Where there can be hope

Children's Express Journalist,  Lena Jaegemann interviews Lucy Caldwell

Lucy Caldwell is only 24 years old and acclaimed novelist Glenn Patterson has already identified her as 'a literary star in the making'. Based on a short story she wrote for a university competition, Lucy developed the novel Where they were missed, which has brought the writer her major breakthrough.

The novel is set in Belfast in the 1970s, which makes it difficult not to mention the troubles. 'Being a Northern Irish writer means people would have certain expectations,' says Lucy. However, the young author did not want the focus to be on social policy or history. 'I didn’t want to give a history of the Troubles, but I couldn’t ignore that they were there. More than anything I wanted to write a book that ended at a point where there can be hope'.

What arose is a novel which addresses how a thorny political situation can affect everybody’s life. The novel deals with feelings of loss, the search for identity and forgiveness. The main message seems to be that although you cannot revisit the past and change things which have happened, it is important to find out where you came from and to confront the past in order to begin a new life.

I met Lucy Caldwell to talk with her about faith, playwriting and about her plans to write a new book…

Q: You grew up in Belfast. How did the troubles affect you?

Well, they didn’t really. No one in my immediate family was injured or killed. I do remember the bomb scares – lots of details like that. But by the time I turned thirteen the Cease Fire had happened, so I could go out to the cinema with friends and go shopping without feeling scared.

Q: Are you religious?

My mother came from a very Catholic family and my father’s family was very protestant – one of the themes that I explore in my book – but when they got married they decided that they couldn’t practice religion, because in Northern Ireland religion isn’t just a question of faith, it is a question of politics. So, my sisters and I were never baptised, never christened, never went to church – but, I have always been interested by faith.

Funny enough I won all of the religious studies prizes in school, probably just because I thought religion was just like history. Religions provide people with narratives: a code to live their lives by, a story, an explanation, a community – I thought that was interesting: people need to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves, because they are afraid of isolation of being left alone.

Obviously, I tried to convey that in my book; the mother character goes to church to find answers, but it becomes clear that the answer is not there.

Another thing that fascinates me about religion is the effect the Bible has had on literature: the stories of the Bible are so important and a lot of poets and writers got their inspiration from it. But, the answer to your question is: no, I am not personally religious.

Q: Have you started a new book?

Yes, I have. I have done all the research for it. I am planning for it to be longer, with bigger themes – it’s going to be a different type of book. Lately, I find myself drawn to great nineteenth century narratives, the 'novel novels', like Dickens’ or George Eliot’s. I have been planning this new book for about a year and I am just about ready to start writing it.

I have made lots of notes and such, but the way that I tend to work is that I take twelve or thirteen hours when I do nothing except writing. But for the moment, we are still doing the promotion for Where they were missed and I have been all over the place – I have been so busy doing all of these different things; travelling lots and meeting loads of people – and so I think I need a month of uninterrupted time to get the second novel properly started.

Q: Do you write poetry or plays as well?

Yes, I write plays. I think of myself as a writer: a storyteller. So, I don’t define myself as being either a novelist or a playwright: I enjoy doing both. However, prose writing and play writing are two completely different things.

If I have been writing a lot of prose, I almost find it impossible to write for the stage, because I start writing these big, eloquent speeches that I can be really proud of. But, that is not the point of theatre, is it? Theatre for me is more about writing action: it’s usually about what people are doing, not about what they are saying. So, a speech which reads beautifully on the page could be dead on stage.

Q: Would you like to direct your own plays?

I always think that even if I have written the play, it has to become someone else’s vision. I would be eager to see what other people can make out of my work. A different take on things, can contribute to the original in a way.

Q: Would you like it if your debut was developed as a screenplay?

Some writers get quite 'precious' and possessive about their own work, but I think if someone would want to make a film out of my book, I would not even want to write the screenplay; because if I had conceived of it as a film, I would have written it as a film.

I think you have to have a completely different mindset to be able to envision the possibilities of light and costumes and props. I don’t see things happen in that way, I guess. Where they were missed is – I believe – difficult to make into a film, because the first half of the story is told from a child’s perspective. I don’t know what kind of techniques one would have to use to convey that to the audience.

At the moment Lucy lives with her sister in east London. She moved there to do her masters degree and stayed. 'I really wanted to be in a big city. There are lots of galleries, and clubs and bars and little theatre events'.

Lucky for Belfast, Lucy does not want to stay in the 'big city' forever. She would like to come back at some point, because: 'Belfast is still home'. In my opinion, she deserves a warm welcome (back)!

By  Lena Jaegemann from Germany, aged 17  (2006)

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