Everything in Lucy Caldwell's life seems to be happening in a two-week window. Her fifth play Notes to a Future Self has just opened at the Birmingham Rep, while Theâtre des Lucioles' production of Leaves meant a whistle-stop trip across the channel to Paris and back. But for a day she is in London, bright and delightedly fielding questions about her newly-published second novel The Meeting Point.
Opening with reminiscences of a County Down wedding and life rooted in a Strangford dairy farm, the book follows young missionary couple Ruth and Euan Armstrong to Bahrain, where Euan has apparently accepted a position within a small Christian parish. Ruth, with toddler Anna, anticipates a family adventure in an exotic city and excitedly flies to the Gulf, all the while trying to ignore 'the raw-penny taste of fear'.
Caldwell writes Bahrain as finely as the Northern Irish countryside, observing the city's souks and skyscrapers in as much detail as the seasonal milking in Strangford. Ruth's farmholding father separates from the herd 'those due to calve in the next four weeks, and will cease to milk them so their milk can thicken'. You feel the writing can only have come from years of immersion in rural life.
'But I'm a city girl,' says Caldwell, explaining that her experience of agriculture comes not from Strangford but from time spent on a university friend's Norfolk beef farm. 'I asked a lot of questions. And farmers in Strangford keep some very useful blogs!'
Discounting a childhood holiday, Caldwell's experience of Bahrain extends, surprisingly, to only two weeks. 'Everyone assumes I spent a long time in Bahrain too,' she says. 'And it's the same with religion. I don't go to church, aside for the times to do with the novel. I suppose it shows that if I'm doing my job properly, everything seems plausible.'
In Bahrain, Ruth discovers that the not-very-Reverend Euan has brought the family to the Gulf as part of an undisclosed and illegal mission to smuggle Bibles into Saudi Arabia. He spends less time with Ruth and Anna and more with a zealous Christian cell, convinced he’s on a divine mission to 'bring the word of god to those who are dying of thirst for it.'
Left with little more than time to waste in a well-appointed gated compound, Ruth's affections stray to a young Bahraini named Farid. Little Anna, in the meantime, finds a willing au pair in the shape of Anglo-Iraqi teenager Noor, a troubled girl who expects too much from Ruth's seemingly idyllic family. Caldwell was, she says, horrified when she first felt drawn to writing a book about a minister's wife and a crisis of faith.
'How on earth do you write about a woman who is losing a faith she's never questioned?' she says. 'Even having the sheer familiarity with scripture that Ruth has.' For the religious instruction, Caldwell points to an inspiring teacher at Strathearn, who made questions of faith very accessible. Useful too was time spent on the Alpha Course, an evangelical Anglican organisation advertising with leaflets saying 'There has to be more to life than this', and 'The meaning of life is _________.'
'The Alpha Course is very much based in CS Lewis' writings about religion,' says Caldwell. 'It's something that Euan in The Meeting Point would very much approve of. Lewis has no time for the woolly liberal stance saying that Jesus is a just a good prophet, or a good man. You either have to believe it wholesale or not at all – that's basically the approach to Christianity that an Alpha Course takes. It doesn't involve any really difficult theology. It's designed as a way of bringing people – professionals, young people – back into the church.
'I was very upfront, explaining that I was a novelist researching a book. But at the same time if you're writing a novel, for it to be emotionally true, you need to put something of yourself at stake and explore things open-mindedly. I didn't stay for the whole course. I just felt that I didn't believe what they were selling or offering. At the same time I was studying Islam and doing a lot of reading about faith in general. Alpha was just too... proscriptive. I just don't see how it's possible to say “we are right and everyone else is wrong”. I just can't surmount that hurdle.'
Following her weeks in Bahrain Caldwell continued studying Islam in east London, touring mosques, asking questions. 'Back in England I lived close to the Whitechapel mosque,' she says. 'I could hear the muezzin's call from my study.' She found that people opened up, which she explains by way of not going in with any particular ideology or angle. 'People do tell you things. Then, over the drafts of the novel and in the years as a writer you go over what you have, embroidering and layering it to make it seem real.'
Because the The Meeting Point is set over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Caldwell needed to know exactly what happened and how it affected people. It's a feat she achieves deftly, including even text messages sent at the time. She spoke at length with editors at both Al Jazeera and the BBC, who supplied DVD footage of the first news broadcasts.
In the midst of chaos she perfectly imagines the antsy adolescent Noor, a costive teen removed from England following a school tragedy. Stuck in the same gated compound, Noor scuttles around, smoking her absent father's cigarettes, watching the neighbours, longing to escape.
'I've never smoked,' says Caldwell, laughing, mock-appalled. 'But it's an easy way to signal rebellion. And Noor's father absolutely would have smoked: in Bahrain most of the Arabic men smoke a lot. Shisha pipes, strong cigarettes and all the rest of it.'
While in Bahrain, Caldwell felt no intimation of the unrest currently unfolding in the news. But by keeping in touch with many people she met, she hears how the news media frequently misreports on actions in the Arab world.
'A friend recently said that he and a lot of others were on a pro-government protest. Later, they saw themselves on the news reported as an anti-government protest. So I think things are more complicated there than we know. It's not straightforward. Bahrain has always been one of the more liberal places in the Middle East – but who knows how much of that is a veneer?'
The Meeting Point arrives six years after Caldwell’s debut novel Where They Were Missed, and only after a complete version was abandoned and rewritten. Caldwell felt the first tugs of literary enterprise in high school, writing an alternative ending to Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon. But if she began by nipping at Johnston's heels, Caldwell is quickly coming heir apparent to Edna O'Brien, a writer who also has five plays behind her, and, as of her 80th birthday, 21 published works of fiction.
But while O'Brien has frequently railed against Ireland's stifling religiosity in novels such as The Country Girls and A Pagan Place, Caldwell seems, at this stage, more interested in the dramatic potential of setting different faiths next to one another and seeing what emerges in the exchange. 'I've always been fascinated by belief,' she says. 'With that faith, that certainty. And perhaps I'm a little bit envious of people who can live with that faith and certainty.'
Like The Truth Commissioner by David Park, The Meeting Point was broadcast as BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. Adapted over ten episodes, it went out in January and February, produced by Heather Larmour in Belfast. Caldwell has also written plays for radio: Avenues of Eternal Peace and Girl From Mars, which centres around a dead body in the River Lagan, and in 2008 won the Imison and Irish Writers' Guild awards.
On page, on the stage or on the airwaves, Caldwell's work is conversant with her Northern Irish contemporaries. In poetry she admires Leontia Flynn, Alan Gillis, Nick Laird, and in theatre – amongst a list of directors, productions and fringe companies – she highlights Declan Feenan, Lisa McGee and Abbie Spallen. But her own theatrical schedule meant she had to miss Finborough Theatre's production of Stewart Parker's Northern Star, billed in London as the first UK production.
'I saw Northern Star as part of the Rough Magic season in Belfast,' she says. 'Before then, I knew his plays but had never seen them performed. Writers can fall out of vogue but Parker, as a playwright, is being discovered.'
And along with the plays of Terence Rattigan – Caldwell enjoyed a 'pitch-perfect' version of After the Dance at the National – she reserves the highest admiration for Chekhov. Her favourite is Three Sisters, having more than once seen it performed in the Russian. 'I think he's my first love,' she says.
While Notes to a Future Self visits stages in the UK, while Leaves appears on the stage in France, Caldwell launches The Meeting Point in Ireland before a quiet period while the third novel percolates. But instead of setting the next book somewhere exotic, somewhere with a little more sunshine than the UK, she finds that the creative call has already come. Reluctantly, she has answered.
'My next novel has decided it's going to be set between Belfast and Earl's Court in London. I have to follow it where it leads – unfortunately it doesn't work the other way round. But I'm thinking, come on, you could have chosen Barbados!'
The Meeting Point by Lucy Caldwell is out now, published by Faber. The author launches the novel at the following Irish venues: Dunford Library, Belfast, March 22 at 1pm; County Hall, Dun Laoghaire (with Elizabeth Day), March 22 at 7.30pm; The River Lee Hotel, Cork, March 24 at 8.30pm.