Lucy Caldwell is a Major Artist

An award from the Arts Council let the Belfast author write her new book in six months, not six years

For author Lucy Caldwell, the recently announced  £15,000 Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland meant that she could take a year off to focus completely on her writing. Although she admits that is easier some days than others.

'On a lovely sunny day, you don't want to sit in and write,' she admits with a laugh. 'But I will get a few hours done.'

Caldwell says that the award made a huge difference to her as a writer. Her second novel, the well-received The Meeting Point, took 'an awfully messy six years' to complete (including ditching a 100,000 word draft). Her next novel All The Beggars Riding, which she has been working on since she found out she was receiving the Award, is slated for publication in spring 2013.

‘To make that publication date I need to have finished the novel and the edits by summer,’ she explains. ‘Thanks to the award I was able to commit to having it ready by that date.’

It is also an affirmation that Caldwell is indeed one of Northern Ireland’s ‘Major Artists’, a bona fide member of Belfast’s literati. Not that anyone else doubted it. Caldwell’s work is consistently critically acclaimed, with The Meeting Point winning the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2011.

‘When you’re a writer you’re always hardest on yourself though,’ Caldwell says. ‘I have never given a reading where I’m not thinking, “Why didn’t I make this better?”. Everyone else sees a well-turned phrase or sentence, but as a writer I always see the tangled backside of the tapestry.'

Maybe that tendency to self-deprecation is behind Caldwell’s habit of framing her authorial identity in terms of what she has yet to accomplish rather than the impressive amount she already has. Or it could be that she knows that no artist should get too comfortable on their laurels.

As an author she says she would love to write a children or young adults fantasy novel, citing Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper as her inspirations. It was fantasy, in fact, that first made Caldwell want to become a writer.

‘I used to get the Storyteller magazine when I was young,’ she says. ‘It had stories and myths from all over the world, like 'The Monster in the Labyrinth' and 'The Goblin Rat' from Japanese mythology. I looked 'The Goblin Rat' story up recently and it was only four pages, but I remember how much I loved it.’

It is Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series that Caldwell remembers most fondly, however, citing it as something she would recommend everyone read. Although she takes it back a second later, laughingly admitting that she ‘sort of wants to keep the books a secret too’. She adds that some of the most interesting writing from Northern Ireland comes from the fringes and genre.

Meanwhile, despite the plaudits her plays have received since The River first debuted at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Caldwell admits she is disappointed none of her full-length plays have been performed in Belfast.

‘I offered them all to the Lyric, but they didn’t take any of them,’ she sighs, before adding hopefully that, ‘Perhaps the new MAC will want one?’

It seems the perfect opening to ask about Caldwell’s once infamous desire to escape Belfast and her later softening to the city. From Caldwell’s sigh, she’s well-used to the question.

‘I think everyone, no matter where they grow up, wants to go somewhere else. They want to head for the next biggest city and brightest lights,’ Caldwell says. Now that she has made it to London, working as Senior Lecturer on the Creative Writing MA at City University, she feels the tug to be home. ‘The Welsh have a word for it: hiraeth. I am not sure how to pronounce it, but it means the tug you feel in your solar plexus when you belong to a place but are away from it. I feel that. I would love to live in Belfast again as an adult. I’d love for my husband, who’s English but who loves Belfast, to have that chance.’

There are echoes of that longing in All The Beggars Riding, in which the London-raised main characters visit Belfast on three, notable occasions. Set in both the 60s and the present, the novel’s title was inspired by a Louis MacNeice poem 'London Rain'.

Caldwell gets halfway through a sentence on why she picked that title, then catches herself. ‘It’s all explained in the last chapter. I can’t tell you why, it will spoil it.’

MacNeice is a constant presence in her work though, with credit going to him for the title and epigraph of both her first, Where They Were Missed, and third novels. There is even, for those paying attention, a line from one of his poems buried in The Meeting Place.

‘He isn’t as well-regarded as he should be,’ Caldwell says. ‘Instead of The Dark is Rising, I’d pick his Letters as the book everyone should read.’

All the Beggars Riding will be available from Faber in spring 2013. Lucy Caldwell will be reading at the Ulster Museum on June 13 at 7.45pm as part of the Belfast Book Festival.