by Arcadia next February

Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber, £12.99), this month’s Irish Times Book Club selection, which we shall be exploring in a series of articles and essays. The series will culminate in a live event, a public reading by the author and an interview by Laura Slattery at the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, September 15th, at 7pm, which will recorded and released as a podcast on September 30th

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