Multitudes is the first book of short stories from the prizewinning novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell. The collection is eleven stories strong and each of the stories seems to describe a character in peril so that holding one’s breath whilst reading them sometimes feels unavoidable. Caldwell agrees to meet me to discuss the stories and I worry that she might be quite earnest – few people write their first novels at 21, after all. My fears dissipate, however, when she suggests we talk over glasses of wine at a bar in Spitalfields.
The stories in this collection feel quite perilous, as though the characters are on the brink of something that could be dangerous and there is a sense of people waiting for their fate. I guess that’s what it’s like to be a teenage girl, when you lack agency, I suggest.
“Yes, and I desperately didn’t want to grow up, I was the eldest of three sisters and I wanted to stay playing Lego with my sisters. I was more than a year younger than the girls in my class, so when I was still a child of 12 there were girls in my class of 14 who were being proper teenagers, smoking and drinking, and I was so terrified of those things and having to grow up. I think growing up can be pretty scary for any young woman, but perhaps particularly against the backdrop of Belfast. Although I was 13 when the ceasefires happened so I had a relatively normal childhood, you realise that even if you’ve had a really sheltered or middle-class upbringing, something of that is still in the air.
“I’m really interested in the rates of teenage suicide in Northern Ireland, which are some of the highest in the world, and you wonder if it’s because there’s a history of violence or self-loathing or self-monitoring and of self-censoring, and even though the outward violence is no longer acceptable, the violence is somehow turned inwards, you wonder if the psyche of the country is somehow damaged. There’s a small thread of that in this collection. The narrator of ‘Killing Time’ attempts suicide and you find that out in the first line. I wanted to state the facts at the beginning and then look at the aftermath. Suicide is often glamorised and that’s why you get so many clusters of copycat suicides. I wanted to go as deeply as I could into that idea that sometimes the biggest battles we fight go deep into the inner chambers of our hearts or our souls and no one else would really know what we’re fighting or what’s going on.”
There’s also a character whose daughter dies but she never tells us how that happened. Why?
When I’m writing, it’s always the rhythms of the speech that I catch and I hear things rhythmically so that I know how that character talks, and I use the rhythms of the sentences to do a lot of the work for me.”
“It wasn’t true to the character. I started off thinking I knew how her daughter died, but as I was writing I realised that the character wasn’t even going to let me know that. The use of the first person, present tense narrative in fiction, people say a lot of derogatory things about it, but when I use it, it’s more akin to a dramatic monologue and I think that’s the playwright in me. I find it easy to ventriloquise and go into the character. When I’m writing, it’s always the rhythms of the speech that I catch and I hear things rhythmically so that I know how that character talks, and I use the rhythms of the sentences to do a lot of the work for me. When I’m writing and it’s going really well, I sublimate myself. You might be exploring a facet of yourself or a really deep or disguised part of yourself but I’m much more able to do that than write something in the third person past tense.”
I find that interesting, because in this collection there are narrators who are so obviously not you.
“Actually, Multitudes is my most personal collection. I wrote my first novel when I was 21 and everyone assumed it was autobiographical and it’s not at all. I had these really awkward conversations with my then publishers because they wanted to publicise it but I was missing something… and I realised, a younger sibling dies in the book and my publishers were giving me the opportunity to say it happened to me! I had totally made it up. People used to say to me, ‘What do you have to write about? You’re so young,’ but people are so endlessly fascinating. You meet someone or you fall in love with someone and you still have no idea necessarily what’s going on with them… I’ve always been fascinated by the degree to which you can never really know someone. My second novel is about a minister’s wife who is losing her faith and having a crisis of identity and her husband is completely oblivious. And my third novel is about a plastic surgeon who has two families. I researched a lot of stories of people who have led double lives when I was writing that and I was so fascinated by it.
“In some ways, Multitudes is the first time I’ve written about experiences of my own, or used those of people close to me or written very specifically about territory that is familiar to me from growing up. The turning point for me was the title story of the book which is very thinly disguised fiction: my son was really, really ill when he was born, in a much messier and more complicated way than that story suggests. I’ve never felt myself writing with such urgency. It was weird because you worry about the pram in the hallway and you worry that you’re not going to care in the same way.
“He was between seven and eight weeks old and I wrote it whilst carrying him in a sling, and on my iPhone whilst I was breastfeeding him. There was no distance but I had to somehow retain that experience and the rawness of it. Perhaps it was me fighting for my own survival as an artist after becoming a mother in such a traumatic way. Using my own life in that way felt really transgressive but also so necessary. After that, I read Lucia Berlin’s short stories, which are technically so brilliant. Her stories, as you learn in the introduction by Lydia Davis, are very much based on her life – she had a very bohemian life. She was an alcoholic, she fought alcoholism for decades, she had four sons by different men. And she used, sometimes very closely, things that had happened to her in her fiction and turned them into art. It seemed like it was a revelation, this was a new way of writing: that you could use your life. Maybe because of publishing very young, or maybe that it wasn’t interesting enough or that it would be betraying those close to you or maybe… I don’t know, but something changed.”
I don’t want to be offensive but I tell Caldwell that I felt knowing her baby really had been ill made me cautious about reading the story depicting it.
“‘Multitudes’ is the only story I’ll admit to being autobiographical because people are always trying to calibrate how autobiographical fiction is, and you start to get different hierarchies of meaning or value which detracts from the work.”
I ask if she heard the episode of Start the Week on Radio 4 where the historian Niall Fergusson had a row with the novelist Jane Smiley. Ferguson argued that non-fiction gets closer to the truth because it is based on research, whereas fiction is based on the writer’s imagination. Aside from the fact that her fiction is based on research, Smiley also pointed out that a novel can be complete in a way that history can’t – a novelist can know everything about the world of a novel whereas a historian can’t know everything about a period from history.
“Yes, and you have to be in control of form as well. Form was really important – when I was going through the experience, I didn’t know how long it would last, I didn’t know if I would have an hour left [with her baby] or another week or another month. I wanted to capture the intensity of it – having someone in intensive care or hospital is intense and also really boring! It would have been too smooth and too distant to write it as one seamless story.”
We talk about one of my favourite stories in the collection, ‘Poison’, which is about a young girl out to ensnare her teacher. It was written initially for a collection of crime fiction which Caldwell initially said no to writing for until she explored the nature of noir.
I’m interested in exploring aftermath. And I don’t want anything to be the defining trauma of a character’s life… especially in your teenage years where so many experiences are your first experiences.”
“I wanted to turn a lot of things on their head and thought how, for a teenager, falling in love with your teacher might be the most exciting thing that could happen, but ten years later, you would be absolutely horrified by that. I was thinking about power and agency and all sorts of things and the story sort of grew from that… I’m so drawn to writing about those teenage experiences because the ramifications can be disastrous and terrible.
“I’ve lived in Whitechapel for 13 years now and three girls who went to join Islamic State, who were bright ‘A’ Level students, were from my area. When I moved there I made friends with lots of the Bengali women in the street, they would invite me in for samosas and I would talk to them and you think, their children are London-born, are savvy, are top students, and yet once they do something like that, there’s no turning back, you’re in the adult world.”
This is an idea that is explored throughout the collection.
“Yes, I’m interested in exploring aftermath. And I don’t want anything to be the defining trauma of a character’s life… especially in your teenage years where so many experiences are your first experiences, it’s too easy for them to become blueprints of how things are in the future. In short stories, there’s always the temptation for there to be a big revelation, but maybe if there is the possibility of something, and that’s averted, that’s enough.”
Caldwell’s twitter handle is @beingvarious and it becomes clear why when she says:
“In Northern Ireland, when people meet you they are really keen to work out if you are Protestant or Catholic. I have a Catholic mother who’s English and my father is Protestant but people would assume my mum was wealthy and Protestant because she has an English accent, whereas in fact she’s from a working-class family. These assumptions people have about you were instilled in me from a very early age. People want to box you and understand you in limited terms. I’m always interested in breaking that. I’m interested in not being ‘either/or’ but being ‘both/and’.”
Lucy Caldwell was born in Belfast in 1982. She is the author of three novels and several stage plays and radio dramas. Awards include the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and the Dylan Thomas Prize. She was shortlisted for the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award for ‘Escape Routes’ and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Award (Canada & Europe) in 2014 with ‘Killing Time’, both of which are collected for the first time in Multitudes. As part of the Vivid Faces season at the Lyric Theatre Belfast, Caldwell has been commissioned to create a modern resetting of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which will have its world premiere at the Lyric in October 2016. Multitudes is published by Faber & Faber. Read more.
Author portrait © Tom Routh
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.