Darker Rooms

An interview with June Caldwell

Maeve Mulrennan

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June Caldwell has worked for many years as a journalist. Room Little Darker is her first collection of short stories, published in May of this year by New Island Books and is due to be published by Head of Zeus [UK] in January 2018. Her novel Little Town Moone will follow with John Murray in 2019. Her story SOMAT was published in the award-winning anthology The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and was chosen as a ‘favourite’ by The Sunday Times. She is a prizewinner of the Moth International Short Story Prize and has been shortlisted for many others, including the Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award, Lorian Hemingway Prize, and Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story Prize. Her fiction has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Moth, The Lonely Crowd and Winter Papers (2017). She has an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University Belfast, and lives in Dublin.

Room Little Darker has had an extremely positive reception in Ireland, with over a dozen ‘straight A’ reviews, making it to ‘Book of the Month’ in the renowned Rick O’Shea Book Club, as well as being reviewed in the UK press (The Guardian). People were first introduced to June’s short fiction through The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island in 2015, where her story SOMAT looked at the anomaly of current Irish legislation relating to abortion in circumstances where the mother’s life is in danger, from the perspective of a foetus. Because of ongoing lobbying for repealing the Eighth Amendment in the Irish Constitution, this work is political and timely. June adds that the format of fiction allows her, and the reader, to explore such issues in a way that journalism or fact-based writing couldn’t: “That year, 2014, a pregnant Texas woman suffered a brain trauma and she collapsed in her kitchen. She was pregnant with her third child.  She suffered ‘whole-brain death’ – there’s a difference between that and someone in a coma – everything shuts down. There was still a foetal heartbeat so she was ‘preserved’ even though she was clinically dead. With whole-brain death you’re rotting and the medical team have to basically flood you with somatic treatments to keep you alive. At the end of the year something similar happened to a woman from the Midlands, and because of similar legislation in Ireland this other woman was pumped with somatic treatments, kept alive as the doctors didn’t know what to do, what they could do. Her husband and family – you can only imagine how distressing it was – wanted her taken off life support, but the hospital’s hands were tied by complex and entangled laws. The baby was essentially unsustainable and unviable. She was kept like that for 8 weeks while the case was dragged through the courts. I wanted to write about the human incubator, laws that are supposed to protect you, turning an already horrific situation into a more intense Frankenstein drama. Savita Halappanavar died in 2012 due to septicemia after being denied a termination and an asylum seeker in Dublin force fed to keep her alive after she demanded an abortion following a brutal gang rape. The baby was cut out of her when it was cooked enough. Horrific and obscure scenarios but also horribly real and happening constantly, the type of issue completely relevant to women’s lives now, and that’s why I wanted to write it for The Long Gaze Back.”

According to June, only a few of the stories in Room Little Darker have no links to real events or experiences. This fact-fiction hybrid could be conceived as a kind of experimental memoir. “It wasn’t supposed to but it could be viewed as experimental life-writing. I had a tight enough deadline to write the book but I was also going through quite an ugly relationship break up. I found it very hard to write, I think I wrote two stories in the autumn (it was due in Spring), I was fairly crippled and came to a stand-still. It was a very toxic relationship and the ending was fraught with drama, trauma, infidelity, the works. I only really picked up the pen again in February and March, but with it came a lot of raw feeling, rage, pain. Ironically, I don’t think it’d be the same kind of book if it was written while living with a supportive loving partner. The opposite produced something maniacal and zany. April was put aside for editing and rewriting and by the end of May it was on the shelves in shops. So it was really bloody quick, the entire thing.” 

This timeline and admission that many of the stories were written in a rage could lead one to believe that the collection is inward looking and frantic. Embedded in the energetic fury however is an informed confidence with language and ideas. June’s story The Imp of the Perverse strongly relates to the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. She explains; “Poe’s original short story The Imp of the Perverse is about jumping towards our fears – we run and push ourselves over the edge and do what we’re not supposed to do – we annihilate ourselves because we can. I followed Poe’s idea with a story about a woman’s unhealthy obsession with a college tutor. Halfway through the woman’s state of mind completely disintegrates and the ending is deliberately anticlimactic. There is no resolution.”

The simultaneous coming into consciousness and devolution of the protagonist in Imp of the Perverse through animal metaphors brings to mind the French author Marie Darrieussecq’s 1996 novel Pig Tales, where the use of animal imagery to show the visual manifestation of social status, female agency and devolution. June unpacks the correlation between animalistic and human behaviours in relation to her work: “There’s huge pressure to repress the animal in you and not do what you want to do.  We are animals with a superiority complex that’s all we are – arrogant animals. We keep thinking we’re not animals – it’s hilarious. To borrow an animal for a story can really help go past human constraints, the ugly emotions too difficult to face. I use animals too in the Upcycle story. The woman in that story is traumatised by a quite brutal father. He’s haunting her and her mother from the confines of a nursing home. She starts seeing him as an animal: a lizard on the book shelves and a ferret at the end of her bed. Animal images help elucidare emotions that are out of control. It allows the author and reader to step outside of the box, to flaunt more primal instincts and ideas, to stop being a civilised gobshite. There is a constant pressure to conform, even in fiction.”

There are two stories in Room Little Darker, Boybot and The Implant, where technology is utilised to monitor and make judgements on human behaviour. June speaks about Boybot, a story where a paedophile is given a robot boy that at once satiates and provokes, allows and punishes. “It’s important to look at how technology is impacting on our lives and how much it is starting to control. I imagined a scenario where government agencies use technology to hone in on unacceptable behavior or deviancy. Afterwards I realised it’s already happening or being trialled in countries like Japan. I was interested in the blurring of public and private, how much are we owned through data monitoring, how much of ourselves we give away or is given away on our behalf (‘for our own good’). When it comes to so-called ‘undesirables’ we think it’s grand to do whatever with them, a kind of caste system for human rights. But eventually it’s coming down the line for all of us. In some US companies employees have electronic chips in their fingers, they get a Christmas bonus if they agree to have it implanted. From there everything is monitored, not just what happens inside work but what they’re bodies go through outside of work.” This willingness to connect and be intimate with technology interests June, as it is in inverse proportion to our intimacy and lack of connection with each other. It is difficult to behave, conform and still be honest.

Some readers and reviewers have said that June has pushed it too far in some cases. She says; “I was never trying to be deliberately disgusting or overly explicit. I was trying to impart extreme emotions alongside the situations we find ourselves in where we can’t and don’t cope. I was also living through some of the things I wanted to write about, that made for a very close and cloister phobic lens of life for a while. With this rage and pain I decided not to censor myself, just keep going, let rip and the editor can clean it up! But in fact Dan at New Island really liked what he read, he let it breathe its own fire. He only really hopped in when he was blatantly confused or didn’t like a certain ending, and so on, which was the best endorsement of all. His belief in the book, as I was writing it, was a huge positive. The changes he did suggest or insist upon made sense. In Boybot for instance, I was going to have the guy raping the robot as soon as he got him back to his flat, but in the end we both agreed to change the disturbing scene into an involuntary fantasy. The same information is kept: but the protagonist feels guilty about it and the reader can connect with him more because of it, maybe even empathise. I wanted to make him a ‘normal’ character because paedophiles are normal people unfortunately as well as hideous monsters.”

The second ‘technology story’ The Implant, addresses similar themes but was written from a personal perspective, June explains: “Implant is a very personal story because I had a contraceptive implant in me at the time of the relationship break-up. It made me very sick, becoming a metaphor in a way for the relationship itself, and in the end it had to be removed. In the story the implant is used as a device to report back to base on what’s happening with the couple. Nano technology is already doing this though it doesn’t yet apply to contraception. Even our food packaging in the fridge is reporting back information to the manufacturer. A lasagne that sends back to base how long it was in the fridge, if it was disposed of in a green recyclable or a black bin, and so on. You can see where all this ‘reporting’ is going, both for good and for bad. We live in very interesting but terrifying times where the concept of privacy is becoming a retro collectible like the gramophone.”

The story Leitrim Flip has, according to June, caused the most furore because it dealt with the world of kink. The writer was interested in different types of sex – not just the suburban housing estate weekend after the pub shag – but the kinds of sex that are kept hidden or considered more clandestine: “There’s always been kink but now of course the internet allows for a much more easily opened Pandora’s Box of delights,” she said. ‘I met and talked with people who enjoy playing a bit more dangerously and the idea came to me for a scenario that starts off straight forward but then takes a surprising turn. I wrote about rural Ireland in a new light. The story has definitely excited and appalled people the most - images of farmers coming down from their sheds in rubber gimp masks - I found it hilarious to imagine and write. There are alternative sexualities websites out there with over 40,000 Irish members, one of them sites 19,000 members in and around Dublin city centre interested in all manner of role-play and kink. In reality I’d say most of these situations work out perfectly and the people involved get to go home safe and satisfied, but that’s not the job of a fiction writer! I wanted to test the waters, write about how far people will go to get their jollies, what are they willing to risk, how dark can it get, what can go wrong? The other ‘sex’ story (but I would call both of these stories ‘relationship stories’), The Glens of Antrim looks back at a couple’s different experiences of their ‘alternative’ relationship, he’s fine about it all, thinks it was a bit of harmless fun, she feels more degraded by it or at least by her own choices through that time. Personally I find The Glens of Antrim more disturbing than Leitrim Flip as it feels more cringy and intimate to read about, but I’m glad it’s in there...bit of a wildcard story. I don’t want to write about sex so strangely again but I bet I will. I do fear getting branded as a ‘certain kind of writer’ –  and let’s face it, women aren’t really permitted to write about sex or violence or the rough sides of life without garnering a good bit of criticism. But it’s vital for any writer to push themselves, to push the boundaries of language and experience. And it’s also important to remind the reader that the writer and the fiction or the themes/topics are not the same thing or intricately linked. While I do write a lot about things I’ve seen or heard, my own life is a lot more boring and standard I’m afraid!”

June cites Miranda July, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Janice Galloway, Sean O’Reilly, David Hayden and Camilla Grudova as writers who are currently of interest to her. She says “There’s inspiration all over social media, the newspapers, television: a woman married a bridge recently and another woman in Brighton married herself after a string of failed relationships, I thought that was quite canny, if not genius. There’s so much barminess and hilarity out there to pluck from, but also a lot of bog-standard pain and annoyance. Boybot was inspired by the way George Saunders wrote The Tenth of December. I’m also inspired by the characters in Margaret Atwood’s and Angela Carter’s works; characters that throw themselves off the edge.”

As with the range of influences, the themes in the book are wide: as well as the Eighth Amendment and bodily autonomy there are also stories about homelessness, relationships breaking down, an alcoholic father, a talking tree and an angry taxi driver. “There were three stories that didn’t make it into the collection,” June adds, “I couldn’t get them right on time and I didn’t want to do them a disservice. The first and last stories in the collection are about family.”

Cadaverous Moves, the last story is structurally quite different to Upcycle, the first story, which June describes as “gothic”. The more conventional ‘ghost-story’ structure of the first guides the reader along a merry (or not so merry) path of different worlds and experiences, across ten stories, before dovetailing into another family perspective to close the collection. The arc of the composition is similar to Joyce’s Dubliners as it tracks the growth and demise of people dealing with the task of being paralysed by modern life. The title - Room Little Darker - is adapted from a line in an Angela Carter story. June says that although there is a lot of darkness it is balanced by humour. However, she admits that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. “One reader said it was a ‘violent, disgusting book’. Caldwell disagrees, saying that reality is often far more violent than anything flung down on paper, and the tragedy is that people accept a certain level of violence in real life but don’t want their lives sullied by it in fiction. As with Dubliners, Caldwell is interested in exploring inaction in modern life, the things that happen when we refuse to act or cannot act.

Inaction also has consequences, June says, “It can be a cancer, a slow rot, as long as you do nothing you’re doing no harm. There’s inaction in Upcycle – result of years of inaction on both parents parts. The Mother is stuck and the Father is still ruling the roost even when everything else has broken down.” To get out of paralysis there needs to be an epiphany, hitting rock bottom in order to have one small private moment of clarity. “Slow degeneration is hard to track and trace particularly if there is or once was real love there. Like a heroin addict you waste years, decades, chasing the original buzz or believing it’ll grace your heart with its presence again. The reality can be that people in love can fall further and further away from each other under the guise of closeness because they do something that is mistaken for action - get married, have a child, go on a holiday, while all that’s ahead is heartache and the various colourful ways of not facing that.”

June Caldwell has a busy year ahead, with Room Little Darker being published in the UK by Head of Zeus and a novel with John Murray the year after, the same novel that she was working on while completing her MA in Creative Writing at Queens’ University. It is loosely based on one of the missing women who disappeared in the 1990s, a woman preyed upon by a mad man, a woman who simply disappears into thick night air. With flips of perspective throughout June says that this novel will be more elegantly written than Room Little Darker but just as disturbing in parts. It is clear that Caldwell is proficient at playing with language, stretching it in a way that is at once grim, devastating and beautifully poetic. Language as well as voice is extremely important to her and is something she is developing further in new work. As for the continuing success of Room Little Darker, June says; “I didn’t expect it to work out as well as this. I thought it would be an embarrassing start and then I could put the head down and get on with writing the next one. So far it’s had 15 good or ‘rave’ reviews, which I find astonishing. It seems to have hit a nerve – all that stuff we’re not supposed to really talk about. I feel like I’ve gotten away with something!”