‘An Openness, an Outwardness’

Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes and the Possibilities of Fiction

Susanne Stich

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May 2016 saw the launch of award-winning novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell’s debut short story collection Multitudes (Faber & Faber), which presents a fresh and powerful portrait of growing up female in 1990s Belfast. I recently caught up with her during the rehearsal process for her new adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters due to premiere at the Lyric Theatre this month, and which, like Multitudes, is set in early post-Troubles Belfast. The resulting interview covers a vast array of topics, including Caldwell’s meticulous approach to craft, her complex relationship with Northern Ireland, and the effects of reading others on her writing. 

Susanne StichMultitudes contains eleven stories and was written over eleven years, while, in parallel, you were working on plays, novels, and giving birth to your first child. The stories explore young female experience, ranging from childhood to new motherhood. Except for the last story, they are all set in your native city of Belfast.

In an interview with the BBC Arts Show you compared the collection to a Cubist portrait of growing up. Elsewhere, in conversation with fellow Belfast-born writer Paul McVeigh (The Irish Times, 6.5.2016), you point out how you find the short story in general to ‘demand a higher price of [the writer]’ than other forms. Perhaps we can begin by talking about what the short story did for you in the process of mining aspects of personal experience across an eleven-year time span.

Lucy Caldwell: When I was 23, in the eighteen-month hiatus between signing a book deal and my first novel being published, I wrote a collection of short stories. They were all narrated by or about girls or young women, and all set in the Belfast of my childhood and teenage years, or between Belfast and London. I saw the collection perfectly in my head before I started to write it – the shape of the whole thing, the different notes I’d strike, the themes and motifs that would weave through. But none of it worked. The collection was far less than the sum of its dismal parts. I had assumed, and I’m almost ashamed to admit this now, that writing short stories would be easier than writing a novel. In part because of their length, but also, although it’s harder to put this into words, because there is something inexorable, inevitable, about great short stories. A seamlessness. I put the collection aside, humbled – but I could never quite give up on the idea. Two of the stories in Multitudes, in fact, have their earliest incarnations in those first stories I tried to write: I just couldn’t let them go, and would come back to them every couple of years. I think it took that decade of writing – three novels, a novella, several stage plays and radio dramas, monologues, and all the rest of it, to have enough of the craft and skill to make a short story live. I often think of the lines from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Stillborn’ where she imagines the poems of hers that failed to live, as if they’re pickled in front of her in specimen jars: ‘They smile and smile and smile at me / And still the lungs won’t fill and the hearts won’t start.’ There is something taut, elusive, alchemical, about short stories. As well as working on the basic narrative level, they have to make sense on a symbolic plane: you’re controlling the surface tensions between those two things, which is very tricky.

Another thing happened to me in those 11 years: I started writing and publishing quite young, and when people would ask me what I possibly had to write about, I would feel bemused, because I’d always been fascinated by other people’s stories. By the fact that you could meet someone, live alongside them, fall in love with them, even, and still have no idea, necessarily, what their secrets and sorrows were, their loves and losses, what they were dealing with or hoping for or dreaming about. Those famous lines of Louis MacNeice’s, ‘the drunkenness of things being various’, or the lyrics of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’, ‘I could be in love with almost everyone / I think that people are the greatest fun’ – that’s what I felt, and still feel. It took a long time for me to realise that what I had known and done and lived was worthy of writing about. Perhaps, too, there was a guilt about having lived a relatively normal teenage life against the backdrop of the Troubles. People, from penpals to publishers, would – and at times still do – ask about the bombs you’d seen, the bereavements you’d suffered – and there was a sort of shame about not having a big story to tell when you were living in a time of such big stories. That’s the first time I’ve tried to put that into words. I notice only now, and I’m not going to edit it out, because it seems important, that I slipped from the first into the second person for those few lines, as a way of distancing, maybe, of apology.

And so those years it took between that first attempt and the published collection that is Multitudes were a gaining in confidence, on the technical side of things, but also in an artistic, and perhaps even moral sense, about the sort of stories I could tell, that mattered most for me to tell.

SS: I was struck by the laconic and pared down language in these stories. The narrative voice seems to create a contrast with the emotionally complex and frequently harrowing events. The opening sentence in ‘Killing Time’ presents a powerful example:

I try to kill myself on the first of March, a Sunday. I haven’t planned it. I somehow just find myself standing in the bathroom, my heart beating fast, watching the watery light through the rippled windowpanes, knowing I’m going to, and suddenly it all makes sense. (75)

Another opening, from ‘Thirteen’, sets the stage in similarly incisive fashion:

On the first of July, Susan Clarke and her family move to London to start a new life. They’ve had enough is what Susan’s mum says. She just can’t take it any more.

‘This country,’ she says to my mum.

‘This country,’ my mum says back to her, and neither of them says anything else. (11)

Tonally, Multitudes feels different from the more exploratory language in your novel All the Beggars Riding (2013), where the narrator is dubious of language as she attempts to reconstruct her dead parents’ complicated love story:

It’s harder to tell a story, though, than you’d think. As I said earlier, lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory: the mind doesn’t work like that. (8)

How do you approach finding the register of language for a new piece?

LC: I just had to Google what ‘laconic’ actually, technically means, because I wasn’t sure that I agreed with it as a description – of my intentions, at least. To me the word has an aura of remoteness, even to the point of rudeness. But I see that a subtler definition encompasses a terseness, an incisiveness, a succinctness, and that is certainly right – these stories, or their narrators, don’t have the emotional capacity for baroque flourishes. The pressure-cookers of their lives and the stories they have to tell mean that they’re just about holding themselves together enough to get the words out. They can’t afford to let go, and everything but the essential is pared away. The narrator’s world in ‘Killing Time’ is so closed down, she is so terrified, there is no room for reflection, or indulgence. That sort of narration was also an ethical choice, with that story especially: I didn’t want to dramatise, to milk for dramatic potential, or seem to write with a sort of ghoulish, lingering fascination about the subject of teen suicide. So finding the right register of language is a question of finding what is most appropriate for that particular narrator, their particular story, and the mode of telling. Being in control of form: that is key, no matter what you are writing. Right down to the syntax, the grammar of it. All the Beggars Riding was about storytelling, about the forces that define and shape us, and what it means to try to take control of your own destiny by, literally, rewriting the story – and so the language needed to be tentative, circular, dubious, until it finally started gaining in power and colour and confidence. Style, for me, is a function of character and narrative expedience. I am uncomfortable writing in the third person past tense – in any mode which seems to require me, Lucy Caldwell, to comment on things, to be present in the telling of the story, rather than ventriloquizing, dispersing myself in characters and their various subjectivities. I always edit savagely, too, from the messy, indulgent, meandering splurge of first drafts, stripping a story down to what seems essential – and this is more evident with a short story than a novel, so maybe that’s a factor, too, though a less interesting one.

SS: On a related note, regarding narrative perspective, out of eleven stories four are written in the second person singular, which is sometimes dismissed as too difficult for keeping the reader engaged. In these stories, however, I thought you achieved quite the opposite, creating an intriguing dynamic for the reader to hook into:

The big ship sails on the Ally Ally O, your youngest sister is singing … Al-ly ally o, she belts out each time she gets to the chorus… You want to shout at her to shut up. You put your thumb over your right ear and lean your forehead against the window so you can concentrate. (The Ally Ally O, 1)

The rest of the stories are all written in the first person. For me, considering their content, these two perspectives further amplify how your characters are knee-deep in trying to get to know themselves. Does this resonate with you?

LC: I fought against the second person so much! Two of my favourite short stories – David Foster Wallace’s ‘Forever Overhead’ and Lorrie Moore’s ‘How To Be An Other Woman’ are written in the second person. But done badly  – and there are so many poor imitations of, say, the brilliant and inimitable Lorrie Moore – it is excruciating. As a reader you feel yourself bristling against its coercion. When a story tells me, ‘You are fifteen and this summer is the best of your life,’ or whatever, I instinctively and petulantly think, No I’m not, and I feel bolshy at the presumed, unearned degree of relationship. Which is ridiculous, of course, because with everything you read you’re entering into an imaginative contract of sorts. But somehow all of that grates far more in the second person if you get it wrong. But when it works – if you somehow manage not to be haranguing the reader – the second person opens up layers of sadness, or tenderness, or loneliness, or longing, in really subtle and interesting ways. The difference between how you’ve turned out and who you thought you’d be, that’s how Jay McInerney uses it in Bright Lights, Big City, and that’s often how I used it; or the sense of an older self talking back to a younger self; or the sense of being overseen, or somehow not entirely alone. So the reader is not being directly addressed as ‘you’ but is an eavesdropper, party to something secret, intimate, intensely sad, maybe otherwise inarticulable by the character. For me, the second person is an even more intimate version of the first person, which sounds a contradiction in terms, I know, but that’s how it feels when I’m writing it. It slows the tempo, somehow, allows for a sort of tenderness to creep in, which is otherwise not possible.

SS: Belfast looms large in Multitudes. As in Jan Carson’s recent collection Children’s Children there is little direct reference to the Troubles. Their long-term impact, however, is just as palpable. Zooming in on layers of interiority, you highlight the imprints of a violent past on a generation that did not experience it first-hand. You don’t depict your characters as victims, though, but as agents in their own right. In ‘Thirteen’, for instance, when her best friend moves away to London, the thirteen-year old narrator embarks on a rapid and disturbing initiation into adolescence which culminates in an unsettling sexual encounter.

In the previously mentioned ‘Ally Ally O’ the child narrator is obsessed with a book called The World’s Greatest Disasters!

On the blank pages at the end you’ve made a secret list of world disasters that have happened since the book was published. Only the very worst ones make it in there, the ones where hundreds of people die at a time, where whole cities are wiped out in one fell swoop, whole swathes of the world destroyed forever. (6)

The book becomes a tool in the girl’s attempt to penetrate Belfast’s elusive geography in the late 80s, a city with ‘places you never ever go, not on purpose and not even by accident. One wrong turn, one wrong consonant; that’s all it takes.’ (8) 

In the story ‘Cyprus Avenue’ a young woman who has long lived in London arrives at Belfast airport for the Christmas holidays. Here, frustration with Northern Ireland is paired with a genuine and complex connection to the place:

When you walk down the shabby carpet whose Welcome to Belfast messages woven in four or five languages have always seemed tired and grudging, or ironic, Nirupam will proclaim in a ridiculous accent, Willkommen in Belfast!, and it will seem as if there’s never been a better joke, and the two of you will laugh until you find yourself crying. (151)

How did you go about writing Northern Ireland into Multitudes?

LC: 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. And it wasn’t just an artistic but a moral imperative to write the city as truthfully as possible.  I wanted to assert the right of other stories to exist: if you grow up in a place like Northern Ireland during the Troubles, it can sometimes seem that only certain stories are worthy of being told. And of course it’s important to tell those stories, and continue to tell and retell them, and to question the ways they’re told – but it is important to tell other stories, too. Stories of children questioning their gender, of two girls falling in love – these are just as important as the ‘big’ stories, the stories that suck up all of the oxygen. Junot Díaz speaks very movingly about what it means to grow up without seeing fictional representations of yourself – he says it’s like growing up without sunlight, or mirrors. You grow warped and insecure, you lack confidence, you fail to know who you are or could become. The Northern Ireland I grew up in was very male-dominated – in All the Beggars Riding I have a line about ‘the harsh male voices, salty with ingrained distrust’. Male politicians, male religious leaders, male soldiers on the streets. And yet I am one of three sisters, went to all-girls’ schools – my personal experience was in direct contrast with the civic, political, public life and face of the country. 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 – I wanted to write what I knew, write the Belfast I knew, and I wanted to keep the Troubles at a remove, without ignoring the insidious, even if indirect, impact they had on the rhythms of daily life and the collective and individual psyche. It was a very tricky balance to get right, both in individual stories and across the collection. A whole new generation of writers – and you mention Jan Carson, who, both playfully and with great moral seriousness, uses what might be termed ‘magical realist’ modes of storytelling – are trying to find new ways of approaching and questioning and reconciling the recent and received past of Northern Ireland with what it means to grow up and live here. That is a very messy answer to a simple enough question. It’s something that matters to me a lot, preoccupies me, and I don’t have easy answers.

SS: As in Jan Carson’s work, questions of faith and religion further add to the Northern Irish feel of Multitudes. ‘Here We Are’ tells of a love affair between two schoolgirls. The narrator comes from a family of atheists, whereas her lover’s father, Mr Beattie, is a born-again Christian:

All that nonsense was just hocus-pocus, is what my dad liked saying. Once, when some Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our front door and asked if he’d found Jesus, my dad clapped his forehead and said, ‘I have indeed, down the back of the sofa, would you believe?’ My sister and I had thought it was the funniest thing ever.

‘St Mark’s Dundela,’ Mr Beattie said again. I started to panic then, trying to remember something, anything about it. But he didn’t ask any more. ‘C.S. Lewis’s church,’ was all he said, and I smiled and agreed. (111)

In ‘Escape Routes’ a young girl and her sensitive, male babysitter, who later goes missing, share a love of interactive video games and deep conversation.

Do you believe in it? he says. In God?

No, you say. I don’t know. Maybe. … Christopher is intrigued by this. He’s writing an essay, he tells you, on faith and whether it’s acquired or innate. He tells you of children raised by wolves, then found by humans; he talks about men painting with red clay and sticks on the walls of hidden caves. You don’t understand what he’s saying, but you listen, or pretend to, because you like Christopher, and he doesn’t normally talk so much. (68)

Do you think your interest in these questions is primarily connected to your hailing from Northern Ireland, or is it something you are drawn to regardless?

LC: I have always been fascinated by, if not outright envious of, faith, and of people who have religious faith. Maybe this is a consequence of growing up as a non-churchgoer in a fundamentally religious society, or maybe it’s something I would have had, regardless, it’s impossible to say. As a teenager I corresponded with a Buddhist monk for years, and I did Religious Studies up to A-level; I’ve attended Alpha courses, studied introductory Islam, worked through A Course in Miracles.  This often filters through into my fiction, sometimes directly – I explored evangelical Christianity outright in my second novel, The Meeting Point – and sometimes far more obliquely, as in the stories you quote, which are not just about religion but about how to find meaning, and how to live a meaningful life. You quote from ‘Escape Routes’ – it came from the inherent contradiction of creating – as you do, when you write a short story, or a novel, or a play – a world in which every single detail or symbol is chosen, important, integral to the meaning of the whole, and how this can relate to the world as it is experienced; how far this can ever be a truthful representation of the world. 

We were running Act 2 of my adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in rehearsals at the Lyric today, and it includes a speech by Masha that’s long been one of my favourite speeches in Chekhov, if not in theatre. Elizaveta Fen’s translation in the Penguin Classics version is my favourite, but I haven’t got that to hand, so here’s mine: ‘I think that we have to believe in something, or at least try to believe – otherwise life is pointless.  What’s the point of the starlings in the evening – the stars in the sky – of babies being born – if none of it matters? If everything is pointless, why bother with anything, why bother living?’ I think that’s what I think. At its simplest, it seems that the answer is love: to try to live openly, and respond to people and situations with love, rather than with fear. An openness, an outwardness, rather than a closed, defensive, shutting down. Maybe that’s what fiction is, or fleetingly can be.

SS: Despite their rootedness in Belfast, these stories also have strong universal appeal. Against a backdrop of domestic, middle class worlds and the everyday of school and family life, major metamorphoses are taking place. In ‘Chasing’ a former A* art student, alienated by the ruling standards of concept art at a London art college, returns home after a breakdown, and helps her sister with her GCSE art project around the theme of ‘self-contained’. In the process, a former babysitter is remembered, who ‘spray-painted her DMs purple once and then had to spray-paint them black because her boyfriend said he couldn’t stand the colour purple.’ (129)

Following the move of her best friend, the narrator in ‘Thirteen’ befriends another girl:

I do her make-up and she does mine. It feels weird, being this close to her, her breath warm and damp, reeking of Juicy Fruit and cheese and onion Tayto, her fingers on my face (…)

‘You’ve actually got quite big lips,’ she says, as she strokes the bud of the lipgloss across them.

‘Thanks,’ I say, not knowing what to say.

‘I didn’t say it was a good thing.’

I can’t think of anything to say to that. (19)

To me, such emotional and situational minutiae presents an interesting contrast with your novels, which seem to hinge more on plot and a picture of life as a whole. Do you yourself perceive a difference in focus between the two forms?

LC: I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of the short story as an epiphany, a moment of change, or things poised on the edge of change – this can be very powerful, but it doesn’t allow for stories – like those of Alice Munro’s, for example, that deftly take in the sweep of a whole life, or Dambudzo Marechera’s, attempting to encompass a whole country. But with this collection, I was trying to hone in on the tiny moments where lives can wobble, or be shaken off course, sent spiraling in a different direction altogether. The stories I’ve been writing most recently, post-Multitudes, have started to do something different: I have become interested in the idea of the short story as an incantation, a spell, for evoking or perhaps even invoking a mood, a place, a time; paring the plot down to the absolute minimum to allow for maximum emotion. And that’s something different yet again. But yes, form is key. You couldn’t sustain a novel at the pitch that a short story needs, or can rise to. It would be overwrought. A novel requires a different pace and tempo altogether. I think that short stories are misrepresented, done a disservice, even, when people say that they are perfect for our time-poor lives. A short story demands to be read in its entirety, in one sitting, and it doesn’t necessarily make itself easy for the reader. A novel, on the other hand – you can binge-read a few chapters, then put it down for a couple of days, re-read a passage to remind yourself where you left off, read a paragraph before bed, a couple more chapters on a commute or while your baby naps – it’s more forgiving.

That said, since starting to write and publish short stories, I find my writing as a whole changing and inclining more and more towards the taut, essential, and maybe it’s not so much to do with form as with the pressure on my working hours: now that I have a toddler, to whom I’m pretty much a full-time mum, my writing time is fiercely important and I can’t waste a second of it. I think this must be a factor, too.

SS‘Multitudes’, the final story in the collection, ties in with some of what you just said. More experimental than the rest, it tells of a young mother’s harrowing time in hospital with her seriously ill newborn.

Before we are born, we decide in advance the lives we are going to live, the events in them, the people, the choices. (…) I dream this in the light hot daze of one snatched nap, in the sweat of the faux-leather chair –bed and the stiff, faded cellular blankets, and for a few minutes when I wake it all makes sense and the ancient wisdom in my baby’s grave and luminous eyes is obvious, and I think, You’re here to teach me, too, and for a moment I even have a fleeting grasp of the lesson. (165)

Can you talk about the title ‘Multitudes’?

LC: You asked me earlier about faith, and I’d like to add to that: if I am an evangelist for anything, it is both/and, rather than either/or. So Multitudes as a title for the collection is not just a celebration but a defiant proclamation of ‘things being various’, to quote that MacNeice line again. I wrote that story in bursts, when my son was 7-8 weeks old – that seems incredible now, but I have the email with the date I sent it to my editor, to prove it. I wrote it on my iPhone at 4am, breastfeeding. I wrote it standing at the kitchen counter, with my baby sleeping in a sling. It felt utterly transgressive, to write something so closely autobiographical, and yet at the same time utterly necessary. It felt like writing for survival – to somehow contain and yet retain everything we’d gone through, as new parents with a gravely ill baby. There was the formal challenge, too, of how to replicate this experience. It felt wrong to write a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, because that assumes a clear trajectory through things, and as anyone who has had a loved one in intensive care, or a prolonged hospital stay will know, it’s sometimes not clear from one moment to the next what the outcome will be, and whether you have hours, weeks, months, or minutes left.  So the experimental form of it, these intense bursts, seemed to fit both the way it was composed, and the experience itself I was trying to evoke. I’d been working towards a collection for a while, but it didn’t yet have a title I was happy with – and as soon as I sent this story to my editor, he said, ‘That’s it’. It pulled everything else sharply into focus and gave the collection its arc, moving from childhood through adolescence and culminating in new motherhood.

SS: As in the writings of Belinda McKeon, who I interviewed earlier this year, there are many inter-textual references in your books. In Multitudes, amongst others, you mention Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Susan Sontag’s phrase ‘the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick’, and Keats’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. In all of these examples texts studied at school or college suddenly interweave with the characters’ lives in very concrete and unexpected ways. How have these types of influences shaped you as a writer?

LC: Any writer is a reader, first and foremost. We’re all built by stories, and everything that you write is somehow the product of everything you’ve read, in conversation with the things that you wish you’d written. I use such references as touchstones in my stories, or as echo chambers, to amplify and distort and comment obliquely on the worlds and situations of my characters. I studied both Keats and Arthur Miller when I was at school, and this is an important part of why I chose to refer to them in my stories, too: the things you read in your formative years, particularly if you have a good teacher to introduce you to them, or to open them up for you, become part of you, become woven into the very fabric of you. This, incidentally, is why it’s so important that we question the canon, make and read and teach anthologies like Sinéad Gleeson’s recent The Long Gaze Back and forthcoming The Glass Shore.

SS: You’ve already mentioned your adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters set in 1990s Belfast.In your conversation with Paul McVeigh you said that ‘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.’ This seems to tie in with so much of what Multitudes is about.

LCThree Sisters has long been my favourite play, the play I wish I’d written. I was introduced to it at university, by the playwright Chris Hannan, who patiently and meticulously unpacked it for me and let it shine. There, again, is the importance of good teachers…

I don’t tend to write multiple things at once, as it seems necessary to be fully in control of the form you’re working in: aware of its possibilities and limitations. My play-writing always suffers if I try to work on a play when I have a novel on the go, for example – it gets very static and speechy and expository. So I wasn’t writing the stories of Multitudes and my version of Three Sisters concurrently, but yet they do seem to me to come from the same psychic place, to belong to the same time. I have long had the instinct that Three Sisters would work transposed to 90s Belfast and maybe it’s no coincidence that I ended up finally writing it when Multitudes had opened those trapdoors, those wormholes, for me. Three Sisters, just like Multitudes, is set against the backdrop of my teenage years – it’s more overtly political, by necessity, but it is still largely about the intense and often unbearable yearning of growing up, the frustration and longing for the place or places where life is more truly happening, or where your true life awaits you. They definitely come from the same place, or from learning to access the places that most deeply matter to me.

SS: Last question: Any books that recently inspired you and why?

LC: Lucia Berlin’s collected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. I read them just after I’d written Multitudes, and it was a revelation to me: you can write like this! Some of her work is intensely autobiographical; her son, quoted by Lydia Davis in the introduction, says that ‘Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical but close enough for horseshoes.’ Her struggles with alcoholism make it in, the travails of her itinerant life – and yet these stories are fiercely witty, contained, intensely moving, never indulgent or sentimental. I loved too Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, loved it so much that I wrote an essay on it for The Stinging Fly. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. What all of these share, I suppose, is a vulnerability, an openness, an essential truthfulness – and yet they’re all formally contained, elegant, not relying on the shock of confessional splurge to make their mark.  And Frances Molloy’s story ‘The Devil’s Gift’ in The Glass Shore anthology took my breath away. I immediately wanted to turn it into a play; it dovetailed perfectly with a lot of things I’ve been exploring recently. Watch this space…

SS: Many thanks, Lucy, for giving this so much time and thought. It’s been amazing. Best of luck with Three Sisters and all your future writing.

Photo by  Eamonn Doyle: http://www.eamonndoyle.com