One City One Book: All the Beggars Riding

Novelist Lucy Caldwell discusses her latest novel, chosen as the focus for the One City One Book Belfast reading initiative

The premise of your new novel, All The Beggars Riding, is a fascinating one concerning bigamy and the consequences it can have on families. I believe it was initially triggered by a dream?

Yes. The dream was about a surgeon who led a strange double life. It stayed with me for a long time afterwards. Then I started looking for similar stories in the magazines you find at dentists of women who discovered their husband or partner or father had been leading a double life, and I began collecting these stories

And then, when I was at literary festivals or doing workshops, I started telling people that I was interested in collecting these accounts, and many people volunteered their stories to me. That’s very much where the basis of the novel came from.

A documentary by Nathaniel Kahn about his unconventional family background also contributed to the novel taking shape.

Nathaniel Kahn was the son of the famous architect Louis Kahn, who had three families all at the same time, and they all knew about each other yet stayed with this man. Nathaniel made a film called My Architect, where he explores and tries to understand this.

As I started pulling these things together, my then-boyfriend proposed getting married and I suppose I started thinking very deeply about how well or how little you know a person that you’re meant to know the most about in the world.

So All the Beggars Riding was an accumulation of stories over a few years, and then a few things came together in rapid succession at the right time.

The novel initially takes the form of a memoir. Did that entail finding a specific, intimate voice for the main character of Lara?

I think, when you spend long enough time with a character and you’re thinking in their voice, that you get to know them very well. With Lara, because the first part of the book is a memoir, it felt important that I knew all those crucial details of her life, that it had to be precise.

So the book was really meticulously planned, and I spent a long time figuring out when and where Lara would have grown up, and researching what happened on the exact day an event happened in the book.

Was finding her voice difficult?

Lara's voice starts out as quite hesitant, but over the course of the novel, as she writes and grows in confidence, I think it becomes more fluid. She’s trying to tell a story, so my intentions aligned with hers. I wasn’t describing her from the outside or telling her story – like what she looks like or detailing her decisions. It was very much writing from inside her skin and inhabiting her.

Was there a temptation to research her father’s profession as a plastic surgeon and the intricate procedures involved?

Funnily enough I was lined up to observe a procedure, but in the end I realised Lara herself never observed plastic surgery, so the second I started witnessing an operation I would be trying to describe it as the author. I think it’s important not to know more than your characters at certain points, but it’s probably a good thing as I’m quite squeamish!

All the Beggar's Riding has been chosen as the focus for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s One City One Book Belfast initiative, a drive to encourage reading through talks, workshops and other events during May 2013. (Download the full programme of events.) Was your inclusion a surprise?

It’s absolutely fantastic, a real honour. Nothing quite compares to being read and being recognised in your home town, and the last part of the book, which takes place over one long, extended evening, is very much my love letter to Belfast.

As I was writing it I was reading a chapter of Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street, a really beautiful chapter where he talks about Belfast, and I was listening over and over as well to Astral Weeks by Van Morrison and trying to write my own version of the city.

So it’s really brilliant that so many people will hear about the book. And after spending so much time on it, and having people tell me stories and reveal what skeletons they had in their family closet, I’m really looking forward to hearing more stories prompted by the book.

Having a novel attain such a public profile in a city must be a rare thing for a writer to enjoy.

Yes, and I remember last year walking to the University of Ulster's fine art degree show and there were huge quotations from Glenn Patterson’s novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young (the 2012 One City One Book Belfast choice) on these hoardings around the college, which was incredible.

Novel writing is so solitary and so interior, it’s just you and your screen for so long, and you imagine the book going into the world and people reading it. But to have the book so visible, and so much part of the city, is absolutely brilliant.

Clearly Belfast remains important to you, both its physical presence where you grew up and its various representations in fiction and music.

I’m home every month. I do a lot of work at BBC Northern Ireland and we’ve been working on radio plays and Book at Bedtime. Emma Jordan of Prime Cut Theatre Company and I are also working on a new play that we hope to have ready for the Pick ‘n’ Mix Festival at The Mac in June 2013.

It’s really important for me to maintain that connection with Belfast, as it’s a part of me and where I come from. My job is in London and my husband’s job is in London, but I very much feel like I divide my time.

You spend a lot of time writing plays, but would it be fair to say that the novel is your central focus?

I have written more prose than plays in recent years, but I don’t favour one or the other. I don’t do things schematically, I just write whatever seems most alive. I don’t think I’ll write another novel for several years now, though, as this one took up all my craft and experience. I give it everything I had and it was really, really intense to write.

But I just love writing. I remember the writer Carlo Gebler’s words, that being a writer now is like living on Grub Street, that you have to work on novels, short stories, screenplays, radio, you have to work to survive. But that’s great, it’s all writing.

One City One Book Belfast runs throughout the month of May 2013, with a series of talks, workshops, readings and book clubs scheduled to take place in libraries and other venues across the city.