Lucy Caldwell

Lucy Caldwell was shortlisted for her collection, Intimacies. She was born in Belfast in 1981. She is the author of three novels, several stage plays and radio dramas and two collections of short stories: Multitudes and Intimacies. She won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2021 for ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’, and she has also won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Canada and Europe) and the Edge Hill Readers’ Choice Award. Other awards include the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the George Devine Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize – for her novel The Meeting Point – and a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

For you, what is the most difficult aspect of writing?

The part when you’re not. The first time it happens is the most terrifying – you’ve finished something and you feel you’ll never write again.  It does come back again, and you develop the muscle memory to know that, but it somehow never gets easier.  Sometimes it lasts for weeks, or months – a couple of times, for me, it’s lasted well over a year.  If I’m not writing, I don’t feel fully alive.  I love that first tug of an idea – the sudden, unwarranted interest you feel in something otherwise quite random.  Quantum physics – mystical prayer – the history of Ulster Scots in county Antrim – techniques in Venetian glass-blowing – the ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ game traced back to Pepys – these are just some of the recent rabbit-holes currently evidenced on my desk.  I love the feeling of having a secret world inside – I love that most of all.  I love the rare moments when you hit a seam of gold – when the words just come and the hours vanish.  I love when the story pushes everything – to-do lists, emails, household tasks – helplessly aside, as if they were never important anyway. I love the first wild and reckless draft of something, where you’re writing to find out, to feel the shape of it. I love the technical aspect of subsequent drafts, honing, finessing, balancing. It’s hard when a story’s not going well, but there is a grim satisfaction in trying to make it work… And the first time you see your story published, in the world – the thrill never goes away.  The conversations, the unexpected connections with readers.  Each stage has its own rewards. But the wait for the next thing to surface, the dreary time over which you have no control – that is by far the most difficult part of all.

There is an assumption that the first story in a collection should be the strongest or the most accessible/entertaining, that it should act as a hook. What are your thoughts on this?   

I’m always so intrigued to see how other writers structure their collections. Sarah Hall – a writer I love – does this, bookending her collections with knock-out stories. But when I was putting my first collection together, I took my cue from Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island.  It begins with a slight – in terms of word count – and playful story called “Across the Rooftops”. It’s about an afterparty, and the build-up to a kiss which – in the brilliant and chilling phrase – “doesn’t take”. The story is about everything and nothing – it works perfectly as an amuse-bouche to the collection.  That’s what I’ve tried to do with my collections since – to open with something that sets a tone, or startles into attention, but leaves you somewhere to go, leaves space for a mysterious cumulative force to build towards the final stories.

Out of all the characters in your collection, which one would you like to spend more time with and why?

In the years I was writing the stories in Intimacies, I did a lot of travelling alone with babies or young toddlers – or both.  I breast-fed, co-slept – so it was impossible to leave them even just for a couple of nights, as I tried to take part in book events or literary festivals and keep my creative self alive.  By that logic, the helpful stranger in “All the People Were Mean and Bad” would never be unwelcome.

If you had to write a manifesto for writing short stories, what would be your first declaration?

A short story has almost nothing to do with a novel: don’t be deceived by the fact that they’re both prose forms.  A short story has much more in common with a poem or a play. For me, even more than either of those things, it is a spell: a series of rhythms, of images, to conjure a feeling, an emotion, an atmosphere…

In terms of description, how do you decide what to put in and what to leave out?

Description isn’t just a stage-manager talking us through the set – it’s atmosphere, pace, character, mood.  So it depends completely on the tone of the story – on its mood – on its narrator or protagonist and their state of mind – all of its own precise and mysterious demands.  I think I tend to be a taker-outer – I hone things right back to what feels essential.  But I also love Toni Morrison’s description of her process, where she talks about adding layers, colour, making things brighter, deeper, more textured, draft after draft.  Sometimes the slow work of an edit is just that, and my recent stories have been getting longer, more complex.  For me, more than anything, it’s a tonal thing – I listen and listen and see where it’s moving too fast, where it’s skimming over and needs to eddy and swirl, where we need silence, or where it’s stagnating, and I rework the rhythms accordingly. 

After finishing a story, how do you feel? Do you celebrate?

If I’m close to finishing the first draft of a story, I will probably be working right up past the moment when I should have left to collect the children from school – in which case I won’t be celebrating, but frantically grabbing football cards and snacks and inhaling a banana for my own missed-lunch as I leg it up the hill and try to ground myself – children sense and hate it when you’re more absorbed in another, imaginary world. Then there’ll be the first finished draft of a story, which may be a dozen drafts in, but which feels solid enough to send to one or two of the writer-friends who are my most trusted readers.  The draft that takes in their notes and thoughts – and the draft that I send to my long-term editor, Angus Cargill.  After his edits, when it really does begin to feel finished, I read it and read it and read it and read it – over and over, non-stop, obsessively, on my computer, on my phone, for as long as I can, reading for a word or a punctuation mark that I might yet change, but mostly reading it to feel how it works, reading it while I can – because soon it will begin to close over, and after it’s closed over, I’ll never be able to read it again.  I might have to approve copy-edits to it, I might be asked to talk about it, or to read aloud from it, but I’ll never again be its reader, and I’ll be inured to any magic it might ever have had.  So – weirdly – finishing a story often feels like a loss, rather than cause for celebration.  Or an occasion to apologise, yet again, to the partner who’s temporarily lost you to the story’s terminal velocity. It’s always far easier to celebrate with friends when they have finished a new story – and I am very good at that.

Actually, I tell a lie. I finished a short story the other week that had eluded me for years. Before sending it off to anyone, knowing, finally, that it was basically there, I went out and had a vegan sausage roll and a tin of fizzy wine on the beach.  Perfection.

You can read Lucy’s short story here: