Interview with Lucy Caldwell, 2011 Dylan Thomas Prize Winner

A bold novelist takes the big bite - life and death, the metaphors within, identity and symbolism. Lucy Caldwell grew up in Northern Ireland, a fertile ground for all of that. She was not tribal, yet not entirely free from the intersection of death, once the signpost to the province.

Leave. Close the door on home. Drift to a new world and its possibilities. Here comes spontaneity, adventure, risk, and the one guarantee, transformation. Lucy Caldwell's novel, The Meeting Point, probes displacement when it comes up against discovery, discovery that a trusted partner can pick and choose lies, that the bite of temptation is deep, and that companionship meets at the most unlikely of intersections. Which way to go?

Travel to Bahrain. The Meeting Point tells the story of an Irish pastor and his wife and child entering the kingdom of the desert. Pursued by the breaking of their bonds with faith, with each other, new bonds coupled to the stubbornness of survival embodied in the Tree of Life, the 400-year-old tree that stand alone in the desert, roots deep to the source of life itself, water, 160 feet down. The locals consider the location to be that of the Garden of Eden.

A bold novelist takes the big bite - life and death, the metaphors within, identity and symbolism. Lucy Caldwell grew up in Northern Ireland, a fertile ground for all of that. She was not tribal, yet not entirely free from the intersection of death, once the signpost to the province.

Writing by email, she told me, "I grew up used to slipping between identities, personae. One parent English, and the other Irish, one Catholic, one Protestant. I always felt other. For a start, I never quite had the accent; always had the vowels and inflections of my Bristol-born mother. Growing up, I was frequently asked: Where are you from? And when I said, From here, people would say, No, but where are you really from? So I always had a sense of outsidership, of not quite belonging, of being two - sometimes conflicted - things at once. "

When I met Lucy Caldwell in San Francisco in October as part of the city's annual Litquake Festival, over a beer, I suggested that her writing was affected by the bloody history of Northern Ireland.

She reflects on our conversation, "We discussed this in the pub in San Francisco, and for a long time after I haven't been able to stop thinking about that phrase you used: 'a culture of death'. You said you saw it in my work, too: the child who dies in my first novel, the failed suicide in my second, the investigation into teen suicide in my first play, the teenager who's terminally ill in my most recent play...I was taken aback to think of it like that. It sounds so obvious, when you line it up like that but I was a bit lost for words, wasn't I!

"Yet I don't think of it like that. It makes my work, for a start, sound very dark and depressing. And always, when I'm writing about death, what I'm really writing about is life and how to live: how life goes on, because it always does, and that's what interests me most.

"You can probably, to an extent, trace this back to how and where and when I grew up. Even at the height of the Troubles, it was violin lessons, ballet lessons, ice-skating at the Dundonald Ice Bowl, birthday parties at JJ Bleeker's or Streamvale Open Farm... I had a pretty sheltered, middle-class childhood. My friends and I used to laugh when penpals asked, 'So how many bombs have you seen, how many terrorist attacks have you been involved in?'

"Some of my most vivid 'political' memories aren't of Belfast at all: they're of the images of the man climbing on the tanks in Tiananmen Square; Caron Keating talking about the Cambodian Killing Fields on Blue Peter. The ceasefires happened when I was 13, so although it would be disingenuous to pretend that after that everything was fine, it did mean that I had a pretty 'normal' adolescence, going into town shopping at the weekend, going to the cinema, going to pubs and clubs in a way that if I'd been even only five years older would not have been so possible. And yet at the same time there was a seam running through everyday life, that perhaps you're not aware of at the time, that perhaps you don't begin to think about until you grow up, or leave.

"The time, aged eight, when my mum and sisters and I were stuck in the top floor of a multi-storey car-park, and the army burst in, all swearing men and snarling dogs, because there was a bomb in the building and the exits had been sealed, but somehow cars had still been allowed up.

"The time a couple of years later when a girl in my primary school didn't come in one day, and we learned that her father had been murdered by the IRA because his firm supplied food to RUC canteens. The girl whose father was a judge, and who'd learned to check under a car before she got in, in case there was an explosive device attached. The times there'd be bomb threats phoned into school, and we had to line up on the hockey pitches while the sniffer dogs went in. The places you learned not to go, and the things you learned not to say. The realisation that a car can backfire, and you'll jump. The sense of a sort of violence being latent, tangible. The very black humour."

Caldwell is a successful playwright, her dramas performed to critical acclaim.

"My first play, Leaves, which was about the rate of teen suicide in Northern Ireland - which was, and remains, very high. I wondered if there was a link between the culture of violence in the very recent past and the suicide rates: as if self-harm and self-loathing and despair had somehow been imprinted on the psyche of the place. Most of all, I think, in my work, I'm never interested in the big events themselves but in their aftermaths, in causes and consequences, in how even the biggest political events are refracted and experienced through the intensely personal. Ordinary lives lived moment-to-moment, the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit, our capacity for forgiveness and redemption and hope."

Lucy Caldwell is the recipient of the 2011 Dylan Thomas Prize for The Meeting Point and the 2011 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Make some space on your bookshelf. Lucy Caldwell has more to give us at the intersection of choices.


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