I interviewed Lucy back in 2006, when her first novel was published.
Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in Woman’s Way 24th May 2006.
At 24, Lucy Caldwell has just published her first novel. She’s not the youngest novelist to have emerged in recent years, but she is, surely, one of the most talented. Because ‘where they were missed’ is not only a compulsive read; it’s meaningful, multi layered and beautifully structured too.
The writer Glenn Patterson described it as work of the highest order; unsettling, unflinching, but finally uplifting. ‘Here is a literary star in the making,’ he wrote.
Set with a background of the troubles, Lucy tells her tale in the voice of 6 year old Saoirse. Saoirse’s Dad is in the RUC, and her mum, a Catholic from Donegal finds living in a Protestant area of Belfast oppressive- and ultimately intolerable. And she turns to drink.
Lucy was born and brought up in Belfast. Her Dad was a protestant- but he was an architect, and her Catholic mum came from Cork parents, but was brought up in Bristol.
“My mum was not a raving alcoholic,” laughs Lucy. “But she did move from Bristol to Belfast at the height of the troubles because she met and married my dad.
“My three sisters and I were brought up in Belfast, but we didn’t have any religion. We were educated at a non denominational school in East Belfast; there were Catholic girls there but it was mainly protestant. My mum always tried to teach us that religion didn’t matter. And that is just a different way of seeing God.”
Lucy says that she made Saoirse six at the start of the novel for a good reason.
“In Catholic terms seven is the age of reason; the age at which you are responsible for your actions, and I wanted Saoirse to be just on the edge of reason; being able to see but not interpret fully. To apprehend but not comprehend.
“Because as children you have no idea of what is normal and what isn’t. I remember my friends and I used to think it was really funny when we were given pen pals in school. In their letters they would ask us how many bombs we had seen going off; and how many people we had seen shot; and life wasn’t like that at all.
“I was never directly affected by the troubles, and it’s only when you grow older that you get more and more conscious of the fact that the troubles were always there.”
Saoirse always felt an outsider; first in Belfast- then as a teenager in Donegal, and Lucy, too, has always felt ‘different.’ She talks with a more or less English accent.
“There were a couple of Lucy’s in my class at school, and I was sometimes called ‘English Lucy.’ But when I went to Cambridge University, and there were four Lucy’s in my year I was Irish Lucy. When my Irish friends met my college ones they could not believe it,” she says. “It was so funny.”
Lucy’s protestant friends share this sense of dislocation.
“When we were 12 or 13 they used to wear red white and blue scrunchies in their hair,” she says.
“Some of them regarded themselves as English, but when they went across to England they realised they have nothing in common with the English. Now, they want to regard themselves as Irish.”
Lucy has always written; has always told stories, but she began in earnest when she was at Cambridge studying English. She sat down to write a short story, and it wasn’t until the story stretched to 10,000 words, that she realised she was writing a novel.
And though the novel is based during the troubles, it is the family that fascinates Lucy.
“I wanted the troubles to be there as a backdrop, but I didn’t want to write a hackneyed account of love across the barricades. I wanted to show that the troubles change people’s behaviour; changes their place, and changes what they can and cannot do; and yet that life goes on.”
And she interweaves myths and stories into her tale, fascinated with the way these inform and reinforce people’s identify.
The novel took Lucy three years to write- because she had to fit it in to her busy schedule. First there were her finals to negotiate; then a Masters in London. And now she is a part time reader at The National Theatre.
The novel, though, wasn’t her only source of writing.
“I write plays too,” she says. “My first play won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago, and my first full length one is going to be directed by Garry Hynes of Druid. That is fun!”
Lucy has holidayed in Donegal- but to research the exact setting for the second half of her novel, she and her sister drove there for the day. They sat on the beach one freezing July afternoon whilst Lucy soaked up the atmosphere.
Her next book is set in Bahrain. But it wasn’t, initially, planned that way.
“I had an uncle and aunt living there, and we visited when I was 7 or 8- but now they live in Australia,” Lucy explains. “When I was thinking up the story I kept thinking about Bahrain. I hadn’t thought about it for years, but I kept asking questions, and realised I was becoming obsessive about it. And suddenly, one day, I thought, ‘oh my goodness! The novel wants to be set there.’
“A friend who works for the British Council contacted the office there, and some wonderful people met me and were so friendly. I meant to spend a week there, but ended up staying for four.”
Lucy writes in the East End London apartment she shares with her sister. But in Cambridge she wrote in an attic room.
“There was a sloping roof and a gas fire. I’d be writing the novel after I’d finished my essays and it was a private thing,” she says. “I never imagined people reading it. If I had I would have been paralysed with fear.
“I gave a couple of readings in Belfast before the book was published, and I was absolutely terrified. I could not sleep the night before because the thought of standing up in front of people and reading from the book is excruciating.”
Some of the women had been given the book beforehand, and she loved discussing her work with them.
“My best moment was when I was talking to a book club from East Belfast,” she says. “And a protestant loyalist woman asked me to pronounce some of the Irish.
“I stumbled through, embarrassed because I don’t speak it; some of my friends had told me the words; I know what they mean but my pronunciation is dreadful, so I had to apologise.
“She said some of the words sounded absolutely beautiful. It made her want to learn Irish. She said she had had no truck with the Irish language or Irish myths, but reading my book had made her think there were stories and a language she wanted to know.
“And I thought, ‘wow, that is brilliant.’ If my book doesn’t do anything else it has achieved something. That gave me such a lift.”
Where they were missed by Lucy Caldwell is published by Penguin at 10.99 stg.
Copywright. Sue Leonard. 2006